On September 15th I left the comfort of my own neighborhood and traveled to Safeco Field in Downtown Seattle to attend a devotional featuring the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Russell M. Nelson.
(Prior to this, the only times I’d left my home neighborhood this year were in July, to travel to my niece’s wedding in Logan, Utah, and her reception in Centennial, Colorado… so, needless to say leaving my house is not something I’m really accustomed to.)
The devotional itself was quite moving; however, for the purposes of this post I’m going to focus instead on all the fears and anxieties I felt leading up to the devotional.
The Lies Our Fears Tell Us
My parents and I committed to attending this event roughly one month in advance, so I had more than enough time to mentally and emotionally prepare myself for the reality of spending an entire day in a strange and crowded space…
I knew the event would be far outside my comfort zone… that I would be simultaneously in large open spaces, and large closely assembled crowds… that I would have to leave my own house for a good eight to ten hours (which still, a month later, is not high on my personal to do list)…
So, it’s not a surprise… that on the morning of the devotional… my fear was wreaking havoc on my ability to see this commitment through…
I Was Afraid To Even Leave My House
I woke up around seven on that Saturday morning, and within minutes my mind was racing…
- How would I physically prepare myself to travel to Safeco field?
- How would I pass the two hours we would be waiting for the gates to open without being doubled over in pain before the devotional even began?
- How would I find a seat, and let myself relax enough that I could comfortably pass the two hours from the time the gates opened until the time the devotional was scheduled to actually begin?
- After overcoming all those challenges…
- How would I be able to just sit and listen to the three scheduled speakers (President Nelson, his wife Wendy, and the First Counselor to the President, Henry B. Eyring)?
- And not be so overwhelmed by that point of the evening that I would regret ever having left home… but instead be comfortable and relaxed… and be open to their message, and to the overall experience?
For the week leading up to this devotional, I’d known that it wouldn’t even begin until 6 o’clock at night… but it wasn’t until the day before that I found out my parents were planning on arriving at Safeco Field at 2… to wait in line for the gates to open at 4… to be in our seats at 6, to listen to maybe ninety minutes worth of talks… to then drive back home in all that traffic…
AND they were planning on bringing four other people with us!
And suddenly something that I expected would take a total of four or five hours…
had transformed into an all-day marathon…
of dealing with the anxiety of just getting in the car…
to then sharing the car ride with six other people…
to figuring out how to be comfortable in a crowd that wouldn’t even be moving for two hours…
to worrying about how I would ever be able to sit in a stadium seat for nearly four more…
and by the time I woke up on Saturday I was already convinced that I just couldn’t do it… that no matter how important I felt it was… the anxiety was too much for me to bear.
But I’d Been In Similar Circumstances Before
Fortunately, I had gone through similar experiences to this on both of my July trips.
(Seriously the first time we left home for the airport I KNEW I was going to either die… or back out… or suffer a complete and total nervous breakdown… and my parents would have to go on without me while I would be carried away from the airport in an ambulance and checked in to an institution… it was THAT TERRIFYING just to travel beyond the edge of my own driveway.)
So, having recently (and successfully) endured not just one, but two anxiety-ridden travel experiences, I knew how to allow my anxiety to exist, and yet still get myself out the door…
How to Use Worry to Your Advantage
So around 8 a.m., I started to “brainstorm.” I listed out all the possible ways the day could go wrong:
- We could get in a car wreck.
- I could have a debilitating panic attack and behave like a sobbing two-year-old for eight to ten hours.
- My back pain could become so unmanageable that I could have to go back to the car instead of staying in the stadium, and I would miss the event (all the while regretting that I had ever come along to begin with).
- I could have to pee so badly on the drive to the stadium that I’d wet my pants before we even got there. (Hey on a long car ride that is a semi-legitimate fear!)
- I could be so overwhelmed by fear and anxiety just waiting in line for two hours, that I could pass out, or fall over, or start sobbing or shaking uncontrollably… and then my parents and I would have to leave, and miss out on the whole experience.
- I could be STARVING by the time we arrive and be too afraid to go look for something to eat. (Or just generally too anxious to be capable of eating.)
- I could have to interact with dozens (or possibly hundreds) of people who I didn’t know! Yikes!
- Or worse – I could have to interact with the four other people riding along with us… who I did know (but who I did NOT want to have to tell how incredibly anxious I really was).
Hopefully… you get the picture. I was straight up terrified… to the point that I didn’t even know if I could still handle eating breakfast, showering, and getting dressed… let alone being ready to get in the car at one, after having spent all those morning hours agonizing over every possible thing that could conceivably go wrong!
(I wish I could say I’m exaggerating here for dramatic effect. But the truth is I’m only scratching the surface… suffice it to say that if you’ve experienced this kind of anxiety, you know what it feels like.)
Plan For The Worst, THEN Hope For The Best
So the first thing I did after dreaming up all the worst-case scenarios, was to figure out a way to counter each one of them.
