In Spanish the word Embarazada does NOT mean what you think it means. When I first started learning Spanish, I tried to explain to people that I was embarrassed when I spoke Spanish. Turns out that I was telling them that I was pregnant… when I spoke Spanish. Probably not the best way to encourage people to speak to me! It may have been those early experiences or just my fear of looking stupid that meant that I never really progressed past the basics of the language. But I never realised how much that fear held me back from making new connections.
As a reformed know-it-all I am mostly humble enough to know that I still have a lot to learn. But having always valued the idea of being smart, it’s kind of hard to let that go. For some reason I’ve always attached my identity and my self-worth to my intelligence and therefore my ego was always dependent on how intelligent other people thought I was. But the ego is driven by fear, and I’ve found that fear never gets you very far.
I have always loved travelling, and I’ve always wanted to speak Spanish fluently, but my fear of other people thinking that I am stupid has always held me back. When I was in my late 20’s I managed to get around South America with what I knew, but also relied quite heavily on my now hubby, whose first language is Spanish. Being back in Australia I lamented the fact I would never learn it because I just didn’t have an opportunity to speak it (I now realise what a lame excuse that was). However, we moved house a couple of years ago and I discovered that our neighbours were from Colombia. How perfect I thought, I can practice my Spanish and I’ll be fluent in no time! But every time I spotted my neighbours I became a total weirdo: I avoided them, I tried not to make eye contact or I just pretended I was ‘really busy’ to avoid having to speak to them for any conversation that progressed past ‘Hola’. What is wrong with me I thought?
It was more than a year and a half later, as a result of making it a comfort zone challenge, that I actually stopped avoiding my neighbours and started practicing my Spanish. Jorge is one of my neighbours. He moved to Australia with his wife and two boys from Colombia without knowing anyone – literally (and not in the Kim Kardashian type of literally). A pretty brave move I thought, especially considering how many excuses most people give for not moving from Bondi to Manly. What’s more none of them spoke any English, apart from the most basic of words picked up from American sitcoms.
I found out that Jorge works in the mornings and evenings and so has the middle of the day free. As I don’t work Mondays and Fridays I also have a few hours spare in the middle of the day while my daughter naps. So I decided that I needed to invite Jorge for a coffee and a Spanish/English chat. So that I wouldn’t talk myself out of it I walked straight over there. As I got closer to his door my heart beat harder and harder and I started getting really nervous – what if he speaks Spanish to me and I can’t understand him? What if he thinks I’m stupid? There was no rational reason why I should have been nervous, Jorge is a really sweet guy, but that’s the monkey brain for you!
After my ridiculous psychosomatic overreaction, Jorge wasn’t even home! Gutted. But I left a message with his wife and eventually we arranged a catch up. Jorge came over one Monday and I made him what was probably a pretty terrible coffee – I mean, is there any greater pressure than making coffee for a Colombian? And I’m a tea-drinker! Anyway, we started speaking in Spanish, and to my surprise the words actually came out quite easily (possibly because I had been practising certain phrases in my head for the past few days). There were definitely a few fumbled sentences and plenty of confused looks and clarifications, but for the most part I made myself understood and I understood Jorge. The more we chatted the more words I started remembering and the more easily things flowed. I learnt more about him and about Colombia. I had finally made a connection with my upstairs neighbour after living so close for almost two years. How ridiculous that it took me so long.
After speaking Spanish for a while we switched over to English so that Jorge could practice his English. Once again, with all the fear I had about how I would sound or how I would feel I forgot that one of the best reasons for me to be doing this was that it was important to Jorge that he improve his English skills. As it turns out Jorge’s level of English is around the same level as my Spanish, which made me think… I was not judging him for his level of English, why would he be judging my Spanish. Why would I think that not being able to speak another language would make me seem stupid anyway?
While there is a lot that can be drawn from this particular comfort zone challenge there are two main lessons that I have taken from it. Both come from reflecting on my avoidance behaviour prior to doing the challenge. I guess you could say that it’s a kind of procrastination, a way of avoiding feeling the discomfort of awkwardness, or the fear of looking stupid. I always thought of procrastination as a result of being lazy, of not wanting to do the hard work. But the only reason the ‘work’ is hard is because it forces you to face a fear. Cleaning the house instead of studying? What are you afraid of? Scrolling through Facebook instead of applying for that job? What are you afraid of? Sometimes I procrastinate when I’m meant to be writing a blog post – probably because of the fear that the words, the creativity, won’t come. The answer is there, you just have reflect and be open to hearing it.
The second realisation, which is tightly woven in with the first, was that if we let our fears control us then our behaviour closes us off from making connections. If I hadn’t pushed through my fear of looking stupid then I may to this day still be avoiding Jorge and his family and I would never have made the connection and learned more about him, his family and his culture. Humans so often fear the process of making a new connection, but in my experience a lack of connection with other people is a major driver of unhappiness.
Jorge and I have agreed to regular coffee dates so we can practice speaking our respective second languages. As a result I’m not only learning a new language but strengthening a new connection and learning so much more about myself as well.
Do you procrastinate? I’d love to hear how – and maybe even why, if you are open to sharing.
Hasta la vista,