What dates, career moves and abuse have in common: Say the thing you fear most out loud and watch it lose its power

“I am terrified that I’m not good enough at anything to become who I want to be. I’m afraid if I don’t go for what I want I’ll be miserable. I’m afraid that if I do go for it, I’ll fail.”

Tough words. True words. Words that have been heard as a whisper in the minds of millions throughout history. I harshly judge the words for a moment. They sound so cliché and pathetic at first, but I quickly feel better for having said them out loud. As they leave my mouth, they change shape. They go from deep, dark fear to sad oddity. I feel compassion and sadness for the part of me that feels this way. Then another part of me speaks. “Okay, fair enough. We’re insecure, scared and currently feeling overwhelmed by the ‘how’ of getting to where we want to go. That’s a bummer. I’m glad we acknowledged this. Can we please keep going now?”

Often fear of the thing is far worse than the thing itself. Think of the common fear of needles. The anxiety and panic preceding what is only a mildly unpleasant experience is always far worse than the experience itself. Yet, we give that fear so much power. It’s time to take it back.

Besides, that first fearful voice in my head was wrong. I am good at quite a few things. It is true however, that I’m only exceptional at a select few. I’m a great cook. I have a wicked sense of humour and I can drink a person twice my size under the table. However, I’d say that my most powerful gift, by far, is my ability to be real, with myself and with others, in tough moments. This translates into an ability to say “I’m terrified”, note my terror, and then promptly run directly at the thing that I’m terrified of. All the while knowing, that no matter what happens, at the very least I was brave and I will learn something. There can be no failure when the only expected outcome is to accept whatever happens and learn from it. Oh, and to give myself a pat on the back for being a brave bad ass.

Feeling ‘failure proof’ is great, but it requires a huge up front investment that many people find challenging- being real with yourself. Having the guts to speak out loud the fear, the doubt, the truth of what holds us back. Saying it out loud leaves us with nowhere to hide. But the rewards? Oh, they are so very, very worth it.

I’ve been thinking, nay, obsessing over this very human emotional tug-of-war for the last few years and I want to share what I’ve learned. Through anxiety, self doubt, tears, and some hideously awkward laughter, I have fallen over and gotten back up a countless number of times and I’d like to share a simple four part formula for being a brave bad ass. Maybe after reading this you can avoid some of the awkward laughter. Maybe not. I do guarantee you’ll be a step closer to brave bad ass status.

One serious side note before we continue. Being a brave bad ass has so many different applications and nuances that I’d like to make this a three part series on being terrified and having the guts to speak the words that we’re afraid to say out loud. This ability has helped me through awkward first dates, a bold career change and enabled me to use my experiences of sexual abuse to help others heal the wounds of their own abuse. I know it may seem like shit just got heavy, but don’t worry, it’s all rather uplifting and hopeful, I promise. Try to shake it off and let’s start light.

Part 1: Dating.

A first date. An experience that is, for many, a nerve wracking social war zone riddled with landmines that can be stumbled upon at any moment, releasing insecurities, your ugly laugh and the potential for humiliation. Even people who seem, and perhaps, feel calm and collected before and during a first date, might only be pulling off that air of confidence by denying and swallowing their doubts and fears. Seems like a better option than anxiety attacks and sweaty palms, but it has one huge flaw. It’s hard to be yourself and let people in when you’re suppressing how you feel and you don’t attract a good match when you’re not being you. I’m certain that there are people on this planet who don’t fall into either category and feel genuinely at ease and excited about every date they’ll ever go on. But these people are super human and not to be trusted. Plus, they ruin my premise, so let’s move on.

Dating, or any terrifying experience, if done right, can be a personal growth goldmine. If the only ‘aim’ you ever have on a first date (or job interview, public speaking gig or confronting conversation) is to be yourself, no matter how scary or awkward, and to learn something from the experience, you cannot fail. Best of all, you can be proud of yourself, no matter the outcome.

I get very excited about tangible examples. So here’s my four part formula as applied to an actual first date. Take note that by changing only a few words, this could easily have been written about a job interview. Not surprising given that in both settings, people tend to bullshit to impress a relative stranger.

  1. That big up front investment is the first essential step. Be real with yourself. Admit to what you’re scared of. Say it out loud.

“I’m afraid of being rejected.”

