Monday, July 17, 2017

Fear: Contributing to a Life-long Habit of Poor Decision-Making

Fear is defined as an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain, or harm.  It is often referred to as anxiety.  Fear causes a gut-wrenching response (frozen in fear, for example), while anxiety may make you feel mildly queasy.  A bit of anxiety can be a good thing.  It can help you prepare for an important exam or meeting, and even that reasonable fear can prevent you from crossing a street into oncoming traffic.  But a phobia is a different story altogether.  It is an intense, persistent, irrational fear of a specific object, situation, activity, or person.  People with phobias will do anything to avoid what triggers this intense fear.  While anxiety and reasonable fears don't necessarily hinder a person from leading a normal life, phobias certainly do.

Fear and Decision Making

I can relate to fears and even phobias.   I grew up fearing so many things.  Some were normal fears, while others did get in the way of my living a normal life.  From the time I was a small child, fear has contributed to poor decision making on my part.

  • Fear of strangers:  At my oldest brother's wedding, I was afraid of my new sister-in-law's father as he was a stranger to me.  But I think the more significant reason was that he wore a white suit coat which I must have associated with those worn by doctors.  Instead of snuggling up to him, I screamed until he finally handed me back over to my mother.  Ouch!  I was six months old.
  • Fear of the dark:  It took me ages to leave my parents' bedroom for my own.  When I finally made the switch, I was afraid of the shadows, thinking they were monsters.  I still don't like being out and about in the dark, whether walking in the neighborhood, sitting around a campfire, navigating the rooms of our house, or driving.  I rarely drive at night.  I can't navigate streets as well as I can during the day, and I easily get lost.  This limits me in that I opt out of events that I would enjoy going to that Jim has no interest in, such as concerts, lectures, or parties.
  • Fear of being alone or abandoned:  This has always been a big one for me.  I was in isolation in the hospital when I was about three years old due to an infection.  Between the strict visiting hours and my parents' having seven other children to take care of at home, I didn't see them much.  I developed an intense fear of being left alone or abandoned.  If my mother dropped me off at the mall, I would worry that she would forget to pick me up.  If my husband dropped me off at college, I would think the same thing.  That feeling still crops up to this day when I'm dropped off somewhere and the driver drives off.  I am certain that time in isolation is the reason for this fear.  I have never lived on my own.  I went from my childhood home to an apartment with a roommate to an apartment with my husband.  I think it would have been wise for me to wait a bit before getting married.  I was too young.  I'm in my fifties now and feel like I'm still in my thirties, so imagine how young I felt when I got married at 24.  I was an infant emotionally.  I had no clue how to do the marriage thing.  None.  I wish I would have lived on my own for a year or two before taking the plunge.  It would have made those early married years much less boggling.  But both my husband and I thought we were getting long in the tooth (he was a whopping 26, oh my) and if we were going to get married, we'd better get on with it.  Oh, please!  Age doesn't mean a thing.  We should have concentrated on, "Are we ready?"  or that little voice giving us warning signs that it's just not the right time.
  • Fear of thunderstorms:  Another big one.  I totally tense up at the slightest sound of thunder in the distance.  When I was a young child, I would lie on the couch and cover my head with pillows until the storm passed.  As I got older, I would simply lie in bed if I was home until it was over.  If I was out and about, forget it.  I was a mess.  I wrote about one particularly frightening episode that happened in Florida decades ago.  I inherited this fear from my father who was deathly afraid of thunderstorms.  He was a hard worker, but if a thunderstorm hit, all work stopped and he and my siblings would head for the safety of the house.  He cautioned against using the telephone, stove, and any number of other things during a storm.  He developed his fear when he was a boy working on his family's farm.  He was tending to a cow when the barn was hit by lightning.  The charge traveled to the cow, which died and fell on my dad.  He never forgot that.  To this day, I will not drive in a thunderstorm.  If it's supposed to storm on a day I have an appointment, I cancel it.  My husband, meanwhile, loves thunderstorms.  While I run for cover, he runs outside to watch it roll in.  Oh, my.  
  • Fear of dogs:  I have always had a fear of dogs.  I'm short and my balance is not that great, so jumping dogs are especially worrisome.  I've been tripped and knocked down by a few pooches in my day.  I have nothing against dogs in general, but I automatically tense up when I see a dog.  I especially get nervous when I see a dog running loose with or without a human companion.  That happens a lot in the park behind our house, and occasionally in the neighborhood, so I never walk alone.  That is a bummer because I would love to explore the area on my own. 
  • Fear of the unknown/uncertainty:  Here's yet another big one for me.  I have always feared the unknown, including the world of work, social clubs, being in a large group of people I don't know, working for others, traveling with or without Jim, and most recently, health insurance.  I like to know what's ahead.  I like to have a routine.  With the above examples, I don't know how it's going to go.  So I freeze up and avoid it if I can, or if I can't, I worry about what could go wrong.  It's mostly tied to health issues.  Will I get sick?  Will I get hurt?  Will my supervisor understand if I have to take time off for illness or surgery?  (Even if she is understanding, I will still feel guilty about it.)  Will my ostomy pouch leak in transit on a trip or during a gathering?  Do I have enough health maintenance supplies with me?  What if... What if... What if...  It drives both Jim and myself a little nutty, to be honest.  That's why I work at home and have for the past 20+ years, and I love that I can do that.  The traveling, well I grin and bear it when traveling with Jim, but inside I'm calculating when I need to do the next maintenance or take the next medication, and how to fit these things into the day's activity schedule. I've declined opportunities to travel with others, depending on the circumstances. I wish I could just go, have fun, and forget about the medical stuff just for a bit.  But my medical mind never shuts off.  It is always talking to me, keeping me in check. As for health insurance, don't get me started.    
