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Cross the Gap Before It Grows

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A friend of my Dad’s, a fellow high school teacher, was born just early enough that a particular life goal of his seemed feasible: get to retirement without having to use a computer.

At that time, the early 1990s, I remember people being either computer-literate or computer-averse. You either used these machines freely, or you actively avoided them.

By the information-superhighway years of the late ‘90s, a lot of people were determined to cross that aversion-to-aptitude gap, and finally learn to use the World Wide Web and electronic mail. Being one of that era’s many teenaged “computer people,” I ended up helping dozens of computer-averse adults learn simple operations like word processing, email and web search.

Their body language, at first, was typically very fight-or-flight: back against the chair, hands tucked close, eyes wide. I’m sure some of them really believed the machine could explode if you pressed the wrong button.

But after an antsy first day in the computer chair, a person starts to see what they can do, and also what they can’t do (blow the thing up, delete everything in a keystroke). It was never long before they were emailing, web-surfing, LiveJournaling, and printing recipes, all on their own.

Some of them had put off that day for years, in some cases intending to die before it became unavoidable. Yet, in the end, most of their fear—an amount sufficient to fuel perpetual avoidance—had dissipated by the end of their first day of really sitting down with it.

Familiarity dissolves fear, in part because many of our idiosyncratic fears require ignorance of the thing in question to even make sense. For example, after you’ve used a computer for a week, you may have some trepidation about clicking through unfamiliar menus, but you probably no longer believe there’s an explosion hazard. Once you’ve gone to a gym twice, and nobody actually pointed and laughed at you, whatever you’re still afraid of, it’s not that.

So even a little familiarity—the amount you gain from one steely sit-down with the thing—can dislodge major chunks of fear. For good.

Getting that first, all-important dose of familiarity, however, always requires a courage-gathering moment that’s tempting to postpone: you have to make your body cross that unsheltered gap between avoider and engager. You need to cross that swirling, mirrorball-flecked gymnasium floor—the longest forty feet in the world—and ask your crush to dance.

These moments can seem dreadful, and very much optional, when we’re still pondering them. But once they’re behind us, they tend to seem small and necessary. Think about anything you now do with ease that intimidated you at first: serving a customer, walking into the gym, driving a car. How long did it stay that scary?

While I was guffawing at my elders’ misplaced computer anxiety, I perhaps should have reflected on the many everyday skills and activities that had the same irrationally terrifying effect on me: talking to people I didn’t know, asking for help, attempting things I might fail at. I wasn’t confronting any of my own anxieties the way these people were braving the harsh syntactical judgments of MS-DOS.

What I did instead, and what many of us do around certain fears, inadvertently created the opposite of the fear-dissolving effect. I avoided those nerve-wracking first crossings.  

When you avoid something, it doesn’t merely remain unfamiliar. It becomes stigmatized in your mind. With each instance of avoidance, your inclination to avoid it grows.

The gap forms a little windrow, then a berm, then a wall.

Now you feel a need to step back and re-evaluate the whole idea of crossing. You need to make sure you come at it on the right day, when you know exactly what to do. Meanwhile, the wall grows spikes and barbed wire, and stormclouds gather above it.

So you give the thing and its wall a wider berth. The next time you look at the complex—which is what it’s become by now—it’s through binoculars, and it has used the unclaimed space to add to its fortifications: a poisoned moat, crying ravens, skulls on pikes.

Your relationship with the feared thing begins to approach “not in this lifetime.” Not going there becomes a part of your identity. I don’t dance. Exercise and me don’t get along. I have zero creative talent, believe me.

Having employed the tactic of avoidance throughout my life, and therefore having created many such vulture-encircled walls, I’m now beginning to recognize the life-changing value of getting that initial whoosh of familiarity in quick, by crossing the gap with the body before the mind starts digging trenches.

How to dismantle decades-old fear-walls is a topic for another day. But I think I’m qualified to tell you that the thing you’ve just started avoiding… you can be sure fear has big plans for it. Ramparts. Lava moats.

Familiarity melts fear, and the biggest pieces come off first. Avoidance just makes more of itself. Cross the gap while it’s still just a gap.

***

Photo by Simone Dalmeri

{ 51 Comments }

David Greer October 7, 2019 at 2:25 am

How do you do it? You have a knack for posting items just when I need them! I’ve several “things-to-to” that I have avoided for so long that they are now buried under structures that would make the citadel that housed the guns of Navarone look like a dollhouse made of balsa wood. Time to scale that cliff, silence those big guns! Thank you!

