Could you become a braver person in 30 minutes?
Patty Chang Anker chronicled her quest to conquer her fears and embrace life—and to inspire others to do the same—in her book Some Nerve: Lessons Learned While Becoming Brave. Drawing on interviews with teachers, therapists, coaches, and clergy, Anker imparts both practical advice and profound wisdom. Through her own journey and the stories of dozens of others who have triumphed over common fears, she conveys with humor and infectious exhilaration the most vital lesson of all: Fear isn’t an end point, but the point of entry to a life of incomparable joy.
She joined us recently for a live teleclass explaining how she went from living under the thumb of her anxieties to taking risks that completely opened up her world.
Listen to the entire 30-minute talk or read the transcript below!
Conferences for Women
Some Nerve: Make 2015 The Year You Step Out of Your Comfort Zone
Guest: Patty Chang Anker
Interviewer: Karen Breslau
Karen: Welcome to the Conference for Women teleclass, Some Nerve: Make 2015 The Year You Step Out of Your Comfort Zone. Our guest today is Patty Chang Anker, author of the memoir, Some Nerve: Lessons Learned While Becoming Brave. Oprah.com calls Some Nerve, “downright inspiring.” Patty blogs for Psychology Today’s anxiety section.
For her own award-winning, Facing 40 Upside Down, her writing has appeared in many magazines and websites including Dr. Oz, O Magazine, NPR.org and the WallStreetJournal.com. She is also a frequent keynote speaker and workshop leader. You can follow Patty on all platforms, whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest or LinkedIn @PattyChangAnker.
We’ll be sharing highlights from today’s call on Twitter. You can follow along and join the conversation @PennWomen, @TexasWomen, @MassWomen and in California at WtrMrk or at #leadonca. Patty Chang Anker, welcome to the Conference for Women teleclass.
Patty: Thank you so much. I’m so happy to be here.
Karen: You write that growing up, you were not adventurous by nature. While other kids were out climbing trees and skinning knees, you were inside reading books about people climbing trees and skinning knees. I’m wondering how did you end up making a career out of doing, writing and talking about things that frighten you?
Patty: Oh, my gosh. I still can’t believe that I’ve made that journey myself. You’re right. I was totally an armchair kid. I loved sitting in a comfortable, warm space reading about other people having adventures without breaking a sweat myself. I was raised by Chinese immigrant parents, which basically means that I had a Chinese mother who worried about my every move.
Any time I suggested doing something that wasn’t sitting quietly and reading a nice book, she would say, “Why would you want to do that?” She would read the Chinese newspaper, and sort of wave it at me. There was always someone who was going backpacking and then getting mulled by a bear, or someone stepping up to a microphone and just completely humiliating themselves and losing face for their entire family and being disowned. Basically, everything was that you could either get killed, or you could embarrass yourself and your family, and then wish you were dead.
Basically, all of the energy in our family was put toward academics. That also meant that physical activities, just running around outside and playing active games and doing well in sports, none of that was emphasized. I started to view every time that my heart started beating a little fast that, oh, my gosh, this is the sign that I’m about to have a heart attack and I need to sit down. I was also brought up with this massive fear of failure, which in some ways was good. It made me work really hard in school and it did well for me in the early years of my career.
It also made me highly anxious, and just very reluctant to take risks. I felt like if I wasn’t guaranteed to be good at something, I would often just take a pass or if I tried something new and it didn’t come easily, I’d give and I would just be like, “I’m not cut out for that.” Like, “I’m just not cut out for downhill skiing but I’m very good at Boggle. Who wants to play Boggle with me?” When you’re young, this is okay. I feel like I was able to manage in school and in my 20s pretty well.
As I grew, my comfort zone kept shrinking. I have what I call my ‘Greek chorus of perpetual doubt’ in my head. These are all the voices that say, “Don’t do it.” “You won’t be good at it.” “People will laugh at you,” and “Oh, my gosh. This won’t end well.” We all have doubts and worries. For some of us, they’re at the forefront. They’ll actually dictate the decisions that you make, how big your life is. My Greek chorus was extremely powerful to me.
What happened was that in my 30s, I became a mom. We worry a lot about our kids anyway. My kids had a number of medical issues and so I was very, very worried about them. I had ups and downs in my career, and with my husband and friendships. It’s like life comes, and knocks you around a bit. Each of those contributed to that Greek chorus of doubt. It was like, “Oh, my gosh. This didn’t end well in these situations. I don’t want that to happen again. Therefore, I don’t want to risk anything so let’s just stay where we are.”
