How I Conquered a Fear (Of Swimming) That Ruined 23 Summers of My Life
“You are the worst case in my professional career,” my swimming instructor told me.
I do not remember exactly when this happened but I think I was 8 years old and I was taking my first swimming classes. The problem was that I was terrified of swimming in deep water. The thought of not having ground to step down to in the case of emergency was paralysing me. Needless to say, instructor's traditional approach did not work on me.
Quite frankly, I have no idea where my fear of water (so-called aquaphobia) comes from. From a practical standpoint, it does not even matter. What does matter is that I never enjoyed going to the seaside or a pool with my friends. While everybody was having fun, splashing, diving, jumping, I sat on the sideline, bored and self-conscious.
Let's fast forward to the April in 2014. "Alen, would you like to come sailing this summer with my family," my girlfriend asked me. I don't know exactly why but I said yes. I knew I wouldn't be enjoying it. Surrounded by deep water 24/7 for a week did not sound like a great vacation time. But this got me thinking. What if I try to conquer my fear once and for all?
WHat i did
I have tried conquering aquaphobia many times. Even my friends were trying to help me. They gave me a great advice on how to do it. "What if you would just jump into deep water? That's how I learned". Thanks for the great advice I thought.
The problem with a fear is that it feels very irrational. You have no idea what exactly you are afraid of and why. You just feel that something is off and you are paralysed. For example, I personally would get paralysed by a thought of jumping in water (as my friend suggested me). There was no way I could do it. No way!
So, instead of fighting with this irrational appearance of fear I have decided that this time I will try to understand it better and solve it differently by understanding it better.
What I have ultimately done could be separated in two steps:
- Deconstructing the fear into mini-fears
- Designing "Minimum Possible Failure Situation"
The first part deals with technicalities of the fear and the second deals with the motivation & following through.
1. DECONSTRUCTING THE FEAR INTO MINI-FEARS
First, I've realized that my fear consists of several smaller fears (or incompetencies). I have learned that I was not really afraid of the deep water itself but of 3 smaller components of swimming, which were my 3 mini-fears:
- Doing the dead man's float - I did not trust the water to carry me on its surface.
- Keeping my head under water - I was afraid of putting my head in the water for more than two seconds because I did not feel comfortable. Later I learned this is a consequence of a lack of a proper breathing technique (correctly breathing out in the water and breathing in on the surface) and improper gear (e.g. swimming glasses help feeling more comfortable).
- Swimming under the water (even in the shallow water) - Probably the consequence of the previous one.
Once I realized that, for the first time in my life I felt that I could conquer my fear. It felt manageable and I finally knew what to work on. In the course of the next five weeks, I probably attempted 100 dead man's floats, breathing exercises and dives.
Slowly but surely I was getting more self confident. The thought of going into the pool with 2m depth was becoming more realistic.
And one day I just did it.
The funny thing is that it did not feel like conquering a fear at all. As I worked on my mini-fears and incompetencies I was gradually melting my fear down until one day it was gone. It felt so easy and natural.
2. DESIGNING MINIMUM POSSIBLE FAILURE SITUATION
We, humans, are really bad at keeping our promises and goals. Just think about New Year resolutions. In January, gyms are crowded with people whose goal is to lose or gain weight. By late March, majority of these people drop out and forget about their resolution... No finger pointing here. I definitely belong to this group myself.
So, instead of fighting the law of human nature we should accept and exploit it. The principle I am referring to here is known as the loss aversion. It states that we would do more to avoid pain than gain pleasure. For example, we would be more motivated to save the 100€ that we already own than to earn new 100€. All in all, this shows that the power of punishment (stick) is greater than the power of reward (carrot).
In my case, I was facing a huge negative consequence in case of failure. If I would fail, I would have to be on a boat during the hot summer without the possibility to refresh myself in the sea and I would feel ashamed when everybody else would be jumping in the water while I'd be standing on the deck. What is also important to note is that in this case I was held accountable for the accomplishment by all participants of the sailing trip. In other words, my friends knew about my little project so there was no backing down.
This was the first time that I have created a situation (with regards to aquaphobia) in which:
- failure had tangible negative consequences,
- there was a time pressure (I knew when we are going on a sailing trip),
- and I had a few people who held me accountable (you can read more about the importance of accountability partners in this book).
Following are some examples of applications of these principles. If you would, for example, want to lose weight, you could ask a friend of yours to publish your embarrassing photo (overweight in bikini?) on Facebook in case you did not stick to your goal/plan. Or maybe you could bet a considerable amount of money (e.g. 200€?) with your friends on your success. In case you wouldn't follow through, money would go to an organisation/sport club that you really dislike. On the contrary, if you do follow through, you keep the money.
There is really no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to the Minimum Possible Failure Situation. We are all different and every challenge requires different approach. So, if you try to design your own MPFS use all of your experience (especially think about the projects where you were very likely to fail but you succeeded instead) and try it out. If it does not work out, change something and do it again.
aftermath & USEFUL RESOURCES
I am happy to tell you that I have successfully conquered my fear. It is hard to believe that it took my only approximately 7 hours of proper exercise in the water. And more importantly, only several weeks later, I was swimming in 50m deep water in the middle of the Adriatic Sea.
Included below are some useful resources, equipment and content that has helped me.
- Aquaphobia Swimming classes - The best way to tackle your fear is to take a proper class. I must admit that taking a proper high quality aquaphobia class is the best step you can take towards conquering aquaphobia. But bear in mind that it will probably cover only the first part (deconstructing the fear) and not the psychological part of the equation. That's why in my class only 2 (out of 6) participants have successfully conquered the fear. When you are looking for a class do not search for a beginners class but rather for the aquaphobia one. Find your closest class by googling "Aquaphobia Class + <YourHometown>"
- Watch 19th episode of The Tim Ferriss Experiment: Open-Water Swimming - In this episode, Tim Ferriss and world-class swimming instructor Terry Laughlin teach Sarah, who is afraid of open water and at the beginning of the episode can't swim a single lap in a pool, to start swimming long-distance in just one week.
- Swimming glasses - One of my secret weapons in conquering aquaphobia were good swimming glasses; get a pair if you are afraid of water and see how much more confident you will feel in water.
- Stickk.com - a website where you can setup a commitment contract. If you don’t fulfill your commitment, stickk automatically notifies your friends and opens you up to endless mockery.
If you had your own story or comment to share, feel free to leave a comment below. I am interested to hear your experience.