The Ostrich Trap

Break free from parasitic social fears and dark moods.

Posted Jun 01, 2012

Ostriches bury their heads in the sand when they're scared or threatened. They think they are safe if they can’t see the danger. That’s a nice fairytale. Ostriches don’t live that way. Otherwise, they would have joined the dodo bird.

The ostrich myth describes a human fallibility. You may figuratively close your mind and hide from what you foolishly fear. You may wish to feel comfortable meeting people. Instead, you bury yourself in a book about the art of communications, and then don’t put to use what you learn. While in the ostrich trap, you risk having many of your cherished dreams go unfulfilled.

This ostrich syndrome has distinctive features: parasitic anxieties and fears, depression, frustration, and procrastination. I’ll emphasize a parasitic fear-procrastination connection here. (A parasitic fear drains time and resources, offering nothing of real value in return.)

Let’s start with three examples. Charlotte and Charlie stay married to each other. Aside from their mutual fear of loneliness, they have little in common. They have a loveless marriage. Her boss, Tammy, daily browbeats Sandy. Sandy has great marketing ideas but fears that if she doesn’t cling to her job she’ll never find another. Dan wants to write mystery stories. He has a wonderful ability to create gripping tales. Fearing that his written ideas will supply material for someone’s comedy skit, Dan abandons his dream. (Find Dan’s resolution under Secondary Procrastination.)

The ostrich trap syndrome draped the lives of Charlie, Charlotte, Sandy, and Dan. Both Charlie and Charlotte want happiness in the arms of someone different, but stay in a moribund marriage. Sandy has exceptional marketing talents but is afraid to market herself. Dan crushes his dream with an exaggerated fear that others will laugh at his work.

When your main wishes fall prey to imaginary social threats, you risk living a gloomy, self-restricted, life as suggested by the following:

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. (Henry David Thoreau, WaldenAlas for those that never sing, but die with all their music in them. (Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Voiceless)

Taking Positive Initiatives

I use the principle of taking positive initiatives to help people effectively deal with ostrich trap syndromes. Here’s the gist: 1. Identify inhibitory fears that bind you. 2. Follow through on what you fear. 3. Create more time and resources to do what is truly meaningful.

Awareness is one of two major parts of this change process. Purposeful action is the other. Taking positive initiatives includes living past the tension of fear while engaging in corrective behavioral actions. If you feel self-conscious and expect rejection, you’re thinking fearful thoughts.  Deal with them. Before you get to that, you may meet secondary procrastination on the road.

Secondary Procrastination

This is the crux of secondary procrastination: 1. You have a preexisting condition, such as a parasitic fear of rejection. 2. You put off combatting the fear. 3. Emotionally weighted down by this added burden, you wait to address this apprehension until you feel relaxed. That contingency for action often has as much value as curing a deep wound by breathing on it.

Like our mythical ostrich, you may hide in the open from your fears. For example, you get caught up in inner monologues about your social inhibitions. You think of giving up. However, by addressing what you foolishly fear, you can load the dice in favor of living a life of greater meaning.

Let’s return to Dan’s dilemma. Dan wanted to write a mystery novel. He also dreaded failure. He acted as if he believed that the sting of public ridicule was inescapable. To avoid intensifying this fear, Dan put off writing his mystery novel. Burdened with fear and ennui (weariness and meaninglessness), he felt less motivated to attend to his usual responsibilities. As these responsibilities piled up, he felt more stressed. He was in a vicious cycle.

Dan had his head in the sand. He turned things around when he used the principle of taking positive initiatives to address his writer's block. The first step was figuring out what lurked behind his fear.

Dan started by asking and answering three meaningful questions. 1. “What is most important for me to do?” He answered, “Writing a mystery story is top on the list.” 2. “How do I stop myself from following through?” He answered, “I imagine nameless and faceless people ridiculing me.” 3. “What do I do in lieu of writing the book?” He answered, “I stew and fall behind on other priority activities.” This exercise revealed the mental content of his parasitic fear and how this connected to procrastination. He immediately saw the folly in this thinking.

Dan had to sell his idea to a publisher. This involved risking rejection. Writing a book takes lots of time and work. Was he allergic to effort? Dan liked the idea of writing mystery stories more than any other work. However, without taking a risk, he understood that he wouldn’t get beyond the joys of this intellectual revelation.

Regarding writing his book, Dan came to accept the inevitability of uncertainty as to the book’s ultimate worth, and the certainty of work to finish his mystery novel. Now with his head out of the sand, he took positive initiatives, wrote his book, and overcame this parasitic fear.

If you are in the ostrich trap, think about your thinking and press yourself to engage what you foolishly fear. You may rid yourself of a needless inhibition as you discover what you can accomplish. (For another angle on combatting secondary procrastination, see Depression and Procrastination)

To get past your procrastination barriers, click on parts 1-3 of my  free Combatting Procrastination video:  What is Procrastination?  Basic Techniques for Combatting ProcrastinationSeven Principles for Combatting Procrastination.For overcoming false anxieties and fears:  The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Anxiety.  See: The Procrastination Workbook for dealing with complicated emotional problems.  Here’s a free eBook for combatting needless frustrations and fears: How to Conquer Your Frustrations. For combating depression, see The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Depression (Second Edition).

© Dr. Bill Knaus