Be Brave…at YOUR pace

» Posted by on May 30, 2012 | 10 comments

I am in Vanuatu, a scattering of 83 tiny islands in the South Pacific. Far from being a relaxing holiday lounging by the water, sipping cocktails and lapping up the sunshine, these two weeks have turned into what could more accurately be described as ‘soft adventure’.

So far I’ve been sea kayaking, climbed a waterfall, done two scuba dives, been horse riding through the forest and down into the ocean, and snorkelled a cold deep ‘blue hole’. Still to come is a visit to a renowned bat cave which involves canyoning over waterfalls and climbing bamboo ladders.

When I dedicated this year to ‘exploring my essence’, I knew I would have to step out of my comfort zone, particularly with regard to physical activities as this is where my confidence is especially lacking. The philosopher Joseph Campbell says we must do the thing that scares us the most, because this is where growth and freedom lie.

While this philosophy resonates deeply with me, I now know more than ever that I need to stick with my ‘go slow’ approach to learning new skills. This means that while I’m prepared to push myself and be uncomfortable at times, I’m not willing to push myself so hard that I dramatically lower my chances of experiencing some success in the process. Trial and success learning is every bit as valid as trial and error learning, and for someone with low confidence levels in a particular area, this approach can make all the difference.

My first scuba dive was conducted one on one with a local instructor. I told him about my fears around the mask clearing skill required to become a certified diver. I ‘failed’ this task when I first tried to do an open water dive course a few years ago. Having water flood into my mask makes me feel like I can’t breathe, even though I clearly can. If I had a dollar for every person who has told me this is easy to do I would be rich!   It’s not easy for me right now, although if I persist I’m sure that one day it will be.

No amount of logic can convince someone who has an irrational fear to stop having it. The key is repeated small steps to desensitise the reflexive reaction. I’ve done this successfully in the local swimming pool with a snorkel, but transferring that to the ocean with a regulator was more difficult than I expected. My instructor suggested we do a shallow dive first and took me out very slowly, pausing often for me to get comfortable with breathing underwater.

We ended up spending 38 amazing minutes under the water, down to a depth of 10 metres, feeding bread to all sorts of colorful marine life and exploring the coral reef. Towards the end I was swimming on my own and having a ball. I came out of the water feeling much more confident and determined to conquer my mask fear so I could complete an open water course one day.

Two days later we went out again, this time to the famous Million Dollar Point, an underwater graveyard for WW2  military supplies, including jeeps, tractors, forklifts, and cases of coca-cola. The day was windy and we were in an unprotected area so the sea was choppy. Generally I have no fears about being on the surface of the water, but with so much gear attached to me, it was a little hairy getting out from the shore. Still I managed to submerge below the waves breathing through the regulator, and we started moving towards the military dumping ground.

At one point I felt a few drops of water in my mask – I talked myself calmly through the clearing process and it worked, but those pesky drops came straight back. Reluctantly I asked to surface. My instructor assured me there was no water in my mask, and I realised he was right. My concern though was if we were too deep to surface immediately and I got a lot of water in my mask, would I panic? I had still not mastered the mask clearing skill.

He agreed to stay shallow enough that we could surface if needed and down we went again. I kept feeling drops of water around my nose but was able to assure myself that this was normal, harmless, and to stop focusing on it. We saw all sorts of amazing artifacts as well as some beautiful fish and sea anenomes.

The problem was that 20 minutes into the dive, I realised we were now down to 19 metres. In Australia I wouldn’t be allowed past 12 metres as a ‘try diver’, and I knew that we now wouldn’t be able to surface without a 3 minute safety stop. Suddenly the few drops of water around my nose became very disturbing! It’s funny how you can know when your thoughts are irrational but still give in to them.

We surfaced minutes later at my request and I was shocked to realise how little water was in my mask – in my mind it had expanded to being half full when in reality it was almost nothing! I didn’t have much time to feel disappointed though because we had surfaced a long way from shore and as we could not go back down again, we had to swim. Since I am probably the most unfit I’ve ever been right now, this was quite an effort and I noticed I was beginning to hyperventilate from the exertion.

