Leaving the Safety of Something Familiar When You Feel Scared

Base Jumping

“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.” ~Pema Chodron

Winter is a time for hibernation, I told myself, drinking a second cup of coffee under the duvet, flicking absent-mindedly through old magazines and self-help books bought in a brief conviction that I wouldn’t begin another year reading in bed.

It seems perverse that, in the Northern Hemisphere at least, this time meant for reunion and resolution (neither of which is easy or straightforward) should occur in the darkest of seasons—when the sun barely even rises and the general inclination is to climb into a hole and only reemerge in spring.

This year I had returned home after a five-year absence, which had seemed longer. During that time, I had spent Christmases in random parts of Asia that, if listed, would sound romantic and exotic—temples, jungles, and mountains.

But that time had been largely marked by loneliness and bewilderment at why I always choose to be far from those I’m meant to be closest to.

Travel, in its constant offering up of newness and discovery, always seems to promise another chance at reinvention. Maybe this is in part why I do it, never having found a version of myself I’m comfortable enough to settle with.

And yet, once back in familiar surroundings and familiar relationships, it never takes long for this promise to fade and for old habits to reappear. Over the past weeks, I’ve had to keep checking photos, maps, postcards, just to remind myself that what had gone before was in fact something I lived, not merely a dream.

The previous three months I had been traveling, over-ambitiously combining Thailand, China, and India in an attempt to compensate for a year of teaching in a chaotic Asian city.

My intention had been to get myself out of the dysfunctional routine I had created while teaching—the six-day work-week, an addiction to HBO and my sofa, overreliance on a few good friends—and throw myself back into Life with a capital L.

Unfortunately, over the course of the year, I had learned to become a person suited to precisely such a routine, cutting off the part of myself that secretly wanted connection and community even as I hid away.

After all, old habits die hard. During the acute social phobias of my teens and twenties, I had become skilled at avoidance—often not stepping out onto a street for days on end—and while one of my tough-love strategies for overcoming the fear had been to start working as a teacher and traveling the world, it now became painfully clear that it was still there, still part of the baggage.

So now I was out of the nest all right, but once more I had completely forgotten how to fly. Learning how to travel again was beautiful, awful, and everything in between.

At times, I wondered for my sanity: stranded in a Chinese railway station trying to mime my way to a destination I couldn’t pronounce, alone on the Tibetan grasslands with a monk (a rock wrapped in his long red robes in readiness for the wild dogs), up in the bitter winter of the Himalayas, trying to reconnect with a lover who no longer loved me.

This was life with a capital L, and it broke up all my expectations, over and over, until I could finally feel myself starting to open up and see that life had been there all along.

But then, just as I was beginning to fly again—the hard way of course, with broken wings and battered ego—it was time for home.

Here I was, in rural England, in the dark of winter, taking off my wings once again.

It was good to be back, but after the first few days of reconnection, I soon slipped back into avoidance and the usual grievances of “why people hadn’t changed” (ignoring, of course, that I was still in part the spoiled adolescent who had left so many years before).

It wasn’t that the nest was uncomfortable; after all I had witnessed in Asia, the ease of life at home was a daily miracle, and I was grateful for the chance to rest.

It was more that being back brought up those old fears and doubts about self-worth, ability, and the world outside my window that threatened to keep me there much longer than was necessary.

My parents are not the sort to push me out—quite the opposite—but this is perhaps part of the issue. Their acceptance of me is something I still can’t seem to provide for myself.

I feel lucky to have their support and love, but part of the reason I had journeyed for so long was in an attempt to find out how I could be with myself, how to leave the safe space of home, test my wings, and see where they could take me.

Coming back, it was clear I still hadn’t learned this real sense of independence, part of me eager to crawl under the covers and hibernate, part of me angry that this was still what I wanted to do.

So, as the New Year beckoned, it couldn’t be a question of waiting to be thrown from the nest, but more of throwing myself out once again, not knowing yet if my wings would have regrown in time, not yet sure where it was I even wanted to go.

In times like these, when everything seems suddenly in doubt—from fiscal cliffs to global power shifts and unemployment—none of us can afford to wait for certainty.

To be alive, then, to be fully awake, is perhaps to keep throwing yourself from the nest (if life doesn’t do it for you first), not in some suicidal dive to the bottom, but in the faith that you will always remember how to fly if you trust in yourself that much.

Looking back over all the radical transitions between cultures and countries, some ideas emerge that I hope will help with whatever comes next:

You will never be ready.

My whole life, I have had the tendency to postpone. How can I love until I’m 100% loveable? How can I get the job until I have all the qualifications in the world? But thankfully, travel doesn’t allow this luxury.

Again and again, I had to get up, catch the train at dawn, thumb down the car when the bus had broken, keep turning up when I wanted to hide. We can all do this, every day. And more often than not, we’ll find that it was never a question of being “ready,” but simply of being present to however things are.

Let go.

Let go of your grip onto what you think is permanent. Let go of your fear that there is nothing better out there. Let go of the people you’ve been holding too tightly in the dread of being alone.

