Despite knowing better, I looked.
I was swimming out in open water. Open, tropical water. Open, murky, tropical ocean water. Don’t look down, I told myself. Nothing to see.
The “nothing to see” part was the problem, it turned out. I looked down, and realized it was so murky that I was completely blind to anything below me. It didn’t help that suddenly the water temperature changed by my feet.
Never mind that it was probably a random pocket of warmth from algae or a warm current from something else. Those kinds of rational thoughts tend to give way before the overwhelming panic that something is underneath you and you are about to be bitten or dragged to a premature, watery grave.
What makes it worse is when you feel something graze your leg.
My stomach is still lying at the bottom of the ocean where it dropped that day. I was already swimming rather quickly. At that moment, it became a manic, flailing sprint, which is also the worst thing you can do. Experts will tell you that erratic, splashing movements come across as a sick or injured animal…perfect for those looking for their next meal.
I was dead in the water, and I knew it.
“Don’t look down” is simultaneously the best and worst advice. The wisdom behind the words is great; the immediate aftermath is not so great. It is the perfect example of how fast our mind can work. One moment you hear it–the next you already asked yourself at the speed of brain “Why? What is beneath me that is so bad I shouldn’t see it?” and looked. I guess it’s the same reptilian brain speed that saved us all these years from the spider or predator or gaping hole we managed to avoid just in time.
There comes a point in every person’s life where you find yourself way out of your depth, forced to tackle the unknown or the scary. Frankly, it’s typically the unknown that really triggers the fear. Your reptilian brain will take that unknown and play all kinds of tricks in the name of your supposed survival.
Oddly enough, these stomach-dropping moments are something I deal with almost every day. People come in to see me after experiencing these moments. The weird thing (to them) is the moment they “looked down”. It wasn’t on the sheer face of a cliff. It wasn’t halfway across a rickety rope bridge over a raging river. It wasn’t before the drop of the Incredicoaster in Disney California Adventure. It wasn’t with a mouse, in a house, in a box, or with a fox, Sam-I-Am.
It probably happened while staring at a piece of paper, sitting in a chair on a typical day in their home. It might have happened while they were reclining on the couch with their phone, logging into their 401(k) account or loan summary or stock account or TurboTax or mom’s bank account.
Despite the perfectly ordinary, mundane, everyday setting, their stomach dropped. They looked down.
The reptilian brain does its thing, except there is no bear to run from, no shark lurking beneath their feet, and no cliff to scale with a burst of energy. With nothing to run or hide from, the adrenaline and cortisol roams aimlessly and manifests as a slow burn culminating in a sleepless night. Eventually, part of their logical mind prevails, and they reach out to me for help.
To be fair, it’s happened to me. Not too long ago, I was working on a spreadsheet detailing the loan I was taking on to buy a business. Despite it being perfectly in my wheelhouse, having navigated clients through exactly this many times, there was a brief moment where my stomach dropped. All those extra zeros must have looked an awful lot like the eyes of a shark to my reptile brain.
From a logical perspective, I knew it was perfectly doable and reasonable. Yet even with a precisely laid out plan, my stomach still decided to drop and for a moment I was back out in the water, flailing around as Jaws circled around for a final pass on his appetizer.
Fortunately, I had a plan. The plan brought me back to center, pulled me out of the water, and helped me stay the course.
This is what our clients come for; there are big life moments that trigger financial uncertainties and fear. Between the plans we create and the conversations we have, we can keep our well-intentioned reptile brains from running us off a financial ledge or panicking in open water. When you are afraid to retire because you worry about having enough, we can make sure you will have enough income and give you the confidence to move forward rather than allowing fear to hold you back.
When the market inevitably has its downs, we can avoid acting on our fear and selling. When that unexpected pregnancy means you have another child on the way, or you have most of your net worth wrapped up in your company stock, or your dad passes away, we can help create a plan that will help make life boring again.
In case you were wondering what happened that day in the Caribbean Ocean, I made it to shore intact. There was no shark. The thing that grazed my leg was my imagination (I swear to this day my imagination has sand-papery skin). After making it ashore, somewhere between a third and a half a mile later, my adrenaline gave out and I collapsed on the sand like a shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe meets Tom Cruise in Castaway.
You don’t realize how exhausting it is to walk (or swim) around carrying that stress until it comes off your shoulders. It is a welcome relief to know the shark is going hungry today.