Once in a while, I share a story about my family rather than a story from my work as a child psychologist. Today’s post is one of those personal stories.
In early July, my family traveled to the tiny little community of Monteverde, Costa Rica. It was the first time either of my teenagers had been out of the country. I could write volumes about the power of international travel, and perhaps I will one day, but this post is about something much more mundane.
When we told folks that we were planning a trip to Costa Rica, many asked if we were going zip-lining. Others told us that we simply must go zip-lining. So, sitting in our little house in the cloud forest brainstorming about how we would spend out limited time atop the mountain, somebody mentioned zip-lining. Neither child really wanted to go. One mentioned his fear of heights. One says no to everything unfamiliar at first, so it was difficult to know how to interpret her lack of interest. My husband wanted to go. I was torn between my fear of zipping through the sky over the canopy suspended by metal clips and nylon straps and my fear of having to tell everyone the Sayers family was too chicken to zip-line. Yep, still feeling the peer pressure.
In private, my husband and I debated what to do. Our mutual hunch was that, when all was said and done, zip-lining would prove to be an exciting and empowering experience for all of us. Plus, the naysayers would have great stories to tell about how we tried to kill them. Lucky for us, we are blessed with mostly compliant kids, so when we told them we planned to go zip-lining in a few days, they acquiesced.
On the appointed day, we treated the kids to a delicious breakfast at their favorite local bakery before heading further up the mountain. There was some mild grumbling and protesting over pancakes and in the car. Once we arrived at Sky Adventures headquarters, there was a lot of stony-faced silence. In the lobby, we were watching videos of people walking on the canopy bridges, riding the sky tram, and zip-lining. I have to admit, it all looked pretty scary.
When it was our turn, the guides gave us helmets and helped strap us into our harnesses. We listened to a spiel about what to expect. When the instructor began to talk about what to do in the event that we became stuck between two platforms, I began to think about how terrifying it would be to hang hundreds of feet about the ground, possibly in the middle of a cloud so that I could not see in any direction, with only my own wits and upper body strength to get me to safety. And I had the thought, “I can’t do this.” Simultaneously, I knew I had to.
When I was a student, I always raised my hand as soon as a teacher asked for a volunteer to be first to give a presentation or take an oral test. I couldn’t stand sitting and waiting as the feeling of dread (technically labeled “anticipatory anxiety”) grew. So, in typical form, I volunteered to zip-line first. In addition to just wanting to get it over with, I thought that my husband or I should be on the next platform to greet the kids in case one or both freaked out. Selfishly, I also didn’t want to be in the position of having to coax a panicking kid to take the plunge.
The instructor thanked me for volunteering, hooked me up to the pulley, and shoved me off the platform. No “are you ready?” or “you got this.” This, of course, is exactly the right thing to do. Not many people doing something really scary for the first time are going to cough out a “ready” when they are feeling anything but.
The best way to sum up zip-lining over the cloud forest canopy atop a mountain in Costa Rica is WOW! It is both terrifying and exhilarating. I loved it and hated it all at once. I couldn’t wait for it to be over and did not want to reach the end of the adventure. One thing was very clear by the end of our eighth and final zip through the sky: I felt like I had done something really big.
Over lunch, we talked about our experience. Because I am a dorky parent, I asked the kids what they learned about themselves from zip-lining. One said something about being fearless. The other said that it got less scary and more fun with each run.
Those two comments get right to the point of this post, that is, the big life lessons to be learned from a morning of zip-lining. Here’s the first one:
It is not necessary, or even beneficial, to have no fear. Fear is an essential emotion that helps us keep ourselves safe and respond effectively to danger. What we need to be able to do is to distinguish between fear of actual danger and anxiety about imagined threat and when faced with anxiety, to push through it. Over lunch, I made a point of telling the kids how anxious I felt on that first platform, how much I doubted that I could go through with zip-lining, how I questioned their dad’s and my decision to make them go. And then I shared with them how I had talked rationally to myself and reminded myself that thousands of people zip-line every year, how the company we chose has an excellent safety record, and how the many friends who told us about zip-lining issued no warnings about its perils.
And here’s the second:
Many a great opportunity is lost because of anticipatory anxiety, the worry that precedes a dreaded event or situation. A socially anxious kid forgoes a birthday party because she feels nervous about separating from her parents. An athletic middle schooler passes up the opportunity to practice with a varsity team because he worries he is not good enough. A teen with stage fright feels sick and misses school on the day of auditions for the play. In virtually every instance, when individuals push through this anxiety, they end up feeling glad that they did. The anxiety peaks when the child first arrives at the party, for the first few minutes of the varsity practice, and when the teen actor first walks onto the audition stage. Or, in the case of zip-lining, for the first few seconds of flying through the clouds. After the peak, the anxiety lessens gradually and is often virtually forgotten.
So, this adventure was a parenting success (not all of them are!). We all lived to tell the story and those of us who had to push through anxiety to allow ourselves to get pushed off those platforms feel braver and more empowered than ever before.