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Exploring What Underlies Your Fears

On the surface, your blood phobia might simply be that: You’re afraid of blood. Or maybe you fear snakes because of their shape and appearance. Maybe you fear giving a speech because you don’t like talking in front of big crowds. Maybe you fear heights because you get dizzy and don’t want to fall off a steep hill or long flight of stairs.

But your fears, which seem straightforward enough, might hold deeper metaphors and meanings. “[S]ometimes our fears are monikers for deeper truths,” said Joe Dilley, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating anxiety.

For instance, one of Dilley’s clients has a blood phobia. They’re working through her fear, and she’s close to scheduling an appointment to have her blood drawn. But they’ve also discovered that some of her anxiety stems from her relationship with her mother. The client finds her mom to be very needy, and she feels “bled dry” after interacting with her.

In addition, they’re exploring the client’s sense of loss after her father’s early departure from her life. They’re describing it as “a loss of her very bloodline.”

Dilley also works with a young man who has a variant of agoraphobia, or “fear of open spaces.” He feared leaving the house and kept himself busy with bizarre, and often unsafe activities. Dilley realized that his client’s fear of leaving the house stemmed from a deeper aversion to encountering any open space.

He feared having gaps in his schedule, which triggered feelings of boredom and a hyper-awareness of his loneliness, said Dilley, who co-founded a private practice in Los Angeles with his wife, Dr. Carrie Dilley. He feared all the things that could go wrong if he left his house. He feared sleepovers, which he felt created too much uncertainty, and, again, the potential for things to go wrong.

According to Dilley, the client’s subconscious process might have gone something like this: “Darkness, all night, without my familiar surroundings and my parents? No thank you. I’ll stay home. But I also want to make sure I have something to do. So I’ll find anything to do even if it’s risky or inappropriate.”

Your fears may reveal all kinds of deeper truths. For instance, a fear of heights also might reveal a fear of achievement. You fear plummeting from the height you’ve reached. “The higher up we get, the more we have to lose,” Dilley said.

Beneath the fear of public speaking might be the fear of being ostracized, rebuked or dismissed, he said. Some people might fear public speaking for the opposite reason: It’s too intimate. And by speaking in public, they’ll be “coming too close to others.”

Identifying your underlying fears makes them more manageable, Dilley said. It helps us to understand why these fears exist. “They become a part of our journey, an element of a greater narrative, rather than these random and overbearing obstacles that oppress us.”

It also helps to prevent negative self-talk, Dilley said. “What’s the matter with me that I can’t get over my fear of snakes?” becomes “Of course I want to avoid the ‘snake in the grass,’ whether literal, or proverbial. I don’t want to come upon a predator under a rock, nor do I want to be taken by surprise by something slippery and dangerous in my relationships.”

When you work through your fears, you can address both the apparent fear and the underlying metaphors. For instance, working on your fear of heights helps you attend meetings at the top floor of a skyscraper. And it helps you pursue “your wildest dreams without as much fear of whether and how you’re gonna ‘stay on top’ once you get there,” Dilley said.

Delving into your fears is best done with the help of a therapist, said Dilley, also author of the book The Game Is Playing Your Kid: How to Unplug & Reconnect in the Digital Age. Our underlying fears are rarely directly accessible to us. “High-quality introspection is less of an individual … process, and more of a relational and organic one.” At its core, “the pursuit of mental health…entails making the unconscious conscious [and] is like dancing the tango: ‘It takes two,’ as they say.”

How does therapy help?

Dilley is helping his client, the young man from above, tolerate his anxiety when he faces different types of openness. They’re also working on building communication and interpersonal skills and engaging in entertaining but appropriate activities at home.

If someone fears public speaking (because of potentially being embarrassed or dismissed), Dilley works with them on not placing their entire self-worth inside other people’s heads. He and his client acknowledge that what others think is important but it’s no longer paramount. Dilley shared this example of what a client might say to themselves:

“I hope I crush this speech and that the crowd loves it. It would feel really good to me to get good feedback about it. I care very much what people think of me and how I present myself … But that’s certainly not where my total value ultimately lies, and this isn’t the first and won’t be the last speaking opportunity I get. So if something goes wrong, which I don’t expect to be the case anyway, I’ll be OK. In fact, if that happens, I’ll use any negative feedback constructively for next time, and I’ll accept with appreciation any grace the audience offers me.”

If someone fears snakes in a literal and figurative way, Dilley helps the person figure out how they can still live their fullest life. They work on how the client can “undertake both outdoor and relational adventure without undue apprehension that would either hold [them] back or make [them] too nervous to enjoy the adventure.”

Our fears aren’t random or stupid (though when we’re frustrated, that’s exactly how we see them). Instead, they may reveal important truths. And when we work through those fears and truths, we feel better — and live healthier, more fulfilling lives.

Spider photo available from Shutterstock

Exploring What Underlies Your Fears

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Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). Exploring What Underlies Your Fears. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 13 Dec 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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