Use Fear to Build You Up, Not Break You Down by Bruins Reporter, Caryn Switaj

My heart raced as I stepped onto the wooden platform.

I had a standard safety harness clinging tight to my waist. I had a fashionable blue helmet to go with it.

There was a small canyon below me and a canopy of trees stretched out before me, with a set of obstacles that awaited me — all suspended 50 feet in the air. 

If you have never been on a high ropes course, it feels like you are about to be a contestant on American Ninja Warrior, without the glitz and glamour, and personally, without the fitness level.

The guide did a safety check, and then latched my fastener (a “carabiner,” in climbing terms, as I learned) to a rope that was attached to a pulley, which would then glide along a wire above me. This rope would be my lifeline for the next half hour, so that I did not plummet to the forest floor.

The guide then said, “OK, you’re ready to go.”

I had done this before. I wasn’t afraid of heights. I liked the thrill of a challenge. Let’s go!

Instead, here’s what happened: I couldn’t move. I couldn’t step forward onto what looked to me like a thread of yarn suspended between two trees.

Wait. He just wants me to go? Just like that? And step on the wire? How will it support me? But what if I fall? Has anyone every fallen before? What if the rope snaps?

I yelled out to my sister, who had just completed this first obstacle and was safely on the second platform.

“Sarah! What do I do?! I don’t know how to start.”

I felt the panic rising within me — easily noticeable by my now perspiring, shaking hands, which no one could see except for me.

I had to go. There were people waiting behind me.

My sister sensed my fear. As she later told me, she saw my foot suspended in the air, neither on the platform, nor on the wire.

Switaj_High_Ropes“Just,” she started calmly, “Take a step.”

I slowly began to pull myself back together.

OK. There’s a row of ropes hanging from this wire above my head. I can grab the ropes, while inching my feet along the wire to the second platform. I can do this. I have to do this.

I took a deep breath. I took a step. And you know what? I was OK.

In fact, I felt safer than I thought. I then took another step, grabbing the next rope, then the next one, and the next one.

I slipped and almost fell towards the end, but I caught myself and bear-hugged the tree, hoisting myself onto the second platform. I continued on, obstacle after obstacle, going through that same process.

Obstacle. Fear. Anxiety. Bravery. Safety.

Every obstacle that I prepared to tackle, my sister was in front of me, having already gone through each one. Meanwhile, her fiancé Shawn was always on the obstacle behind me, pushing himself to the limit (“I bet I could try this one with no hands!”), and in doing so, pushing me forward.

At the high ropes course, there is a rule that once you go beyond the first obstacle, you’ve reached the point of no return. You must finish. You must see it through.

***

At 28 years old, I have many fears.

For starters, I fear being alone. I have officially reached the standard age of “engagements, weddings and babies,” which means my Facebook and Instagram feeds (Snapchat, too) have turned into photos of sparkly rings, lots of white, and sleeping newborns. And you know what? I love ALL of it. I just don’t have any of it right now, at this current moment in my life, which by default makes me fearful of the idea that I may never have it.

I also fear what might happen. The “what if” narrative is one that I constantly tell myself. What if I go out with this guy and he rejects me? What if my boss says “no”? What if my co-worker takes my feedback the wrong way? I seem to be OK with kids, but what if when I have my own kids, I’m not a good mother?

I fear conversing with a stranger. This one I can’t wrap my head around because, every single day, I talk with strangers — and I love it. I do it in my life and in my job. I do it in every Uber that I take and in every city that I visit. People and their stories fascinate me. But I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a pang of anxiety before I introduce myself or initiate a conversation.

I fear rejection. In my career, working in digital content and reporting for the National Hockey League’s Boston Bruins, I am on-camera most days. I have been with the Bruins for four years, and I still feel the stress building up when I get ready to give my report and conduct an interview on-camera. What if I ask bad questions? What if fans don’t like watching?

Recently, I spoke to a group of about 100 Boston College student-athletes about leadership, and about how to pave a career path in sports. Sure, I had been in their shoes as a former member of the Swimming & Diving team at Boston College, but hundreds of thoughts ran through my head that night. Does six years out of college qualify me to speak to them? What if they don’t listen? What if I ramble on? What if I forget what I’m going to say?

I fear not making an impact. Am I helping others enough? Am I doing meaningful work? Am I really doing my best, every day? Do I have enough energy to do this? Why am I not taking care of myself enough?

Then there’s this one, that often takes over: I fear failure.Switaj_OnCamera

My goodness, how many times do we not try something simply because fear causes us too much anxiety to carry on?

Out of college, I moved out West from Boston to Colorado Springs to work for USA Hockey. After a year there, I moved to Florida to work for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Both times, I didn’t know a soul beyond the people with whom I had interviewed. 

When I began working for the Bruins in 2012, I did not start out as a reporter for the team, interviewing players, coaches and management. I wasn’t traveling on road trips, writing blogs and hosting videos.

When my current position opened up, I almost didn’t take the leap and take on the challenge of a new role. I remember sitting in the stands, in the cold of the team’s practice rink, telling myself I was OK being safe staying in a position that I knew.

What if I had not ignored that voice in my head?

Instead, I allowed myself to become the first Bruins-employed female to travel directly with the team on the road as a reporter.

Switaj_BruinsAcademy

***

Fears come in all shapes and sizes. They overcome us at all ages.

