A few days ago I posted a blog pointing out that it is sometimes difficult for patients, even those who recognize themselves to be phobic in other situations, to tell whether a particular fear is exaggerated or not. Nevertheless, usually, they feel strongly about the matter one way or another. I received two comments from Publia:
“… I was stuck in a jam-packed elevator for 90 minutes once in my life. Someone threw up. I don’t get in crowded elevators anymore if I can help it. That’s not a phobia. That’s just good judgement.”
It is apparently in the nature of human beings, me too, to think their opinions are well-founded and everyone else is misinformed. For example, contrasting political views are held to stubbornly in this country, no matter what the circumstances. 40% of voters are always going to vote Republican and 40% are always going to vote Democratic. Religious views are similar. We have learned to be respectful in public of other people’s religious views, but deep down we know we are right, and they are wrong. Time enough for them to discover their mistake when they wake up some day in that terrible, hot place. No evidence changes these political or religious views, or can possibly change them.
Similarly, we have all learned while growing up attitudes about the world: what is important and what isn’t, including what is dangerous and what isn’t. A child warned repeatedly about danger notices bad things happening when other people do not and, as they grow older—and older—they have more reason to accept these beliefs. Publia gives what she thinks is good reason to avoid crowded elevators. The elevator may get stuck again, and someone might throw up, I guess. She knows that other people don’t worry about such a thing. Presumably, those people who get in a crowded elevator are showing bad judgement. In order for someone to come to a sensible decision about such a matter, that person must weigh two considerations:
- What are the chances that the feared situation will actually happen? In this case, what are the chances that Publia will be once again get stuck in an elevator long enough to have another miserable experience? I suggest that she takes a poll of her friends and find out how many people have been stuck in an elevator. (During my lifetime, I have been stuck in an elevator only once and then only for a few minutes.)
- Secondly, she should consider the price she pays for avoiding elevators. Perhaps it is only a small price if she doesn’t encounter too many crowded elevators; but the more someone avoids elevators, the more that person will be inconvenienced. There are people who cannot go into elevators at all. At worst, they can suffer a crippling professional disability. I have had more than one patient who was unable to accept a job if it were more than a few floors up in a building.
Besides, people who avoid crowded elevators are likely also to avoid other enclosed spaces such as airplanes or subways. I don’t know if Publia is troubled this way, but I know that the fear of elevators is likely to spread, and that is also a matter of concern. For the record, I know that someone who avoids elevators, even some of the time, for any reason, would be considered by people who work in this field as having a phobia.
On the other hand, Publia is sure that encouraging her child to walk home from school is the right thing to do. She is not afraid. Other parents she knows disagree. Obviously, the right thing to do depends on the age of the student and the neighborhood. Still, I suspect that if I were to know the details I would think Publia was right. I have never had to tell a patient that she was behaving recklessly by sending her child to school alone. There have been plenty of mothers, however, that I have had to encourage to let their kids walk to school. Worrying about kidnappers and automobile accidents is part of a more generalized fear for the child’s safety. If such a fear is exaggerated, it leads inevitably to the child growing up in be fearful.
I know about this from personal experience. My parents were afraid I was likely to drown. They said they (both of them) almost drowned—which I do not believe since I never saw them in a body of water larger than a puddle. My mother walked me to school long past the age everyone else walked by themselves. I talk about this in a vaguely autobiographical book I’ve just written, “Superpowers.” I know now that their being overprotective contributed to my developing a phobia in my college years. Although when I was growing up, I thought they knew what they were talking about.