One of the many nice things about being a counselor is that I get to learn a lot from many other peoples’ experiences in addition to my own. And over my years, I have noticed that at the end of the day, many things boil down to fear. And there are a couple things I have learned about fear:
1) Fear is self-reinforcing.
This may get a little bit technical with the psychology, but the premise is fairly simple and important, so bear with me. According to Behavioral Psychology, there are two basic ways to make something happen more. Positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement.
Positive reinforcement is the easiest to understand, as it is basically rewarding behavior with something pleasant. Give someone money, praise, candy etc. for a task and they will do it more often. It is as simple as the fact that we usually do things that give us pleasure.
Negative reinforcement has a bit of a confusing title, because it is still a way to make people do things more, but in this instance, you remove something unpleasant. Tell a teenager that they will no longer be grounded if they do an extra chore and you have rewarded the chore. Scratching a mosquito bite is negative reinforcement because it removes the itchy feeling. Basically, a behavior is reinforced if it makes something negative go away.
So, consider fear of the dark. Does the dark hurt you at all? No. But if you are afraid of it, that fear is an unpleasant feeling. And if you experience that feeling and run away, you feel relief. The avoidance is reinforced, even though there was not actually anything physically harming you.
Thus, one of the reasons fear is so pervasive and detrimental is that everytime you give in and avoid fear, you feel better and are more likely to avoid it faster next time. Each time you avoid fear, your mind reinforces the idea that the thing you feared really was nasty and aren’t you glad you didn’t deal with it. Every time this happens, you get weaker and the fear gets stronger.
That is why fear starts out small, but ends big. Perhaps you start with something as simple as embarrassment of going to school with a bad haircut. But then, if you just stay home from school, you feel relieved. But next time you feel anxious, you avoid again since you did it before. Before long, you avoid parties and people. Then you avoid grocery stores and restaurants. Then you avoid work and other responsibilities. This is the process that ends up with people not able to leave their home.
Fear could be social anxiety, the fear of failure, the fear of conflict, the fear of losing control and so on and so forth. It all follows the same process. And the efforts to protect yourself just cause your world and your ability to function in a healthy way to shrink as time goes on.
2) Acting in fear often causes what you fear to happen.
This is another one of those things that I have recognized from many repeated observations. I think it is best illustrated by examples.
Consider the scene in Jurassic Park where they are told the dinosaur sees movement so they need to stand still. The person who is so afraid of getting eaten panics and runs. Guess who gets eaten.
I’ve been told that those red buoys that lifeguards carry are specially designed to move through water to knock people unconscious. This is because when someone is so afraid of drowning that they cannot think straight, they will wrap up the lifeguard and drown both of them.
What about people who are afraid in relationships? Afraid that their significant other will leave them, or cheat on them, or betray them. The fear of losing the other person often leads people to become clingy, irritable, untrusting, needy or even self-sabotaging. All things that will make the other person likely to leave.
If you are so afraid of failure and disappointment that you do not even try, then you just guaranteed that you will never succeed.
I could go on and on, but hopefully that is enough to illustrate the premise.
I think I have said it elsewhere on my blog, but I’ll say it again. The opposite of fear is love. A fantastic way to break out of the mindset of fear is to ask when you have a dilemma, which action is based in fear and which one is based in love? If you are afraid to stand up for yourself because the other person may get mad or leave, love focuses on what leads to healthier relationships, while fear focuses on how to prevent pain.
And perhaps that helps make sense of other fear. Do you love yourself and believe in yourself enough to risk some pain because you know it is good for you, or do you just do what avoids pain today, even though you know it keeps on hurting you in the long run.
I don’t think I’m alone when I suggest, you need to love yourself.