When I moved across the pond in 2012, my mind was dreamy with the fantasy of sipping tea with Colin Firth in a Georgian townhouse, dressed in period costume. In reality energetic Ellen the realtor bombarded me to exhaustion with the differences between flats, maisonettes, and mews houses. She explained that the second floor is really the first floor and that zebra crossings are not actually for zebras, all the while zipping us around London in her banana yellow Fiat 500 and squeezing into impossibly tiny parking spots. I guessed I could get used to bathroom switches located outside the bathroom (though my jokester husband made it a challenge), and to calling fries “chips” and chips “crisps,” but one thing was for sure: I was definitely NOT EVER going to drive a car here!

This very real dread of driving in London made me realize that my initial reaction to fear is controlled by my emotional right brain.

My right brain is like that. It senses fear and makes decisions for me, keeping me safe, but, I realize, limiting my choices in the process. Flattened by a double-decker bus would be a horrible way to go. The left brain considers the odds, reassures me that London drivers are well-trained, and tries to strike a compromise. I am not a psychologist, but I know that decisions are made when there is interaction between the logical brain and the emotional brain. The two sides continuously interact and sometimes are locked in a struggle. It’s like when you need to buy a car and your eye catches the shiny sports car, but you have three kids and you need a minivan with enough cup holders for everyone in your family. Do you let reason guide you to the more practical and safe car or do you succumb to the flash of the fun and sexy convertible? Every decision is a tug-of-war between these two systems in your brain. They run in parallel, codependent, but are in constant conflict.

These days the conflict relates to my latest pastime: indoor rock climbing. My left brain adores the instructor, Mike, a methodical teacher and safety expert. He makes me backup my figure eight knot with a double stopper knot for extra security. I’m reminded to check knots, harnesses, ropes and belay devices for myself and my partner for every climb: safety checks must always take place regardless of experience. I learned how to use a ground anchor to compensate for difference in weight between belayer and climber. And I learned to never ever let go of the dead rope! Mike makes me feel comfortable with climbing as each climb is a constant reminder of the procedures and safety checks.

Until one day Mike said something to trigger my right brain to jump up in alarm! “Now, we’re going to practice falling,” he said.

Mike asked us to climb three-quarters of the way up the wall, and then our belay partner allowed for a little slack in the rope. We were then told to let go of the wall and fall. It takes every bit of courage to let go of the wall. If your logical brain is working properly, you know the rope will catch you. But your emotional brain is saying that this is crazy.

“My figure eight knot tied off with a double stopper knot — just in case!”

In climbing, as in life, you need to confront the fears at the edge of your comfort zone to advance. As you test your physical and emotional limits, falling is inevitable. Trusting your partner and your equipment allow you to grow out of your comfort zone. Most of the time, we operate in our comfort zone and avoid risks. But, if you experience risk in a controlled and manageable environment, you can challenge yourself to do things you wouldn’t normally do.

“This is my “Wha’choo talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?” face when Mike tells me to practice falling.”

You don’t want to free fall even for a few inches. That feeling of free falling is uncomfortable.

Mike assured us that we all knew about correct belaying, we had done our safety checks, and all of this ensured a safe catch with little or no actual fall. But all of this means nothing to the right brain! All it processes is emotion and fear. Practicing falling is the best way to get over that uncomfortable feeling. Sure enough, after my initial trepidation, I started feeling “comfortable” with the falls! My comfort zone had been expanded and I grew as a climber as a result.

“Look ma! No hands when practicing falling.”

Taking risks in a controlled way is the best method to feel the freedom to climb as hard as you can, to push yourself to a new challenge. If you don’t fear falling, then you can enjoy the challenge of each advance. Holding something in reserve is helpful if you are not sure of the consequences, but if you have minimized most of the risk, then holding back will limit your ability to discover your true capability. Now, I feel like things worth doing should be challenging or even scary. Because of this, I have enjoyed scree, climbing a via ferrata and kayaking in the ocean. I have grown in self-confidence and look forward to the next challenge on the horizon.

Practicing falling is my new approach to everything that I do. It means that I prepare and acquire the skills, training and the mental ability to do things out of my comfort zone. I keep surprising myself, one step at a time. My right and left brain still engage in heated battles, and I know my left brain will win most of the time, because my pragmatic side will have minimized the risk, and I will have trained my body and my mind to allow my confidence to prevail over my fears. I encourage you to “practice falling” in your own life.

Now you are probably wondering if I ever managed to drive in London. See it to believe it!

“Proud to say that I passed my UK driving test on my first go and I love zipping around London in my Mini Cooper.”

Wearer of many hats

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