I am an anxious traveler who loves to travel. In the days before a trip, my imagination goes wild with all the ways it could kill me. There could be a car accident! Someone could break into our Airbnb! And, always, the old classic: The plane could crash! I’ve written about travel anxiety a lot, but one thing I’ve spent less time talking about is what I do during turbulence. Rationally, I know that a bumpy plane ride is like traveling over any stretch of road— there are inevitably going to be pot holes, dips, hills (and I live in Philly, so trust me when I say I know a lot about bad roads), none of which indicate that a crash is inevitable. But my anxiety is not rational, so even the tiniest, most mundane in-flight bumps and mechanical noises can send me into a spiral. But every time, no matter how panicked I get, I make myself do the same thing. I look at the flight attendants.
If they look unfazed, then I realize that I should be, too. I can come up with a lot of worst case scenarios (maybe all of them, if I’m being honest), but I still know that I know less about what’s normal during a flight and what’s not than people who do it every day. So when the flight attendants look calm, I decide that I can be calm, too.
The great thing about this coping method is that it works. And when you’re strapped to a seat in a metal tube that’s speeding through the sky, that is really all that matters. The bad thing is that I’ve come to realize that, for me, this habit isn’t exclusive to planes at all. In fact, it’s a knee-jerk reaction that’s present in most aspects of my life. I feel that same sweaty-palmed, unbalanced sense of dread creep in, that tiny seed of doubt, the voice that says something feels wrong so it must be wrong, and my head is on a swivel, scanning the room for someone else. For the person who knows more. For the person who’s cooler. Who’s smarter. Who’s more confident. Who’s better. Anyone who will hear me say, “Is this OK? Am I OK?” Anyone who isn’t me.
It’s why I second-guess major decisions, or (sometimes) can’t make them at all. It’s why I will ask, “Does this look OK?” before leaving the house, even when I love how I look. It’s why I have the constant, gnawing compulsion to explain myself to others — to strangers. I think: If I could just get them to understand this one thing better, then they would get it. They would approve of me. And it’s certainly part of why when others don’t approve of me — a choice, an outfit, an essay — that that knowledge sinks down into the center of me and stays.
I had an experience a few weeks ago where I created something I loved, a thing I was proud of. I felt happy. And still, even then, there was a part of me that did the very same thing. I saw myself from the outside. Saw my head turning from side to side, searching for someone who would tell me that even that pride was OK. That it was warranted. That I deserved it. I imagined myself on a plane again, desperately looking for a flight attendant to signal to me that all was well. I imagined myself finding no one at all but me.
I figured I’d feel panicked. Nervous. Scared. And, at first, I was. I believed that if I took away all of the outside approval and validation and assurance that I’d be left with nothing but my worst fears, a series of worst case scenarios come to life. Instead, I found myself surrounded by the only knowledge that really matters — the things that no one in the world, no matter how qualified or smart, could ever prove otherwise to you. Things like: I like myself. Things like: I know my values. Things like: I’m a good person.
It doesn’t mean I’m perfect. It doesn’t mean that I don’t make mistakes. It will never change the fact that it is hard and exhausting and painful to exist in a world where most things you do can so easily be picked apart by anyone or everyone. But what it does mean is that for the first time in a long time, or if you’re me, then maybe for the first time ever, you take a deep breath, lean back in your seat, and start to trust yourself.
This essay originally appeared in my weekly email newsletter, which you can subscribe to here. Almost every week, I share a mini essay in my newsletter, as well as some updates on what’s new with me, products I’m loving, and more.