Category Archives: Fear

Facing Your Fears

Recently, on a Friday afternoon, I had an experience which challenged my fears and comfort level.  I went out sailing in 20-30 knots of wind, with 6 – 8 foot swells, in a very, very narrow boat only 41 feet long.  I have five experienced crew with me.  And I was nervous.

Believe you me, it is an intimidating experience when a little sailboat is planing at over 20 knots with gusts and crazy waves.  You don’t have a lot of opportunity to think things through or to hesitate – a five degree wrong move and….WIPEOUT!  In the cold water and sloppy big waves, that could mean “man overboard” with the boat temporarily out of control. (Watch the experience.)

I am learning to skipper a boat under these conditions, where you have to run on “feel” and not so much on thinking things through.  I have lots to learn and practice, but whoo hoo!  What a ride!

In doing this, I faced rational fear and was out of my comfort zone.  It took 48 hours for me to come down from that exhilaration.  It changes you.  I feel proud of myself; I know I’m getting better and better.  Facing fears and limitations, while scary, leads to such acceleration in joy of life and a growing self-confidence, that it is more than worth the scary moments.

As I keep nagging at you folks, things are scary until they become familiar.  Practice and forcing yourself to face the experience time and again gives you familiarity which gives you confidence, and a natural, free, and legal “high.”

Children Today Are Overly Anxious and Depressed

There’s a new study out from San Diego State University saying that children and young adults today are the most anxious and depressed of the last seventy years.

I’m not surprised at all.  Having too many choices is chaos.  Morals and values have been sacrificed in favor of infamy and fortune.  When sports heroes are infamous and rich because they took drugs to increase their performance, that is demoralizing to kids who work hard to aspire to athletic greatness simply by practicing a lot.  When other young people get famous for flaunting drugs and anti-social behavior, it makes it difficult for the kids who simply work hard.

When you have a major Hollywood producer/director putting together a movie to excuse and explain Hitler (in context, he says), you have a generation that has no clear understanding of evil.

When you have military dying in the fields of foreign countries because we are at war with a religious ideology that wants to terminate western civilization, and one of their combatants is caught and tried only as a common criminal, you have a generation that is confused.

When you have a culture that does not support the basic building block of education – the family – we have children turning to equally confused peers and pop culture.

When the people in positions of power, authority and fame turn out to be of little character, you have a generation that doesn’t know what to respect or whom to emulate.

It all matters.

Our kids pay the price.

Listen to that Small Voice Inside

I notice that there are way too many people who want to believe that “not wanting to know something is true” will magically make it “not true.”  If it worked, I’d bottle and sell it.

I’d like a dollar for each caller to my radio program who complains about some extraordinary behavior or circumstance that is making them miserable in their relationship, whether they’re dating, already married, or married and three kids later!  I ask the dreaded question:  “Did you see/know about this before you…?”  At first, frankly, most people lie and say “No.”  Sensing they’re being defensive, I push.  Finally, they admit it by modulating it:  “Well, it wasn’t that bad.”  Meaning, of course, that they knew it and didn’t want to know it.

Why does this happen?

1. We don’t want our dreams and desires squished.
2. We are so far along with our feelings and actions (sex, engagement, long dating) that we simply don’t want to lose what we have, or we don’t want to lose face.

So, the next step is “magical thinking:”  “Well, LOVE should fix this,” or “It’s really not that bad,” or we simply just try to ignore it.  When parents or friends bring it to our attention, we find ways to extinguish reality by claiming that they are just exaggerating or wanting to hurt you or take away your happiness or are too bossy or too critical.

Every now and then I get a caller, as I did recently, who was only dating a few weeks and was seeing what some would call a “red flag.”  She wanted to check it with me to see if she was being unnecessarily cautious or critical.  After listening to her, I complimented her on listening to that small voice inside which was telling her “NO…not this one!”

So what I wish for all of you this new year is to listen to that small voice of good sense, and put aside emotion and magical thinking.  The road to hell is not built with good sense.

Keep that in mind.

Don’t Hide Facts of Evil and Danger from Kids

People are being murdered every day in the United States.  However, some of these murders capture the public’s attention more than others.  Hugely fascinating and frightening has been the recent murder of the female Yale University graduate student, whose body was found stuffed into a wall in the Yale University biology lab on the day she was to be married.  Perhaps it was the imminent nuptials which made people more sympathetic, or perhaps it was that one is ultimately not safe anywhere that made people respond so viscerally to this particular news story.

A 10 year old girl called me shortly after that story broke out, because she was now quite scared about everything.  Her fear only started, however, when she was in a movie theater bathroom stall and a woman came in, screaming and pounding on the doors, ostensibly looking for some other child.  Since that incident, my young caller had been scared.  Her mother was listening in when I validated this child’s feelings by saying “You are perfectly correct in being scared.  It is true that there are bad people who are willing to hurt you and that you are sometimes not even safe in your own home.”

Paradoxically, that calmed her down!  Why?  Perhaps it seems to you that that comment would make her more upset.  Nope.  I validated her worst fears, and in doing so, helped her to put them in proper proportion.  If everyone is lying to you because of good intentions, you have to escalate to get them to confirm reality.  This child did not have to bounce off walls anymore.  Someone believed her that life is not completely safe.

I continued by reminding her that she was becoming an adult.  Adults deal with truth, and the truth is that we are not always safe.  Adults need to be aware of that and, instead of just being freaked out about it,, they need to prepare for it:  locking the doors, watching who is near your car in a parking lot, learning some self-defense, being careful about where you go with people you don’t know, and on and on.