My 28-year-old fears are different than the ones I had at eight years old. 

Back then, I was scared of everything. I was scared of people, and would cling to my mother’s leg in public. I was scared of the dark. I had recurring nightmares of our house being under attack — they always ended up with me hiding in the closet, and only right when I was about to be found, would I wake up. I was scared of clowns. I was scared of the dolls above my bed (Chucky, anyone?!) I was terrified by the thought of driving. I was scared of scary movies (still am). I was scared of being stuck under water. I was scared to talk to boys. I was scared of friends not liking me at school.

What were your fears? What are your fears now?

Here’s the thing: I want us to stop running away from our fears. I want us, no matter how big or small our fears are, to face them head-on — at home, at work, and wherever we are.

Let’s take that fun little high ropes experience that I had, and turn it into a series of moments that we can try to apply to any of our fears. Are you with me?

1.) The Moment Fear Takes Over

My fear on the high ropes course still confuses me. Standing in line, I was totally fine. When I walked over to the guide on the first platform, I lost my equilibrium. I blacked out for a few seconds. I couldn’t calibrate. I felt “off.”

Think of a moment recently when you felt “off.” Chances are, it was caused by some underlying fear. What emotions were you feeling?

2.) The Moment You Realize You’re Not Alone

In that moment of fear, I called out to my sister. In doing so, I snapped myself out of my funk. Without her and her fiancé’s cheering, coaxing and careening, I wouldn’t have made it through. I mean, maybe I would have, but it wouldn’t have been as much fun.

Who can you invite into your fears?

3.) The Moment You Breathe

It wasn’t until I closed my eyes for a second, and took a deep breath, that I was truly able to continue on — even if I already had the support that I needed. It gave me a moment to realize that I was OK. Sometimes, just breathing is enough to center us.

What if you took three deep, slow breaths before you fired off that email or text, picked up the phone to make that call, or spouted your frustrations?

4.) The Moment You Take the First Step

The fact that my sister remembered my foot suspended in the air, unsure of what to do, makes me smile. Isn’t that always what happens right before the first step? All I had to do was move my foot, put it down on the wire, and my body followed suit.

You have to move through your fears. “Easier said than done,” you say. “I’m kind of fed up with the ‘one step at a time to climb up the staircase’ sort of analogy.” Well, cool, I feel the same way. But it works. I don’t care how you get yourself to do it. You may be crying, curled up on your bed, stuck under your covers – but until you move, you’ll always be afraid.

5.) The Moment You Succeed

You can’t prevent yourself from having fears. By deciding to walk on a wire in the trees, I subconsciously welcomed fear into my life. If that fear had not taken ahold of me, I would have never experienced the satisfaction that came with overcoming it.

When Fear and Stress come into your life, welcome them with open arms. They’re an indication that you’re close to uncovering something. Treat them like a muscle — one you have to build by repetition.Switaj_Interview_Kids

***

 By the time I came to the final obstacle on the high ropes course, I was cruising. I was ready for the next big, bad challenge. I was energized, even with my newly sore arms.

Fear can be debilitating. Sometimes it creeps into your life, and sometimes it hits you out of nowhere, and puts you on the ropes — standing between two trees, in a forest, with only one way to go: forward.

As you go about the next week, month, or year of your life, anxiety will no doubt start to rise at work, at home, with your family, with your spouse, with your friends — and within you.

When stress burdens you, don’t let it break you. Let it build you.

You are brave enough to earn that promotion, to take the next step in your career, to become healthier, to be a better friend, partner, parent, daughter or son. You are brave enough to do anything.

So, take a deep breath, look in front of you, and as my sister said, “Just take a step.”Switaj_Sisters

***

“FEAR, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. That nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked. Every time I felt something horrible cohering my imagination, I pushed it away. I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid.” — Cheryl Strayed, Brave Enough


Switaj_VegasCaryn currently serves as the Boston Bruins’ primary reporter, on-camera host and digital content specialist. She also co-hosts the New England Emmy Award-winning children’s television series, Bruins Academy. She is a social and digital media professional who is passionate about engaging communities through strong storytelling and quality content. Before the Bruins, she worked with the Tampa Bay Lightning, USA Hockey and Boston College Athletics. She finds joy in family, sports, hiking and exploring, but her greatest joy comes from inspiring others. 

Follow Caryn on her Instagram accounts, @cswitaj & @inspired_onthego and on Twitter, or feel free to connect with her via email.

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Jennie Vasquez
    June 16, 2016 at 7:37 pm

    Great article. Fear is a funny thing. Some fears are universal while others are unique to each individual. Some of your fears are in the past for me and I have many fears you didn’t list. Whatever kind of fear, your words are encouraging to anyone facing fears. I plan on using them on myself to conquer some of my fears.

    As for your fear of if you are doing your job well, you should have no worries there. As a Bruins fan in Southern California, the vast majority of Bruins news I see and read comes from you and your fellow coworkers.. From Bruins Beat to Bruins Academy, you keep me well informed and you do an excellent job of providing great information. This year when the Bruins practiced in L.A. on St. Patrick’s Day, I had an opportunity to watch you interview team members after practice. It was impressive to see how well prepared and professional you are at what you do. I think you have one of the greatest jobs on the planet but one that comes with a lot of responsibility. You are a great member of the Bruins family. One final thought, I would love to see a segment on Bruins Academy of what the players fear and how they conquer their fears.

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