I knew we were allowed to bring a backpack into the stadium… so I packed a change of clothes in case I peed my pants (thank goodness I never did, but I have had soda spilled in my lap on a plane before and in that instance I was grateful for having a clean change of clothes in my carry on….)
I also packed a bag of trail mix in case I got hungry, and a book to read for the two hours we’d be sitting, waiting for the event to begin.
I also decided I’d charge my earbuds and my phone, so that if needed, I could listen to music either on the car ride, or while waiting in line… for two ridiculously long hours.
I packed everything that I could anticipate I might need, and then I told myself, “I am now prepared for the worst – so even if it does happen, it will not stop me from leaving the house.”
Then I ate breakfast and showered and dressed, and then alternated between a whole lot of nervous chain smoking… and a moderate amount of meditating and deep breathing exercises aimed at reducing – if not entirely eliminating – anxiety.
As we approached the one o’clock hour, my anxiety was almost enough to convince me that I was making a mistake in thinking I could handle this HUGE experience… and that I really should just stay home. (Like I said, I’d had the exact same feelings in July, so I had some recent experience with this and I knew it would diminish at some point. Otherwise I probably okay definitely would have given in.)
Only Worry About One Thing at a Time!
Finally, as my parents were making plans for what we would do once we arrived at Safeco Field, I blurted out, “Guys I can only handle getting ready to go, and getting in the car when it’s time to leave. If I think through any step of this journey beyond just getting in the car, my anxiety will overwhelm me and I won’t go. I’m only going to think as far ahead as leaving the house… and trust that I’ll figure out the rest, as we go along.”
(Spoiler: that sentence was the pivotal point in this particular experience! Once I decided I didn’t have to figure it all out beforehand, and I didn’t have to anticipate or plan for every possible scenario that might play out, all the way from beginning to end… I was able to relax just enough, that I could turn off the remaining “future anxiety”… and simply focus on the immediate anxiety of “how do I progress from this moment, to the end moment of this leg of the journey?” And that was when the magic started to happen.)
No longer concerned with “what will I do once we get there when I don’t even know yet if I’ll have the nerve to get there…” I was able to break up the entire day into smaller, more manageable “mini” events:
I need to be ready to go, and have everything ready to go, at one p.m. Check.
I need to endure a one hour car ride with my parents and four other friends. Check.
Upon arrival at Safeco Field, I need to decide whether I will wait in line for two hours with my parents – or walk around and look for somewhere to get something to eat. Check.
I need to get through security when the gates open, and then find somewhere to sit for two hours while waiting for the event to begin. Check.
I need to be able to hear President Eyring, Sister Nelson, and President Nelson… and let their message speak to me. Check.
And then, finally, when it’s all done! I need to be able to get back in the car with mom, dad, and two of our friends (the other two had made other arrangements for after the devotional)… and somehow “survive” the car ride home. (But if I managed to get through the rest of the day then riding home would be easy.) Check.
And then I just let go of the need to figure everything out and to plan every last detail before I even started getting ready to go… and instead took each step in turn, one at a time, at the time it actually happened… and, you wanna know something?
IT WAS AMAZING!!!!!
Anxiety’s Not So Bad When You Put It In The Right Perspective
The second we pulled out of the driveway, and all I had to do was “survive the car ride,” all my anxiety just vanished.
All of the sudden, it didn’t matter what “could” happen or “would” happen or what I was afraid “might” happen when we got to Safeco Field… because I didn’t have to sort that out until we got there.
On account of which, I actually enjoyed the long car ride. It gave me a chance to visit with friends, and to talk briefly with my dad, and to sit back and enjoy the scenery. (There are stretches along I-5 in Western Washington where the scenery is just breathtaking, no matter how many times you drive past it.)
Now, a couple minutes before we arrived at the parking garage, I realized I was starting to feel hungry – and I really did have to pee!
But when we got out of the car and my friends and I agreed to find somewhere to eat… both problems, solved. And the car ride was now behind us, so I didn’t have to worry about that anymore… and the gates still didn’t open for almost two hours so I didn’t have to worry about that yet…
So I just enjoyed eating lunch with my friends… in a restaurant in a part of downtown in a city that I’d not personally stepped foot in for possibly the past five, six years now? (I’ve been in downtown Seattle plenty of times in the past – but for most of the last decade I’ve always had some reason or other why I “just couldn’t handle leaving my own neighborhood, no matter the reason.”)
Because I’d already decided that I’d deal with the “getting through the gates and finding a seat in the stadium problem” after the gates opened at four o’clock… all I had to do from about 2:10 to about 3:50, was to “worry” about how I would pass that time… and with good friends and okay decent food at kind of a classy restaurant where nothing’s really amazing but it’s all really expensive… passing that time was a pleasure.
Now here’s the surprise twist on this particular story:
I Couldn’t Make This Stuff Up If I Tried
When the gates opened and my friends and I got through security, my parents were on the opposite side of the stadium. So we got through, and called them up, and my dad says, “Come find us – we have Suite Seating reserved for you guys!”
