Your Fears Are Totally Irrational and Stupid

The pregnancy test came back negative!

This statement (minus, the exclamation point, which I tacked on in my mind), caused me the biggest sense relief I’d felt all week, trumping even the relief I felt when my husband told me his disability hearing had gone as well as he could have hoped for and there’s now a 50/50 chance we may not be hovering at the “nearly poor” line for too many more months.

The reason I felt such relief over a routine pee test at a routine annual exam at my girlie doctor is because a) I don’t want to ever have children, and b) I’m deathly afraid of being pregnant and not knowing it, in spite of the fact that the husband had a vasectomy last year that guarantees within a 1 in 2,000 margin of error I never will run the risk of becoming pregnant, ever.

This scientific reassurance means nothing to the lizard brain that runs my fears.

You see, to my lizard brain, 1 in 2,000 still means there’s a 0.05% chance I could get pregnant, and if Murphy’s Law (which the husband and I have adapted to “Gurnett’s Law” as we seem to have the most random of shite happen to us against typical odds) tells me anything, if there is a 0.05% of something happening, there’s a high likelihood I would be the person who finds themselves in that 0.05%.

This fear is compounded by my constantly running across stories of women who suddenly discovered they were pregnant after 9 months of having zero reason to suspect they would be. Like the woman recently who assumed she was just gaining a little weight (you hear that one all the time with these mystery pregnancies) who also had the totally inexplicable additional excuse that she still got her period during the 8 months she was unknowingly pregnant. Her period, you guys. Pretty much the most foolproof way to know you’re not pregnant apart from taking an actual pregnancy test, which you would never think to do if you were, you know, still getting your period.

It’s these one-in-a-million instances of the nearly impossible happening that make my gut drop every time I see an extra pound around my midsection. Forget the logical explanations that I don’t always eat the best and I rarely exercise as much as I should and I’m now 30-mumble years old and my metabolism isn’t the hotshot it used to be. I’m completely aware of all of these (much more solid) facts and factors, but that doesn’t keep me from having a mini panic attack every time I have a little trouble buttoning up my jeans.

 

I’m the Same Way About Brain Aneurysms

Years ago, the husband of a friend of a colleague at my day job passed away in his sleep due to a brain aneurysm. No warning signs, no prior health problems — just a regular 30-something guy with a young family who went to bed early one night feeling sickish and never woke up. Ever since then, my number-one fear (number two being the whole unknown pregnancy thing) has been dying unexpectedly of an aneurysm.

There is statistically a 1.5% – 5% chance of this happening to me. But to my lizard brain, maths mean nothing and what seems of much greater import are random things like a) I’m prone to headaches, b) I sometimes go to bed early because I feel sickish, and c) I otherwise display zero symptoms of being at risk for an aneurysm, which is precisely what aneurysms-to-come want you to display (sneaky bastards). Add in the fact that Jonathan Crombie, who played the beloved Gilbert Blythe in the movie versions of the books about my namesake, recently died of a brain hemorrhage, and my lizard brain has all it needs to throw itself into high gear.

Tenuous personal similarities to potential symptoms? Check.

No way of telling if this rare ailment is about to strike? Check.

An attack on something that has great personal significance to me, which therefore must be a sign that an aneurysm is in my cards because I’m a firm believer there’s no such thing as coincidence? Check, and mate. Clearly, by lizard-brain logic, I have every right to be deathly afraid of this thing that has less chance of happening to me than being in a car crash.

 

This Is All Complete and Utter Nonsense, But Fears Don’t Work in a Sensible Manner

That’s what makes them so powerful and so difficult to conquer. If it were just a matter of talking yourself rationally out of them, we’d all be able to get over our fears and live like this girl all the time.

Granted, there’s a difference between irrational fears and phobias and more commonplace, reality-based fears, like the fear of trying something new or going against the crowd. If you do these things, you run a fairly decent risk of looking silly, falling on your face (at least at first) and other less-than-pleasant consequences most of us would rather avoid. And to a lizard brain that’s happy to run with even the slightest possibility of anything bad happening, a fairly decent risk — even of things that are less than lethal — is more than enough fodder to keep you from trying pretty much anything.

But I share my own ridiculous fears with you because, while extreme examples, they demonstrate with the sharpest clarity what our fears really are at the core: bad things that may or may not ever happen, which we allow to screw up our ability both to enjoy the good things that are happening and to invite future good things from happening.

Like the demons that haunt our innermost thoughts, fears have a tenuous basis in reality which they then extrapolate to form the most extreme and ominous of conclusions.

Suddenly, the possibility that you might look dumb if you try that new hobby means you will look dumb, and the thought of looking dumb becomes so huge and hulking you’d do anything to avoid it. (Even miss out on something you’ve been dying to try for years.)

Suddenly, the possibility your new business might not be a smashing success from the get-go means you will crash and burn in a horrible tangle of steaming wreckage, and the image of that wreckage fills your mind so completely you lose sight of all the reasons you wanted to start a business in the first place. All you see is smoke and gnarled-up metal and people running away screaming for their lives. (Somehow, all of these people have your face, because as long as you’re envisioning doomsday scenarios, you might as well make them as personally terrifying as possible.)

All of this is flimflammy B.S. Most things in life come with good and bad potential consequences, but if we let our fears steer the wheel, they will latch onto the worst-case outcomes every time, and they will keep us from all the good outcomes as often as they keep us from the bad.

You know what’s 100% mathematically, scientifically guaranteed to pose you no risk of anything bad ever happening to you? Never leaving your bed in the mornings. And even that’s not really foolproof, because you run the risk of things like depression and muscular atrophy and all the other health problems that come from a totally sedentary and boring-ass lifestyle. You can’t win, not in the game of “shielding yourself from anything bad ever occurring.” All you can do is try your level hardest to make sure the risks you’re taking on are calculated and intentional and have a potential payoff high enough they’re worth the potential bad stuff. (Tweet!)