So this is what my clients have been telling me about all these years – I’ve never had a panic attack and I suppose knowing exactly what was happening made it a lot less frightening than I imagine it is for many of my clients, but it was an enlightening experience all the same. I held my breath for a few seconds and this brought things under control. I was fine by the time I got to shore but that’s when all those really unhelpful thoughts started. Things like:

- I knew I’d stuff up again
- Everyone else can do this except me
- Why does this always happen to me?
- Everyone must wonder what’s wrong with me
- Maybe I should just accept that I’m not capable…
…and so on.

You probably recognise some of these yourself. Note the focus on ‘everyone’ and ‘always’ and how ‘I knew ‘ and should ‘just accept’ – rather than what the other divers focused on, which was the fact that I had just managed a 25 minute dive under difficult conditions with an unresolved phobia tagging along!

The book I’d been reading – Personal Growth for Smart People by Steve Pavlina – talks about the importance of facing our fears, saying that failure is a necessary part of success. If you aren’t failing, there’s a good chance you aren’t succeeding either. A diving friend also pointed out (after patiently listening to all the above complaints) that this is what happens when you push yourself and try something new. Especially when you move too fast and don’t take small enough steps.

So I am not giving up my goal of becoming a certified open water diver. Instead I’ve decided to take however long I need and whatever number of small steps are required to get there. And since much of what holds me back is shame about ‘everyone’ seeing me struggle, I’ve decided to create a blog series dedicated to sharing this process openly.

If you’ve found yourself missing out on something that would bring fun and joy to your life because it scares you and you worry about being a giant flop at it, I would love for you to join me on this journey and share your own. It’s not so much about becoming a diver (I haven’t even mentioned my kayaking experience yet!), it’s about becoming more of who we are by reframing fear and failure as necessary stepping stones to eventual success and mastery.

I imagine one day telling nervous beginners: ‘nobody takes as long as I did to get here, but it was worth every step!’


  1. Wow Leanne…what wonderful insight.d I want to hang out with you!!! What a wonderful amazing life adventure you have been on these past few months ;) Very cool!

    • Thanks Jill, love reading about your journey too!

  2. Great post, I totally, totally get this. One of my horseriding pals assured me, when I was falling off Every Single Saturday, it meant I was actually riding really well: I was going for it, not holding back, and I was learning. My mind just needed to catch up with my body… or vice versa… or both! LOL.

    • Oh I can relate to that too Sue – a friend pointed that out to me when my riding school horse decided to ignore everything I said. She said he was teaching me how to do it properly. You are totally going for it, I love reading your blog about it all!

  3. Yes, baby steps! Wonderful post, Leanne – thanks for sharing… oh, and enjoy the bat cave… that sounds AWESOME! :D <3

    • OMG Lisa it nearly killed me, but I did it :) Need some time out now my ‘holiday’ is over!

  4. Kudos to you for recognizing the shame and deciding to post about it! Sunshine and shame don’t get along, I’m learning (I’ve been mainlining a lot of Brené Brown’s work on shame lately, which is powerful stuff). I admire the heck out of you for continuing to go on despite those voices and the phantom water droplets—I can imagine that happening to me in the same situation, and I’m not sure I’d handle it as well as you have. I’m looking forward to the rest of your series.

    • Thank you so much Nancy :) I’ve been looking at Brene Brown’s work lately too. Love your term ‘phantom water droplets’ – that’s exactly what they were! x

  5. I just had my first scuba lesson on Saturday. I could not use my buddies regulator without my mask flooding and then I panicked and swalled water, coughing, etc. I am very scared to try this again. My instructor is great, very patient and kind, but I am afraid that I cannot do this and I have always wanted to learn this from the time I was little and I am not 52, but I am afraid that it may not happen. My husband just keeps making fun of me that I am stupid and will never learn, he told me he really hopes that I drown down there. I have my next lesson in two weeks, but am thinking of letting my instructor know I will not be coming back.

    • Oh Jill, I know it’s horrible, esp with your husband making those unhelpful comments afterwards. Please don’t give up. It’s a very common problem and everyone gets through it if they persist – so will you and I. One thing I’ve learned this year is that pushing through fears really builds confidence, it sounds like you could use a bit more of that and you have a great instructor to help you with it. Good on you for giving it a go, I have always wanted to do it too and that’s why I’m not giving up!