How I Transformed Two Decades of Fear into Accomplishment

I'm a swimmer.

I can freestyle, sidestroke, breaststroke, dead man's float, tread water and even get places with a strong dog paddle. Which is funny, because a year ago I would have told you I was afraid of the water. Couldn't swim. Didn't like to swim. Didn't even want to swim. Had a water phobia which was a lot of fun when I combined it with claustrophobia.

Beth Bridges, The Networking MotivatorI had a regular childhood, swimming in the family pool every summer until my fingers and toes were completely pruned. What happened? Did I almost drown? Have a traumatic water experience? Nothing. I can't even put my finger on it when it happened but something changed and the story I began telling myself was one of fear and incompetence.
How did I change this up so completely?
One day, I just decided that I was done with being afraid to swim. I remember the moment very clearly. That feeling of personal power. Of making a final decision. How could I just decide one day that I wasn't going to be afraid any more? 
I think there are several things that made this possible:
1) I Wanted Something ... Badly
Beth Bridges, The Networking Motivator and Triathlete

I've been running for about six years. A couple years ago, my husband and I started biking. Then my (competitive) running buddy took up cycling as well and the talk about triathlons began. Oh... to be a triathlete. It seemed so cool. And it seemed like it would be easier than marathoning (yes, sounds crazy but wait until you do one). Less time consuming and overall easier on an older body with the built-in cross training.
I had the two longest, most grueling segments down. Many triathletes dread the running, but it would be something to look forward to at the end. We looked for duathlons with a ride and run. There were a few, but not many. We talked about the possibility of doing triathlons. But too bad I was afraid of water. What a shame I wouldn't swim. Too bad... what a shame... can't ... won't ...
It just kept echoing in my head. And the desire, the determination to compete, warred with the fear of water. Until one day the desire won. "I'm not afraid of the water anymore!" I announced to myself. Then I suggested to my running buddy we do a triathlon. He readily agreed (I should have been suspicious - turns out he had trained for the Junior Olympics in his youth) and off we went to sign up. After the fees were paid, I said, "Well, I guess it's time I learned to swim."
The decision had been made. The commitment was made. And I had never felt better, stronger or more fearless than I did at that moment. I'll never forget the sensation.
2) It Wasn't a Real Phobia
I don't want anyone to think that I believe people with phobias can "just decide to not be afraid." I know it's not that easy or simple for someone who has a deep-seated phobia. But I now believe that I didn't have a real phobia. I think I had the habit of being afraid. There was some reward - physical, psychological perhaps - to avoiding the water. It started as a reaction many years ago to a (temporary) stressful situation. The fear should have faded along with the stress. Instead, I had invested time and effort into thinking about and feeding into it. 
It had become a habit. I automatically reacted to water situations with stress, avoidance and even panic. For the most part, it wasn't really a problem. I live in reclaimed near desert. I wasn't interested in cruises (at the time due to the phobia, still not interested because they seem so boring to me). So there wasn't much loss or consequence. Except for the time I almost got stranded in China because I couldn't get on a boat. And not being able to do something I very badly wanted to do. The only answer was to completely break the habit.
I also realized I had some recent experience in conquering some other fears. I had been afraid to ride my bike in traffic. A new bike, a group of friends and some safety lessons led to confidence on the roadway. Funny how it didn't occur to me at the time that familiarity and knowledge could overcome a fear. It was only afterwards that I realized I had practiced not being afraid in another arena.
3) I Trusted Myself, Other People and the Process
So perhaps that experience of getting on the road subconsciously helped. I had a concern, I took action and experienced a benefit. I didn't blindly jump onto the bike and into traffic. I also didn't just jump into the water and expect to swim like Michael Phelps. Actually, I expected to look like a complete newbie dork in the water.
I trusted my own ability to learn and execute a plan. I started with YouTube videos for absolute beginning swimmers. I spent the first couple sessions sticking my face in the water and blowing bubbles like a five year old. I did floating drills and one armed swimming drills. I walked around the pool practicing my arm motions. I didn't care what anyone thought. I was like a beginning swimmer and approached it that way. No false pride that I "knew" how to do this. It was a process of learning and I trusted my ability to work through it.

I also studied the art and science of triathlon swimming because knowledge builds trust. I
learned about the "scrum" that takes place in the open water. I know what to do and how to relax if I get a cramp. I knew that the organizers and even my fellow competitors will be willing to help if I'm in distress. I knew that my husband - who swims like a seal - would not let me drown. I prepared and trusted my preparation. I didn't anticipate being in distress but I had a plan if I did have problems. I trusted in myself and others for my safety.

Did I Do It?

Oh, yes I did. I competed in my first triathlon on September 5, 2014 at Shaver Lake. I swam and even though I was one of the last out of the lake, I was probably one of the happiest! Even though there was a lot more work to do, I knew - as I burst out of that lake - that I had already triumphed.


Beth Bridges, Speaker

I want to share my experience with others, to help them overcome their own habits of fear. I've created a keynote presentation called "Everyone in the Networking Pool: Fearless Networking (and Life) Strategies from The Networking Motivator - A Former Waterphobe Turned Triathlete."  Find out more about this presentation and how to book me as a speaker.

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