Why I know You’re Not as Fragile as You Think

I was recently scuba diving in the Philippines and while 60 ft deep my BDC (vest that can inflate/deflate with air) started to self-inflate and I was shooting up to the surface way more quickly than was safe. I employed all the safety measures I knew but my vest kept inflating and I had no idea why. I looked at my air supply and it had dropped to half in under 5 minutes from when I last checked. I searched for the dive master and he saw me signaling to him that I had a problem.

He came over and discovered the self-inflation issue and rapidly deflated by BCD as we slowly went up to the surface. Then my regulator was being weird and I couldn’t draw a smooth breath of air. To boot, I have a history of exercise-induced asthma and my lungs did not like this feeling.

I could have easily panicked. In fact, I visualized the drama that would ensue if I freaked out and ended up going unconscious or something.

Not an option.

So I told myself, “Ana, get your shit together. Now is not the time to freak the fuck out. You need to stay calm so you don’t have a panic attack down here.” Oh and did I have sooooo many reasons to panic. Real reasons. Not like a bullshit email from a boss or a voicemail I’m nervous to listen to. I was literally running out of air and my gear was all messed up.

I slowed my breath. Made sure my BCD was constantly being deflated. I reassumed myself that while my air supply had dropped, I had backups – I could draw on my dive master’s tank or my husband’s if I had to. I heard a hissing sound behind me which signaled another leak which I could have spiraled on about but I knew I was already heading up and would be OK.

I reminded myself that freaking out would help no one, and certainly NOT the current situation. I reminded myself I had a choice. That despite feeing dizzy and short of breath, I did not have to freak out. I needed to stay calm, and if I did pass out, at least I did everything I could to not contribute to it.

It all turned out fine

Aside from being reminded why it’s always a good idea to bring your own BCD to dive (especially in in developing countries), I learned a few things about my character. I often reframe super challenging situations as “final exams” for the work I do with managing my mind and emotions. This was no exception. My husband is really really good at this too, and it helps when I start to spiral.

Once in the boat, I whined to him how it was super annoying because I couldn’t relax and this was supposed to be our “date” for this vacation since my cousin was watching our kiddo, Maia. He says, “Yeah, I’m sorry that happened. But any experience – even one like this – is good to have, because you know more now.”

“Well shit,” I thought, “I guess that is why I married you! You remind me of my best self!” You see, he was filling in for a voice that I have heard before from within me – my voice of resilience and antifragility.

I learned about the concept of antifragility recently and it resonated with me so much that I had to share it with you since it’s totally related to resilience. Something – or someone – that’s antifragile increases its capability to thrive as a result of stressors, shocks, setbacks, mistakes, attacks, or failures.

It increases in capability the more it fails.

Sort of like learning to walk. The more you fall, the stronger you get. You HAVE to fall to get good at walking. It’s part of the deal. The more you fall, the better you get at it. When it comes to this, we are antifragile. We don’t say “Oh no! Don’t fall! That’s not supposed to happen!” We know that’s part of the learning. Same with riding a bike. At first, you fall more than you ride the bike. While related, this concept is different from being resilient or robust. Not only can you stand up to things, but they make you stronger.

A great example of this is something I learned while geeking out on my first Master’s degree at UC San Francisco. I was on my ortho rotation and learned that bones heal stronger after a fracture than they were prior to the injury.

Another analogy is going to the gym. Your muscles are antifragile. The more stress you build up on them, the stronger they get. Instead of viewing challenges or failures as something to protect ourselves from, the anti-fragile see these “problems” as opportunities for growth. A chance to test themselves and push themselves to new heights.

When we label ourselves as being “sensitive,” we can indeed do that in a way that’s compassionate, especially when you go through something that seems vulnerable to your mind. But when you use it in a way that leads us to be overly hurt/offended in the world, we don’t take risks since we are always trying to protect ourselves. This makes us weaker because we avoid the failure, the embarrassment, the mistakes. We don’t expose ourselves to challenges. So we don’t grow. Many of us stop at “robust.” At “strong enough.” We are happy just surviving it.

This is related to the concept of post-traumatic growth. Many people survive a trauma and become stronger not in spite of it but because of it.

Take resilience to the next level. Consider adding this to your collection of characteristics. That you are anti-fragile. You can use challenges, failures, mistake and stressors to make yourself stronger. You will use the things in life that challenge you as free weights.

You’ll say “bring it on!” Bring on the weights. The exercise. Remember how I teach that life is 50/50? You can use the other half – the half that is more challenging – to buff out emotionally;)

In Buddhism there is the concept of the “god realm” where people live eons in perfect bliss. Excellent food, beautiful surroundings, perfect bodies and great sex. The monk that taught me the concept of the god realm followed this description with, “Kind of like California!”

It all sounds great until the goddesses and gods notice the first petal of a rose starting to wilt. The they notice the foul smell of stagnant water. And because they have lived life without any suffering, when they realize it won’t last forever – that everything is impermanent – their suffering is more extreme because of it.