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Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been afraid of bees, even though I’ve never actually been stung.

Actually, that’s a good lesson right there. We’re often most afraid of the things we’ve never experienced.

Anyway, having a stinging insect phobia as a resident of Florida was certainly inconvenient. That’s something they don’t put in the state publicity material.

It’s not just bees, wasps, and yellow jackets either, though there are lots of those. I was once chased by a biting fly around my yard, which unfortunately no one could see but I could hear buzzing along behind me.

I don’t know what made my dad decide he needed to intervene. Maybe it was because no matter how many times he tried to tell me to be brave, I wasn’t. Maybe it was because for all his demands that I not whine, wince, or otherwise squeal in their presence, I did anyway. I couldn’t help it.

I guess in his mind, that left only one alternative: put me in the middle of a bee swarm.

We were at a picnic and for reasons I don’t know or remember, the playground was full of bees. There were hundreds of them, flying around and crawling on the playground equipment. Had I known before such a thing could happen, it would have been the stuff of recurrent nightmares.

My dad ordered me to go play. I’m sure he had some crazy fantasy of me climbing the ladder to the slide with trepidation, sliding down as fast as I could, and then magically realizing that bees are nice creatures that we can peacefully coexist with.

It wasn’t like that.

I pleaded with him not to make me do it. I sobbed. I was pretty much hysterical, which at 8 years old, only added a sense of shame to my terror. Other kids were staring at us, thanking their lucky stars they had more sympathetic parents.

If you’re wondering, I did go down the slide. I wasn’t stung. But I was afraid for life.

As an adult, and a military officer at that, my response to bees after that was embarrassingly immature. What changed everything for me was the birth of my daughter. I was determined not to pass on my irrational fear.

Except I did, in a way I never expected.

I was brave. I walked by bees on the sidewalk with nary a flinch. Everything my dad had ever asked of me (except that nutty playground adventure) I could now do with sufficient will. I just needed a reason bigger than myself to get over my fear.

That’s another good lesson. If you want to get over a real fear, you probably need a better reason than, “I don’t want to be afraid.”

The biggest moment with my daughter came just a few weeks ago while watering some plants. A bee landed on a flower next to me, and although I started breathing heavily, I calmly moved down the line a bit and continued watering.

The bee followed me.

I could feel the panic starting to rise, but I thought about my daughter and forced myself to shuffle down to another flower again. The bee buzzed past me and my bravery was done. I let out a squeal of fear. My daughter came running and wanted to know what was wrong.

I explained my back and forth with the bee. She was wide-eyed with wonder. “I couldn’t be that brave,” she told me.

“I wasn’t always like that you know. I used to be horribly afraid.”

“You were?” she asked incredulously.

I told her the whole story, how I used to be just like her, but after years of working on it, of failing and then trying again, I’d found a way to manage the fear. I am still afraid, I said, but now I know I can handle the worst case scenario–getting stung–and that lets me practice bravery.

It’s just like learning to read, I told her. You start small and you keep at it. Before you know it, you can do things that would have been impossible before. Maybe one day I won’t be afraid of bees at all. Maybe one day I’ll know how to spell bureaucracy or hors d’oeuvres without spell checker.

Whether it’s overcoming a fear of bees or doing what you love, kids need to see that success isn’t something you flip like a light switch.  (Click to tweet)

It turns out that putting on a brave face for my daughter wasn’t much better than forcing her into a bee swarm. Seeing me struggle has made all the difference for my daughter. She now sees a path for her own courage and she’s following it, step by tiny step. We revel in our progress and empathize in our inevitable setbacks.

Teaching our kids about the realities of life, about the realities driving our own hopes and fears, is essential if we don’t want to keep generating over-achievers filled with self-loathing because they aren’t already perfect.

Our kids don’t need us to be perfect and we don’t need to pretend to be fearless. They need a stepping stone that will safely take them from who they are to who they want to be.

It’s good to know fear has a purpose.

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17 Responses to Why Your Kids Need to See You Struggle

  1. What a lovely story, Jen! (Except for the part about the slide. Terrifying.)

    I hope I can demonstrate the same principle of gradual self-improvement to my daughter as she gets older. So far, my phobia of spiders has gone pretty much unchallenged, but I know the day will come when I have to engage with one and show my daughter that fear doesn’t need to be paralysing.

    • There are so many things I appreciate about being a mom, but learning how to deal with my fears in a healthier fashion is definitely right up there on the list. You have done so many courageous things–I’m sure those spiders are scared of YOU now! :)

    • On
    • June 25, 2013 at 3:20 pm
    • David
    • Said...

    Having a long overdue rendezvous with my Dad today and he said “I’m sure I must have seemed like a coward at times.” Just in him mentioning it made it not so. Yes I agree mightily with the premise that let it (fear) be out in the open where it can lose much of its wallop. Our fear isn’t us, but it can take over us and it does so by denying and avoiding it. When we let it be there and relate to it rather than from it, putting it fully on the table, we are establishing the premise in action that we are more than our fear. Great and timely article.

    • Aww, David, what a sweet story. I can only imagine what might have made your Dad say that. But I agree, simply verbalizing that you have been afraid, maybe even deeply, is a terrific act of courage.

    • On
    • June 25, 2013 at 6:40 pm
    • Claire
    • Said...