  • Fear of change:  The comfort zone feels safer, so I generally like to stay put.  I've made that not-so-good decision many times during my life.  Change means beginning again.  It means learning routes to work, school, the grocery store, the hospital in a new city.  It means telling my new doctors my medical life story--again.  It means hearing from those doctors that I'm "a unique case"--again. It means new people, new places, new jobs, new everything.  Or, it means simply changing an attitude a little bit.  Ha.  Simply?  Not.  It's difficult.  It takes time.  Meanwhile, I'm fearful that I won't be able to adjust.  I've put off moves, jobs, switching to a new doctor because I dreaded the change.  But it's worth the effort.  Change is good.  It provides growth and learning and cleans the cobwebs out of our brains and bodies and lives.
  • Fear of water:  I've always been leery of the water.  I never learned to swim, almost drowned in the high school swimming pool, and get the heebie-jeebies when crossing a bridge over water.  I'm afraid of going more than ankle-deep into the water.  The smart decision to make in this case would be to sign up for swim lessons, but I never have.  Yet.  I absolutely refuse to learn to swim with a group.  That's how I almost drowned in the first place.  One on one lessons appeal to me.  Another fear has gotten in the way of those lessons, though:  the facility is across town and it's a tricky driving route.  Sigh. 
  • Fear of intimacy:  I was self-conscious about dating.  I tended to stay inside this wall I built up around myself, to keep me from getting too close to others.  To keep me safe.  But it also made me feel isolated and alone as well.  To this day, I have a hard time opening up to people until I know them quite well.  Sharing super-personal stuff related to health issues comes only when I have known a person a long time, and then only if I sense that they will understand.  I have to experience a certain vibe when I'm with the person.  If it isn't there, I won't share.  So, I didn't date much and I have very few deep friendships.  
  • Fear of driving:  Around the age of 13 I started stressing about learning to drive.  The closer I got to 16, the worse my anxiety became.  Most of my classmates were a year younger than me due to the fact that I repeated second grade because of frequent health-related absence that year.  While some of my classmates were envious that I was old enough to get my driver's license, I was petrified at the notion.  I absolutely did not want to get my driver's license--ever.  But, finally, when I turned 19, my mother dragged me down to the DMV.  She had waited until she was in her 50s to get hers and she wasn't about to let me do the same thing.  It took me four attempts, but I finally got it.  But, license or not, I hardly ever drove.  I was afraid to drive even on the quietest of roads.  I was afraid to drive without someone with me. I was afraid I was going to get into an accident, break down, or get lost.  I dreaded coming across a detour and not knowing how to navigate it.  And forget about driving on snow and ice. It petrifies me.  It is one of the reasons, actually, why we moved to the desert.  We hardly ever get snow.  I also never drive long distances by myself, so no solo road trips for me, although it is enticing.  I've passed up job opportunities because of this fear.  I've passed up going to social gatherings as well.  It has been a significant and limiting fear for a very long time.  When we moved to Utah 10 years ago, I decided that I would attempt to conquer my fear of driving.  I went driving with Jim early on Sunday mornings when NOBODY was on the streets to practice finding my way around.  It took some time, but now I can drive fairly stress-free in most areas of the city.  That was a huge accomplishment for me.
  • Fear of rejection:  This fear has caused me to shy away from opportunities for work, friendships, and dating.  I was afraid to try.  I was afraid that I wouldn't get the job because of my disability; that people would think I would be a liability, or that I wasn't qualified.  I was afraid that people wouldn't want to be my friend because I was too different, too weird, too broken.  Or, guys wouldn't  want to go out with me because of my health issues, because I walked funny, or because I wasn't pretty enough, or smart enough, or tall enough.  My confidence was in the gutter on this one for a very long time.  
  • Fear of public speaking:  This one goes back quite a ways.  I have always disliked public speaking.  It means getting up in front of people.  It means all eyes are on me and, oh boy, what if I goof.   It involves being vulnerable.  All things that really creep me out.  So, I've stayed away from public speaking in business, which means I'm limiting my exposure to those audiences; those potential clients.  Ironically, the best speech I ever gave was on spina bifida.  I was in college at the time.  Maybe that should spur me to actively entertain speaking more on special needs and abilities as well as friendship.  But the thought of doing it still creeps me out, even though it is enticing.  We'll see.
  • Fear of death:  This fear has to do with driving, rather than medical stuff.  Medical stuff, I'm good.  I am not afraid to die from my health issues.  I just don't want someone to smack me when I'm out and about driving and end up killing me in the process.  And what's even more frightening is, I don't want to be the one charged in a case of vehicular manslaughter.  I would absolutely never, ever, ever, ever drive again if I ever killed someone while I was driving.  Especially a child.  Never.  I would fall into a bazillion pieces.  Whenever a child runs out from behind a parked car on my street, chasing a ball or something, I about die. And when I drove our most recent exchange student to school every day, well, you can imagine how I felt as we approached the school and teen drivers were everywhere, kids walking in the street, on the sidewalks, everywhere.  My stress level was through the roof.  But I did it.  I did much better this time around than when we hosted years ago.  That fear just about did me in. I wouldn't drive.  Would NOT drive.  I was obsessive about it, and it caused masses of tension that contributed to that student leaving to live with another family.  Luckily, in 11 years between the two exchanges, I've calmed down just a tad.
  • Fear of getting physically hurt:  All my life I've been afraid to get hurt physically.  I didn't want another reason to have to go to the hospital.  So, I avoided walks with my family through the rough pastures on the farm, organized sports, backyard ball games with my family, gym class at school, and many other things that would have helped me keep in better shape as a child.  Also, there are countless hiking trails near us, and it bugs me that I can't tackle strenuous ones for fear of landing in the hospital or ending up dead.  
  • Fear of failure:  This is another big one.  I was afraid to try activities, hobbies, classes, jobs, and business opportunities because I thought that I would mess up.  It ended up being a pain in the neck because I got so, even if I did give something a shot, I didn't have the confidence to stick it out.  So, rather than keep going when things got a little sticky, I gave up.  But the kicker is, to me now, giving up is worse than failure.  Not giving myself time to get settled into a position or activity is cheating myself out of a potentially life-enriching experience.  Instead, I would give up and go home, convinced I was a failure.  I wasn't a failure.  I just didn't have the confidence to stick it out to the true end, whether that end came in a day or in 30 years.  
How We Develop Fears

