Deep in the midst of the year that wasn’t, gripped by a darkness that I couldn’t see beyond, I did a lot of self-work with the help of a professional counselor.
I discovered a great deal about myself and about my behavioural patterns. One of the most damaging, I came to see, was that when I felt particularly vulnerable, I made decisions from a place of fear, instead of a place of strength. And it wasn’t serving me well.
Anyone who has ever suffered from anxiety will understand what I mean. I’d create a safety net to protect myself by only following the safe paths. I was scared to risk it all, even if I knew that the payoff might be something amazing.
As someone who was hurting so deeply, I didn’t know if I could live through more pain, so I was cautious about my decisions, often refusing to make one at all. I realised later that making no decision is still a decision, but it is one with no power. I soon realised that I didn’t want to live this way. It was time to make a change.
There are several ways to rewire a mindset. We can start small, our successes building our confidence, creating new neural pathways to change our habits. I thought about how I might approach this change and decided to set myself a challenge. Over the remainder of the year, I would do at least three things that scared me—and record what I learned.
1. Don’t over-analyse the situation—trust your instincts.
Those who follow my writing are often surprised to hear that sharing my work makes me feel extremely vulnerable. I’ve always loved words, but when I lost my stepdad, they became a source of comfort and a means to process and heal. From the safe anonymity of my laptop, I bled the whisperings of my heart out into the world. Beautiful messages flooded in from complete strangers, and I felt a sense of solace from hearing their own stories and experiences.
People shared that they had used my words for their weddings, funerals, and even to decorate their own body. I was blown away to think that I could touch anyone’s life that way. I became more and more confident in sharing my work, grateful for the beautiful support of my readers.
And yet, my biggest project niggled away at the back of my mind. It was the piece that I really wanted to nail: my novel. It remained unfinished, and I dreaded letting anyone read it, lest I be exposed as an imposter. However, I knew in my gut that I would never progress beyond my amateur scribblings if I didn’t seek the guidance of someone who had lived this journey for themselves. I needed someone impartial who could tell me the hard truths that would help me to strengthen my work.
I discovered a writing retreat led by a published author out in an isolated camp in the Australian bush. I’d never been away solo before, and I do love my own company, but there is something comforting about the safety of a companion beside us when we venture into the unknown. Even more so when we’re already struggling emotionally or about to do something scary. The thought of time alone, far from home, filled me with an equal mix of longing and fear—and I knew I had found the perfect first challenge.
Not content with the prospective horror of putting my work in the firing line, I also had to physically get to the retreat. It was a five-hour drive, the longest I had ever attempted alone. Friends and family will attest that I am a terrible driver, and anxiety began to eat away at me in the weeks leading up to my departure. Navigational stress aside, I knew that the end of the track consisted of a dirt road and a shallow river crossing to get to the property.
I did everything I could to prepare for the trip, from pouring over maps to self-pep-talks to researching river-crossing methods. The more I read, the more I was filled with concern. A good friend of mine couldn’t understand why the drive was such a big deal. To me, that embodied the very essence of my challenge: our demons are so personal. It was my fear to overcome, not his, and I didn’t need his understanding for it to be a significant achievement to me.
After driving for hours through beautiful countryside, I knew the dirt track would be coming up soon. My navigation device finally gave up in the shade of the huge gum trees looming over me like silver ghosts. My tires slipped and slid in the dust, and I was relieved when I finally reached the edge of the river.
My relief didn’t last long. I stopped at the bank, staring across to the far side as I debated if the tide was low enough to attempt to cross. It looked fine, but I couldn’t be sure. The wrong decision could be disastrous if I were swept away down the river. I was paralysed with indecision, with no one else to confer with, or even better, defer to. As time ticked on, threatening higher tides, I knew that I had to go for it now or go home. My small car wouldn’t cope if the water levels increased.
My stubborn streak kicked in at the thought of slinking back defeated. On the other side of the river lay all things I loved—writing, nature, gourmet food. Was I really going to let fear stop me from having this experience?
I had done enough research to know that it was low tide and would be fine—and now I just needed to trust what I could see with my own eyes. White knuckles gripping the wheel, I decided to stop over-analysing for once and just go for it. I gritted my teeth as water splashed up against my windows. The engine light lit up in protest, and the engine screamed as I revved it all the way across in first gear. I cursed the entire way—grateful, for the first time, to be alone in the car.
When my wheels hit the other side, I punched the air in triumph! It was one of the most freeing experiences of my life to know that I could actually trust myself to make good decisions. There is a difference between a healthy caution and putting yourself in danger, and this time, I had struck the balance just right. A week later I left, back across the dreaded river, with a head full of advice, and a pocket full of notes. In comparison to the journey, sharing my words didn’t seem so scary after all!
2. Find the right mentor.
I sing all the time: in the shower, walking to work, doing the chores. My soul soars when I throw back my head to belt out the songs that I love. I would bet good money that my neighbours know all the words to the “Phantom of the Opera” soundtrack, courtesy of my weekend cleaning routine. But they don’t know me, and I certainly can’t see them if they are listening. Performing in front of a real-life person is something that fills my stomach with hard rocks of dread.
Now and again, I’d toy with the idea of singing lessons. Some of my more musically talented friends told me of their experiences, but I couldn’t imagine myself in their shoes. Every time I decided to go ahead with it, I would tell myself I was being ridiculous—a fraud trying to be one of the cool kids. But I had committed to facing my fears, and now seemed as good a time as any to tick this item off of my bucket list.
