The danger of not knowing
When it comes to our fears ignorance is not bliss. It is a common reaction to want to know nothing about spiders, however I encourage everyone I work with to get curious. Curiosity allows us to learn about ourselves and how we can improve.
Fear lurks in the dark. When we create blind spots through avoidance and ignorance our imagination will fill it with our darkest thoughts.
Not knowing creates some incredibly powerful emotions
Surprise: The movement of spiders deeply unsettles many people and this triggers surprise which is a very powerful emotional stimulant. Yes, surprises come in both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ forms. Not knowing what a spider is going to do next often leads to thoughts of it running to the places you want least. How do you eliminate surprise? You get smart and you get curious. And when you do, you will find that all species of spiders will move and behave differently and in different contexts.
Disgust: I will be the first to admit that spiders are quite unlike humans. In general we have warm and fuzzy feelings towards penguins and meerkats. They move, look and behave a lot like playful children and in many ways we find it cute and endearing. Spiders on the other hand have a whole host of behaviours that are radically different to us and most of all they don’t look anything like us. It is much harder to relate to spiders, and when they do something fundamentally un-human we react with disgust.
Have you taken the time to see the ingenuity and beauty behind some of the spiders amazing and unique habits and capabilities? Have you ever considered a baby spider making its first web? They can live some pretty fascinating lives, you don’t have to fall in love with them, or even relate to them, simply look a little closer beyond the initial feeling of disgust and find out what is on the other side.
Fear: By now everybody has either heard a horror story about spiders, or even had or witnessed an experience that frightened them. This may have been watching your parent look terrified when you were an infant, thus teaching you a valuable but incorrect lesson that all spiders are dangerous/scary. These memories (even the the ones we can’t consciously recall) can come back and haunt us, and the next time we see a spider, rather than experiencing the reality of the present moment, we colour it with our past experiences.
It’s all in your head.
“Memories are like holograms: You recreate in your head the whole image of something that isn’t there” – Richard Bandler
If you have a nightmare that your drowning in a bowl of cereal it seems very real and very distressing right until the moment that you wake up and realise that you aren’t. Once you wake up and have shaken it off, you realise it was a silly dream, and you don’t need to try and wipe the cereal off your body or run away from bowls of cereal for the rest of your life.
Most people with a fear of spiders can recreate their terror simply by imagining their ‘nightmare spider encounter’ or by somebody telling them that they saw a spider in the room, and then live in that imagining.
It’s not the spider that causes the fear but our imagination.
The Difference that makes the difference
What specifically do you have to imagine to trigger your fear or phobia? is it something about the way it looks? The way it sounds? The way it moves? If you were a movie director creating the scene of your nightmare how do you make it so damned scary? Is it because it’s so large it’s like it’s on an imax screen. Is it because you see it running towards you at eye level? Is it because it’s hiding in the darkness and you can’t even see it? Is it the thickness or hairiness of the body? Is it that you can make it so you can feel it on your body?
If you watch a movie that is too scary for you what do you do to comfort yourself? Do you put your fingers in your ears? Turn the sound down? Close your eyes? Imagine something else? Move further away from the screen? Watch between your fingers? Squeeze a hand? Breathe? Tell yourself it’s just a film or that it isn’t real? Find something to laugh about? Change the channel?
What do you do that is most effective? with a little bit of practice you can do exactly the same thing to your memories and thoughts that you do to cope with a scary movie. You can become so good at this that your unconscious does it for you and then you will no longer have an irrational fear.
Is it okay for you to not be afraid?
Think about this. You may have been afraid your whole life and you might come from a family who are mostly afraid of spiders. What are the benefits of this for you? I can wager that on at least a few occasions you have bonded over stories about your fear of spiders with someone. Perhaps a fear of spiders is so common that it is something you have in common with people. And isn’t it nice to have something in common with people? Perhaps being known as the person who is scared of spiders has been valuable at some point. Maybe your unique scream made people notice you at school?
This might sound ridiculous, surely no one chooses to be afraid of spiders? I would answer that almost nobody does so consciously, but this isn’t a conscious choice. In much the same way many people hate to smoke, but when asked if they are willing to give up the identity of being a smoker they become uncomfortable, because being known as a smoker has had some value for them either in the past or into the present day.
This unusual twist of psychology is known as secondary gain, and it is one of the main reasons why we are stuck with a problem, because although it may not be particularly good for us and we recognise that it is damaging our life choices and even causing us emotional pain, we hold onto the problem because it has (or had) some value that we had never consciously considered before. It doesn’t make us bad or lazy or a ‘faker’, we just hadn’t considered that our problem had a hidden benefit. Once we’ve brought it into our conscious awareness and been brave enough to take ownership of it we can choose to keep our fear or let it go.
What value does “being afraid of spiders” hold for you? I bet if you are truthful to yourself you can find at least one reason and then probably several more.
Is it okay for you to not be afraid of spiders anymore?
Tom Powell is a coach and talking therapist who uses a range of techniques to help people move past their sticking points and to reach their goals. He has helped people with fears of spiders, heights, needles, wrists and more. He lives and works in Bristol and spends his free time going on adventures and enjoying the world.