Fighting Fear

Confronting phobias and other fears

Why People Defeat Themselves

Psychotherapy and the search for happiness

People enter psychotherapy with a desire to feel better. Usually they have symptoms they wish to overcome. They want to be free of anxiety and depression and, perhaps, certain specific fears, such as phobias, and certain habits, such as those that trouble the compulsive individual. But, although they may not say so explicitly, they want also to find a way to be happy. They want to learn to be self-confident and joyful. They want to engage in activities that lend meaning to life; and they want to overcome those obstacles that get in their way. If asked, they may say they want to find their way into a relationship where they are loved; or they may speak of finding satisfying work. These are not only goals of psychotherapy, but they are what people strive for in all other endeavors of life.

One of the jobs of psychotherapy is to help patients achieve their goals, and so the struggle to be happy and to fulfill oneself becomes explicit. The particular goals should be made specific, if possible. Sometimes patients say they are not sure exactly what they want to achieve; but most of the time they have the usual wishes and daydreams about their future:  a conventional life with family and children and a job that allows them some sense of accomplishing something worthwhile and achieving success. Even their ideas of success may be conventional. They want to make a certain amount of money and/or they want to be respected, if not admired. They want their endeavors to be applauded, at least by certain very important people, such as family and friends. Yet they seem not to be able to do those things that are likely to make that success achievable. Others say they want to live an unconventional, exciting life, but they too do nothing to make such a life possible. Why?

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In order to achieve any of these goals, men and women need to engage life in specific ways, depending, of course, on what they want to achieve--depending on the person they want to be and the purpose they want to fulfill—conventional or not. Let us consider, first, those who might want something different than the usual life. There are some who are drawn to challenges. They are like those who came to this country, in the first place, because they had dreams, sometimes unrealistic dreams. They may have come looking for streets paved with gold, but they settled on becoming Americans. Throughout much of our history, these adventurers went west to search for that gold or to Texas to search for oil. There are some right now who are going to the Midwest to search for jobs and success in the new oil fields that are opening up because of new techniques for finding oil. Others set out to do familiar tasks in new ways. They may become entrepreneurs. They, too, are explorers.

What do these patients, and others, need to do to live such an adventurous life? First of all, of course, they need to go to these unfamiliar places and/or engage in unaccustomed activities; and yet they do not. It is not necessary to emigrate to a new country, but it is necessary in many ways to leave home. And to do things that are not done at home. And yet they do not. Why? Some will shrug, when asked this question. Some say they are not ready. Or they may say they are too busy doing other things.

Here is a list of things people must do to live an exciting (unconventional) life:

  1. They must leave home. I do not mean simply that they have to depart from the physical place where their home is located; they have to put behind them the supports of friends and family. They have to strike out on their own. For a while, they may have to be alone.
  2. They must then reach out to other people—strangers. They have to make new friends. They have to persist long enough trying whatever they want to try to overcome the natural resistance and suspicions strangers may have. In order to accomplish anything, they will have to be accepted. They will need the cooperation of others.
  3. They must promote themselves, and their ideas. They must be willing to talk to people who have no inclination at first to listen. Any new idea is a challenge to those who are used to doing things their own way. Anything new is suspect. Any new person who puts himself or herself forward to do what others have been doing differently is suspect. People are naturally competitive.
  4. They must be willing to struggle. Nothing important comes easily. Those who are successful are those who can keep striving despite rejection and disappointment.
  5. They must be willing to take risks, in particular, the risk of failure. Most successful people have a history of failure, not uncommonly multiple failures. These are learning experiences; but they are painful.
  6. Successful adventurers have a number of special qualities of mind; but especially they are courageous and energetic. They keep going.

 Many others, who dream the same dreams, never leave home. Why? Because they are afraid.  As is evident from the above list of requirements, they are afraid of particular things: being away from the support of family and friends, being ignored by others, being unable to assert themselves effectively, and being tested beyond their capacity. Finally, they are afraid of failing.  It is odd, in a way. Someone who wants to stand out from out others, to distinguish himself, for example, in the oil fields, or in some endeavor, feels, nevertheless, threatened by having to manage by himself. Often, in such a way, what someone wants is precisely what is frightening.

In many of the same ways, a person with more conventional ambitions must struggle with certain unspoken fears, in fact, some of the same fears. In order to succeed at reaching conventional goals, it is still necessary to reach out to others, to develop personal values that may be different from those of parents, to assert themselves when opposed by people who are indifferent, to try very hard, and to risk failure. Each of these endeavors is frightening to a greater or lesser degree and for some people more than others. A certain amount of courage is required to make new friends, and to date successfully. Finding a career often requires leaving one job for another and, again, risking failure. These are the fears that are addressed in the course of psychotherapy. Patients have to learn that these fears can be overcome over time. To fail to confront these fears is to accept defeat.

Underneath these familiar fears are others that are more fundamental. They are often spoken about as the existential anxieties of life: the fear of being alone in an uncaring and indifferent world, the fear of being helpless and the fear of endlessly struggling to no purpose. These concerns often seem theoretical and abstract, but they are real. But they too can be overcome. Those individuals who are successful reaching out for what they want in life learn to see the world objectively so that the unrealistic dangers they imagine become less threatening. (c) Fredric Neuman Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ or ask advice at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ask-dr.-neuman-advice-column/

 

Fredric Neuman, M.D. is the Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Center at White Plains Hospital.

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