At a sleepover in second grade, my friends put on The Blob — a horror film about space jelly that kills anyone it touches. I was so scared I started crying and my mom had to pick me up to take me home.
Another night I snuck out of my bedroom while my parents watched TV, and I saw the sewer scene from It. My dad had to remove everything that even sort of resembled a clown from the house.
I Wasn’t Scared of the Story
In both cases, I actually barely saw any of the movie that frightened me. I saw that the movie was a scary movie, I knew that scary movies terrified me, and I knew that watching a scary movie would scare me too badly to be able to sleep.
What I didn’t realize, however, was my fear of horror films — and the fear I felt when I imagined what terrors those films might contain — was all it took to ruin my day.
I was scared of the movies themselves. The idea of the movies.
It was so bad that I only had to see the cover of Child’s Play in a video store to end up petrified and sleepless for a few nights.
Find Out How It Ends
As an adult, I still don’t care for horror films. But if I start watching one, I now force myself to finish the movie.
When I see a scene from a horror film — just like I did when I was a kid — I build a vague, terrifying beast out of my fear of the movie, and this unknowable shape is more monstrous than anything I’ll see in a movie. I don’t care how good the CGI is.
I have to see the end. I need to know what happens. What really goes on in this movie?
There is no way the actual outcome will be scarier than what I can dream up in my ignorance.
By seeing the full movie, I learn the reality of the story, and that takes away the paralyzing power of my ignorance and fear.1
Take Away Its Power
Most of our fears are imaginary.
We don’t know what comes next, so we make projections about the future. And in our imaginations, the potential for catastrophe is alarmingly high.2
But we’re not actually scared of the experience. We’re scared of the unknown: the vague, monster-shaped outline in our imagination.
By facing that fear, we replace the monster with a memory. And even if the memory is uncomfortable or humiliating, it’s very unlikely that it will be as horrifying as the make-believe nightmare scenario we dreamed up before.
Shining a Light into Monster-Shaped Shadows
To take power away from your fear, give it a name.
In an effort to limit the number of monsters occupying my headspace, I try to push my fears into reality and name them.
Am I feeling anxious about a client who seems unhappy with my work? Call them and clear the air.
Is there an unresolved tension between me and a family member? Let’s sit down and get to the bottom of things.
Is my laundry room haunted? Let’s go stand in there and find out.
Whenever I notice a situation that scares me, I try to jump in earlier rather than later, because the end result is always the same: I face the fear and realize the difference between what I thought was wrong, and what was actually wrong is staggering.
What I thought may have been a relationship-ending issue with the client turned out to be a few small adjustments and ten minutes of screensharing to show them how to use a tool.
After a beer with the family member, we realized we were both working toward the same goal even though our methods were clashing.
My laundry room is creepy as shit. But it’s not haunted.
Once a fear is dragged into reality and exposed to a little daylight, the giant monster-shaped shadow in my imagination shrivels to a small, silly bit of information.
Name Your Fears
What monsters are lurking in your imagination right now? How many of them can you drag into reality?
Sure, The Ring still scared the shit out of me, but I didn’t lose any sleep afterward. I can guarantee the things my brain will dream up out of a storyline involving a dead girl who haunts your TV are far worse than what happens in the movie.↩
For an easy example, imagine asking someone out on a date that you think is “out of your league.”
I get anxious imagining it: I see her across the room, obviously more successful, socially adept, and better-looking than me. She’s smiling, sharply dressed, surrounded by people who are laughing at the devilishly clever observation she just made about current events of which I’m appallingly ignorant.
And here I come — trying to look confident but probably smiling like a crazy person, food caught in my beard, smudges on my glasses — to interrupt her conversation. I tell a joke that doesn’t land, laugh loudly at my own joke out of discomfort, turn tomato-red in self-conscious embarrassment, and stammer my way through awkward compliments that are just making her more uncomfortable.
I never even get to the part about asking her out.
She laughs in my face. The people around her laugh in my face. Everyone in the room perks up, and she grabs the microphone from the party’s emcee.
“Ladies and gentlemen, a special announcement: Jason Lengstorf is a useless idiot who lacks the charm of a papercut and smells like he’s been eating nothing but cheese for the last eight weeks.”
The story makes the news later that night, and I’m forced to flee the country in shame. I live out the rest of my days in Bulgaria harvesting sugar beets in exile.
The reality, however, is that — while I’d probably still blow it — the actual situation would be far less ridiculous. I’d say hello, she’d say hello, I’d try to make conversation, and when we didn’t hit it off I’d make an exit. This isn’t exactly a storybook ending, but it’s nowhere near the worst-case scenario my imagination cooks up.↩
What to do next.
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