{ Reply }

David Cain October 7, 2019 at 9:25 am

I kind of cheat, I try to post things everyone needs all the time

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Heather October 7, 2019 at 2:30 am

David! This is such an amazing post. I love the way you’ve broken down this delusion we all suffer from. “Familiarity dissolves fear” – the truest truth.

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David Cain October 7, 2019 at 9:25 am

Thanks Heather!

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Renee October 7, 2019 at 2:56 am

This is great! As always you bring a spark of inspiration to help motivate. Nice work you do here!!

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Nora Linn October 7, 2019 at 2:57 am

I completely agree with your post! I’ve been trying to do this recently and I noticed that I’m not done after gathering my courage to cross the gap for the first time.

When doing a scary thing for the first time I’m usually nervous and it feels uncomfortable. A few days ago, I asked a guy to dance, even though most women wait to be asked. It was a bit awkward because he paused before saying yes and then I was worried all the song that he would be bored, because he was a better dancer than me. Typically after such an experience I would be discouraged and wouldn’t try it again.

So for me its crucial to acknowledge that I did something out of my comfort zone and that this is the reason why it didn’t feel that good. So I need to actively tell myself that it was a step in the right direction and that it worked out OK. Otherwise the gap will only widen despite my efforts to close it.

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David Cain October 7, 2019 at 9:28 am

I’ve been thinking of that aspect of it too: the way we can interpret what does happen from a fearful place or a more constructive place. I think it’s a matter of consciously relearning how to think of ourselves.

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Sascha Amarasinha October 7, 2019 at 3:26 am

“Familiarity melts fear, and the biggest pieces come off first. Avoidance just makes more of itself. Cross the gap while it’s still just a gap.”

Wow, that is quite a sentence. And a way of living. Thanks for sharing.

{ Reply }

Rocky October 7, 2019 at 4:10 am

Hilarious!! And after having waited five years to storm the castle, my first thought is always “ Why didn’t I do that five years ago?”
This is why I adopted the Nike slogan
“Just Do It” , and modified it to
“JUST DO IT …NOW!!!”
Thanks David…you’re the best !!

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George Coghill October 7, 2019 at 8:17 am

I’ve made a few observations in this area once I finally became an “intimidation confronter” myself.

First, I think much of the intimidation that builds up is the ego’s defense mechanism — it knows your self-definition is going to change after following through, which means the end of this current version of the ego (“the story you tell yourself about who you are”).

I’ve also learned to change my perspective on that knot in the gut which develops as one contemplated and initiated attempts to confront those intimidations. I used to try to avoid those experiences, so I could avoid that gut knot.

Now, I see them as a compass or guru, pointing me toward the experiences and choices that will help me to grow as a person.

Lastly, I’ve come to see the issue less of a situation where the mind gets in the way of the body, but more of the emotions or the emotional state taking over the decision-making process (or suppressing it).

Perhaps even the emotions have a “mind” of their own.

But usually I find myself paralyzed by the emotional state that arises when I I contemplate following through on facing my intimidations.

I can say for sure that the “real you” is obscured by these intimidations (along with your romanticized notions of who you think you might like to be).

The sooner you follow through of experiencing these situations for real, the sooner you can shed erroneous beliefs and stop heading down fruitless paths. Or worse yet, not progressing anywhere at all.

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David Cain October 7, 2019 at 9:40 am

These observations are much appreciated, George. I hope everyone reads them. Clearly you have surmounted some of these fortifications and seen what lies beyond :)

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Robyn October 7, 2019 at 5:09 pm

An insightful post & comment, thank you both. The thing I find interesting here is that while I adjust my own self-image as I confront fears and bring about change (growing in confidence & able to realise new opportunities), others (with their own self-image limitations) fail to notice the positive changes and continue to expect my “old” self. I have issues, whereby family members are oblivious to my growth and maturity and continue to treat me like a child (I am nearly 50, btw!). Life is beautiful, but juxtaposingly ugly.

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David Cain October 7, 2019 at 9:32 am

That’s another thing — quite often the “bark” gets worse and worse as you avoid the thing, but the bite is the same minor discomfort it always would have been. “Just do it” is such an elegant and useful bit of wisdom, corporate slogan or not.

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Ellen Bell October 7, 2019 at 4:54 am

Thank you, David, you just made my early Monday morning brighter, and the sun isn’t even up.