If you’ve never been to Safeco Field, Suite Seating is the row in the stadium where all the rich people come to watch sporting events… the whole row is a long series of self-enclosed suites, with seating for anywhere from ten to maybe thirty people?
Which means I never did have to deal with an uncomfortable stadium seat… or the social anxiety of being crowded together with a whopping 49,000 other people who came out for this particular event!
Instead, I got to sit in a quiet, closed off, comfortably furnished suite, where the only people I had to interact with for the remaining four hours were my parents, and our two close friends.
I realize this kind of thing is exceptionally rare – rare enough that I am inclined to call it a miracle!
And anyway, it did wonders for relieving my remaining social anxiety – and my fears around how I would manage my back pain for the remainder of the evening…
I’m convinced though, that I would have done just fine with regular stadium seating, following my new-found attitude of “I’m only going to worry about the part that’s right in front of me – and even then, only until that part has been resolved.” But since I didn’t have to worry about anything once we got the Suite seating… I was totally free to relax and enjoy the two hours leading up to the devotional – and to fully hear and appreciate the messages from each of the three speakers.
And then, leaving Safeco and riding home and going straight to bed, was literally dead simple.
But Wait! That’s Not All…
So… one big huge scary terrifying almost stop me dead in my tracks experience! Done.
Someday they’ll make a movie about it. (But I’m kind of anxious about who they’ll cast as my co-stars… j/k… j/k.)
I can’t lie though…
at seven o’clock that morning I was not convinced that I would still decide to go – or that I would find any way to enjoy any part of the day with all the fear and anxiety that was running through my mind…
but when you face a big fear like that head on, and determine that you are going to honor your commitment no matter what…
(and then, of course, really follow through, and keep that commitment)…
that big overwhelming overpowering all-consuming fear… diminishes (somewhat).
It doesn’t disappear; it doesn’t die off; it doesn’t surrender unconditionally and automatically get changed into hope and optimism and everything from that point forward is wonderful and cheery and puppy dogs and unicorns and rainbows…
but it doesn’t ever have quite the same hold on you again, as it did for so many years before. It just doesn’t.
When you know that you can do something HUGELY scary… that you can survive it… heck, that you can even find ways to enjoy it?
You can’t really picture your fear or your anxiety ever having that same level of control over your decisions.
Doesn’t mean you’ll never experience it again; just that, when you do, you’ll know you’ve beat it in the past, and you’ll know you can beat it again, in the future, any time you really want to.
(Which brings me to subsequent small steps)
Tomorrow, I’m going to an LDS Single Adults Fireside. (Slash Potluck, and I don’t have a side dish prepared… Crud…)
Much closer to home; much smaller audience; much less impressive speaker than the President of the whole church – but, nevertheless, new and strange and uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking.
I’ve wanted to start going to these singles’ activities for some time now, like probably since the beginning of this year?
And they tend to have multiple activities each month, though often times they really are too far away for me to drive. But still, I’ve wanted to go… and yet somehow I always “forget” to put it on my calendar, or talk myself out of it days or weeks (or sometimes hours) before… because…
- What if the other singles don’t like me?
- What if I have a panic attack?
- What if my social anxiety is too much?
- What if I dress for a formal event and the actual dress code is casual? Or I dress for casual and it’s actually formal?
- What if everyone else thinks I’m an idiot?
- What if I have to interact with people I don’t know?
- What if one of them asks me what I do for a living? (“Um… I like, live with my parents… and they pay for everything I need…” Uh, yeah, probably not gonna impress a lot of people with that one…)
- What if I’m STARVING and the food everyone else brings to the potluck is terrible?
- What if the car ride is too long and I pee my pants?
But this time, none of that matters.
Because I’ve done much more challenging things, in my very recent past, so I know how to deal with each one of those anxieties. Plus the car ride is considerably shorter today and through lots of back roads and wooded areas, so if I have to I can probably just pull over and run behind a tree.
Now, tomorrow’s fireside may not be as all-out dramatic, or intense, or remarkable, as the September 15th devotional…
It might even be boring… or awkward… or uncomfortable. (I mean, not everything we do is always awesome.)
I might even experience some real fear or anxiety around meeting and interacting with people who I don’t know yet…
But you know what?
I’m willing to take those chances.
And, since I’ve done a couple of really big things just in my recent past, I know that no matter what happens tomorrow, the decision to go, and the determination to enjoy the experience…
will ultimately pave the way to making more choices to do more things on a more regular basis, that pull me just slightly outside my comfort zone…
and that over time, those small, “doable” steps, will make a much bigger difference than I can even imagine, or appreciate at this moment… and because I found the courage to do the couple of big things… each small, subsequent step that moves me in the same general direction will always and forever be considerably easier… than if I had decided to give into my fears, and just stay home.
So… when you get a chance to step outside your comfort zone… and you know that doing so will move you in the direction you want to go (even though it will be really, really scary!)
You gotta just go for it.
It won’t always be easy. And it won’t always come up roses. But, it is always better to do the thing you want to do, than to let your fear convince you otherwise.