Hold on.

Let go, but don’t give up. I have run away from people and places many times, wiping them from memory in an attempt to manufacture a fresh start. Instead, what I was doing was giving up on myself: I wasn’t enough to make people happy. I wasn’t able to make the place work.

Often, when you run away from something, you risk confirming your own lack of faith in yourself and others. The “nest” isn’t necessarily a place; it’s more a state of mind, and so sometimes staying with what is difficultin yourself or others—is the hardest journey of all.

Be kind to yourself when you fall.

Flying is a difficult skill. Give yourself credit for even trying. Most people spend their life in the nest, choosing to ignore their wings until they wither and drop off. If you have had the courage to leap, even once, celebrate that.

Whether you soared or plummeted doesn’t matter. You tried, and there is always a next time. There has to be. That’s the nature of life.

Photo by X0f711

About Clare Blackburne

Clare is an English teacher, writer, and world-traveler who has spent the last six years wandering her way through Asia in search of happiness, short cuts to spiritual enlightenment and the perfect pot of masala chai. 

See a typo, an inaccuracy, or something offensive? Please contact us so we can fix it!
  • jo

    Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing.

  • AJ

    Loved your article Clare! Read it over and over again. 🙂

  • I can relate to so much of your beautifully written message. I have spent a year teaching in Moscow and a year in Colombia, and now I am about to leave home yet again after five months for a year-long round the world trip. I’ve asked myself the same questions you have about why I keep running away, about why I can’t seem to blossom out of the insecure, awkward teenager I used to be.

    It’s finally dawning on me that there is no “perfect place” for me – that perhaps it’s not about searching the world for something but rather about learning how to be more present, more patient, more open, and more resilient. I’ve always been hyper-sensitive to rejection and my reaction is always to run as far away as possible, as if I am proving to the rejector that I don’t need them as much as they don’t need me.

    But you are right that trying is better than nothing, and the search for self-awareness is valuable in its own right, and is much more than many people do in their time on earth. And with every fall comes lessons, and blessings, and new friends and new knowledge. And there’s always next time.

  • Beth

    Great article…though sometimes the problem we face is learning to be independent and use our wings within the nest.

  • Clare

    Thanks Erica – really glad it resonated with you. And what you say about hyper-sensitivity/rejection is so true! Hope you have an amazing trip – here’s to being free spirits!

  • Clare

    Thanks AJ! Really pleased that you liked it.

  • Clare

    You’re welcome, Jo! Thanks for the positivity.

  • Clare

    Definitely! Sometimes staying put is the trickiest bit – am still working on that one 🙂

  • Space

    Thanks for your article, Clare. It spoke to me on two levels. I too will return home soon after a long time overseas and I too suffer from social phobias and like to hide. Thanks again.

  • Clare

    Good luck for the transition. Yes, sometimes it feels like an oxymoron – ‘socially-anxious traveller’ – but it can be done! And maybe sometimes hiding is just the right thing to do for a while, til we feel ready to take it all on again. Hope it goes well.

  • Johanna_Galt

    Awesome tips at the end. Wise, simple and easy to remember. Not easy to DO, but definitely a great starting point. I’ve been “waiting until I’m ready,” for quite some time, sitting in my cozy yet stifling nest, afraid to let go, when really I just need to throw caution to the wind and stretch my wings, regardless of the outcome. Thanks for the encouragement.

  • Kylie

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. Not only do I admire your bravery in doing so, I found so much comfort in your story having recently arrived “home” after 5 years living and traveling abroad. The initial high and feelings of growth had slowly been tampered with feelings of old patterns re-emerging. Luckily, they are fluid feelings and not fact and through meditation and articles like yours on tinybuddha I’ve come to realise these feelings are normal and will pass. In the meantime I seek humour for my lack of patience 🙂 Thanks again and all the best!

  • Clare

    Really nice to get your feedback, Kylie! It’s strange to feel myself going through all the different phases, especially since I’m due to leave again at the end of the month. As you say, it’s all fluid – and I really agree with you: the days I laugh about it are the easier days to deal with 🙂 Take care!

  • Clare

    You’re so welcome! Yeah, definitely easier to write than to do, but it’s good to keep reminding ourselves of what we secretly already know 🙂 – I can totally empathize with that ‘waiting’ feeling – sometimes you just have to leap and hope for the best! Good luck!

  • Jim

    extraordinary open and honest. i believe you learn that from traveling in asia. i could relate so deeply to so much of what you said that you have truly touched me. thank you for your courage and insightfulness.

    i am in chiang mai, thailand for the second time in 6 months, having gone home to the US for the holidays. i am again lonely often and totally amazed at being here. sharing experiences with some of the best of new friends then hiding at my computer screen for hours. glad to be here again but often still miss being close to family, the same people i just got done battling with over the holidays. clarity is nowhere in site but learning to live with the chaos of constant change seems to be the most critical and important of all skills.

    best regards,

  • Rach

    All this while, I have been thinking that I should never deserve a man who will love me unconditionally and a happy family if I am not ready, not whole, not complete. And whenever I think I’m ready, going back to the comfort of my home makes me doubt myself again. Perhaps you are right, I will never be ready… I can relate so much to what you have written. Thank you for writing this…

  • Clare

    Thank you, Jim. Means a lot to get this kind of feedback. Yes – there’s this funny contradiction between wanting to be home and wanting to escape, and all the time learning to cope with the impermanence of everything! In the meantime, Chiang Mai is lovely – hope you find some peaceful times there and best of luck with all the changes.