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Peri McQuay October 7, 2019 at 4:59 am

In my experience mostly true but not entirely. I’m never comfortable making cold calls for example. Writhe a little each time. Without eye contact I’m outside my comfort zone. Best I can do is to acknowledge “I know you don’t like doing this, so we’d better get it done quickly.”. Bandage yanking.

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David Cain October 7, 2019 at 9:46 am

I don’t know if the goal is necessarily to completely eliminate discomfort, as much as to prevent the ever-mounting resistance that happens when you don’t go there. Having said that, it’s probably possible to work actively on resistance towards particular tasks, examining what exactly it is that we’re averse to about the experience — is it the uncertainty of not knowing what to say, the body emotions associated with the moment of “ringing” etc… fear and familiarity can get very granular. Discovering and allowing (i.e. getting close and familiar with) the smaller experiences that make up a larger one can transform how we think about the whole activity, and our reflexive reaction to the prospect of doing it.

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Kristin Amico October 7, 2019 at 5:17 am

Yesss! In the last few years of traveling i find that it’s easier to simply throw myself into the unknown rather than think too much about it. It’s easy now. I’ve accepted I don’t know a lot of things, and I’m going to stumble (a lot) but because I don’t fear the stumbles now, it’s not so daunting. I mean I don’t relish getting lost in a new country, not being able to communicate, but all these problems aren’t as big as you think they are. I wish more people could embrace this and understand we don’t need to fear new things for fear of failing at them. We are all kind of making it up as we go!

{ Reply }

David Cain October 7, 2019 at 9:49 am

Hey, good to hear from you Kristin. Yes for sure! Travel really does shake up your need for things to already be familiar, and the result is that you get familiar with the place quicker. You have to learn how the buses work, etc, and all it takes is a willingness to not know what you’re doing for an afternoon or so (not that that can’t be scary.) Whenever I go to a new place I feel overwhelmed the first day, then by day four I feel like an old vet compared to the people arriving that day.

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Janet W-T October 7, 2019 at 6:25 am

“How to dismantle decades-old fear-walls is a topic for another day”. Please try to make “another day” in the near future. I can’t wait to read it.

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David Cain October 7, 2019 at 9:50 am

Don’t worry

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Jane Deakin October 7, 2019 at 7:29 am

Thank you David most useful.
I can mange some things on the computer but need to address trickythings with images.
It is the big thing which stops me from getting my work into the world
The area in front of the computer is often covered with art materials so I literally cannot get to the thing which has me in tears time after time.
Many thanks for your article I am sure it will help.

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David Cain October 7, 2019 at 9:51 am

Sometimes the wall isn’t just a metaphor :)

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Gale Leach October 7, 2019 at 7:32 am

David, you’ve nailed it again. Great insights and things to ponder on — thank you.
I had many more hurdles in the past than now. I remember noting with one in particular that, after storming the dreaded castle and getting inside, I could use the knowledge that I’d conquered that particular fear to move on past other barricades. Now I welcome the challenge. What I still struggle with is stick-to-it-ness, such as keeping up with piano lessons or other tasks that require continued fortitude. I work to make it a habit, which seems to be my only way. But that’s another topic . . .
Thanks for your posts. They’re always welcomed.

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David Cain October 7, 2019 at 9:51 am

Yes! Transferable skills abound.

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Jeff S October 7, 2019 at 7:40 am

Dude. You’re so excellent at creating metaphors. As you described the wall that was increasing in its insurmountable nature, I got the chills. You’re spot on.

Thank you so much for this. I actually just finished watching some of “Good Will Hunting,” and this same theme is resonating strongly in my life. Stop rationalizing away what you know you should face.

Thanks again, David!

{ Reply }

David Cain October 7, 2019 at 9:53 am

Thanks Jeff! I should watch that one again, I don’t think I’ve seen it since the theater, back when I was teaching people to use Netscape Navigator

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Brian October 7, 2019 at 7:44 am

Marsha Truman Cooper says it poetically:
FEARING PARIS

Suppose that what you fear
could be trapped and held in Paris.

Then you would have the courage to go
everywhere in the world.

All the directions of the compass open to you,
except the degrees east or west of true north
that lead to Paris.

Still, you wouldn’t dare put your toes
smack dab on the city limit line.

You’re not really willing to stand on a mountainside,
miles away, and watch the Paris lights come up at night.

