”Always do what you are afraid of doing.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
“I just don’t want to be on the Passenger Shaming site!” my friend said as she prepared for her flight. (If you aren’t familiar with Passenger Shaming, it’s a social media account that broadcasts the actions of unruly or weirdly behaving passengers.)
She’s very nervous about flying, but the reason for the trip is more important to her than her fear of flying. There are times we are afraid of doing something for excellent reasons — it really isn’t safe, or it isn’t legal, are good reasons — but Emerson is right in that what we are afraid of doing is usually what we need to do to overcome its power. What would be on your list?
In my photography project this week, our theme is Face a Fear. So many fears people might choose to face, but I’m especially curious to see how they will address those fears using their cameras. Here are some common fears:
4. loud noises
5. the dentist
8. strangers or foreigners (xenophobia)
9. open spaces
10. closed spaces
13. public speaking
Did I miss one that applies to you? Chances are, I did. Phobias are also called irrational fears, and over 30 percent of adults will find themselves affected by a type of phobia at some point in their lives. There are hundreds of types of phobias and fears. Why write about them? Because there’s a pretty good chance you and I have allowed our thoughts and other people to have power over us through fear, whether we realize it or not.
For instance, I have had panic attacks as an adult, and research says it’s my fear of having another panic attack that might cause one to occur. I like what Ram Dass said — “I think that fear often feeds upon itself, and we’re most afraid of the fear, which then gives it greater power ... But we are just afraid because we feel vulnerable.”
I think he’s right. How many times do you notice you feel really vulnerable in a situation which then finds you feeling afraid? Afraid of messing up, being laughed at, being shamed.
It took me over a year to walk past someone’s house after a scary incident involving a dog. Fear gripped me, and it ruled my life every single day. I hardly would go for a walk for an entire year. I finally used some of the advice of experts to work through my (irrational) fear and began to make progress.
There are normal fears, such as getting butterflies in your stomach when the plane takes off, feeling edgy when the needle approaches your arm (I always look away), or feeling anxious when the dog barks as you pass by, but none of those are phobias unless they prevent you from following through with the action.
For a person to stay in an abusive situation, it is often fear of the unknown that keeps them from leaving. For the person who is afraid people will learn they aren’t who they represented themselves to be, fear of being discovered keeps them from enjoying life honestly.
Living in fear is exhausting.
What can we do then?
Sit with your fear. Acknowledge your fear. Call it by its name.
“Wow, the dark really scares me.”
“Going to the doctor really scares me.”
“Having to be with people who don’t look like me scares me.”
Learn about your fear.
What is it about the dark that scares you? Make a list of things you notice and work through learning about them. Is it the sounds you hear, or the thought that someone is under the bed?
What is it that scares you about going to the doctor? Is it the other people? Is it you’re afraid of getting a shot? Are you afraid of receiving bad news?
What is it about being with people who don’t look like you that scares you? Are you judging them before getting to know them? Are you basing your fear of them on things you’ve heard or seen in the news about other people?
Develop your ability to calm yourself quickly.
Slow down your breathing
Name 5 things you can see
Name 4 things you can feel
Name 3 things you can hear
Name 2 things you can smell
Name 1 thing you can taste
It works, but I really don’t understand why.
Check your thoughts for logic.
What are the sounds you heard sitting in the dark? Can you investigate them to prove they aren’t so scary? Realizing there is a creaky sound every time the heat comes on is a great way to take away the power your imagination has over you. Could you turn on the light and see there is no one under the bed before you get in?
Could you talk to the doctor about letting you wait until they are ready for you, so you can wait in the hall, car, or maybe get into a room while you wait? What is the likelihood you will receive bad news? If you don’t go and you miss catching a problem early, the bad news later could be much worse.
Could you find a friend who has friends who look different than you and get them to introduce you? The quickest way to not hate people you don’t know is to get to know them. Much like the quickest way to get past some of our fears is meeting them where they are and removing that power they have developed over us.
Get help from a professional.
There is a reason we call the plumber when we aren’t sure how to fix a leak, a reason we find a builder to construct a home, and a reason we consult an accountant or accounting software when doing our taxes. It’s the same reason we sometimes need to take that first step to find someone trained to help people deal with fears and phobias.
The first day I was able to walk around my neighborhood after that year of being too afraid was an emotional day. I stopped beating up on myself for being silly, and I took ownership of my thoughts. Some days it was still hard, but eventually, I’ve noticed many times that the butterflies never even visit my stomach.
I’m hoping my friend does great on her flight, but I’ll probably be watching the Passenger Shaming site, just in case.
Susan Black Steen is a writer and photographer, a native Tennessean and a graduate of Austin Peay State University. With a firm belief that words matter, she writes and speaks to bring joy, comfort and understanding into each life. Always, she writes from her heart in hopes of speaking to the hearts of others. She can be reached at (firstname.lastname@example.org).