It got to a point where I felt anxious in so many situations that I was pretty well paralyzed. I was afraid of making the wrong career choice so I made no career choice. Years went by where I wasn’t making a move forward. I was afraid of rejection and so I was scared to introduce myself to people. I would be in a coffee shop, and see groups of friends getting together and I would be intimidated to go up and say, “Hello.” I was afraid of bad things happening to my kids.
Therefore, I decided to take the fun out of everything for everyone. We would go to the beach and I would be holding onto them so tightly like, “Be careful. You could get hurt.” Meanwhile, it’s like I’m squeezing the little wrists on my hands so hard, I was hurting them. I realized that my life had become this very predictable routine that I didn’t want to venture from, that I wasn’t enjoying very much and yet it didn’t make me feel safer. It didn’t make me feel happier. I was still up and awake all night worrying so what was the point of protecting myself all the time?
Two things that happened when I was about 39 years old that changed everything; one was that my daughter, who was 8 years old at the time, was scared to jump off the diving board at camp. Her counselor said to me that she’s anxious and, “We’d like her to work through that, and see that she’s capable of doing it. Can you talk to her?” Like a good mom, I said all the right things. I said, “Don’t worry. You’re going to be fine. There are people that are watching you. Nothing bad is going to happen. Don’t worry about what other people think. What’s the worst thing that could happen?” I said all of the right things.
Then she said to me, “Well mom, do you dive?” I thought, “What? Why would I dive? Why would I want to do that?” Like, “It could be humiliating. It could hurt. I could drown.” All of these voices came flooding in and I realized that I was asking her to do what I’m not capable of doing myself very well, which is to work through my anxiety and get to the place where you’re doing what you need to do anyway. That was one thing.
I decided then that I was going to try to learn how to dive myself so that I could see what I felt like to do what I was asking her to do. It was actually much easier than I thought it was going to be. For almost 40 years, I had told myself that I was not athletic and that I would not enjoy something like diving off a diving board, and that I would not be able to withstand the humiliation of belly flopping.
It turns out that was in two lessons, and so that was 60 minutes total. I was able to dive off a diving board. I looked at the video and I couldn’t believe it was me. I thought, “Oh, my gosh. If I can do this,” which is something I never thought I could do, “Well then what else can I do that I’ve always counted myself out of?” It completely opened up the world to me in a new way.
The second thing that happened is that around the same time, I was at the coffee shop and this really nice woman. She’s also a mom and I had seen her around town before but I didn’t know her well; I think we’d had one conversation before. She invited me to join her at her table. This was really not like me to go sit with someone that I don’t know very well, and sort of be in for a conversation.
We hit it off and she told me that she was going to go to the beach by herself without her kids and she asked me to come along. That completely blew my mind. That was crazy. It’s like what kind of mother leaves laundry in the hamper, and her kids in day camp and then takes herself to the beach? This is completely the opposite of what any Chinese mother would do. My Greek chorus was going crazy. It was just saying, “What? What would people think? They would think you’re totally self-indulgent.”
Then this fear of rejection, this, “Don’t go. What will you talk about with her for hours? She doesn’t know you very well. She’s not going to like you so just say, “No.” That’s a much easier thing.” Then this message, “Patty Chang Anker would never do this.” There was something about that, this idea that I was so predictable, that Patty Chang Anker is so fixed that it felt like a prison. It felt like I was in a prison of my own making and I couldn’t stand it anymore. In that moment, I just blurted out, “Yes.” I said, “Yes. I’ll go the beach with you.” This was something that was completely unlike myself and I went. It was fabulous. It was a fabulous time.
Those two experiences led me on this journey of saying, “Yes,” to new experiences and starting to face my fears. That’s where I started blogging, Facing 40 Upside Down, because previously I always hated the idea of being upside down, like diving off a diving board when your legs are up and you’re flying and you are no longer in control of the situation. I’ve always hated that sensation. I thought maybe my 40s are going to be about allowing myself to go to that place, and seeing what happens.
Karen: What happened when you started blogging at 40?
Patty: There’s something about this milestone of 40. I think for many people, especially for women, it’s the first decade that we’re not building up our life according to other people’s needs and expectations. For me, I know I spent the first 20 years of my life sort of in-meshed with my parents. Then our 20s, most of us are building up our careers and pleasing our bosses. In our 30s, often it’s like kids enter the picture and so then we’re meeting the needs of our small children.
