Fears and phobias are common. A lot of people I work with have fears of some kind. Sometimes these fears are of entering specific situations (like driving or flying), interacting with people, or, in the case of panic disorder, fear of being overwhelmed by fear itself. I like helping people with fears and phobias. It's one of my favorite things.
One reason for this is fairly obvious: With these issues, I know we are in an immediately workable situation. You see, it FEELS awful to have a problem with fear or anxiety. And it certainly can interfere with your life. But it is highly treatable. So when I help someone conquer a phobia, I know I'm really helping. And like most people, I like that.
But there's more to it than that. I think that phobias and fears offer an opportunity for real growth. I know this is hard to hear if you're in the midst of a struggle with these issues, but hear me out.
Each of us has a mind, and our minds are terrific storytellers. Our minds are constantly measuring, assessing, comparing, explaining, and making meaning. Our minds tell stories about our world and ourselves. These stories are necessary and (usually) helpful.
But there's a downside to having a mind. If we're not careful (and we're usually not careful), we can get trapped in our stories. And these stories can limit us. Maybe we have a story about how bad things happen to people who speak their mind, so we get in the habit of not speaking our mind. Or maybe we have a story about how bad things happen to people who trust others, and so we stay closed off and isolated.
Most of this storytelling happens below the level of our everyday awareness. We trust our stories implicitly. But Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (along with other activities like meditation, writing, and art) is a tool for laying bare the stories we have, so that we can consciously choose to believe in them or not. Growth and change happen when we give up on these stories, or at least give them a second look.
But this can be tricky, because we even when we see our stories, we can find justifications for them. We identify with them. We don't want to give them up, even when they're clearly not working. Usually, things have to get pretty bad before we'll question our stories.
But sometimes, through intention or happenstance, we do just that. We try something new, even though it feelings awkward, weird, or scary. And when we do, we can have pretty fantastic and life-affirming experiences. Have you ever done something that scared you? Have you ever exceeded your own expectations? Then you know what I mean.
So, what do phobias have to do with this?
If our fundamental challenge is to get free of our stories, then phobias offer a stripped-down, simplified version of that challenge. If life is basketball, then phobias are H.O.R.S.E.
If you have a phobia, then you clearly hold beliefs that don't work. The plane is not unsafe. The bridge won't collapse. You don't need to sit near the aisle. And you know this--intellectually. And yet, you still experience an uncomfortable feeling called fear, and you stay away from that uncomfortable feeling at a cost. You miss out on some great things.
But with phobias, it's all so obvious. There's no justification to keep avoiding what scares you. The jig is up. Your fears are empty. All you have to do is step through that fear. And if you do, you get a big reward. Not only does your fear go away, but your relationship to fear changes. You gain self-confidence. You start to question your other fears. Your world gets bigger. You start looking for other fears to conquer.
If you're locked in a struggle with anxiety, this might sound hard to believe. But I've seen it happen enough to know that it's the rule, and not the exception.