  • Clare

    You’re very welcome – am just glad that it resonated with you. Here’s to beginning here and now – ready or not!

  • lv2terp

    Beautiful!!! Thank you for sharing and being vulnerable! Wonderful wisdom and tips! 🙂

  • Guest

    Jim, i was just in chiang mai and fantasize about living there part time. Both you and Clare brought up the loneliness…i don’t have much where I am now, so figured i could “reinvent” my life there with purpose and passion with the textile arts and the forest monasteries. I’m reminded, of course, “wherever you go, there you are” so I am currently facing the demons that hold me back from what I truly want – community, friends, love, connection, contentment.

  • As I sit in my 14th floor Chinese apartment, in the midst of all the cold winter spring festivities, I could be forgiven for thinking I had somehow written this article myself in some lost consciousness somewhere within my last 5 years of living in this country. Brilliantly written! Absolutely!

  • Free2decide

    Amazing! So poetically written! It completely captures the essence of my feeling about my very parallel experience of traveling for 4 years. I also really like the connection you made between being plunged into the unknown while traveling–ready or not–and learning that it isn’t a matter of being ready in life, but being”present to however things are”. Thanks for the post!

  • Sas

    Wow Clare, this really reasonates with me.
    Even if I’ve lived in one place for awhile, it’s always felt temporary, a stop where I can always up and move on, and as such I don’t have to invest too much. That feeling of temporary, nothing to lose as little is invested, is my nest.
    About a year and a half ago, Life decided to test me in a really really big way, and made me realise all I want now is to put down roots in a community and really LIVE on this earth.
    I’ve actually lost my appetite for travel as such. I just want to build something of my own. But it’s really hard, it goes against everything I ever thought I wanted and I don’t know where to start, or whether I will ever succeed (baby steps forward is my mantra, as is ‘life is not a race’, as I look at all the other around me who started building 10 years ago)
    I’m making changes, and seeing results, but also regularly find myself retreating into my old patterns, hiding away as you describe, and feeling like I’m at square one.
    But I can’t go back, I have to keep going because this time hiding away feels wrong, as much as I want to do it.
    (today is a day it has been particularly hard, apologies for the low nature of my post)

  • Clare

    Thanks for your words, Sas. I definitely have these kind of days – and am still really torn between restlessness and roots. One thing that has helped me is remembering that everything really IS impermanent. Travel makes this literal, but things we think of as ‘stable’ are often just as unpredictable. I think when I resist this (and try to find some refuge from change by hiding away) – is precisely when I get into trouble! Embracing the flow in all its forms is probably the best way to go 🙂 Thanks for reminding me about baby steps, too. Wishing you the very best with it.

  • Clare

    Thank you – really glad it struck a chord.

  • Clare

    ‘cold winter spring festivities’ – just the romance of this phrase is enough to make me embrace travel again, in all its bitter-sweetness! thanks for your words.

  • Clare

    Thanks – happy to know it resonates!

  • Mohammed Mozart

    I have in my town a girl and a job. The job brings no money and my girl hates me. I took a timeout for three days starting on valentines day lol. You say it is the hardest journey to stay – would it not better to leave and come back instead hanging around here. I could return every second weekend, so then I would stay wouldn’t I ? Just working somewhere else out of the nest

  • i loved this post so much and can so relate to it. i have traveled and moved around so much in the past 5 years (also spent almost a year in asia). i am ‘home’ now and terribly restless and a feeling of not being able to ‘connect’ with ‘real life’. i really want to build up a more permanent life, yet this scares the hell out of me. i keep on looking for ways to escape but every time i tell myself ‘this will be worth it’. i hope so.

  • Lynsey Dana

    Resonates deeply with me as I spent 2012 spreading my wings and travelling throughout Canada. I left the nest and experienced things that I’m so grateful for today, met amazing people on my journeys. People home crucified me for my actions but I always knew I needed to fly to learn myself. I felt trapped being at home, like I was missing out on life. I knew I wasn’t running away but running towards something. Being away I was introduced to a business opportunity that gave me the answer to the question I had been asking the universe for months. I was 25 going through a quarter life crisis, didn’t know what to do with my life. I got my answer but now I’m back in the nest and I feel like I’m back at square one! Time to pack up and go back to the new city I discovered and grew to LOVE! But this time around I’m holding back on leaving because I’m afraid of failure, and that I’ll end up back in the nest again. Growing up is scary!

  • arunsinurg

    whom you was
    familiar and why you to leave?

  • arun

    whom you was
    familiar and why you to leave?