This turning 40, it’s like it’s this moment when you realize that this is it. This is the life that you’ve been working toward all along. How is it? Is it what you hoped for? Is it what you want for the next decade, or for the rest of your life? When people say, “Oh, my gosh,” in mid life, you reassess everything, I did feel this need to assess where things were. When I started blogging about it, I realized that I was not alone. So much of the anxiety I had held inside, I had hidden from view. I thought I was alone in having all of these voices in my head.
Once you put it out there into the universe, so many people responded back and connected with me and said that they felt the same way, that they way, that they were also [casting] about to broaden their horizons. Then, all of a sudden, you don’t start feeling this desperate that you’re fossilizing or that your life is shrinking and shrinking, but that you can reach out to other people and expand together, expand with each other. That was extremely exciting. I think these ‘A-ha’ moments should happen throughout your life. Now I feel like I hope I’m going to be facing 50 and 60 and 70 and 80 and 90, all of it upside down going forward.
Karen: That’s wonderful. You talked about the fear of failure, and just a litany of fears. In these conversations that you’ve had with people once you started confessing your own fears, what are the most common fears that women have?
Patty: I speak to many women’s groups and I always ask people to either write a fear right on their name tag, or to sign my guest book and list a fear. I would say that the most common fears I see are failure, saying ‘no’ and letting other people down. There are some fears that are geographical to women. In New York City, for example, the fear of driving is very common among women because in New York, often we don’t need cars to get around day-to-day.
Then for women who have partners, often when they do need to drive, they’ll just let their partner drive so it just becomes a habit to let other people do it. Then there are fears that cut across gender, the fear of heights, the fear of public speaking and swimming, these are things that are common to both men and women. Men are often challenged by society earlier and more often to step up. Boys and men will often challenge each other. They’ll push each other whereas women often can get away with just saying, “That’s just not me.”
Girlfriends often will support each other by saying, “You’re fine the way you are.” We tend to not want to push each other into an uncomfortable position. What I do think is so wonderful about women is that when we see each other fears on a name tag, it starts conversations. People begin to start talking in a very real way about things that matter, about how they were raised, how they want their kids to be raised and what their hopes for the future are. It’s very liberating, I think, to not have to hold those insecurities inside.
That’s why I think the Conferences for Women are so powerful. To be able to get women together and address what our real concerns are and then to share our resources and our ideas and our support, it takes us out of own homes, like behind our own screens and our own tentative dreams and it lets us know that we don’t have to be alone in this. Then it becomes so much easier to be brave.
Karen: How did you go about writing Some Nerve, and finding people willing to talk publicly about their fears?
Patty: I started writing Some Nerve because I needed some nerve. I say we write what we need to read. For me, I was looking at books about overcoming anxiety. So many of them made me feel more anxious. They were either by or about very brave people who I just couldn’t relate to, people who were war heroes or people swimming with sharks. I just felt like I’m just not like that.
How can I ever be like that? Or, they were very medical and very serious like, “There’s something wrong with you and we need to fix it.” Who wants to step up for that? Or, they just didn’t seem feasible for me. It’s like I wasn’t going to be able to go an extended adventure. I had responsibilities; it wasn’t in my budget, that kind of thing. I started wishing that there was a book about ordinary people who wanted to conquer everyday fears, and live a bigger life right where they live. I was like I need to be able to do this within the confines of Westchester County.
I started talking to everyone I met. This was a great way to get over social anxiety, was to just tell everyone, “You know what? I’m researching a book about facing fear. Would you talk to me about what you’re afraid of?” Many people ran away. That helped me get rid of my fear of rejection. There were a lot of people who did not want to talk about their fears at all. Then many people were primed for it.
Once they started talking about their scariest experiences, the times that they overcame something and the things that were holding them back right now that they wished they could do something about, those were some of the best bonding conversations we could have. Once you start talking about it, it’s almost like you can’t help but want to do something about it. I put together a group of people who were afraid of heights and we went to a ropes course. I found on someone who was a car crash survivor and she was afraid of driving.
I brought her to a driving lesson where the teacher was a car crash survivor that had gotten over her fear, and was now teaching driving. All of these sparks happened between people and it just inherits drama and emotion. Researching and writing Some Nerve was some of the most fun I’ve ever had.
Karen: You went on – you interviewed dozens of experts, teachers, coaches, therapists, clergy members to find out how they work with people who are afraid. What did you learn from them? What can we learn from them?