Just to be on the safe side, you decide to stay completely
out of France.

But then danger seems too close even to those boundaries,
and you feel the timid part of you covering the whole globe again.

You need the kind of friend who learns your secret and says,

“See Paris first.”

—Marsha Truman Cooper

{ Reply }

David Cain October 7, 2019 at 9:53 am
Linda Kellner-Miller October 7, 2019 at 8:37 am

Or, as a friend of mine used to say all the time, “Do the thing you fear the most and the fear will go away.”

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Geri October 7, 2019 at 8:54 am

Fabulous write again. Moats, vultures, you betcha! I’ve dueled with them all and you are spot on. Meet the fear or whatever new agey term you want to call itto make it look prettier….I say, when fear arrives, invite it in for tea or a cold beer. Meet it head on with some degree of congeniality. wow. I love the picture of the moat …..and let’s put in a fire breathing frikkin dragon as well. Thanks again, matey. G.

{ Reply }

Charmaine October 7, 2019 at 8:55 am

Thanks. Enjoyed the read

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Samantha October 7, 2019 at 9:06 am

I love the way you turn a phrase. The best part is that although you’ve labeled the challenge as fear, I’ve found it to just as true for clinical anxiety. I needed the medication, but I didn’t truly come back to myself until I started looking straight at the things that caused anxiety. Then took a step closer, and closer. Each step was scary, but each step gave me confidence to take the next one.

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David Cain October 7, 2019 at 9:56 am

This is what I’m doing now with anxiety. I didn’t even know it was governing my life because I just didn’t go near the walls/moats

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KJ October 7, 2019 at 9:13 am

Great post! Having lived our entire lives in small towns (with small roads and very little traffic that doesn’t move fast), then deciding to move to the Phoenix area, my husband and I are both quite intimidated by the freeways! We know they’re ultimately a quicker way to get around, but all that traffic… and all those fast-moving cars… and finding the right exit… and not getting shoved off on the wrong exit… and making it to our destination on time… without getting killed… and a whole lot of other “spiked walls and barbed wire”… keep us from using them regularly. My current job, though, is somewhat forcing me to consider using them more as we’re about to relocate from a quiet office in the outskirts to the heart of the city! I’ve ridden with some of the other guys at work to meetings at other locations and each time I pay careful attention to which lanes they use, which lanes end or get forced off in another direction, which exits they use and all that. I know what to do… it’s the DOING IT part that scares me. When one of the guys was recently on vacation and there was a meeting I had to attend… I had my first opportunity to try it out. I white-knuckled my way onto the freeway, forced myself to loosen my death grip on the steering wheel, made my way into the flow of FAST moving traffic, sped up a little… and finally took a breath. So far, so good. No one tried to run me over. No one honked their horn. No one killed me. The next thing I knew… I was actually speeding right along with them in my tiny little Chevy Spark! It’s still very intimidating… but it’s getting a tiny bit easier each time I’m “forced” to do it. ;)

{ Reply }

David Cain October 7, 2019 at 9:59 am

It does get easier each time. I like to think about the difference of having done something once, and having done it six times. The fear isn’t gone, but it’s drastically diminished after only a half dozen repetitions.

You can get even more granular with the fear/familiarity thing too. Some of the specific things you fear — taking the wrong exit, being stuck in a lane that’s ending — they aren’t necessarily terrible fates, and if you’ve experienced them a few times they become less fearsome.

{ Reply }

Linda Landine October 7, 2019 at 9:20 am

Oh how timely, I have been using avoidance behaviour in my creative life.
I won’t list all the excuses, your article has encouraged me to put the excuses aside and dive in.

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Tonya October 7, 2019 at 9:35 am

I remember when everyone told me I should switch to Adobe Premiere to edit instead of Final Cut Pro. I put it off because I was SOOOO familiar with FCP. Then I went to do a job where I had no choice. You know what happened? I kicked myself for not using that program sooner. It was so much better than I thought! We are our own worst enemy sometimes! lol!

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David Cain October 7, 2019 at 10:01 am

That’s one interesting part of the equation — the familiarity comes on so fast, yet the fear is enough to keep you from entering that familiarization phase for many many times longer than it takes to get familiar.

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Luigi October 7, 2019 at 9:51 am

Esa brecha parece más difícil mientras envejeces, porque has perdido tu espíritu de desafío de joven, cuando no importa qué tanto vayas a equivocarte o errar en el blanco. Sin embargo, es una cuestión de voluntad decidirte a saltar la brecha, más angosta de lo que nos la imaginamos, como cuando te enfrentas a usar un smartphone o una laptop distinto al que estabas acostumbrado, aunque al principio nos parece que perderemos la paciencia.

