I was happily walking from my car toward a meeting when it happened: the flinch.
All it took was a tap on my arm. A friendly tap. By someone I knew well.
But suddenly, just for a split second, I recoiled. Fear flashed across my face.
“Barb, sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you,” my friend apologized.
“Don’t be silly,” I replied politely, embarrassed. “I was just off in my own world.”
What had pulled my mind so far away I do not remember. Possibly something profound I was writing about. More likely what I needed to pick up at the grocery store later or a song stuck in my head. It doesn’t take much when I’m walking by myself.
Usually I adjust easily from solitary to social reality. But sometimes it’s like walking from total darkness into the bright light. That makes me flinch too, especially if it’s a surprise.
This week I read The Flinch, a quick, intriguing Kindle free book by Julien Smith. He points out that boxers automatically flinch when their opponent goes to punch them.The opponent takes advantage of the flinch. They get hurt.
So Julien’s point is to get over the flinch, to overcome the fears that are holding you back. This makes sense. We all need to get over the fears behind our flight-or-fight instincts. But I think Julien should have written more about flinching and the unexpected and flinches that don’t involve fear. So I will.
I’ll bet the boxer flinches more when the hit is a surprise. I didn’t recoil because I thought the friend was going to hurt me. I flinched because I was startled.
Sure, my flinch may have been programmed by caveman instincts. But does he really expect me to overcome millions of years of evolution with practice and a positive attitude? He reminds me of my Dale Carnegie father insisting my dementing mother would be happier if only she worked on a positive attitude, when the sadness comes from a malfunctioning brain she cannot control.
To overcome the flinch Julien suggests some exercises, including turning on the cold water in the shower. But if I turned on the cold water, I would know it was coming, thereby reducing the flinch.
Similarly, I flinch when I dive into a lake. But because I’ve done it so many times, the flinch is less than it would be if I were diving into a pool expecting warm water. Also I know that my body will adjust quicker if I swim quickly instead of being paralysed by the flinch.
Many people flinch at the sight of blood or poop. Yet, years of menstruating and changing diapers reduced those flinches for me.
But I’ll bet if I suddenly came across a serious traffic accident or other carnage, my flinch would be more than the tingle of revulsion and muscles tightening. I would probably throw up.
Although I’m not a picky eater, lima beans make me flinch. If I meet one disguised in a casserole, I gag. But it’s easier to go through life avoiding lima beans than it is to overcome the flinch by forcing myself to eat them. My lima bean flinch is about texture, not fear.
Some people are so sensitive that they flinch at almost any surprise. Think of the occasional person who detests surprise parties. Think of the few babies who don’t laugh at peek-a-boo. In contrast, think of the thrill seekers who thrive on the unexpected, the surfer who is more elated than afraid when he spots the towering wave.
Like most discussions of human behavior, we are back at nature versus nurture. Which of your flinches is difficult or impossible to change? Where can strength be built to counter the flinch?
I agree with Julien that we have to overcome our fears if we are to grow as human beings. From ditching drugs to writing my book, I have overcome many fears. And I’m working on more.
But I’m focusing on the fears I want to, and can, identify and overcome, not the unexpected and the unknown that anchor my flinch.
I am afraid of driving on expressways in rush hour, but I force myself so I’ll be calmer and more adept. Practice has reduced my fear but it has not affected the flinch when the car I didn’t see suddenly pushes into my lane or a giant truck materializes from the mist.
I try to prepare my children for the world with values, education and confidence. But I worry about the unexpected. Even though I fear for his future, I don’t flinch when the robo-call principal calls to tell me my son has skipped a class, because that’s routine. I would flinch, heart pounding madly, if I got a call about him from the hospital or police.
I’m not going to stop flinching when the unexpected happens, whether it’s a tap on my shoulder, a cold lake, a lima bean, the hot rod from nowhere or the phone ringing in the middle of the night.
But I will chat pleasantly, swim fast, gulp quickly, step on the gas and take a deep breath while I wait for the caller to tell me what’s happened.