Boo! It soon will be Halloween, that time of year when we try to scare people for fun.
But we all know that fear can be an all-year-long thing, but in a more serious way. Dig deep enough into any psychological conflict, and you're likely to find fears you've been avoiding.
But what are we so afraid of?
It's probably not zombies, ghosts or other imagined dangers of childhood. But when it comes to body image and weight, that's exactly what most of our adult fears are — imagined.
Do any of these sound familiar?
"I'm afraid eating bread will make me fat!"
"I'm afraid that if I don't look perfect my boyfriend won't be attracted to me!"
"I'm afraid everyone is looking at me because I gained weight!"
These are examples of the fears that patients verbalize in my office. But they only scratch the surface of the real fears that have been getting in the way of their lives, sometimes since childhood.
Typically, when we get spooked by a Halloween prank we react with fright and then, when we realize the danger's not real, we quickly relax, letting go of the anxiety. But with the fears that present psychological barriers to making positive changes in our lives, it's not that easy.
Typically, there's more to the fear than meets the eye (or the conscious mind, in this case). What we think we're afraid of is usually only the tip of the iceberg. Some icebergs are bigger than others, but you can bet there's more under the surface if it's an issue that's been getting in your way time and time again.
Here are some common fears that are often discovered when we explore our conflicts:
• Fear of being rejected, as when we're afraid of being turned down for a date or that our mate will stop loving us.
• Fear of being judged, as when we're afraid to express an opinion we think is unpopular.
• Fear of disapproval, as when we're afraid to disappoint someone.
• Fear of being alone, as when we're afraid to leave a bad relationship.
• Fear of being unworthy, as when we're afraid we're not good enough.
When a person repeatedly fails at managing eating problems and health, sometimes it's due simply to lack of education. But often it's due to psychological issues involving long-standing fears.
That's what can make eating and weight problems so complicated. The obese person's problem may not be as simple as the "right" diet. The anorexic person's problem is not as simple as eating more food and gaining weight. The bulimic's problem is not as simple as eating in a more controlled manner.
Everyone has fears. While many of us can get through life well despite some of our fears (for instance, we might carefully avoid public speaking), some people can find their lives completely controlled by their fears.
Fears that lead to distrusting others might get extreme enough that we never experiencing the rewards of intimacy. The multiple fears felt by an anorexic patient may get in the way of experiences such as getting a job, having a boyfriend, traveling, getting married, having children, or getting an education.
When we face our fears and try to conquer them, we're showing courage. Having courage does not mean acting once you're no longer afraid. It means charging forward despite being afraid.
The famous FDR quote, "So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance," describes a rational way to look at most fears.
Are you afraid to go to your reunion or holiday gathering because you've gained weight and think that everyone will be critical of you? Heeding that fear could make you pass up a good time with people who want to see you, not mock you.
It's not the reunion or party you need to be concerned about but the fact that you're not facing and conquering a baseless fear that's getting in the way of your life and happiness.
Lavinia Rodriguez, Ph.D., is a Tampa psychologist and expert in weight management. She is the author of "Mind Over Fat Matters: Psychological Barriers to Weight Management." Send your questions to her at [email protected]