When I was about 5, I was “attacked” by a dog. It didn’t bite me, but it came close. It was my neighbor’s dog so after it made its move at me, I ran. I still have a vivid memory of the dog chasing me and crashing into our front door. If you asked me today, I would tell you that I don’t think the dog meant me harm. I think it was being playful and I read the situation wrong. What’s important to understand is to the small, five-year-old me, it was a big deal.
I spent the next 19 years of my life avoiding dogs at all costs. During Halloween, I would have friends get candy for me at houses where I could hear barking. If a friend had a dog, I would never go to their house and only have them come to mine. And let’s not forget my parents’ house. If a dog was outside, I stayed inside!
This plan worked out fairly well for me over these 19 years. Sure I missed out on a few things, but nothing major. My plan all came to sudden, shocking halt when I obtained my first job out of college. I was doing in-home therapy for families that were referred to an agency due to problems in the home. The case was given to me and when I called, I could hear multiple dogs barking in the background. When I mentioned this to the parent, they informed me that it was their 9 dogs barking in the background. I politely ended the conversation and informed them that someone would be in touch soon.
I went to my supervisor and explained that due to the large number of dogs in the home and my fear, I could not take the case. My supervisor knew that I was in a relationship and saving money to buy my girlfriend an engagement ring. Her exact words to me were, “Well if you want to buy that girlfriend a ring, you will go see this family or you are fired.” At that moment, I learned that avoiding would no longer work for me.
Many of my clients come to me and talk about their fears or anxiety. Some of the children or teens that I work with fear going to school or getting a bad grade on a test. Others fear making a mistake in a social setting or letting their parents down. Some of the adults I work with tell me they are afraid of obtaining a new job because the challenges are unknown or could be worse.
We talk about how the easiest way to cope with these fears is to avoid them. Just like me with dogs: if you stay away from the fear, it can’t upset you. The problem with avoidance is that there is no progress. If you never address your fears, you stay stagnant. Remaining still with no advancement can be torturous to someone; imagine career-wise doing the same thing every day for years. Or missing social event after social event because fear of saying the wrong thing. All of these factors can have a lasting impact on one’s self-esteem.
The best tool is this: helping people find ways to confront their fears. First, you need to learn some basic coping skills. You need to build your toolbox so that you are prepared for the job. If you are building a tree house, you need a saw to cut the wood. But without a hammer, you can not complete the task, as a saw is no good for hammering. We work on adding tools, coping skills, or changing perspective so that we can then manage our fears in a constructive way.
As for me with the dogs, I faced my fear. Many of the concepts that I teach to my clients I applied to myself. I used my toolbox and went into the home. All 9 dogs roamed freely. Some jumped on me, some sat at my side, others ignored me. But I remained calm, and focused on the task at hand and can proudly tell you that the family was in a better spot after our 6 months of work was completed. Yes, I did this once a week, every week for 6 months.
If you can become open to learning some coping skills, practicing the techniques, and then using them when stressed, you too can stop avoiding your fears.