Outdoors

How to Overcome Nerves to Pursue Outdoor Passions

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Welcome to Tough Love. We’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at [email protected]


I consider myself athletic, but I didn’t grow up being particularly adventurous. Now I live in a town where most people are active and adventurous outdoors. My friends are inviting and often try to include me in their activities, but these activities are unfamiliar to me, and I usually end up turning down their invitations. I think this is perhaps because I don’t have much experience, but I also find myself nervous in general about trying new things. I am an overthinker by nature and this is something I am trying to get past so that I don’t become stuck in my comfort zone. How do you recommend getting through initial nervousness in order to try new things?

You’ve written to the right coward! Fear—not just in the outdoors, but in general—is something I’ve also struggled with, and we’re not alone; past writers to Tough Love have faced concerns ranging from stepping beyond a mother’s anxiety to fear of loved ones getting hurt. It’s completely normal to be nervous before taking steps into the unknown. But the good news is that if you push through those initial nerves, you’ll often reach a point where they seem very distant indeed—when you’re standing at the top of the (literal or metaphorical) mountain, looking happily at the view. The trick is to get through the first part; it’s often scarier to think about doing things than it is to actually do them.

The next time you’re thinking of trying something scary, whether it’s big or small, I’d recommend asking yourself two questions.

First: Do I want to do this?

This question is important, because sometimes fear is a real indication that something isn’t right for us, especially when we’re responding to external pressure. If someone’s thinking of quitting their job as a river guide to go to law school, and they’re nervous about it, it might be because life changes are daunting—or it might be because they know law school isn’t for them. If your friends are encouraging you to join them for a polar plunge in Lake Superior in January, you might feel afraid and resistant because you don’t actually enjoy the feeling of submerging your body in ice-cold water.

So try to put aside your fears—temporarily, hypothetically—and figure out whether the thought of doing this thing makes you happy. Would you feel proud or fulfilled afterward? Will it help you solve a problem? Does it seem fun? Don’t think about logistics, or whether people will approve, or anything complicated like that. Just ask yourself whether you want to do this.

If the little voice in your heart answers no, then you’re done—you have your answer, and you should feel good about walking away, or staying home and reading a book with your cat.

If your answer is yes, then you can go to the second question: What’s the best way to do this?

(The key point of separating these questions is that if you don’t, they can get mixed together in a way that makes everything seem scarier than it really is. For instance, you might feel afraid of something you want to do because you don’t know how, exactly, to pursue it—but that fear gets mixed up in your mind, so the thing so the thing becomes more intimidating. Or you might cause yourself unnecessary anxiety by stressing about how to do something you don’t actually want.)

So by the time you get here, it’s because you know you want to do the thing. Which is exciting! It may help you feel less nervous if you treat the second question like it’s a puzzle, or advice you’re giving a friend. What’s the simplest, best way for a person in your situation to do this?

The answer could be straightforward, or it might be huge and complex. Let’s go back to the Polar Plunge example. If, in fact, the thought of jumping in freezing Lake Superior seems daunting but thrilling to you, and you’re genuinely curious, and you know you’d be so proud of yourself if you did it, the best way to do it is… well, it’s to put on your swimsuit, join your friends at the beach, grab their hands, and run into the water.

If the thing is more complicated, like changing your lifestyle, it might involve many more steps. In that case, it’s probably helpful to spend some time really thinking or learning about the process, and to write all the steps down in order.

Then hang the list up somewhere prominent—and feel proud of yourself, because in getting this far, you’ve already pushed through one of the scariest parts: the process of dealing with indecision. You have an idea, you have clarity, and you have a plan. You’re doing great—and you’re already on your way.


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