To Swim or Not to Swim? (With Sharks)

Im writing this post from a sailboat in the middle of the ocean on my way to swim with sharks off the coast of San Pedro, Belize. I’ve started to write posts whenever I experience some grand aha moment. For one, it makes for better content than me just trying to come up with some BS post about how to practice self-care. (I’m not knocking those posts, I have a ton of them). Also it’s a good form of self-care for me personally.

When I was younger journaling was the best way to communicate my feelings and make some sort of sense of this life. Anytime I got upset I would just write until I felt better (As a therapist, I highly recommend trying this out) If you know anything about me, you’ll know that I’m all about going with what works for you and not trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to self-care. So here I am, on a boat in tropical paradise, expressing myself through writing.

Swimming with sharks part one

I took my first trip to San Pedro, Belize about a decade ago. It was also my first trip abroad. I was really scared. About everything. Let’s just say that my anxiety was rolling high. When you need xanax to keep you from panicking about traveling with Xanax you know it’s bad. It ended up being totally fine, as is often the case with things that scare us. It was a great trip and nothing that I was scared of came to fruition.  Exposure therapy for the win.

However, though I overcame some of my significant traveling fears,  I was still terrified as hell to snorkle and swim with sharks.  I mean, who wouldn’t be? I live on the East Coast where we try really hard no to swim around sharks. When we do, we tend to lose a limb or two. But this was Belize and it was supposed to be different so I figured I better give it a shot. I jumped in and tried snorkeling. I hated it. Not only where there sharks but barracudas, moray eels, and poisonous coral? Heck no, not for me. I resigned to drink rum punch on the boat for the rest of the outing while everyone else swam with death.

Should I swim with sharks?

My mom,  who is also a therapist, really wanted me to swim with these scary sea animals so I could conquer my fears. She’s always encouraged me to try new things and I am grateful for much of this encouragement. She has helped me push through difficult situations many times. But this just didn’t seem like something that was a crucial experience in my life. Nothing bad would come of being afraid of sharks, right? I mean, in my hometown the fear actually generally bodes me well.

 I distinctly remember explaining to her that my inability to swim with sharks did not impede my daily living.  I was okay with owning that fear. I still am okay with it. As a matter of fact I use this story with my clients sometimes to help them not worry about things that don’t matter. Swimming with sharks didn’t matter to me so why stress about it? That was my first aha moment that had to do with the sharks- realizing that I don’t have to stress about conquering fears that done bother me. 

Swimming with sharks again?

Flash forward to today on this boat. I was so content with being able to go on this trip and not feel bad about sitting out the snorkeling part.  I was actually really excited about just relaxing drinking all of the rum punch I could handle. But when it came time for everyone to drop down in the water, something just ignited inside of me. 

I actually wanted to do it this time. Not because I should do it. Not because my mom wanted me to conquer my fears. Not because of anything having to do with anxiety, fear, or pressure from myself or anyone else. This time it was just a clear and present matter of adventure. Once again, in the same exact waters as 10 years before, I learned something from these terrifyingly beautiful creatures.

Swimming with sharks: lesson learned

I think owning my anxiety and accepting my fear was what eventually allowed me to explore it. This morning I walked onto this boat not expecting to do anything adventurous and not feeling any pressure about it.  But as I was blissfully lounging on the boat with a nice drink in my hand and fully satisfied with just soaking up the sun, I finally just thought about it. Actually thought about it. I was not thinking about fear or pressure or the shoulds of life. I actually just sat back and asked myself, “Hey Amanda, do you want to do this today?” If the answer was “No” I’d go back to relaxing with my drink. But what if the answer today was “Yeah, sure.”

So I swam with the sharks

I snorkeled with the barracudas.  I did it all. Was it scary? I know you’d like for me to say “not at all” but OMG Hell, yes it was frightening. I’m not immune to fear. Frankly, I’m biologically prone to it. Maybe even more than other people.  But you know what?  Even though I was scared of the water but I was no longer scared of being scared.  Being scared of an animal is much different than being scared of disappointing someone or being scared of not reaching your potential or just  general FOMO. Echoing my past experience, fearing sharks isn’t debilitating . I can deal with fear of the ocean. Its the fear of failure and inability to master the “shoulds” in life that really seem to eff me up. I learned three very valuable life lessons in the waters of the Ho Chan Reserve in Belize:

1. It’s okay to be afraid of sharks 

2. Conquering a fear is much easier when you actually want to do it.

3. Conquering a fear is much easier when you can tune out the white noise of unnecessary judgement, expectation, and shame. 

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