Evil is a part of life; danger is a part of life.  People need to know and respect that fact and be armed with information and reasonable plans to deal with these facts. 

A little bit of paranoia is a good thing.  It keeps you prepared.  Too much paranoia inhibits one from living life at all. 

Don’t hide the fact of evil and danger from your children.  Teach them how to recognize them and then what to do.

Knowing is Better Than Not Knowing, or Why I “Push” Some Callers to Discomfort

Researchers at the University of British Columbia studied people who had undergone genetic testing to determine their risk for developing the neurodegenerative terminal disorder known as Huntington’s disease.  Did you know (and can you believe) that those subjects who learned that they had a very high likelihood of developing this horrendous and ultimately fatal disease were “happier a year after testing than those who did not learn what their risk was.”

Many of you probably think that not knowing would result in more happiness, but you’d be wrong.  According to Dr. Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University, “…when we get bad news, we weep for a while, and then get busy making the best of it.  We change our behavior; we change our attitudes.  We raise our consciousness and lower our standards.  We find our bootstraps and tug.  But we can’t come to terms with circumstances whose terms we don’t yet know.”

Even those of you who listen to my program regularly may be shocked when I tell somebody their mother or father or spouse or even their child is a bum.  You may wince when I have them scream out how righteously angry they are at parents who didn’t protect them.   You may also sometimes recoil from your radio when you hear me push and push and push a caller until they reveal their innermost horrible truth.  Perhaps you’ve seen me as cruel…or hawking for ratings stemming from the drama.

The fact is, that as a professional psychotherapist I have long realized the value of dealing with the truth – as ugly as it might be.  I’ve seen and heard people fighting to keep ugly truths submerged as though it protected them.  In fact, the energy that goes into burying reality is huge, and not available for healthy living.

Not everyone who calls is willing or ready for this evolutionary leap in their lives.  Sometimes, they have to think about it more and come back later.  That’s fine.  The seed is planted.  I don’t see my job as making every caller feel happy at the end of our brief conversation.  I see my job as one of freeing them from their own personal jail of denial and avoidance, all of which lead to depression, anxiety, and poor (very poor) choices in life.

Knowing is always better than not knowing.  Several recent callers have demanded that I give them some magic to get their loved one to stop smoking or stop being obese.  I tell them to give up that ongoing, unpleasant battle, and simply enjoy the time they do have with that person.  Accepting what is out of your control opens you up to more happiness, because you are left with dealing with “what is,” instead of fighting to have it be something else. 

You can wrap your arms and joys around what is.  You can’t do the same thing with what you wish was the truth.

The Aftermath of A Shark Attack

I have often told callers struggling with their fears (real or imagined or exaggerated) that next to character, I admire guts.  Actually, having the fortitude to face the things we’re afraid of is a measure of character.

A few weeks ago, I was out for only the third time on my new paddleboard.  I was balancing well, in spite of passing motorboats leaving scary wakes in my path.  I was in choppy waters, which was not that smart at my level of experience, and feeling great about what I was doing, when-BAM-I hit the board full flat and hard on my left side and slid underwater.  I was stunned, cold, and worried about becoming a shark snack.  I swam quickly back to the board, pulled myself up, and lay there shaking with cold, shock, and fear. I pulled my knees under me, then got my feet down as I poised in a crouched position, and then stood straight up and paddled nervously for another fifteen minutes.  The point of these actions was that I knew that if I just swam ashore, I might never get on the board again.  My left ribs hurt tremendously, and I’m still healing.  But for me, the main point was getting back up then and there, and scowling directly into the face of fear.

This is a small step for a girl like me.  A much bigger step for a little girl is the story of Bethany Hamilton.  She nearly lost her life in a vicious shark attack while surfing off the coast of Hawaii almost six years ago.  The shark attack happened while she was lying on her board with her arm dangling comfortably in the water.  The shark ripped her left arm off just below the shoulder, and she almost died from blood loss – the shark left a sixteen inch “bite” on her surfboard.  Grisly, to say the least.  By the way, they caught the shark.  It was a 14-foot-long tiger shark, which weighed 1400 pounds.

What was Ms. Hamilton doing just a month after that shark took her left arm?  Re-training herself to surf competitively with only one arm.  Her positive attitude won her a 2004 EXPY award from ESPN for “Best Comeback Athlete of the Year.”  She’s now ranked among the top ten professional women surfers in the world.  With one arm.

Does this mean she has no fears?  No.  “When I’m feeling scared, I just sing a song or pray…or I just try to ignore it.  It’s always in my mind, and it always will be, but I’ve got to keep my mind on having fun and just surfing.”  She says she sees two or three sharks per year in the water and heads in if she gets scared or thinks she sees a shark.  She doesn’t go in the murky water after a storm.  In other words, she uses the common sense that all surfers should employ.

She travels the world for surfing competitions, and for causes in which she can help children with fears – like going to Thailand to help young children devastated by the tsunami disaster.  With her unique experience, she has something very important to say about overcoming fears, much less overcoming fear of water.

I’ve always said that one of the best learning tools in the universe is to read to yourself and your family biographies of people who have fought inner and outer demons and prevailed.  This is one of those stories.

And you don’t have to be afraid of the ocean to benefit.  Life has its disappointments, assaults, devastation, frustrations, challenges, and bad luck.  That’s just life.  What you do after that point is the measure of your life.