Lessons Learned in Trapeze School: Just Jump!

Written by Reid Wilson, PhD


Detach from dysfunctional points of view and leap into action

Your first time flying can be a terrifying experience. They don’t put that in the brochure.

Before signing up for an introductory Flying Trapeze lesson, you’ll probably want to scan the company’s website to verify their credibility and seek out clues to help manage your expectations. At the first lesson, participants receive a brief instructional and then accomplish (or attempt to accomplish) two swings, a knee hang, and something called a “catch.” Naturally, you get stuck on the word “catch.” You scroll down, trying to decipher its meaning. There, beneath the description, is a photograph of a woman gripping the wrists of an instructor in midair, her face conveying a flurry of emotions. And then the caption:


Of course, these instructors are pros and they’re accustomed to first-time flyers such as yourself. After you arrive and sign their ironclad Liability Waiver, they go through the safety procedures and familiarize you with the equipment. They show you the cables, explain how the double-spotting system works, keep you clipped in on the platform, and direct your attention to the giant safety net that is beneath you at all times. Before you know it, you’re 23 feet above ground, moments away from leaping to your death.

(Okay, not really).

You’re prepared for the exercise: you’ve got chalk on your hands, a harness snug around your waist, and cables clipped on. You’re warmed up and aware of the protocol: step up to the edge of the platform, grip the bar with one hand, grip it with the other hand, bend your knees, breathe… and jump. “There may be one moment of fear just as you commit your body to the task,” they say. “Once you’re off the platform, it’s all bliss.”

You’re not too certain about the “it’s all bliss” premise and “one moment of fear” might be conservative. But you’ve given yourself the very reasonable goal of getting off the waiting platform, which you will accomplish by following their precise steps:

  • Before you step into the action, you make a decision to act. 
  • Then, you choose to act. 
  • You swing into action. You DON’T allow yourself to rethink the whole decision. Although it’s natural for part of you to question your decision to act, you pay no attention to that part. Instead, you step out of your comfort zone and into the action. You jump.

You will feel afraid, especially just before you step out. So, expect that, accept that, and do the best you can to keep moving.

Anxiety needs you to feel intimidated and then respond by backing away. Anxiety needs you to step off the platform, climb back down the ladder, and opt not to participate. Therefore, your job is to feel intimidated and step forward into the action anyway. Step forward while you feel intimidated. As you step into the challenge, you can allow yourself to doubt that you have enough skills and yet act as though you have enough skills.

Let go of your comfort and swing out into that doubt, awkwardness, insecurity, and distress with as much determination as you can muster. By the second (proverbial) swing, step up to that platform more aggressively, accepting the idea and sensation of discomfort. Eventually, you will work toward a “no lines” swing, i.e. one without safety cables. The more you practice, the more prepared you’ll be to peel off those safety crutches, unclip those harnesses, and just take flight. 

Your most powerful first tactic is to detach from your fearful, protective stance. No arguing in your head. If you stay attached to your noisy worries, then you will find yourself arguing back and forth between two equally strong positions.

“Don’t do this!” 

“Let go.”

Swinging into a neutral position can be frightening because well…you’re in neutral! You aren’t holding on to your old point of view and you haven’t yet grabbed your new viewpoint. In trapeze school, that’s what’s involved in a catch. Your job is to let go of the bar, experience the split-second floating in midair, then grab on to the instructor’s wrists. You will have the urge to swing back to the comfort of certainty. You won’t be alone in this urge because we all know it. Who in the world wants to feel a sense of detachment…except those who want to grow stronger in their skills, of course.

Points of view to detach from:

  • being sure everything’s okay
  • getting back to feeling comfortable
  • treating all fearful thoughts seriously
  • staying safe
  • feeling confident before acting

Detaching from these dysfunctional points of view will enable you to grab on to the mindset of strength. Learn to detach. Practice detaching again and again. Because then you can swing unencumbered to a higher level of abstraction, away from specific thoughts about your specific event and over to the paradoxical stance of wanting whatever you are afraid of.

Think of it as a three-step process:

  1. Step back and notice your unhelpful point of view, expressed in self-talk and backing-away actions, and let go of it (which will definitely scare you). 
  2. While maintaining your sense of detachment, grab on to a more courageous mindset of “I want this.” 
  3. Now that you have detached from your old stance and grabbed on to that “I want this” mindset, step forward into your threat.

Adapted from Stopping the Noise in Your Head: The New Way to Overcome Anxiety and Worry, HCI Books, 2016. 

About the Author

Dr. Reid Wilson

REID WILSON, Ph.D. has spent his entire 30-year career in the field of self-help for
anxiety disorders and OCD. He is Director of the Anxiety Disorders Treatment Center and is an international expert in the treatment of anxiety disorders, with books translated into nine languages. In 2014 he was honored with the highest award given by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, and he was presented the 2019 Service Award by the International OCD Foundation. 

To learn more about Dr. Wilson, click here.

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