I recently read a book by Dr. Stephanie Burns called Move Closer, Stay Longer. According to her biography, Stephanie Burns has devoted her life to understanding the adult learning process and helping people reach their goals. In her book Move Closer, Stay Longer she writes on the subject of fear – specifically the fear of riding (are you sensing a theme here, lately?) – and how to overcome it. The first thing I appreciated about this book is that it breaks fear down into an understandable emotion. There are things I’m afraid to do with Asterion that I simply shouldn’t be doing right now. Riding near traffic, for instance. It would be the height of stupidity for me to jump on him tomorrow and ride down our very busy road, hoping for the best. In that sense, fear is doing its job: working to keep me from injury. I’m beginning to believe that fear itself is not a problem (it’s just a feeling, remember?) The problem comes in when we decide to camp out around fear and never take the steps necessary to overcome it, especially in regards to those things that are important to us. Which leads me to the second thing I appreciated about this book: Burns gives a systematic approach for how to overcome fear in a way that’s logical and simple to achieve (“simple,” but not necessarily easy.)
Have you ever heard of the “learning circle?” It looks like this:
The basic principle of the learning circle is that there are three learning zones and as we develop new skills things move from one zone to another. Things we already know how to do and don’t need to think about (simple addition, for instance) are located in the “comfort zone.” In the “learning zone” we’ll find the things we don’t yet know that stretch our capabilities but are possible with hard work and practice. The outer circle, the “panic zone,” is the area in which things move our capabilities past stretching and into panic. They’re the things that are not (yet) possible for us to learn. For the second grader, calculus is firmly in the “panic” zone but can move into the “learning zone” after just a few years of education. You could also apply this to exercise. Taking a walk might be in the comfort zone and going for a jog might enter the learning zone but running the Boston Marathon is situated firmly inside the “panic” zone. It’s just not possible. Yet.
Because the great thing about the learning circle is that the things we do can cross categories. The student learning multiplication eventually “gets it” and multiplication enters the comfort zone as they begin working on something new located in the learning zone, which before would have been firmly within the panic zone. The trick is taking the steps necessary (and figuring out what those are) to move things from one zone into another.
Dr. Burns says that fear works the same way. Rather than circles, she encourages people to make three lists: Things we can do without fear, things we can do with SOME fear, and things we can’t do because we’re too afraid (I prefer to think of these as things we “won’t” do because we’re too afraid.) Then, we start working to move things from one column to another by moving closer to the things we’re afraid of, and staying there longer. Allow me to explain:
In regards to riding, here’s what my list looked like:
Right away, I saw that there were things I could easily move from the “some fear” to “no fear” column with practice, like trotting and riding without a bridle. Maybe I can’t yet trot Asterion all over the field, but I can certainly trot him for a few seconds today and a few more tomorrow, each time moving to that point when fear screams “STOP!,”, and then staying with it for just a FEW more seconds. The next day, the point of fear ought to move just a bit further away (ie. today perhaps I can only trot for five seconds before panic sets in, but if I push past that point by just a few seconds then tomorrow I’ll be able to trot for EIGHT seconds before panic sets in, and on and on.) In that way, as I “move closer” to my goal, and “stay there longer,” the point of fear stretches until it simply no longer exists.
But what about the others? Many of the things on that list are there for a very good reason. For instance, Asterion gets very antsy and skittish when it’s raining or windy and the last time we tried crossing the creek he panicked and I ended up on the ground. He also won’t allow me to touch his sheath (can you really blame him?) and given that he weighs a good 1,000 pounds more than I do, he wins. So how do I move things from one column to another if the problem can’t be solved without the cooperation of a 1200 pound flight animal? Again, the principle of “move closer, stay longer” comes in. Can I clean Asterion’s sheath tomorrow? Absolutely not. But what I can do is start getting him used to being touched near there and continue this each day until he no longer shows irritation. At that point, I can move closer and repeat the process. It strikes me as interesting that the way I would help my horse overcome his fear is the same way Burns recommends teaching myself to overcome my fear:
Move closer to the thing I’m afraid of, and stay there longer.