What extreme sports can teach you about being authentic

by | Personal Effectiveness

I recently found myself baffled that sometimes it’s easier for me to do dangerous things than it is to express myself. I boiled this confusion down into the following question:

Why is being physically vulnerable easier than being emotionally vulnerable?

I decided to explore this by taking two real-life examples and seeing how they compare. The first example represents real physical risk, the second doesn’t.

(At first, I considered telling a graphic story about the horrific dangers of unsafe sex, but while adding pictures, I decided to tell another story instead.)

Do you sometimes feel like you’re hiding your true self behind a mask? Would you like to show more of yourself, to express your inner reality to the outer world? If so, this article might help you. (And you might enjoy it for the story, even though it’s not about unsafe sex.)

A scary experience

It’s around noon, and I’m flying above the mountains, hanging under the 25 square meters of cloth of which my paraglider (which is simply an advanced parachute) consists. I took off an hour ago, and it’s going smoothly so far. Floating here in the sky feels like being in a hammock—except a thousand meters up—while the scenery slides by, painted just for me.

In my quest to find another thermal (a bubble of rising air that can be used as an elevator, which birds have been using for millions of years), I fly to the next mountain and head around its flank to get to the sunny side.

Suddenly, I notice that I’m going quite fast, measuring my speed against the mountainside that I’m passing, much too fast.

I realize that during my descent I entered the strong valley wind, and now I’m in the lee turbulence behind the mountain—which is not a good thing.

Then, without any warning, the paraglider collapses completely. The huge piece of white fabric is now shapelessly hanging in front of me. I’m free-falling—my stomach lurches, my heart is in my throat, and I look down at the uncomfortably close and quickly approaching trees. I try to avoid picturing the worst-case scenario, but I can’t, quite. I have no issues with breaking a leg if I crash, legs will heal, but I really like my vertebrae. How long will it take someone to find me? I’m in the middle of nowhere! I’ll starve. With broken legs. Shit.

Two seconds later, the lines go tight, and the wing gets its shape back. I’m flying once more, and the scenery floats by as before. Somehow, I can’t enjoy it quite as much—it feels like my comfy hammock is hanging above landmines.

Flying in lee turbulence is an experience that can best be described as being in a huge washing machine (without detergent luckily, although my mouth is slightly foaming by now). After being knocked around for a while, I manage to get to steadier air. I’m still in the strong valley wind—almost flying backwards—but I succeed in making a smooth landing between the petunias in someone’s carefully tended backyard, my heart still racing.

Once the flood of adrenaline burns off, I can’t wait to go up again.

(Note: paragliding is a very safe sport, stuff like this only happens when you do stupid shit. And there’s always a reserve parachute.)

More fear

I’m sitting in a crowded train that slowly accelerates away from a station. It seems to be my lucky day, since a beautiful girl just walked in and sat across from me. Her beige dress looks like it’s been handmade from the finest silk, and her lipstick is so vividly red that it must have been distilled from a thousand blossoming roses.

An urge awakens in me: I want to talk to her, find out who she is, what drives her, how she laughs. I want to tell her she is beautiful, I want to take her out and buy her as many roses as her lipstick contains.

While I’m slowly but surely falling in love with her, she takes out her purse and tries to use it in some way other than it’s designed for, seemingly forcing it into a half lotus pose. Unavoidably, a coin falls on the floor and rolls under her seat.

I look at her in amusement, enjoying the sight of this pretty girl being human. She is cute, and, best of all, she has mischievous eyes. How I love those. It doesn’t take long for these playful eyes to meet mine, and when they do, she smiles, the thousand roses morphing with her lips. I cannot help but smile back—and not just with my mouth. My eyes light up, just like hers. (This is the difference between a fake and a genuine smile.)

The coin she dropped is a small one. I say to her, “You must be very rich.” (To this day I’m convinced that this genius phrase was inspired by the omnipresent wingman in the sky, Cupid.) Her smile widens, and she laughs, her chest moving with each chuckle. I start to feel warm and fuzzy inside.

She picks up the coin, and after putting it back, her mischievous eyes rest on mine once more. I like looking into her eyes. My inner urge becomes even louder, and the warm and fuzzy feeling more intense.

Remember those movie scenes where the guy bumps into the paperwork-laden girl, they clean it up together while looking into each other’s eyes, and in that moment, you just feel Cupid’s arrows striking? Well… this was even better.

