I also ride defensively.
I just started riding "for real" last spring, but acclimated more easily than I thought I would. I had a tiny mirror that clipped on to the stem of my glasses, but now use a side mirror that is mounted on my left handlebar. It's indispensable, in my opinion. I can see who's approaching without having to turn my head and lose balance.
I used to ride on sidewalks when I first started, but realized a few things: first, that I was only riding on the sidewalks to "hide" in a sense, because I didn't want others to really notice me (the same way we all feel like everyone's watching us work out at the gym, when really nobody is paying attention); and second, that I'm a vehicle, not a pedestrian. A vehicle should not be on the sidewalk. Plus, I live in a very rural area where sidewalks are almost non-existent.
I respect the cars when there's traffic, but I also don't hesitate to use my right-of-way. It's the same as any vehicle: when you seem unsure, you're introducing the unpredictable into the mix, and that's what accidents are made of...no different than if a car were driving too slow or unsteady for conditions instead of speeding.
I make sure I signal clearly, and I try whenever possible to make eye contact with drivers so I know they've seen me and are aware of what I'm going to do. If a car is on a side road and waits for me to pass by, I always give a smile and nod to show that I appreciate the fact that they waited for me as they would any other vehicle.
Drivers get frustrated with cyclists who don't obey traffic rules (and they have every right to be). I always stop for traffic lights and stop signs, even when I can "make it through" before it's too late. And I ride with traffic, not against it. Walk against, ride with.
I don't have any bike parks or specific riding areas near me, but if you do, take advantage of it until you're more comfortable. Or toss your bike in the back of the car and drive it to a place where you know it's more rider-friendly.
As with anything, you'll get more comfortable with more exposure. :)
| Pounds lost: 13.6