Anyone who’s ever been a kid, which means all of us with the possible exception of ageless celebrities like Cher, remembers their childhood fears. What was it for you? Maybe you were afraid of your closet, thunderstorms, or the neighbor down the street who was so old he might still owe Fred Flinstone a few bucks? For me, I distinctly remember going to the circus as a small child and bursting into tears when approached by a clown. He wasn’t exactly Stephen King’s “It,” but my fear still made sense. When we’re little and already wary of strangers, why would we giggle with delight at the strangest looking stranger we’ve ever seen?
Often, childhood fears go the way of our favorite blankies. But surprisingly often, childhood fears stick around well into adulthood—maybe you got bitten by a dog or stung by a bee and have freaked out at the sight of them ever since. Or maybe your fear has evolved, but fundamentally stayed the same. For example, a childhood fear of monsters may have morphed into a fear of burglars (how many locks are on your door?). A fear of strangers may have turned into social anxiety. Or a fear of doctors and dentists may have, well, stayed a fear of doctors and dentists.
In an excellent example, listener Oliver wrote in to say he’s an adult who’s been afraid of the dark all his life. As a kid, his parents told him to get over it, which of course is never helpful, and now his fear has continued into adulthood. For Oliver, fear of the dark means lousy sleep quality from sleeping with the light on and not being able to drive at night without feeling terrified.
So what should you do if, like Oliver, you have a lingering childhood phobia, or one that sprung up on your adult life like a boogeyman jumping out of a closet?
First, know you’re in good company. Nearly 10% of people will, at some point in life, have a phobia that gets in the way of living their life. This means way more than just making your partner kill the spider in the bathtub. This means not being able to take a job that requires using an elevator to get to your office or not being able to travel by plane, which means never seeing a Hawaiian sunset in person.
So if you’ve been foiled by a phobia, know these 4 things to finally face your fears.
1) Don’t beat yourself up.
Most phobias make sense. Blame evolution, not your character. Pretty much all phobias come from deep in our evolutionary history. For our listener Oliver, fear of the dark makes sense—we’re more vulnerable in the dark because we can’t see approaching danger. Fear of severe weather is probably rooted deep in our brain because being exposed to the elements would leave us vulnerable to hypothermia or worse. Snakes or spiders could be poisonous. Mice spread disease. The caveman part of my three-year-old brain probably thought the clown at the circus was an unhinged and unpredictable person and therefore dangerous. Even phobias that don’t make sense on the surface are likely a few degrees away from something rooted in millennia of evolution.
2) It’s not a blow to your character.
A lot of people with phobias think their fears mean they’re weak or weird or bad. I once worked* with a young man who was afraid of burn survivors. He felt horribly ashamed about his fear and was terrified he would make a burn survivor feel bad by reacting with horror or disgust to their scars. He was a caring, conscientious person, and we decided he probably tried to avoid survivors in part because he cared deeply about not hurting their feelings.
What happened? He became a connoisseur of videos made by burn survivors on YouTube and we capped off our work by discreetly hanging out in the waiting room of a hospital burn center. Notably, he later went on to apply to med school, and to get to one interviewer’s office, had to walk through a hospital inpatient burn unit, which he did it with grace and comfort.
In short, a phobia doesn’t mean you’re weak or irrational—it just means you’ve been avoiding whatever it is you’re afraid of and therefore are short on practice. Which brings us to…
3) Start slowly.
How to vanquish your phobia? In short, practice facing your fear. But you don’t have to fly a kite in a downpour to get over your fear of lightning. Instead, you can start slowly.
Once I worked* with a woman who was so afraid of snakes she didn’t even like to say the word “snake.” So we started there. She said the word “snake” hundreds of times until she got bored. Then she wrote the word “snake” until she got bored. Then we looked at pictures of snakes online. Then YouTube videos. Then we went to a pet store. The point is that she didn’t have to lock herself in a plane with Samuel L. Jackson and hundreds of vipers as a first step. For working on your own fear, start with something that makes you feel uneasy, but not pee-in-your-pants scared. Then, do it until it’s boring and move on to the next level.
4) Don’t just wait for it to be over.
Your phobia has persisted like a bad midwinter cough because you try to steer clear of whatever it is you’re scared of. So when you face your fears, make sure you’re not covertly avoiding the experience.
When you face your fears, make sure you’re not covertly avoiding the experience.
For example, if you’re claustrophobic, it won’t help to ride an elevator but stare at your phone the whole time. Instead, be present when you face your fears. Don’t try to distract yourself, like counting the seconds until it’s over or whistling a happy tune. Instead, focus your attention squarely on what you’re afraid of. It’s not comfortable, but wait it out. Eventually, three things will happen: one, you’ll experience that nothing bad happens. Two, you’ll find you can handle whatever it is you’re afraid of. And three, your brain will get bored.
A note: if you’re a parent, consider working on your own phobias for the sake of your kids. Phobias often run in families. Anxiety in general has been shown to be genetic, but specific fears are often transmitted by modeling a certain behavior. Kids learn by watching you, so if you stand on the table and scream whenever you see a cockroach, it’s likely your kids will, too.
Okay, so let’s put it all together for our listener Oliver: first, be nice to yourself. Of course this has persisted, because you didn’t get any guidance or support around it. So starting now, give that support to yourself. And then, take action. Practice. Gradually shift from sleeping with the light on to a dim table lamp. Then move on to a nightlight next to the bed, then a nightlight behind the dresser, and then no light at all. Take a walk around your neighborhood at dusk, then at night. Go for progressively longer drives at dusk, in the early evening, and then late at night. Give the darkness your full attention and rinse and repeat until it’s boring. Eventually, you’ll be able to sleep, drive, and live your life in 50 shades of dark.
*Details of clients I’ve worked with have been changed to protect their privacy.