Patty: I learned so many lessons from experts. People were very generous with sharing their wisdom and their expertise with me. There are many lessons presented throughout the book. I’ll list four points here that stood out and that can implement right away. The first one is that every expert says that you need to do the thing you fear and do not wait for the fear to go away first.
There’s this classic book called Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway and that’s it in a nutshell. It’s by Susan Jeffers. I was very disappointed to hear this. I was secretly hoping to find someone who would say, “Oh, heavens. No. That’s clearly not for you. You don’t have to face your fear.” Or to say, “Wait. Get more credentials. Do more research. Maybe you’ll be ready in 10 years.” Honestly, it’s like if you want to be a brain surgeon then, yes, take 10 years. You should definitely do your research and practice.
For most people, especially someone like me who wants to get it right all the time, research becomes this form of procrastination. If you’re waiting to feel ready and to feel brave and not fearful anymore before you jump off the diving board, you’re never going to jump off. Sometimes, you just need to do it. I was also hoping that I would find an expert who would say, “Listen to your gut. If your gut tells you that you need to stay put and that you’re not ready, then you need to honor that. Stay put.” That did not happen.
Everyone says, “Get up and do it anyway.” I’ve since realized that my gut sounds an awful lot like my Chinese mother. She wants to protect me, which is fine but I want a full and a meaningful life. That isn’t going to happen sitting in my comfort zone. If I want a full and meaningful life, I have to get up and go get it.
Number two is that you don’t have to do it alone. Whatever your fear is, there is someone who can help. If you just look at your local Y, there are so many classes in different areas and topics. Anything that you’ve been a little intrigued by, like go take a belly dancing class. What’s the worst thing that’s going to happen? You could join the Toast Master Chapter for public speaking or you could sign up in lessons for driving or swimming.
So much of our fear is from lack of experience, or from past bad experiences like you tried it; it didn’t go well. The important thing is to find a good teacher who’s used to working with adults, who may be overcoming some anxiety and fear in order to be there, who can teach you or reteach you skills that you can build on. Coaches, I also want to say professional and personal coaches are great because they show you how to learn from your mistakes, and to not be afraid to try. It’s like you look at an Olympic athlete and they have coaches. They have coaches to look over the tape to find out where they could be more efficient, the mistakes that they made.
Then, they send them back out again. Coaches can also question your own perception of what you’re capable of. It’s like they can see you from the outside in a way that you can’t see yourself. One professional coach named Tony Smith told me that the story that I was telling – he was like, “You know what? You keep saying that you’re this child of Chinese immigrants and that is holding you back.” I thought, “What? That’s just who I am. I’m just telling the truth. I’m a child of Chinese immigrants and that means I’m afraid of failure,” yada, yada.
The real truth, though, is that I’m an American adult and I can change and grow and be whoever the heck I want. So maybe that’s the story I should be telling everybody. Sometimes, it helps to have someone else question the things that you take for granted.
Therapists are great because they can help you with why you were afraid in the first place. There are some people who say, “It doesn’t matter why you’re afraid. You just need to learn how to do it, and do it over and over again,” and there’s a value to that. For people, especially if they’ve had trauma, doing something over and over again, still holding on to the trauma can just retraumatize them. A therapist can really help you work on why you’re afraid, and help keep you from making the same fear-based decisions over and over again.
If the second point was that you don’t have to do it alone, the third point is that you can also do a lot of this on your own. It’s like ways that you can work with the fears yourself. I have a few points that I tell myself all the time. One is to stop catastrophising. I’m a very creative person so I can spin all sorts of nightmare scenarios beginning with me stepping off the curve and ending with me dying alone in a hospital bed. The important thing is to be able to challenge your fears and your thoughts logically, and ask yourself, “Does this actually make sense in the here and now?”
It’s like I may be afraid to volunteer to lead this project because if it goes badly, I’ll be fired. Is that actually realistic? What are the chances of your success? What are the chances, if you fail, of people understanding and learning from that experience? That’s working with the brain on the way it thinks.
Karen: Did we get through all four things?
Patty: Let me see. Hold on one second. I just wanted to say that with clergy, I had them address the fear of death. I spoke with a priest, a Rabbi and Swami and it cuts across religion this idea that we can’t worry about death because we don’t, honestly – first of all, death is going to come anyway whether we worry about it or not. What we need to focus on is life. I think that’s the most life affirming thing to hear is that we’re allowed to make the most out of our lives.
Karen: Wonderful. You talk about comfort zones and the fact is comfort zones are so comfortable. Certainly, some fears are there to protect us. How can you tell when it’s going to be worse putting yourself out there, and pushing through the fear?
