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How facing my phobia in my 40s completely changed my life in an unexpected way

Writer Jennifer Barton faced her fears and discovered that stepping out of her comfort zone became a passion in itself

Young woman making honey© Sam Lake
September 5, 2023
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I know everyone is supposed to love nature, but for some of us, it’s more of an acquired taste. Especially when you’re originally from New York City like I am.

I wish I felt at home in pastures and meadows. Or that I’d learned to seek out solitude in the depths of a forest. Truthfully, I’m more comfortable in concrete jungles, serenaded by a symphony of honking cars and smog fumes.

Flowers make me sneeze, birdsong is not really my jam and I’m not exactly what you’d consider a fan of anything that buzzes or crawls. (Or spins webs to trap things that buzz or crawl.) I’m terrified of bugs. All of them – I don’t discriminate.

Young woman posing in a tweed blazer
Jennifer is not a fan of the great outdoors

Is this something I’ve inherited? Quite possibly: as a child, I remember my mother screaming and jumping at the sight of an ant or cockroach. Fast forward to the present day, and I’m basically a London-dwelling version of her, shrieking in the presence of any daddy long-legs, wasp or spider.

Maybe my aversion to insects comes from my body’s reaction to bites, which is fairly extreme. Mosquito bites used to swell so dramatically on my arms and legs when I was a teen that I still remember the bulbous, orange-sized lumps growing from my right thigh, the angry red bulges altering the shape of my left ankle. Not only were they demonically itchy and visually unappealing, the bites were so painful that they’d often limit my mobility for a time. (Not ideal, when you’re a dancer.)

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Now that I’m a grown-up (officially; I’m in my forties) and a mother-of-four, I’m tired of being afraid. Afraid of bugs. Afraid of lots of other things, too.

I’ve spent too long feeling like a passenger in my own life story, rather than the driver, and I’m done being my own worst enemy. I don’t want my fears and inhibitions to stop me from having new adventures and experiences.

Also: I really don’t want my four kids growing up with a parent who can’t face her fears. If I can’t be the brave one who does things I’m bad at, then how can I expect my children to confront their own anxieties?

I’ve been braver in a hundred different ways since I turned 40 last year. New piercings and visible tattoos. Forcing myself to drive – another phobia I’ve waited too long to confront. Actively committing to making time for things in my life that serve me, such as exercise and meditation. Cutting out things that don’t, including alcohol.

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The bravest thing I’ve done is apply for a challenge hosted by Eventbrite, which involved attending 30 different activities in London across 30 days in July. When I was selected, all of it seemed exciting, but scary, too.

I’d have to talk to new people daily. I wouldn’t be the one to put my kids to bed most nights for the first time in my 13 years as a parent. I would be expected to push myself physically with activities such as sword fighting and whacking dance classes.

And, at the end of the month, I’d have to make it through a day of beekeeping. Shudder.

Of course, part of me was intrigued. I might not like bees on a personal ‘want to hang out with several thousand of them in close proximity’ level, but I care about our world, our climate and the bees’ demise. I want to learn, to educate myself. Be a force for good. Or at least for better.

You would think I’d have spent hours poring over the pages of introductory material the industrious Sara at Hen Corner sent us ahead of our day-long class so I could learn what to look for on a frame or how to differentiate drones from workers from queen bees, but I couldn’t even bring myself to click on the docs. Instead, I just imagined myself running from thousands of bees, who were all trying to sting me. (Healthy, right?)

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My stomach was in knots by the time I arrived at Sara’s urban farm in Brentford on that Saturday morning. Over coffee and homemade cake (Sara also runs her own bakery), we introduced ourselves to each other. The group was made up of friends and couples, all lovely and interesting, and I felt myself ease into the idea of what was about to happen. I even admitted I was terrified to be there, which was a release in itself. I was in the minority: many in the group were attending the session because they were potentially interested in pursuing some form of beekeeping themselves.

As the morning wore on, I felt my shoulders relax. My fists unclench. By the time we got changed into our protective gear and I was tucking my trouser legs into my socks and pulling on my veil, I was already a lot more confident than I’d ever anticipated I could be.

Woman with a bee hive
Jennifer faced her fears of insects

A tiny voice inside my head whispered that I’d ticked the box, I’d shown up and I had nothing else to prove. But a louder voice urged me to push myself closer to the hives instead of lurking at the back, to volunteer to hold a frame, then another one. I became a participant, not just a spectator, and somehow, found myself totally relaxed as the minutes ticked past and the bees continued to buzz all around me and clamber all over my suit and gloved fingers.


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It’s funny how a quiet sort of confidence builds when you settle into something. And yes, it can happen after just a few hours. Fears and anxieties start to melt away. Turns out the thing I’d been imagining as a big scary monster (or in my case, 10,000 tiny, flying, monsters) had a lot to do with me not believing in myself. Not trusting myself. Giving myself the opportunity to confront my fear, taking it slowly, being patient and kinder to myself… those were the ingredients I needed all along.

Woman smiling holding bees© Sam Lake
Jennifer found herself enjoying stepping out of her comfort zone

By the time we suited up for round two after lunch – the honey harvesting portion of our day – I wasn’t nervous about the bees at all anymore. I felt ready.

As we were extracting the honey from honeycombs in Sara’s kitchen – an extremely satisfying and mildly physically laborious process – I couldn’t stop smiling. I was so proud of myself.

That stomach-twisting fear of bees and insects, which sat inside of me for so long, isn’t such a phobia anymore. But I’m not as terrified of living as I used to be, either.

Honey being poured into a bowl© Same Lake
Making honey proved to be a life-changing challenge for Jennifer

Mindset change is a powerful tool. Once you start trying new things, stepping out of your comfort zone becomes a passion in itself. It’s not just about facing bees, or bugs, for me. It’s the realisation that I can change and grow.

I took a jar of honey home with me that day as a souvenir. As a reminder. Whenever I have a spoonful, I always notice some unusual flavours mixed in with that floral sweetness.

Bravery. Accomplishment. Adventure. It’s the best thing I’ve ever tasted.

Read more inspiring stories of people who stepped out of their comfort zone on our HELLO! Happiness Hub

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