And if you find that lizard brain of yours rearing up and trying to tell you otherwise? Imagine me freaking out over phantom pregnancies and unlikely brain ruptures and remind yourself that your somewhat justifiable fears are only a few degrees of separation removed from my ridiculous ones. They’re all in the same family. And that family is not worth spending your time around.

What fears are holding you back (reality-based, phobia or otherwise)? Let’s get ’em out in the open in the comments so they’ll lose some of their power.

Image:  JD Hancock / Flickr

Never miss a post! Sign up here and get a free copy of Your Guide to Calling It Quits.

  • Ivy Cadwell

    Well I pretty much had to comment on this one. Damn our
    lizard brains! My worst fear is getting in a horrible car accident with my kids
    in the car, and it being my fault. The worst part about this fear is that it’s
    not totally irrational…I don’t have the best driving record and the news
    tends to highlight every single deadly car crash (especially involving kids.)
    Isn’t it ironic how imaginative or brains can be when we are tormenting
    ourselves? I can see myself losing control and going off a bridge into water
    (and then having to choose which kid I am going to try to save, sick isn’t it?),
    or rolling the car and having that sinking feeling that my boys are in the back
    seat. All of this extra sucks because my mother is very sick and lives 2.5
    hours away and unless I never want to see her, I have to drive myself and my
    kids there (across 2 very long bridges of course) pretty often.

    There’s not really any talking my way out of this fear, so
    the only way I can get through it is to just have faith that it won’t happen.
    This is difficult for a nonreligious person but the only other option is to
    never see my mom—which just can’t happen, or to have my husband drive me, which
    would be giving in to the fear (and would be a huge inconvenience for him).

    The more we avoid our fears the more powerful they become
    and the more they cripple us. We live in a world where awful things could
    happen to us at any moment. But that’s the price we pay for the freedom to
    choose how we live. It’s not so bad when the alternative is living life in a
    padded room (where we could still have a brain aneurism).

    Thanks for another great, all too relatable post Kelly!

    • “The more we avoid our fears the more powerful they become and the more they cripple us. We live in a world where awful things could happen to us at any moment. But that’s the price we pay for the freedom to choose how we live. It’s not so bad when the alternative is living life in a padded room (where we could still have a brain aneurism).”

      I could not possibly have said it better myself. 🙂

      You’re right; the fear may never go away (knowing the nature of fears, esp. irrational ones, they probably won’t), but giving into them only makes them stronger. The best we can do is grit our teeth, cross our fingers and do the thing we fear anyway, hoping that maybe — just maybe — the next time we face it we’ll feel a little bolder.

  • r-evove

    Fantastic post Kelly!
    I’m petrified of public failure, mildly freaked out by air travel, and fear always has me second guessing my decisions.

    I’m glad you’ve written this piece and made me write my fears down. Acknowledging will at least help me see the trivial worry or fear and make me smarten up, if only a little. But the fear is there. Real danger or not – it’s there. It’s up to me to kick it down and overcome.

    Thanks!!

    • The fear will still be there even if you acknowledge it and can learn to laugh at it, and it may never entirely go away, but the important thing is how you train yourself to REACT to that fear. I love the Nelson Mandella quote, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” Damn straight.

  • My most intense irrational fear is to suddenly collapse and ooze bodily fluids all over everything and ruining everybody’s shoes. That and swallowing a bee. I’m not even kidding.

    • I don’t believe you ARE kidding. Because those sound precisely like the kinds of ridiculous, yet to us absolutely petrifying, things that make up the best (worst?) irrational fears.

      Hoping and praying you neither collapse & ooze nor swallow a bee. 🙂

  • I’ve just been going over this lately – in fact, I whacked a blog post up about it.

    Just recently, three fears have been derailing me:

    1) The fear that I’m setting up an uninspiring sideline. This one stops me before I really get started on anything. I’ve set paying work aside, quit communities, all that stuff.
    2) The fear that I don’t know what I’m doing – that I’m an amateur asking for a professional’s wage. I think I’m getting over this one at the moment, but then there’s:
    3) The fear that I have no one to ask for help. I tend to get lost in the big communities and no one in my local circles (that I know of) is starting out in freelancing like me – I’ve been to networking parties where everyone else seems to have established ventures and I’m the rank noob. I’d love to find some folks just one or two steps ahead of me so that this whole beginner’s process feels less lonely, but half the time I don’t know where to go.

    So I’ve decided to start asking. I’ve blogged this (so it’ll show up in most of my social media channels) and put it up on LinkedIn and Fiverr, so hopefully I’ll make some connections soon!

    • A mastermind group of people who are in the same place you are can be SO helpful. It’s such a comfort to know others are struggling with the same things you are, and you can list each other up by providing perspective and insight you may not reach on your own. I’d also recommend tapping any bloggers you follow/interact with to see if they’d be interested. You can set up a private FB group for yourselves, do occasional Google Hangouts, whatever works best. Hope you can make some connections!

    • Oh, and P.S. — I still feel like an amateur asking for a professional’s wage. I don’t think that Impostor Syndrome ever fully goes away; you just learn to deal with it better. 🙂

  • Alyssa

    I have an intense fear of awkward silences when I socailize, and most the time that nightmare comes true. I always premeditate on what im gonna say and it helps… Somewhat. I realize once I run out of those things to say I completely blank out. Then it gets AWKWARD, and they can sense my awkwardness! dont go out at all or have any friends. Ive been homeschooled all my life, because of a heart condition. Im alot better now and im still not living my life. Even in family occasions I cant just chill and hang with the cousins that are my age. I chill with the older folks!