“I’m terrified of looking like an idiot.”

“I’m afraid I’m not good/beautiful/smart/interesting enough to be loved.”

Say it, acknowledge it, feel sad for the part of you that feels that way and let the rest of you push on anyway. You’ll be amazed at how good it feels to admit that you’re human and how saying it out loud takes away part or a lot of its power.

Pro tip: If you can, go a step further and say it out loud to someone you trust and who cares about you. They’ll be able to give you external feedback that will help you to identify some of the crazy stories you have about yourself that hold you back. Try to choose someone you consider to be fairly emotionally intelligent, you don’t want anyone raining on your awesome bad ass parade.

2. Keep moving towards whatever it is that is triggering that fear in you. You don’t have to do this kamikaze style. Come up with a game plan that will ensure you come out the other end feeling good. Mine is to promise myself that I’ll try my best to be honest and real and not to be too hard on myself if I slip up. I also remind myself that the only outcome I’m going for is to feel proud of myself for being brave and to learn something at the end. Anything else is just a bonus.

Pro tip: if you notice that you’re not being yourself, take a deep breath and come back to your brave bad ass self. Be clever about your use of booze as a social lubricant. Let’s be honest, a drink or two helps. Three drinks or six can make it worse.

3. Learn something! Evaluate what went well and what you would do differently next time. I simply think through these points in my head, but if you’re a list loving nerd, pick up a pen and go nuts.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a job interview, a tough conversation with a friend or colleague, or a first date, there’s always something to be learned. Congratulate yourself on what you did well and don’t judge the things you would do differently next time. Here’s an example of a list I ran through in my head after many first dates:

  • Lesson 1: I was brave and I’m proud of myself for admitting out loud to the person across from me that I was nervous but that I would try my best not to be a total weirdo (Pro tip: using humour whilst being real makes the situation feel lighter).
  • Lesson 2: He seemed to appreciate my honesty and enjoyed my humour. He admitted he was a little nervous too. That made me feel better. Proof that honesty helps.
  • Lesson 3: I did have a few moments where I exaggerated the truth or ‘crafted’ an image of myself which wasn’t totally accurate so that I would seem cooler or more attractive. That didn’t feel good. Every time I’m not honest about who I am it’s like telling myself that who I am isn’t good enough. That’s certainly not the truth, so I’ll be more conscious not to do that next time.
  • Lesson 4: I was honest at the end of our date that it didn’t feel like a great fit. He was a little defensive and said some unkind things, but this was clearly his bruised ego trying to make himself feel better about what he saw as rejection. I have been in his situation before, so I can be compassionate, but it’s important that I am very clear that his reaction had nothing to do with me.
  • Lesson 5: I’m proud of myself for being kind and compassionate instead of fighting fire with fire. I said “I’m sorry you feel that way and I get that your ego might feel a little bruised, because we’ve all been here. That’s a bummer because I still had fun and I think you’re great guy, but I’m not going to feel bad about being honest.” That was pretty cool of me.
  • Lesson 6: Things may not have been perfect, but I was myself and I’m one brave bad ass. I love how awesome I feel after an experience that would have made 20-year-old me feel like crap. I want to share this experience with others so that they can feel awesome after being brave too. I think I might write a Medium article about this.

I learned 6 useful and powerful lessons on one mediocre date! There is no bad date when you walk away feeling braver and wiser.

4. Debrief with a friend. Speaking about what you learned reinforces those lessons and helps you to internalise them, so you don’t need to painfully re-enact the same awkward moment five times before the lesson sinks in.

Although dating seems like a light topic, for many people the desire to avoid the insecurity mine field of dating leads to poor relationship choices. Don’t underestimate the power to choose a partner based on joy instead of fear. Brave bad asses don’t tend to settle for ‘okay’.

This ability to be brave and speak your fear out loud can be even more profound than early relationship choices. In part 2, I will share my experience of how speaking the scary truth has helped to heal the wounds of sexual abuse, and how it might even be used to prevent sexual abuse. Somewhat more controversial than the topic of dating, but an extremely important conversation for society to have in order to better protect our children from abuse and support victims of abuse.

I sincerely hope you were able to take something away from the five minutes you just invested. Now, go out into the world and test the brave bad ass waters. Let me know how it goes.