What I Learned From Stepping Out of My Comfort Zone (and Getting Back on the Horse)
I think every teenage girl harbors a fear that one day, she will realize that everyone is talking about her without her knowledge. It’s a fear of being out of control, of not knowing the way you are viewed by others. It’s a fear of being excluded from your own life. When I headed to the FEIF Youth Cup, this fear made an appearance yet again, convincing me that the best course of action would be to stay quiet, keep a low profile, and limit my communication to my small group of friends.
Some background: This past July, I had the opportunity to represent the USA at the FEIF Youth Cup, an international competition for Icelandic horse riders age fourteen to seventeen. The riders come from across Europe as well as the United States. Every rider is required to be proficient in English, so as a result, there are about seven monolingual participants and seventy multilingual participants. When I first arrived at the Youth Cup, I could not shake the feeling that when a group of girls burst into a fast-paced Danish/Dutch/Icelandic conversation, they were criticizing my ride from earlier that day or talking about one of my many embarrassing falls.
I’d attended the Youth Cup two years prior, and my main regret from that experience was letting my fear of speaking up keep me from building long-lasting relationships. A few days into the Cup, we were divided into international competition teams, composed of strangers from other countries with whom we compete for the best all-around team score. So, when we were first divided into these teams, I decided to speak up and get to know the other girls.
I immediately hit it off with one of the girls on the Belgian team, Joyce. Joyce is one of the only people I’ve ever met who cares very little about what others say about her. While I tried to be cautious and calm while first communicating with my team, Joyce came off as unapologetically independent. Within days, she ditched the formalities that come with talking to someone you just met. Instead, she replaced them with genuine questions about the political state of the U.S. and my personal beliefs.
Over the course of the week, Joyce and I discussed Donald Trump, LGBT+ rights, Brexit, and more. She picked my brain for the real opinions of a Californian teenager, and I got a firsthand account of how “the rest of the world” was looking in on U.S. politics. In other conversations, Joyce educated me on Dutch culture, ordering me Kaassouffle between our rides and teaching me how to thank the woman who served our meals every day. She was willing to answer any and all of my questions, and she only occasionally laughed at my pronunciation.
Through every conversation, I learned the value of communication, of conversations where both parties are unafraid to ask questions for the purpose of learning more. I witnessed the power of thanking someone in their native language, and in doing so realized the value of learning new languages. I discovered the importance of being an international citizen right now, when there are so many questions about the present and the future of our nation. I learned how to admit the shortcomings of my country while simultaneously carrying my flag with pride. Most of all, I learned to never let the fear of people talking about me keep me from speaking up in the first place. Instead, I learned to embrace it, because I never know when it will result in a good conversation and a great friendship.
In reality, it’s unlikely that I will ever get over my fear of people talking about me, and the talking is not going to stop anytime soon. There will be times when I am overwhelmed, when I’m confused, and when I can’t shake my self-preservation instinct to isolate myself and shut down. My journey to self-confidence has been a long one, and it wasn’t solved within a week. However, that week taught me that, as cliché as it is, the benefits of speaking out often outweigh the safety of staying invisible. Now, whenever I’m teetering on the edge of my comfort zone and my nerves tell me to take a step back, I think about Joyce, and Astrid, and all the other relationships I built at the Youth Cup. As much as speaking out might intimidate me, I’ve witnessed the possibilities of friendship and conversation that come with it. I don’t want to be afraid, and I don’t want my fear to hold me back. Maybe one day I’ll reach Joyce’s level of self-assurance; until then, I’ll lean on my experience to motivate me out of my fear. I am getting better, and that’s the best thing I can do.
By Jessica Blough, 17