Are We Attracted to the Things We Fear?

Magnet and FilingsConventional psychological wisdom says that we avoid the things we fear. That avoidance is, in fact, one of the primary indications that fear is present. But what about those cases in which our fears actually push us into the arms of their objects? What about the boyfriend who is so afraid his girlfriend will leave him for someone else that his controlling, paranoid behavior causes her to do just that? What about the writer who is so afraid her writing will never be worthy of publication that she can never bring herself to sit down at her desk, and so guarantees that her fear will come true?

In a way, this phenomenon resembles the “Law of Attraction” popularized by the movie (and subsequent book) The Secret. According to this so-called “law,” whatever preoccupies your thoughts, whether good or bad, is what you end up attracting to yourself in time and space. This sort of predictable, one-to-one causal relationship between one’s thoughts and one’s circumstances seems highly implausible to me, even morally repugnant. I don’t see anything to be gained–and a great deal to be lost–by insisting that anyone beset by misfortune brought it upon themselves through negative thinking. However, I do think that there are certain cases in which our fears–especially ones that are related to emotional needs–can have this attractive effect.

Sometimes the attractive effect is inadvertent: for instance, the boyfriend may really believe he’ll be able to keep his girlfriend faithful if he monitors all her comings and goings, while his actions nonetheless do the opposite. On the other hand, I think there are many cases in which we purposely behave so as to actualize our fears. It’s not a motivation we frequently articulate–in fact, it may appear to us incomprehensible as a motivation–but if I honestly examine my own life, I can come up with more than one example of an action I took with some level of awareness that the result would be something I feared. In these cases, it felt almost as though the object of my fear was drawing me in, fascinating me to such a degree that I felt compelled to view it from close range. A mundane example is the fear I have of upsetting people. I’m a pretty dyed-in-the-wool people pleaser, but there are nevertheless moments in my life when I can feel I’m very close to provoking someone to anger and I take that extra step knowing full well that I’m bringing on myself one of the things I hate most in the world.

Behaving in this way may seem perverse. Like a self-directed form of Schadenfreude. And yet, the more I think about the nature of fear, the more I think that this movement toward the objects of our fear is healthy. That in fact it’s a sign of our desire for growth.

Often, facing our fears is the only way to overcome them. Only by heading straight for the mouth of the lion can we test the veracity of our fears, test whether the thing we fear is really as bad as we think, or our ability to deal with it really so meager. There are two times in my life in which I can remember feeling absolutely fearless, as if there was nothing life could throw at me that I wouldn’t be able to handle. Both of those times, I had just been confronted with my biggest fear of all: abandonment. In the wake of being left by someone I loved, I hurt, certainly, but I also realized that I was much more capable of dealing with that loss than I had imagined. That realization gave me a striking feeling of invincibility. It didn’t last, of course. Not in that acute form. But I do keep with me the deep, emotional knowledge that I am actually quite strong. Quite capable of dealing with emotional losses, as painful as they may be. And that’s something I never would have known had I never experienced the thing I feared.

Recently, I was rereading Paulo Coelho’s novel Brida. In the opening chapters, a young woman who desires to learn magic is given her first lesson: staying all night alone in a forest. At first, she’s assailed by visions of snakes and scorpions. She cries out for help. But in the end, she stays where she is and finds an inner strength that finally allows her to fall asleep in peace.

I’m reminded, too, of the initiation rites recounted by Malidoma Patrice Somé in Of Water and the Spirit, his memoir of growing up among the Dagara in Burkina Faso. His elders put him through some grueling experiences, experiences that could have cost him his life but that in actuality took him through a door to an entirely new world, one with vast potential for healing. Confronting one’s deepest, most existential fears seems to be a common element in the journey to a fuller, more powerful life.

In the end, I think there are two sides to fear. On the one hand, fear can be incredibly debilitating. It can prevent us from doing all sorts of rewarding things: traveling, making art, trying a new job or career, developing or repairing an important relationship. But fear can also contain its own remedy, if our fixation on the things we fear eventually leads us to confront them and realize they’re not so frightful after all.

