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Fitness | KATHY SMITH

Don't Be Afraid to Fail; We're All Only Human

July 06, 1998|KATHY SMITH

Way back when, at the beginning of my career in fitness, I was booked to appear on "The Merv Griffin Show." As I stood waiting behind the curtain, listening to Merv's breathtakingly generous and, I thought, undeserved introduction of me, I felt all but paralyzed by fear. I feared that the minute the curtains parted, I'd be struck mute.

Fear is something I've grappled with all my life--fear of inadequacy, fear of failure, fear of death (my loved ones, not mine); you name it and at one time or another I was probably fearful of it. But my most dominant fear, and the one I faced that afternoon on Merv's show, was the fear of performing. Stage fright, in a sense.

In college, I'd been virtually unable to give an oral presentation, or even offer a cogent thought in a seminar class. Though I may have had something interesting to add to the conversation, fear of saying the wrong thing clouded my mind so badly that it rendered me speechless, searching in vain for the right words. The more it happened, the more I feared its happening again, and the more I feared it, the more it happened. Soon enough, I became disappointed in and disgusted with my failure, which was no help at all to overcoming it.

At the same time, however, I began to notice that if I was off on a jog with a friend or classmate, I felt clear and cogent; fearless. With body moving, pores sweating, physical tension gone and endorphins being released, I was able to articulate my most complex and esoteric thoughts with ease. That's one of the things that hooked me on exercise as a calling.

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It became clear that if I was to succeed in my fitness career, I would have to overcome my paralyzing performance anxiety. I tried several things, including a few acting lessons, and learned that some of our greatest actors are also some of the shyest people who have to run through a range of exercises intended to release tension and increase calm in order to mask their shyness. But I wanted more. As a last resort, I enrolled in a speech class through UCLA Extension.

The instructor hit my psychological nail right on the head. He said that what often keeps us from doing our best, or even well, in all sorts of situations is our fear of being human, of letting others see our faults. So rather than try something that we might fail at, our fear of failure keeps us from even starting. In my case, that included opening my mouth for fear of saying something stupid. But once we decide that it's OK to reveal ourselves--that everyone's as fearful and human as we are; some just mask it better--we're able to experience liberation.

And that's exactly what happened to me. In essence, I repeated this piece of information over and over to myself, like a mantra, until I began to believe it. So when I stood waiting that afternoon to walk out onto Merv Griffin's stage, and felt that old familiar fear latch onto my tongue, I told myself that it didn't matter if I made a mistake, used a wrong word or got flummoxed. Because of that, because I gave myself permission to be as human as anyone in that audience, I turned out to be a big hit (Merv was wonderful to me). And one of the reasons I've been pretty successful over the years is that others relate to me the way I relate to them, as human.

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The reason I bring up this story is that, in the field of exercise, I so often see fear keeping people from starting new things, as well as giving up old ones. Not only will they frequently refuse to try exercising at all ("I'm afraid . . ."), they'll also refuse to change an existing routine that they've already mastered, even if it's become as boring as watching paint dry. "I don't want to look stupid," is what one woman told me when I suggested that she try a Body Pump class, something she'd never done before, just as a change from her regular regimen. "I'm just going to stick with jogging."

Such fear in others frustrates me. Then I remind myself that they are only human too, that humans are creatures of habit, and that habits are tough to break. Witness my most unbreakable habit: trying to get people to live healthier lives. I'm not willing to give that one up. Because lack of fear, after all, can be habit-forming.

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Copyright 1998 by Kathy Smith

* Kathy Smith's fitness column appears weekly in Health. Reader questions are welcome and can be sent to Kathy Smith, Health, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. If your question is selected, you will receive a free copy of her book "Getting Better All the Time." Please include your name, address and a daytime phone number with your question.

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