I’m Overwhelmed By Fear. How Do I Gain Confidence?

Each week I take the top voted question from readers and answer it (submit one here). I jumped this one to the top, submitted by F.B., as it’s urgent in nature.

I am overwhelmed by fear after a bad biking accident and realizing how fragile everything is in our human consciousness. How do I gain confidence from here?

Many platitudes come to mind but I’m leery of platitudes in hard situations like yours. They’re so easy to offer, yet I know from my own experience with horrible times that when I heard them they didn’t help. But people don’t know what to say when someone is hurting, so we resort to the safe things we’ve heard before. I strongly recommend talking to close friends, fellow bikers, and a therapist or counselor. You need to find support, now, for your feelings and get on a path to sorting yourself out and it’s people who know you best who know how to help you when you’re scared and can get beyond platitudes. Your situation is not unique, although if you have an ego like mine, you probably have so much guilt and self-blame that you think that it is.

My darker answer is humanity is a wonder and a mystery.  How we’re able to do any of the things we do in this world is, from a certain perspective, beyond comprehension. Every time I’m in a high rise office building and look out the window down to a highway, I  have the same thought: how is it that there aren’t *more* accidents? Thousands of people fly down highways at 70mph, all a just a few feet apart, operating at the limits of perception and reaction time. They’re all strangers who have no specific reason to care about each other at all, and yet for the most part they do.

Everyone complains about how people drive in their city, yet watching highways from afar you can’t help but notice how smoothly it works. How everything in civilization and nature functions is a wonder to me. Even as someone with a designer’s mind and who knows how things are constructed, I’m constantly amazed by electricity, running water, airplanes, DNA, ecosystems and that all of it works so well so much of the time. Every now and then things go wrong, sometimes it’s someones fault and sometimes not. At the scale of the civilized world it’s unavoidable things go wrong now and then, but it’s a psychological shock when it’s us and not someone we see on the side of the road as we drive on. I was in a mild car accident the other day and even though no one was hurt, it put me off for weeks. It’s my turn, I told myself. My turn to be on the other side of life experience, falling out of the system instead of flowing inside it. I hated how it felt, but I told myself it would be awhile until driving felt like it did before.

My positive answer is you must find your way back to the beginning. Before you were an expert on a bicycle you were a novice. As a novice it took courage to go out on the road at all. You took the safest paths on the quietest roads. You paid attention and worried about every little thing. When you’re ready, which you might not be for awhile, you’ll have to put yourself back into that mindset. Beginners mind.

You have probably thought through ever microsecond of the accident and what you could have done differently. This is good, for awhile. There may be something you can learn, and change, to be a safer rider, but maybe there is no lesson. This is a harder conclusion to accept as our brains demand reasons for everything, but it could be there is no grand lesson. Every situation in life is a compounding of thousands of variables – you can do all the right things and on one day it’s not enough, or do the wrong things another day and by sheer chance it saves your life. We play the probabilities every time we get out bed and walk out the door. Being alive and doing anything interesting comes with some amount of risk no matter how well you do it. Most days we’re too confident to think much about the probabilities, but when something goes very wrong it’s all we think about.

The head game you’ll have to play with yourself is getting past knowing too much. A beginner doesn’t know what a bad accident feels like, and you do. It might be awhile before you even want to ride again. I hate the phrase “you know too much”, even though I just used it, as I don’t think that’s possible. Knowing a lot means you have to learn how to compartmentalize your knowledge, to choose which perspective, or feelings, or memories, you will use when to help you in what you’re trying to do. A good therapist or counselor can help you do this and I recommend you see one. Take it slow. Be patient. It might be weeks or months until you’re ready to start again, if at all (it’s OK if you decide not to ride again. It really is). If you look for stories for situations like yours, you’ll find examples of people who have had harder times and found their way through them. I wish you well.

7 Responses to “I’m Overwhelmed By Fear. How Do I Gain Confidence?”

  1. Sean Crawford

    I won’t comment on the post in general.

    I will say I like how you are the first person I have ever read who says it’s OK to compartmentalize your mind. Others think so, but no one says so.

  2. Scott

    I think we compartmentalize our minds whether we want to our not. Cognition forces us to – we can never thinking of *everything* at the same time. Some what do we consider when? I don’t think anyone is in complete control of what their mind does but there are degrees of self-awareness.

    Even the basic notion of “being at work” and “being at home” is a kind of compartmentalization.

    I may be projecting – I just know that when I’m struggling generally (depression, lack of motivation, bordom, etc.) or with a specific thing it’s often because my mind is out of control. Once I collect myself and rebuild the habits of thinking (meditation, concentration exercises) about something in a better way, does progress, emotional or practical, begin to happen.

    How do you compartmentalize? It’s a great question. I think this word is used to mean many different things and it’s possible I’m misusing it.

  3. Sean Crawford

    “It’s a great question” and it’s one I have never discussed—perhaps because of a tiny embarrassment factor— but still, I plan to raise the subject with folks who can stand a little embarrassment in return for a great discussion.

    I remember the 1970’s when card catalogues were still cardboard (then came microfiche) and there was nothing on journaling, then one book, and now there’s lots. Nothing on shyness, then Professor Zimbardo’s, now there’s lots. I’m sure (I haven’t looked) there’s nothing on “compartmentalizing,” but I suspect it is time. For now, no wonder the term can—and should—mean different things.

    I would hope I or another Berkun reader can overcome embarrassment enough to offer an experience or idea.

  4. Mike Nitabach

    When I used to bike race, I had a number of crashes. Crashing is an unavoidable part of bicycle road racing. I even separated my shoulder in one. What got me back on the bike every time was realizing that even though I crashed, it wasn’t so horrible, and I would heal and be fine. So actually, the more I crashed, the less anxious about crashing I got.

  5. @GetzelR

    Intriguing answer, well put.

    If you want confidence, find courage. Confidence is the product of experience which is the product of courage.

    Small note – in your first post-question paragraph you write “weary” when I think you mean “wary.”

  6. Ron Michaels

    “Confidence” is not all-encompassing. Confidence related to what? A French test needs confidence for someone studying the language but it certainly doesn’t usually take courage. “Courage” and “Confidence” often are opposite sides of the same coin. However, one is not necessarily contingent on the other. They exist together but they stand apart when necessary. To gain confidence try something you don’t usually think you can accomplish. Take boxing, kick-boxing, or karate lessons. Don’t try to be a professional athlete but get the skill and stamina from something that demands your intensity. You will see that your confidence will grow immeasurably when you realize that you really CAN do it.


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