So, how do we develop these sometimes annoying, sometimes debilitating fears?  There are generally three ways:

Direct experience:  We are afraid of thunderstorms because we were hit by lightning.

Indirect experience:  Our father is deathly afraid of thunderstorms because he was hit by lightning, and observing his fear makes us fearful as well.

Learned from the media: We hear about devastating storms in the media, so every time there is a thunderstorm, we freak out, thinking it's a tornado.

What to Do?

There are many things that you can do to try to ease your fears to help facilitate better decision making.  Here are some suggestions.  If these don't work, and you find that your fears interfere with your ability to function normally, day to day, consult a health care professional for help.

  • Take your time:  Think about the options and the pros and cons of each one.  Think of the people, time, and energy involved.  Will you be able to stick with your decision happily for the long haul?
Be true to yourself:  Think about the decision in terms of your priorities, goals, and values.  Whatever feels right to you in your gut is most likely the best choice.
  • Reduce the stress in your life:  If you are stressed, you'll have a harder time concentrating on the decision you need to make.  Keep your life as simple as possible to help facilitate positive decisions.  Clear space in your calendar to really concentrate on the issue at hand, go for a walk, meditate--anything that will calm your spirit and give you clarity.
  • Avoid worrying about making the wrong choice:  Instead of worrying about making the wrong choice, be happy that you do have a choice.  You're not being forced to make one decision over the other, you are being given the gift of, maybe, several choices.  Concentrate deeply on each option and go with your gut, again, when making your decision.  It is usually right.  
  • Get inspired by others:  See what others did when they had a tough decision to make.  What strategies did they use to figure out what to do?  You can ask your friends, family, colleagues, neighbors--anyone you trust to give you an honest answer.  You can also read inspirational books and articles, and view videos to gain insight.
  • Treat mistakes as lessons:  You may choose the wrong path.  Down the road, you're thinking, "What did I do!?"  But, you made the decision based on the knowledge and information you had available to you at the time.  Treat it as a lesson, make necessary changes, and try something else.  It's done.  It's over.  Work on forgiving yourself and move on.

Have your fears contributed to poor decision making on your part?  How did those decisions affect your life?  What did you do to facilitate change?   

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