Fear of the Unknown: When did we lose the magic of adventure?

I was having a conversation with my mom the other day when she pointed out how fearless I was when I was younger. I hadn’t really thought of it before, I knew I was open to new adventures, but I had never considered my utter lack of anxiety and fear while growing up.

We talked about some of the things that I did when I was school aged, like leaving my community elementary school to go to a science-focused chartered school on the other side of the city. This meant that I had to say good-bye to all of my friends, take a bus to school (that was new!) and of course rebuild a whole new circle of friends. Not only that, but I found out that I had a place at this school only one week before school started.

My ten-year-old self thought that it was pretty cool that I finally got a place at my dream school (yes I was, and still am, a science nerd) and that I was starting in a week. On top of everything, this new school started well before any other public school did, so when I got the call from my mom asking me if I wanted to take the spot, I was in Victoria still on summer vacation.

I jumped at the opportunity, said yes, and flew home early from summer vacation to start at my new school.

I’m not going to lie, thinking back about leaving my best friends, going to a new school, learning how to take the school bus alone, and jumping into a classroom full of completely brand new faces gives me anxiety just thinking about it right now. But did I have that anxiety when I made the decision at ten years old?

Not at all!

My ten-year-old self was filled with excitement and wonder. The only thing I could think about was how much fun I was going to have at this school and all of the new friends I would meet.

And guess what? I was right. I had a blast. Thank you ten-year-old Jaclyn.

If you were to put my current 25-year-old self in this same position I think I might be hyperventilating into a paper bag at this point. I would be thinking about who and what I was leaving behind, how difficult it would be to learn a new routine, the social anxiety that comes with meeting new friends, all of the comfortable routines I would be giving up, and of course, every possible way I could fail.

That, my friends, is a summary of 25 years of life experience.

But when and how did my fear around the unknown start?

At what point do all of us lose that wonder and excitement that is associated with novelty and new experiences? At what point did we start to develop fear and anxiety when faced with trying new things?

How did the fear of failure replace the excitement of growth and opportunity?

Before the understanding of failure sets in, kids see new adventures as exciting. They view novelty as a new opportunity and something they can explore, while having fun doing it. Of course, anyone (including kids) can be nervous about starting something new, but once kids know that they are safe, the excitement of a new adventure sets in.

New opportunity for kids = exciting = adventure = exploring = fun = happy

Fast forward your life a few years and allow the painful realty of failure to set in. All of the sudden “new opportunity” takes on a whole new definition.

New opportunity for adults= uncertainty = scary = another chance to fail = another way to prove to everyone else you are not good at something = judgement = shame

Wow that escalated quickly!

Let me ask you again, how does the fear of failure replace the excitement of growth and opportunity?

The common denominator for how we view “new opportunities” as adults is the negative feelings we associate failure with. Specifically, we associate failure with how others might judge us poorly and how we will judge ourselves poorly. The main difference between young kids and adults (or older kids for that matter) is that younger kids haven’t let the fear of judgement stop them from trying new things.

Let me reiterate this.

Young kids are happy to try something new because they don’t let the fear of what others might think of them or how they might judge themselves stop them from trying something new and failing at it.

Older kids and adults start to develop anxiety and fear around the unknown because they fear how others might judge them when they fail.

Can we stop failure in our lives? Not always. Nor should we always try to stop it. Failure helps us learn and grow.

But can we learn to embrace failure without worrying how we look to others and stop judging ourselves when we screw up? In time, absolutely.

If we give ourselves some room for failure and growth, we can lessen the anxiety around trying something new. The first step is to not let other’s opinions determine how you feel about your own failures. Allow yourself to explore, allow yourself to grow, allow yourself to make mistakes and learn from them.

And just like magic, that scary and unknown thing lurking around the corner is now an exciting new adventure- enjoy!

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