Stepping Out of Fear

Social Anxiety Help

Larry Cohen, LICSW

Stepping Out of Fear

by Vickie Milazzo

(This is an essay for the series This I Believe, which aired on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered on September 4 , 2006. Vickie Milazzo worked as a critical care nurse before pioneering the field of legal nurse consultants in the early 1980s. She is the author of Inside Every Woman: Using the 10 Strengths You Didn’t Know You Had to Get the Career and Life You Want Now.)

I believe in stepping out. I learned this from living in fear.

As a child, I was afraid of everything: escalators, heights and New Orleans cockroaches the size of pralines. At the age of 8 I even became afraid of getting Halloween candy.

Normally on October 31, my twin brother and I would step out of our shotgun house and rush to every home within a three-block radius. Most of the houses were only a step or two off the ground. Easy.

That year, when we approached one of the bigger houses — a house known to have the best candy but with 10 tall cement steps leading to the front door — my fear of heights stopped me cold. My brother was already up the stairs, while I stood frozen at the bottom.

I told myself I might stumble in the dark and drop my bag of treats. I might crash to the concrete below. I might tear my homemade fairy costume. I wanted the candy, but there was no way I was going up those stairs to get it.

I lost more than candy. I lost my confidence.

The fear of stepping out took me along the safe, no-risk route through high school, nursing school and into a secure hospital job. After six years in nursing, unsatisfied with the career choice I had made, I woke up to a different kind of fear: The fear of becoming like the other no-risk nurses — tired, burned out and old before their time. I faced a decision: Step out into the unknown or spend the rest of my life at the bottom of those steps, never tasting the best candy.

I wanted to start a consulting business advising attorneys on medical-related cases. I settled for reading business books instead. Then I thought back to the worst thing that ever happened to me: my mom dying at age 48 of breast cancer. Compared with that, how bad could a business failure be?

So, with only $100 in my savings account, I called my first attorney to offer my services as a legal nurse consultant. To my horror he answered the phone. About to hang up, I thought: If he was wearing a hospital gown with his backside showing, I would have no problem introducing myself. I sputtered out something unintelligible, and he became my first client.

Climbing the stairs of business hasn’t been easy. Once I lost my biggest client. The old fears returned, but I’d tasted the candy, and the memory of my mom put me right back on those stairs.

Success is not about the achievement. Every time I step out into the unknown, win or lose, I succeed. I might break a leg or invest in a losing business idea, but I won’t end up at my 90th birthday with nothing more than stale white cake and regrets. Bad things can happen when we step out, but I believe worse things happen to our souls when we don’t.

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If you have any questions or comments, please email Larry Cohen, LICSW, with offices in Washington, DC.

Social Anxiety Help is a founding regional clinic of the National Social Anxiety Center (NSAC):