I set about looking for a voice teacher who I could visit on my lunch break, but I was still resisting the challenge in many ways. I emailed her, rather than calling, to delay the inevitable. I dallied about choosing a song to sing. Eventually, a date was set, and I marked it on my calendar simply as “lesson,” in case anyone at work should see it.
I didn’t tell anyone where I was going on the day, slipping away into the bustling streets of Sydney, clutching my lyrics tightly to my chest. Reaching the address, my heart pounded a painful drumbeat against my ribcage. I almost chickened out, spinning on my heel to disappear back into the crowds. I walked a little way back before I forced myself to stop, giving my fear a firm talking to.
“What is the worst thing that could happen?” I scolded myself. Images of scornful laughter flooded my mind, making my cheeks burn with embarrassment. I pushed away the cruel voices of doubt, telling my inner child that she could go along just once, and never again if she hated it. Thankfully, she listened.
I knocked on the brightly coloured door and waited. Every moment that passed was excruciating. I was aware of my breath coming in short, shallow rasps feeling almost relieved that there wasn’t an answer. To my dismay, the door began to open, slowly.
The teacher was barefoot and welcoming, clutching a battered old guitar under her arm as she beckoned me in. She smiled a huge lazy smile, grabbing me some tea as though we had all the time in the world. Her easygoing manner set me at ease as we talked about our lives, families, her passion for music, and mine for words. I gradually began to relax. She listened thoughtfully about my fear challenge and told me that together, we would nail it. She sounded so confident that it was hard for me to doubt her.
She reminded me that the point of lessons, after all, is to get better at something, assuring me that it seriously didn’t matter what my starting point was. She had heard it all before. The important part was where I was headed. She nodded patiently as I giggled uncomfortably throughout the vocal warm-ups, understanding that my laughter hid a much deeper discomfort. I learned some breathing techniques that reminded me of my yoga practice, and the familiarity helped me to relax into a rhythm. Before I was ready, it was time for me to sing for real.
As soon as she asked me to perform for her, I froze. The words simply refused to come out of my mouth. I missed my cue twice in a row, burying my face in my hands. She didn’t bat an eyelid, belting out the song herself so that I could join in with her when I was ready. We did it over and over together until I gradually felt less exposed. It was a full chorus before I realised that I was now singing alone to an audience (admittedly of one) for the first time. I finished, cringing as I dragged my eyes slowly from the patch of carpet I had fixated upon, but she was so excited, she was already up and high-fiving me, telling me what we would do next time.
She created a safe space for me to practice week after week. When I messed up, she simply continued, correcting me gently. She celebrated my tiny successes as though they were momentous milestones—which, of course, they were to me. By the end of the first month, we were experimenting, singing harmonies together as she played her guitar. She decided that next, I need to get up at the open mic night—so there’s a future challenge for me to add to my list! Having a thoughtful guide to support (and push) me through the fear made a world of difference.
3. Focus on the outcome you want to achieve, not your fear of the process.
I had thought long and hard about a gift for my husband to open on the morning of our wedding. Knowing that he pretty much had everything he could possibly want, a different sort of idea was starting to form in my mind, but I wasn’t sure I was brave enough to go ahead with it.
I wanted to capture a special piece of myself just for him, something personal that he could treasure for a lifetime. I had read about bridal boudoir shoots, and I knew that he would love the idea.
Like most of us, I give my body a pretty hard time. I don’t always love what I see in the mirror, and yet my body remains loyal to me, allowing me the freedom to run, jump, and dance—which is a gift denied to many. The thought of posing in my underwear in front of a stranger was daunting to say the least. Every flaw would be exposed, captured forever in black and white.
What finally pushed me to book it was thinking about the absolute joy this gift would create for my husband—it’s unique quality, it’s intimacy. On the day, I re-packed my bag three times, grabbing my wedding lingerie, shoes, and veil, before nervously rocking up to the studio. I plastered a confident grin on my face, despite my insides turning slowly to mush. After hair and makeup, it was time to dive in.
I had chosen an all-female studio, and the photographer was lovely. She knew exactly how to make me feel wonderful about myself. I had begun to relax when the dreaded words came:
“Okay, beautiful. Ready to take it all off?’”
I wasn’t ready. Not by a long shot. I thought about the outcome I wanted to create—the way that my husband’s face lights up in a gorgeous grin when he is delighted. I held that thought firmly in my head as I took a deep breath and stepped out of my clothes. The world didn’t end. In fact, I began to enjoy myself, feeling a sense of power and freedom in the art we were creating.
The photographs were everything I had hoped for and more. They arrived in a luxurious box, and I untied the bow with shaking hands. Looking at them, I felt like a goddess celebrating my sacred femininity. The photographs were so elegant, and flattering—and for the first time in a long time, I found myself embracing what I saw reflected there.
Needless to say, I still have the text message that my husband sent me on the morning of our wedding, after opening his gift—assuring me that he couldn’t wait to see me at the altar!
These challenges may not seem like much to anyone else, but for me, they were huge mountains to climb in the journey of changing my mindset. The lessons I learned are applicable to many, less dramatic, areas of my everyday life—and I find myself able to make better decisions, with more trust in myself. I now understand that fear is a liar, making us believe that we can’t (or shouldn’t) do something. Life begins on the other side of that fear, and I intend to live mine to the fullest for as long as I can.
Author: JoJo Rowden
Images: author’s own
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Copy Editor: Travis May
Social Editor: Waylon Lewis