Back story of my problem. When I was a child my step-father molested me. Since then, I have this irrational fear of white middle-aged men that are bigger than me. As soon as they grow elderly and feeble that fear dissipates, and up until they are middle-aged (under 40-ish) they are awesome. For the longest time I ignored my phobia, realizing that it was silly to fear every white middle aged man that crossed my path. I also know rationally that not every middle aged man is out to get me. So here is my problem today.
My fiance’s boss and a lot of his co-workers hug me when I drop by or run into them at company events. Usually, I get an uncomfortable lurch in my stomach, but I will it away and try to be nice. I’ve been doing this for about three years. One day I couldn’t ignore the feelings any longer and then I couldn’t stop thinking about them. My punishment for not dealing with it 15 years ago I guess. Suddenly it’s become something that I can’t handle anymore, but they always hug me and I can’t just tell them not to. They will think that I hate them or that they’ve done something wrong.
The only way to stop them from thinking that way is to open up about the molestation (which I don’t want to do with them), and that would lead to them being insulted by me comparing my experience with a child molester to them. Or, they understand and stare at me like I’m some fragile nutcase for the rest of my existence. Not something I want. Also, this is all kind of out of the blue for them. I haven’t had an issue with it in their eyes for 3 years. I can’t just say, “Nope sorry, can’t hug me anymore. It makes me feel sick.” So… I’ve been avoiding them. Which they are starting to wise up to. How do I get over this fear? I don’t know what to do. I’ve opened up to people about being molested, and I’m fairly open about what happened to me if asked directly, but I don’t believe this is appropriate to open up to my fiance’s boss about. Is there anything I can try to do that will help me confront and get over this craziness I’m feeling?
A: You don’t have an “irrational” fear. You had a terrible experience. Memories of that experience are being triggered by men who remind you of the perpetrator when they get physically close. This is very common and nothing to be ashamed of.
You are wise not to share your history with your fiance’s colleagues. It’s not their business and it could be awkward all around. I hope your fiance can provide you with some extra support when you are with his coworkers. it’s absolutely apropriate for you to draw some boundaries around your personal space. However, as you pointed out, after three years it’s difficult to change things with this particular group without an explanation. But you can certainly be more assertive about who you will accept hugs from in the future.
The other solution to your current situation is to get into some therapy to help you separate the present from the past. I don’t see this as a “punishment for not dealing with it 15 years ago.” Instead, I hope you see it as an opportunity to put an ugly event behind you now that you are older, stronger, and able to make effective use of treatment. I expect it’s terrible to feel like your stepfather still has any power over you. You don’t want what he did to determine how you react to other people who are only being warm and welcoming, not abusive. Therapy can help you regain your sense of personal choice and power.
At only 25, you have a lot of life ahead of you. I hope you will get the help you need to have a life free from this kind of fear.
I wish you well.
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 26 Dec 2012
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2012). Afraid of Middle-Aged Men. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 13, 2013, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2012/12/26/im-afraid-of-middle-aged-men/