{ Reply }

David Cain October 7, 2019 at 5:28 pm

Google translated this comment as below:

That gap seems more difficult as you age, because you have lost your spirit of defiance as a young man, when it doesn’t matter how much you are going to make a mistake or miss the mark. However, it is a matter of will to decide to jump the gap, narrower than we imagined, such as when you face using a smartphone or a laptop different from the one you were used to, although at first it seems that we will lose patience.

Great point… I am definitely feeling this now. Tomorrow is my 39th birthday, and adding to the difficulty of breaking down some of these walls is the sense that I should have had this stuff figured out by 25. There are areas of life where I’m embarrassed to be inexperienced and mistake-prone. So there’s an additional incentive to avoid. But there will never be a better time to get through some of these walls.

{ Reply }

Laura October 7, 2019 at 6:33 pm

Happy birthday David. Your writing always offers such great insight.

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David Cain October 8, 2019 at 10:31 am

Thanks Laura :)

Brenda October 7, 2019 at 10:12 am

I’d like to take this in a different direction than the activities and skill sets described here. I’d like to take the same concept and apply it to the fear we feel about outsiders and people and ideas that are different from what we have been conditioned to think of as normal. It’s exactly the same; avoidance increases fear and familiarity proves our fears to have been unfounded. Not facing those fears has been disastrous for society and caused unfathomable pain and horror.

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David Cain October 7, 2019 at 5:14 pm

That’s a great point… I was thinking of the unfamiliarity > ignorance > fear > avoidance chain in terms of personal skills and activities, but it’s the same self-perpetuating chain behind so many social problems.

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Renan Luis Vicentini October 7, 2019 at 10:34 am

Hi David,

Man does this hit home … I can say that that avoidance has reduced my life to a huge extent. Difficult to stress how much, in words.
I really look forward to reading “How to dismantle decades-old fear-walls”.

Thank you very much.

Best,
Renan

{ Reply }

David Cain October 7, 2019 at 5:17 pm

I hear ya… it just snowballs forever, so there’s probably no limit to what we can miss out on if we live our whole lives operating from avoidance. I’ve lost so much to this pattern. I’m finally beginning to understand how much, and approach things differently.

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Anne October 7, 2019 at 1:15 pm

As I read your blog David, I knew that you were describing me. Procrastination, overthinking, fear and anxiety. Just reading the comments made me tense up. I struggle to make a phone call or attend a continuing Ed class. The gym? Haven’t gone for a year because I know I have to ask some questions about the treadmills.
I know, laughable, right? When I was working I had to leave the house each day. Now that I’m retired I can stay in bed. My contact with the world is as an observer through my smartphone.
How do you make the first step of that 1,000 mile journey? What about the second and third when you have to let go of what you’re holding onto?

{ Reply }

David Cain October 7, 2019 at 5:23 pm

Hi Anne. You bring up another point — the conditions of our lives can change in ways that enable us to really crank up the avoidance. I only recently acknowledged this but when I became self-employed, my procrastination issue (which was already bad) became much worse, because there were fewer external pressures keeping it from getting ridiculous.

You also illuminated another part of this — the thing keeping us from taking a step across the gap can be some silly thing, that nobody else would have a problem with. I’d love to ask treadmill questions on your behalf if it would get you back into the gym, but I’ve been hung up on things just as small :)

As for how to make the first step in a 1000 mile journey — you already said it. One step!

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Pauilna October 8, 2019 at 11:52 am

As always a great article on Fear. I used to get mine grow so big that literally my body was dying alive. Its incredible how powerful the mind is and how stupidly easy is to cross the gar if we just decide to do it. The human experience is quite amazing. Thanks for putting into words with perfection what most people struggle. Itis hard to explain to ourselves our way of being. The more we know about us the better we are. Thanks so much to the super Wise

{ Reply }

Komal October 9, 2019 at 5:26 am

Belated happy birthday, David!
This is me crossing the berm before it grows into a wall by commenting on my favourite blogger’s post! You add so much value to my life. Thank you for this! :)

{ Reply }

David Vance October 9, 2019 at 6:44 pm

Yeah, gotta say this hits home at the most appropriate time. Thank you for your wisdom!

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