    Hey jen,
    I had a “phobic experience” a couple months back when I got stuck in the lift at our local tube station. I have been stuck in a lift twice before , but this time we had to be rescued by engineers and pass over into an adjacent life through a “secret door” you would never of know was there.

    On that fateful day I was with my 10 year old daughter. As the lift shuddered to a halt, the alarm sounded and I knew I was in trouble. Charlotte put her fingers in her ears and started crying, and a wave of panic which started at my feet and washed over me like a tsunami put me in a state of hot, fuzzy panic. It was uncontrollable. I started to take layers of clothes off scarf, jacket, jumper… I stopped at the vest. I could breathe, I could, see, I could hear .. what was my problem? I began to focus on Charlotte and what she needed (ie me NOT to panic!) I talked incessantly for 15 minutes until they got us out ( seemed like hours!!!)

    Next day, I made myself get back in the same lift. It took a week to coax Charlotte back into it. When we did .. she said.. “Mummy … no need to panic, they can get us out through the magic door!”

    I no longer panic in the lift…. because I know there is a way out. Phobia Almost Gone!

    It took a child’s eyes to see the blinking obvious, but we are now braver and stronger together, we hold hands and share in each others anxiety, but now know we can escape!

    • I knew you had gotten trapped in an elevator, but had no idea it had that effect on you and Charlotte. It’s funny, because to ME you are so fearless, and now of course I love you even more to realize that’s not true. Hugs, my friend!! We are definitely stronger and braver together.

  2. Hey Jen, love this post. It has never been about being fearless, but being scared shitless and doing your damnedest best to be brave anyways.

    When we set out to do things because somebody else told us we should, things go horribly wrong. One thing is we often fail to accomplish said thing. Another is we tend to resent the person that commanded us to.

    I like the idea of doing it for reasons bigger than yourself, like you did for your daughter. For me, “bigger than myself” could also mean bigger than my CURRENT self, for example for the identity of my FUTURE self.

    I used to deliberately go and spend 1-2 minutes in the darkest part of our house because that’s the kind of person I want to be. Today, people assume I’ve always been “fearless” but I try to tell them it was a deliberate effort on my part. To evolve into the person I wanted to be.

    P.S. I also used to stare at the sun for as long as I can because they told me I can’t. I gotta give that a go again! Haha!

    • Yes, I very much like doing things for your future self. That’s always a good person to help out when you can. But beware staring at the sun. Even relatively short periods of looking directly at the sun can damage your eyes. There are the things we’re scared of that can’t really hurt us, and then there are the things we aren’t scared of but should be. Keep those eyeballs healthy for your future self! :)

  3. Pingback: Balance Roundup: 26 June 2013

    • On
    • June 26, 2013 at 2:52 pm
    • Mylene
    • Said...

    I truly love this article !
    I am really afraid of spiders and it used to provoke nervous breakdowns but not anymore : my fiance told me a few years ago that he was afraid that I would hurt myself by being in such a state of panic, and this changed everything for me. I learned to control myself around them, to “fight” them on my own. My fear has not gone, but I can control it because I have a better reason than “I don’t want to be afraid”.

    • Isn’t it funny how just a very simple statement like that can completely change a behavior? The mind (and heart!) are truly miraculous things. Glad we could share our fears together. :)

    • On
    • July 3, 2013 at 10:05 am
    • Michcala
    • Said...

    I had (have)the same fear of bees. I was told that I was allergic to bee stings, but have no memory of the early childhood episode. I was doubly scared – my own fear, plus the fear of an allergic reaction, since I could swell up badly from even a mosquito bite. I was 21 or 22 years old when I “got past it” by something bigger. I actually got stung while we were sitting outside drinking coffee before a hike out in the mountains that I’d been looking forward to. I didn’t panic because I didn’t want to miss the trip. So I asked everyone to wait about 30 minutes to see if there was an allergic reaction rather than rushing me off to the hospital. When nothing happened, I was able to join the group for that hike. I can’t say I’m any less fearful when a bee or wasp is nearby, but at least I learned that panic can be held at bay by a greater desire for something.

    • On
    • July 12, 2013 at 12:44 am
    • Courtney
    • Said...

    I couldn’t agree more with your sentiments here. How else are they to know that some hurdles can’t just be jumped over but must be worked on, overcome and moved on from. Great post!

    • On
    • July 18, 2013 at 12:25 pm
    • Jess
    • Said...

    There is a great lesson in this post for parents and people everywhere…it’s always better to wear our vulnerability on our sleeves. It connects us to others and as you’ve shown, can help to lead the way for others. Thank you =)

    • Thanks, Jess. Easier said than done, of course, but with practice it gets easier.

    • On
    • May 14, 2015 at 11:40 am
    • Åsa
    • Said...

    Thank you for this post, Jen! I can so relate to it. I had a difficult time hiding my fear of bees – I often make this funny noice when there’s a bee close – so eventually I told my oldest son about it, I think he was about two or three years old at the time. I decided not to hide my fears anymore, kids are so good at picking up there’s something wrong and I didn’t want to lie to him. He was so understanding. 😉 One day, in the middle of the winter, freezing cold outside, lots of snow, my son and I on our way to the car, I slip on an icy spot and make the same sound I make around bees and my son looks at me with a concerned frown on his forhead: “What is it mom, did you see a bee?” 😀