Pet Fears

Stuffed animals come in all species, but there is some predominance of ferocious creatures in the cuddly toy department. Young children playing with their favorite T. rex or dragon or tiger will often ventriloquize for them, producing a lot of fierce roaring and threatening to eat up anyone in their path. They make pets of the wildest predators as easily as the softest lamb or bunny. All is not sugar and spice in the minds of young children. Savage beasts must be tamed, from inside as well as out. As Edna Millay noted, “The pictures painted on the inner eyelids of infants just before they sleep Are not in pastel.”

There is a clue here to some ways that adults try to manage their anxieties. I have often found that when faced with something very big, which someone might obviously worry about, they instead can be found worrying about something else, often something quite small and only weakly related. For example, a patient who was acting in an off-Broadway play learned that a well-known critic was due to attend a coming performance. A good review could be a springboard for her career as well as good for the run of her current show. She began ruminating about some unsatisfactory details of her wardrobe, in really quite some detail. Though clearly an actor’s costume is a part of their performance, the urgent way in which minor details were being marshaled and alterations catalogued hinted that something was up.

What would we imagine a drama critic to be most interested in when reviewing a show, and particularly when attending to the actors? Probably the acting. Probably not the costumes, all other things being equal. Now although having gone to drama school and not costume design school, my patient had become hyper focused on tweaking her costume. All the years invested in her craft became invisible.

We would guess that her great fear was that she would fail to impress with her acting. But the quality of her acting is something which, barring accidents on the night, is probably already determined. She was not likely to improve or deteriorate drastically in the span of a few days. What did seem like it could be wrangled in such a time was her costume. Her big fear, call it her wild fear, was failing to do a good job as an actor. But that fear, seeming out of her control, got bumped for a smaller, seemingly more controllable problem, call it her pet fear.

Here is another, similar example. A patient had recently been doing well in his engineering career after a few bumpy years at the start. Interpersonal problems made it hard to advance early on, despite good technical knowledge of his field. Job changes and short-term positions made progress slow, with several lateral moves from company to company. After considerable work in therapy he was able to manage the social parts of his work much better and had established a solid track record and good relationships in his current firm. However, his current position was not quite his ideal career. He had for a while wanted to move to a less technical and higher status branch of his field, with a more forgiving schedule and hours and the opportunity for more creativity.

In discussion we had gotten to the point where he had decided to start applying for jobs in his preferred area. But we had gotten to this point more than once. The sticking point appeared to be his resume, which needed to be updated before he could begin his search. For such a short document, the resume provided a very lengthy delay. There first materialized a series of problems with getting started on it, including various computer issues that delayed getting to work on it at all. There then followed difficulties with content, formatting, fonts, graphics, paper, and ink — in fact almost any aspect of producing a resume that one could imagine. Each detail had a gravity that kept him firmly in place for weeks.

The repetition of obstacles is a nice avenue for noticing one’s own role in standing still. Once or twice is a coincidence, but one problem after another becomes impossible to ignore as a related sequence and pattern. His resume had become a pet fear. It had taken over for a more penumbral and dangerous wild fear - of failing again in a slightly different field in all of the ways that he failed painfully in his first. With time this wild fear could be seen as less dangerous than imagined, with the helpful reminder of his success in taming his own difficult impulses in his current position. The pet fear, finishing his resume, lost its interest for him as his wild fear diminished in threat, allowing it to be completed and job-hunting to begin.

When wild fears cannot be faced, we often turn to pet fears that seem more manageable. The young child often domesticates the very thing of which they might be expected to be afraid, taking its power (retaking it really) for their own or rendering it harmless, a mere paper tiger. Adults tend to opt for a more distant relative of this method, where the real danger is ignored and another put in its place, a tamer, more tractable problem than the one which we feel, in the back of our minds, unprepared to face. Putting the wild fear in perspective leaves the pet fear without its function and one can get back to tackling the most relevant problems instead of such stand-ins and diversions.

Note: individual details have been changed and disguised.