When I was about 8 years old, we went on a holiday at the beach. Now, as long as I can remember I have been afraid to swim in the ocean. I am (and was) a very good swimmer, but the ocean scared me senseless. It is a shark thing… even if in areas where there are no sharks to be found. In fact, I was afraid of sharks in swimming pools as a kid. At least there I could rationally override that fear.
My father decided it was stupid that I was afraid to go in the water. So, he was going to make me face my fears. He picked me up to carry me out into the water. I screamed my lungs out. The people at the beach thought that I was being taken, and my mother had to jump in to assure them everything was okay.
I still remember that moment vividly, and it did absolutely nothing to help me overcome my fear.
I want to talk to you how toxic people push us beyond our limits in the name of “facing our fears”.
Learning to do things you are fearful of, is fine. Pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone, helps us grow. My toxic parents however, would kick me so far out of our comfort zone that I would go into panic mode. I’d be so many miles away from where I felt safe, that I would just freeze. Then, my parents would comment on how stupid or silly it was that I could not face my fears.
For a long time, I felt that there was something wrong with me because I was unable to control my fears by simply staring them in the face.
Facing Down Your Fears
In my early twenties, I worked at a job that was near impossible to reach by public transport. It was only about 12 miles away, but would take an hour an a half by train, metro and bus to reach. It would be only about 30 minutes by car, but I had until then not gotten my driving license. I decided that I would try for my scooter licence. That is just a written exam, and it was always the practical driving test that tripped me up (fear of failure leading to panic attacks are in no way conducive of good driving, just saying).
I passed the test with flying color, and was offered to buy my brother-in-laws Piaggio Ape, a small three-wheeled scooter with a little cab and a flatbed. It had the advantage of somewhat sheltering me from the elements while on my commute. Anyway, the first time I drove it, I freaked out. I had trouble getting started and controlling it, and the little cab made me feel claustrophobic. I was not at all confident to use it to get to work, but… I had been taught that you stare my fears down in that all or nothing way.
The first day, I did not even make it out of town. The engine stalled. I could not get it working again. I broke down in sobbing tears, and called my father to the rescue. It was a “failure” that was a source of much entertainment for my family members for a long time.
Making Fear Sound Like Failure
This is the point: you are taught to face your fears in such a manner that you induce panic and anxiety. Since that doesn’t help dealing with the situation, you are consequently ridiculed for your failure and your fear. That is not learning and growing, that is torture.
By pushing you way too far, the abuser ensure that you will “fail” at facing your fears. Fear and failure now become inextricably linked.
Every time you are afraid of something you feel like you are a failure.
Every time you fail at something, you become afraid of it.
It is an amazing mental trap, and it stays operative long after you leave the abuse behind you.