Snow White Doesn't Live Here Anymore

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Women's Worries, Anxieties and Fears: Why We Hang on to Them

Anxiety is more insidious than a simple manipulative trick: the feeling is real.

Low-grade constant anxiety is a specialty of mine; I only dabble in terror. Others, however, make crisis their daily routine, with bouts of weeping and panic thrown in to liven things up when crisis gets too familiar. Fear, like adultery, all too often makes women's lives appear interesting—if only to ourselves—because it makes us the main character in a heart-racing story.

Fear and anxiety provide, in other words, a motive, an excuse, and a way to talk about ourselves--without an obvious bid for positive attention.

You have a good job as a supervisor? To ward off envy, maybe, you tell a new assistant about your irrational fear of dogs. This way she knows you’re not some tough inhuman creature.

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You have a solid relationship? You might tell a single friend about your pathological fear of the dark in order to convey how necessary it is for you to have a partner, almost by way of apology.

You make decent wage? You tell your less successful sister that you spend each day being terrified of downsizing, which is true--but you make an offering of your fear, by way of saying “Don’t dismiss me as invulnerable. Don’t hope that I stumble or fall. Wish me security even though it seems that I already have it.”

Studies indicate that many women see the admission of fear as removing the potential sting of their authority or power; the fear, however, is not merely a ploy to gain attention. Anxiety is more insidious than a simple manipulative trick: the feeling is real. Fear can be cultivated like some poisonous garden; even when you don’t want to nurture it and have no desire to harvest it, its roots are deep.

Therapy is, I believe, the best way to deal with anxiety before it becomes pathology. 

The primary quality of what scares and scars us, the thing that ensures anxiety a convincing and permanent presence in our lives and the power to survive in our memories, is the fact that our patterns of fears and worries don’t change very much over time. They are fixed, static.  Fear’s presence in our lives is unfailing; fidelity to us is assured. No wonder we embrace fear. When you can’t count on being happy or being loved, at least you can count on being able to terrify yourself at a moment’s notice.

Although occasionally appropriate and sometimes lifesaving, fears can also be simply inherited and habitual. Some fears are functional initially but nevetheless can lead to dysfunction. Fear and pain are danger signals, letting us know there’s trouble ahead and that we should either stop short, speed up. But when fear and anxiety become a constant theme in our lives, they’re like sirens in the background noise: ordinary and expected, invasive and irritating and—even when they are crucial and particular—sometimes ignored simply because they’ve become routine.

Gina Barreca, Ph.D., is Professor of English at UConn, and author of It's Not That I'm Bitter: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Visible Panty Lines and Conquered the World.

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