Thursday, November 30, 2006

Facing One's Fears Must Lead to Action

"Fear is only as deep as the mind allows." -Japanese Proverb

Fear is one of those tricky emotions that can creep up on you when you least expect it. It is also incredibly difficult to discard; fear, like love, anger, or hurt must be lived until the mind it's inhabiting decides to let go and/or face it.

It reminds me of the small portion of my course that I spend on belief and behavior, and that my students always seem to love. We can imagine the link between belief and behavior as a feedback loop. Beliefs about ourselves, gathered from our own thoughts, stereotypes, or the reactions of others, lead us to perform particular behaviors. Once we've performed such behaviors, the feedback we receive on those behaviors (again, from ourselves, others, or societal standards), will influence our beliefs. Such feedback can obviously lead us to continue such behavior, modify it, or stop it altogether.

What I, and my students, find so interesting, is that if you want to really change another person's mind, research shows that the best way to do so is through changing that person's actions. This goes against the common sense understanding that we should just change our minds if we don't like someone, or even that through enough discussion we alone can change somebody else's mind. In actuality, changing somebody else's mind is quite a feat (and also explains the resistance you face when you try to rationally explain to somebody why they shouldn't be a republican or a democrat). The reactions of others can influence us, but unless we internalize their reactions over a long period, we will continue to act the way that we always have.*

Which gets me back to fear...

Fear is in the mind. Others can tell you not to fear all day long, but it is not really up to them to quell the fear (except for perhaps the father's presence calming a child's fear of monsters). It's in your mind, as the Japanese proverb says. This means that to truly get over a fear, a non-fearful behavior must be enacted. This is exactly what desensitization techniques like exposure therapy do - they introduce you to the object of your fear, you act non-fearful around the object, and then hopefully you change your beliefs about the object (i.e., give speeches if you're afraid of public speaking; ride a rollercoaster if you're afraid of heights, etc...). Pretty soon the fear will be gone, because a new non-fearful identity will come to life, along with the behaviors that reinforce that identity.

All of this is my fancy way of saying that what we fear can be overcome if we put in the time and effort. My task right now is facing the fear that I might actually be able to make it in the academic world. As much as I think it would be fun to be an actual professor (and leave the mediocre pay of a Ph.D. student), knowing what that life entails frankly scares me ****less. So, I am both fearful and hopeful about succeeding. Of course, to be truly honest with myself, I also know that I'm probably also afraid of failing. It's always easier to think you may have been able to do something than to never try. But, as you learn the older you get the easy thing is not always the right thing, and most of the time actually causes longer-term frustration on some level. Ultimately, I guess I've come to the place where I'm more fearful of never moving forward than I am at failing (or succeeding for that matter). Hopefully my actions will eventually lead me to reconceptualize my self, which is bound and determined right now to run the other way.

*For those who are wondering, the research indicates that the process of changing beliefs tends to take at least 6 months. So, others can influence us, but for that influence to be especially useful, it would need to be presented quite often for a long time. This is probably one reason why changing the behavior first, instead of the belief, works better for making lasting change.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


There will inevitably come times in one's life when forging into uncharted territory becomes a necessity. I have reached such a place in my life, and instead of facing it head on, I've decided to take a slight detour and try my hand at blogging in my spare time.

Perhaps it will become a romp through my psyche, but more likely, the posts on this blog will roughly follow the theme of its name. Life is always changing, and so is the self.

Welcome to my thoughts. I encourage you to contribute yours as well.