Patty: You know? That’s the trick. You can’t know ahead of time, often, whether it’s going to be worth it. That’s why it’s a risk. The truth is that things could end badly. That’s always a possibility. It’s like having in yourself, that you can tolerate the outcome and that the payoff so much of the time is worth the risk. If you can think about what’s motivating you, the values that you live by and the legacy that you want to leave behind, the example that you want to set, all of these higher intentions that we have for ourselves, that is worth some discomfort. That is worth some pain. That is worth some bumps in the road.
Holding ourselves to that standard that we’re stronger than we think. Some fears are genuinely self-protecting. It’s like if your doctor says, “You have brittle bones. Don’t downhill ski,” then don’t downhill ski. We should always stay away from lightning, blood and snakes in my opinion. Then, push against your comfort zone in a different way. Go do karaoke with your friends. Always be willing to shake things up at your level.
Karen: What happens when you start doing and writing and talking about the things that frighten you. Do the fears disappear? Are you able to quiet Greek chorus of perpetual doubt?
Patty: It’s funny, in the beginning, every time I set out do something I wasn’t sure that I could do, it felt like this big, dramatic moment. It’s like you could hear the music from Jaws playing in the background. The more you do it, the more familiar the feeling is. I would just tell myself, “Wow. Look at me. I’m about to do something completely different now. Isn’t that exciting?” It’s like all that feeling of the dry mouth and the cold sweats and the fluttery stomach, it goes from dread to becoming excitement. Now instead of thinking of fear as a sign that I should stop doing what I’m doing, now I see it as an invitation to start.
Karen: Patty, you started something called the Some Nerve Challenge. It’s at #SomeNerve. I’m wondering if you could tell us what that is, how people can participate, what they’ll, what they’ll overcome?
Patty: Absolutely. The Some Nerve Challenge, you can think of this as making an actual plan for your bucket list. What I ask people to do is write down, “I will face my fear of _________.” You can say your fear of public speaking or your fear of swimming, and then by ‘blank’. By what means? You would face your fear of public speaking by volunteering to give a toast or you would face your fear of swimming by signing up for lessons. What this does is it takes us out of our primitive fear brains.
We have this fear brain that locks in from the beginning saying, “I can’t do it,” and it takes us to our rational brain, which says, “Actually, maybe I could do it. This is how I could start.” I think that having a plan in place and holding yourself accountable is so important. Then, you can post it. You can post it online. You can tag me. Then find people to encourage you, and to hold you accountable. Then when you’ve done it, post a picture and talk about it, write about it. This is a peak experience for you where your life changed for the better. Just use that as a stepping-stone to the next challenge, and the next.
Karen: What are some of the great examples you’ve seen on the Challenge?
Patty: Oh, my gosh. I have seen people with a fear of heights crossing tight ropes. I have seen – it’s like trapeze and skiing and one woman who was 56 years old got certified to become a Red Cross lifeguard, which is amazing because it will impact so many other people along the way. I’ve seen very practical challenges like a businesswoman saying that; “I’ll get over my fear of having difficult conversations by having them first in the day.” That’s a great plan. I’ve seen people who say that they have a fear of financial problems, and that they’re going to face that by actually hiring an accountant and facing them.
Karen: Patty, last question, what is the biggest fear that you’ve been able to rid yourself of? What’s one fear that you just haven’t been able to shake?
Patty: Those are good questions. I would say one fear I’ve had for a long time is the fear of not finishing. Because of that, because I don’t want to fail, I don’t want to give up and be perceived as a giver-upper, I just won’t even start. I just won’t even step up. The anticipation of that the going might get tough would be enough to make me not do it.
When you’re facing fear, when you’re committed to facing the fear, part of that is just learning to hang in there. It’s learning to not let go, and not give up. I learned to ride a bike well enough to do the 5-Burrow Bike Tour, which is 42 miles. I learned to surf. I wrote a whole book. Now I’ve proven to myself that I have it in me to keep going even with things that I don’t feel naturally inclined to, even when the going gets tough, I can reach my goal.
Did you ask me if there’s a fear that I have not been able to face?
Karen: Yeah. What still plagues you?
Patty: I think that I will forever be afraid of clowns. I mean, please, shouldn’t we all be?
Karen: Okay. That’s all we have time for today. Thank you, Patty Chang Anker. For those of you in California, we’ll look forward to seeing you at the Lead On Conference on February 24th in Silicon Valley. For more information, go to www.LeadOnCA.org. Thank you for joining us today.