And then I look down, fascinated by a fleck of something on my lap. I want to continue the interaction, but my mind makes up ingenious excuses for looking out the window instead of at her, some of which I’ve listed here:

  • There’s plenty of time, take it easy. (Not true, she ends up getting off at the next stop.)
  • I like the scenery more. (Not true, I prefer her to sheep.)
  • She will never like me. (No, just now she smiled at me.)
  • The train is too full, people will laugh at me. (No, everyone likes romantic comedies— they will cheer when I ask her out, and I can even invite them all to our hypothetical future wedding.)
  • I should keep my mouth closed to avoid drooling. (Maybe, but this doesn’t rule out talking a bit!)

From here on, the various excuses my mind makes up drift into absurdity. My heart races and I feel hypoxic at the thought of talking to her again. Say something, you idiot! Every excuse rescues me from the blood pounding in my ears, even while the poet within is trying to write a sonnet for her. (I don’t get much further than “roses are red, violets are blue”, but that’s not the point.)

The excuses win. For the rest of the trip, we sit in silence, looking out the right and left windows with careful intensity. We glance at each other as we switch windows, yet we’re not in sync, and our gazes never meet again.

Life and death versus authenticity

When I fly, it’s just me, my wing and the elements. When something goes wrong—when I fly too close to a huge rock face, my wingtip almost brushing the stone—I have a problem. A big problem.

When I talk to a girl, even if she slaps me in the face (which never happens), there is no real or immediate danger (unless her insane boyfriend comes running at me with an axe).

The difference in risk is absurd, yet I have almost as much fear in the latter situation as in the former. What am I afraid of then, you ask? Why does my mind make up such irrelevant reasons not to talk to her? Why don’t I express my authentic desire to get to know her? Well… I could pretend not to know, but I do.

It’s because authenticity requires vulnerability.

When you’re authentic, you’re giving your whole self, and nothing else. It feels less safe than putting on a mask. When you’re rejected, your true self feels rejected, like everything you embody is reduced to nothing.

I was afraid of her exposing me, pulling off my mask, showing everybody how small I really feel. I’m afraid that my world—consisting of a belief system built up out of insecurities—could implode, crumbling down on me and suffocating me like a miner trapped in a collapsed tunnel.

Someone recently asked me, “I noticed that you feel uncomfortable around me, why?” and I felt exactly this. My charade had ended. I could no longer hide my discomfort and deal with it in the private space of my own mind. A torpedo had ripped the hull of my U-boat, water was pouring in, and we were szinking.

Courage

Even though we can logically understand that there is no life-threatening danger in being vulnerable, it still feels like that. Why is this? Why are we so afraid of rejection? I don’t really know. Maybe it’s a primal group behaviour instinct. Or a byproduct of our upbringing.

What I do know is that it takes courage to be authentic. Our male ancestors used their courage to slay their enemies; their female counterparts used theirs to raise ten children.

We modern, metrosexual city dwellers have no such challenges any more. And as a result, we lose our capacity for courage. Men drift rather aimlessly through life, women gossip behind the backs of their friends, and we all play the silly games of the dating world.

But we do have the courage to be authentic; it’s in our blood. Every last one of us is the product of winners: Throughout history, our ancestors won and survived time and time again to produce the legacy of us.

Risking your life

So what is the best remedy? How can we be authentic? I think the answer is deceptively simple: just try it. We know that the fears that come with vulnerability are not realistic, so we can teach ourselves that there is no real danger when we start showing our real selves by being authentic and vulnerable.

For another perspective on overcoming irrational primal fears, watch this video by astronaut Chris Hadfield—he explains how to do things that would otherwise never happen. The key piece of advice I extract from Commander Hadfield’s words is this:

Realize that it’s not dangerous, over and over again, and after a while you will start understanding that it really isn’t dangerous, enabling you to overcome these primal and irrational fears.

To conclude, I want to make one more statement, applicable to both men and women:

Not being authentic is risking your life. Not living a life true to yourself is the #1 regret of the dying.

I hope you find some truth in this. I know for myself that if I’m never authentic, never vulnerable, I will look back at my life when I’m old, with arthritis in my often-broken legs, and cry about hiding my true self. That’s why every day I muster up the courage to be a little more authentic.

If this resonates with you, stop risking your life by not being authentic. Start showing your real self. Start being vulnerable!

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