9 responses to “Are We Attracted to the Things We Fear?”

  1. I found myself completely captivated with your words and thoughts. Relishing the opportunity to think deeply and ponder philosophical viewpoints, this post really resonated with me. And the fact that you included references to Paulo Coelho certainly added to the allure (he being one of my favorite authors). I suspect that although this post speaks to my inner philosopher, the stronger attraction is due to my intimate relationship with fear. Fear of jumping off the edge into the abyss of darkness and uncertainty. The inner conflict between heart and mind is invisible on the exterior, but raging on the inside. However, each small step I take towards confronting that fear brings me closer to the realization that it doesn’t need to be as frightful as I make it out to be. Thank you for the wonderfully thought-provoking post. Your words are inspirational and therapeutic and very much appreciated 😉

    • Glad to know you also enjoy Coelho. Sometimes I’m not entirely sure what to make of him, but his writing always provokes new thoughts, and I really appreciate a writer who can consistently do that.

      • Exactly! I also sometimes seem to question his motivation and choice of direction. But, in the end, you have summed it up perfectly. He certainly provokes new thoughts and I suppose that is what my philosophical mind craves more than anything 😉 Thanks again for sharing!

  2. I totally agree. My worst fear for the last ten years has been my food allergic son having an anaphylactic reaction requiring the epipen. I spent years imagining and preparing for the worst, paralyzed often by my own fear, hysterically controlling at other times. He had an anaphylactic reaction a year ago and while it was terrifying, I, as you mention rose to the occasion . I was more powerful (as was he) than I ever expected to be should my worst fear arrive. Luckily there was a happy ending. But indeed often facing our fears is the very thing that dissolves them.

    • Yes! It continually surprises me how powerful we feel when we actually come face to face with our fears. There’s this huge reservoir of strength that in day-to-day life we aren’t aware of having access to, and it’s so relieving when we discover it. Thanks for sharing your story!

  3. I am so glad you wrote about the fear of doing big things (art, travel etc.) I have seen that in my own life when it comes to service. What I have noticed is that, the more afraid I am to do something (for someone) then the more likely it is that I am supposed to do it. In fact, the greater the fear, generally the bigger the effect. In my life this has meant things like being there for someone when they are dying of cancer. It is terrifying to wonder what you are walking into and how scary it can be to choose to walk into the fire, rather than run from it. But those moments of choosing to face the fear has led to some really extraordinary moments in my life. It can mean doing a generous act, asking a difficult question (and really listening to the response) or saying loving and supportive words to someone who may not be used to hearing that. It is all pretty terrifying, but feels deeply brave. I think overcoming a fear might be defined as “being freaked out and doing it anyway.”
    Take care and thanks!

    • Being with someone who’s dying is a beautiful example. Sickness and death can be so scary and off-putting when we aren’t used to them, but just like every other difficult event in life, they have the potential for such joy and beauty. Thank you so much for taking the time to write a comment about this.

  4. I came across your post when I searched for “why are we attracted to what we fear”. I think it’s quite fascinating the way we are attracted to what we fear. At times It does even seem quite perverse. I especially liked it when you said you think it’s a “self-directed form of Schadenfreude”. I agreed that you think this has something to do with our desire to growth. And I think it’s also people’s desire to master the fears, to be in control. For example, people who are traumatized by some events or the objects, they sometimes try to relive those traumas in order to become the master of the events or the objects as a way to heal themselves but I don’t know if they can heal themselves until they can consciously associate their desires to the causes of their desires which normally doesn’t happen considering how non-introspective people normally are. It’s just interesting how much our subconscious mind controls our behavior…

    • There does seem to be something about bringing subconscious desires to consciousness that, all by itself, promotes healing. Why our minds should work this way, I have no idea, but it’s fascinating.

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