The Big Bad Wolf: Fears and Nightmares

When I was little, I had a recurring nightmare starring The Big Bad Wolf. In my dream, the wolf was always after my grandmother (my father's mother, specifically—though I'm not sure why) and the only way to defeat the wolf was with orange juice. It was the strangest dream and in describing it I could never convince anyone it was actually frightening. Nonetheless, every night that this dream resurfaced, my heart would race, and I would wake up terrified. Why was orange juice the magical solution? Why was the wolf only after one of my grandmothers?

As children, our fears are generally of imaginary monsters, creepy crawlies, and ghastly ghouls, but as we grow older our fears take root in very real situations. I can put fingers on my childhood fears easily—they were concrete and simple. I went through a phase where I feared the ice age; due to my misunderstanding of how an ice age occurs, I thought I could wake up tomorrow and the planet be covered in ice. Once I realized that wasn't how it worked, I moved on escalators—I just knew my shoelace would get caught and my whole body would be sucked into the contraption. My first fear rooted in reality came during my teen years after an unfortunate run in with a spider. I ended up having to go to the hospital for a "non-poisonous" spider bite, which was followed by a jumping spider leaping over my shoulder. Since then I've become somewhat of an arachnophobe.

As an adult, it's hard for me to actually articulate my fears. Fears such as being unsuccessful are too vague to define... What is success, after all? I can list what I find to be important today, but will I feel the same way 20 years from now? Other fears are more personal—a fear of self, if you will. Not once as a child did I fear myself, who I was, or who I'd become. As an adult, many of my fears are rooted in self doubt, am I making the right decisions, am I a good person, etc. Such is the burden of of adulthood.

Unfortunately, as adults we don't always know what it is we're afraid of and may deny being afraid at all. The time we spend in denial allows that fear to grow and make decisions we wouldn't otherwise make. It's important for us to recognize and be in control of our fear, because some fears can be alleviated just by being aware and others can be improved.  Here are the top five fears I unearthed in myself and how I've learned to deal with them.

A little music on the subject to enjoy as you read
(it's Spotify so you'll have to have the Spotify app downloaded, unfortunately—
I'm still working on how to embed flash audio):

5. Fear of Spiders

Yes, they still rank high on my list of fears. My fear of spiders stems from my survival instincts. Once I learned I was allergic to non-poisonous spiders, my survival instincts went into protection mode, deeming all spiders dangerous. Where I live, they have Golden Silk Spiders which are huge (the body is about 2 inches long, so with the legs they're about the size of my hand). They hang from the trees I have to walk past to get to class everyday. I can't avoid them and succeed in life. So, I remind myself of three things: 1. they aren't poisonous so a bite would probably cause the same reaction as the last 2 spider bites I have survived, 2. I survived the last 2 spider bites, and 3. the spider is probably just as afraid of me as I am of him. The final two thoughts are cliché and obvious, but true, and impossible to get to without the first thought. In order to get to the first thought, I had to do some research, though! You can't get a handle on fear without diving in head first.

4. Fear of Failure

Failing is something we all do at one point or another, and its something we all fear to some degree (or at least we all hope to not fail). When I first started graduate school, a C on a test (which is failing by graduate level standards) was no big deal to me.

If at first you don't succeed, try try try again.William Edward Hickson

Now that I'm 5 years in, failure doesn't feel like a step to success, but an actual, end of all things, failure.  It's not exactly the failure I fear, but not being able to overcome the failure. This is one of those catch 22 fears; there are three possibilities: 1. I try and succeed, 2. I try and I fail, or 3. I don't try, which means I failed. That gives me about a 33% chance of not living up to my fear, which is probably why I fear it. Of course, if I don't try at all, I have a 0% chance, so again, there has to be a way to put this fear in check. Anyone ever heard the quote "Don't think, just do"? In general it's a horrible quote, but in this instance, it fits the bill perfectly. Why worry about tomorrow, when there's so much to do today. When I go to the lab, I don't worry about my dissertation defense, or my proposal defense, or even the paper publication. I take it one step at a time. Complete the experiment. Write the paper. Submit the paper. Start the next experiment. I don't have time to worry about whether I'm going to fail in the long run if I'm busy fixing the little failures and racking up small successes. When the larger picture gets to be too much, just take a small snapshot of it for the moment.

3. Fear of Not Having Enough Time

So I made my way past the ferocious spiders in to the building, I calmed my nerves and am working diligently on my research, but all of a sudden it's 3am. Everyday I think, I'm going to be home by 6 then I can blog.  On Wednesday of this week, I said I was going to do the next comic for Oasis, but here it is Saturday and I still haven't gotten a chance to even think about the comic. Most days it feels like I have to choose one: school or blogging. Logically, it makes the most sense to choose school; I'm not getting paid to blog—of course, I could be... But I love to write (not just blog) and I fear that I don't actually have the time to write, that choosing to make time to write is actually a mistake. This is also linked to a fear of failure (i.e. failing to produce "read-worthy" or sellable content versus a solid Software Engineering career). This is one of those fears where you have to make a choice and commit to it. Again, knowing (and admitting) that this is one of my problems helps me to identify possible solutions. Since admitting to this problem, I have become much more conscientious of my time. I have a fabulous Erin Condren Life Planner that keeps me organized and on schedule. I prioritize my to do list and stick to it, including the time I have set aside for priority writing like Oasis episodes or weekly posts here. Overcoming this fear relies on meticulous planning, will power, and time management.

2. Fear of Alone-ness

Right now, I like being alone. It's quiet, drama, and stress free. I have a small group of friends I talk to and hang out with when I get the chance, and that's the way I like it. Of course, now that my friends and I are rapidly approaching our 30's, a lot is changing. People are getting married, having children, moving to start their careers, etc. Naturally, your circle of friends shrinks as you get older, and the time to spend with your friends shrinks as well. There are two worse case scenarios, in my eyesight: 1. all of my friends are married except me and we don't hangout anymore or 2. we're all married, but we don't have time for each other. How horrible would that be? Admitting this allows me to make a better effort at being a good friend. If/When I do get married (or even just during the dating process), I'll remember to make time for my friends. After all, they might have the exact same fear.

1. Fear of Becoming "the Crazy Cat Lady"

The old lady at the end of the block with crazy hair, no husband, and 10 cats... I totally fit the profile: socially awkward, currently single, with 1 cat already. Don't get me wrong, I like dogs, too, but I have a thing about large dogs in small apartments not to mention too busy of a schedule to properly care for a dog. I'm not very social, and not in the "I don't know how to be" but the "I don't care to be" kind of way. Since I don't care to be social, it's not often I meet people that I just love to be around, let alone a guy that I love to be around. Who knows when I'll get married (if I'll get married). Which of course would leave me in prime position to be the Crazy Cat Lady. Now this is easily solvable—I could just go against my own instincts and be the opposite of me. I could get rid of my cat (not happening, I love Bubbles) and/or not get any more cats (and I probably won't, I'm content with one). I could be more sociable. But why become a totally different person to run away from a fear? Again, we're talking about a fear of self. The only way to deal with this bad boy, is to accept it. It is very possible that 20 years from now I will be the Crazy Cat Lady on the block, sigh. If that does happen, I'm going to be the coolest Crazy Cat Lady you'll ever meet, though!

What's your biggest fear (don't worry you don't have to admit it to the internet, just yourself)? Have you managed to deal with it or is it still an obstacle? Share your experiences below, if you feel so moved!

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