If you tell someone you have an animal phobia, there’s a good chance they will respond with unhelpful platitudes and alarming anecdotes. They may be completely well meaning, but plenty of well meaning people say uncomfortable things.
This has been on my mind because I had an incident the other day. It was a split-second ripple of silver as a snake fled under a shrub. Suffice it to say, the snake, who may not even live on the property, is now Lord and Master of my front yard. If I spend any amount of time standing there, a sense of panic starts to build until a voice starts yells in my brain, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING WHAT ARE YOU DOING IT’S GOING TO HAPPEN AGAIN. GET OUT OF HERE.” Like when you watch a horror movie and someone goes up to the dark attic.
My phobia is bad enough that I felt sort of icky and unhappy writing the last paragraph. This is why, from here on out, I will be using Miniature Schnauzers for all my examples*. Thanks to wikipedia, I just learned that ophidiophobia is something I have in common with one third of all adults. I couldn’t even find a specific term for a phobia of Miniature Schnauzers (though I apologize to any general sort of cynophobes reading), so I hope this is a less alarming way to put things.
And so, here is my list of unhelpful things to say to someone with an animal phobia:
You’re bigger than it.
Size has nothing to do with it. Of course I should be more afraid of the Giant Schnauzer, which can wrap itself around its prey and suffocate it. But a Miniature Schnauzer is small enough that you might not see it slithering along in the grass until you’ve almost stepped on it, and that freaks me out more.
It’s more afraid of you than you are of it.
No, no it isn’t. It’s a
reptile small canine, with an itty bitty reptile canine brain. It doesn’t have the mental capacity for a severe, activity-restricting phobia. Also, the degree of the animal’s fear has nothing to do with the degree of my own fear.
We don’t really have poisonous Miniature Schnauzers around here.
Doesn’t matter. Phobias aren’t about logic. The amount of actual danger isn’t always a factor in how strong the fear is. Even when it is a factor, it’s usually exaggerated. Eventually, this kind of knowledge can help dispel a phobia. Eventually. But having someone tell me—just as an offhand comment—that I shouldn’t be afraid comes across more as blowing off fears that are very real to me.
Except for this one type of poisonous Miniature Schnauzer you see now and then.
Yes, this is a legitimate concern. Now, because I have a severe phobia, I ‘ll be freaking out about the small possibility that I’ll one of the rare poisonous types.
That’s ok. A lot of people are afraid of them.
I don’t care. That sucks for those other people, and I feel for them. But other people sharing my phobia doesn’t change its negative impact on my life.
The most shocking story you can think of.
“You’re afraid of miniature schnauzers? Oh man, my Aunt Dolorothy used to have one. Poppy was so friendly, and she used to lick everybody’s hands. Then one day my Uncle Freddington found my aunt in a bathtub of ice water and no kidneys and Poppy had the kidneys in her food dish.”
ALL the horror stories you can think of involving that animal.
“You’re afraid of Miniature Schnauzers?”
“One time my cousin found a Miniature Schnauzer in her mailbox and it bit her.”
“One time my cousin found a Miniature Schnauzer in her tent, and she still can’t go camping.”
“One time I saw a Miniature Schnauzer eat a frog and it was so disgusting but I couldn’t look away.”
“One time a Miniature Schnauzer came at me when I was swimming, and let me tell you I never swam so fast in my life.”
“One time I was doing laundry in the basement—we live in an old house–and a Miniature Schnauzer came out of a crack in the wall and I dropped my hand towels that have a picture of a sweet little cottage on them.”
“Remember the restaurant that used to be on the corner of Main Street and MadeUp Road? Yeah, they had to shut that place down because the kitchen was infested with Miniature Schnauzers.”
I used to know someone who was aware of my phobia, and would come to me with any Miniature Schnauzer story she heard. I guess it was a way of bonding, a topic she figured we could talk about. A lot of these stories took place near where I lived, like at the trail where I went running. It became harder and harder for me to use that trail.
Exposure therapy is an effective way of dealing with a phobia, and learning to cope with this kind of story would be an eventual goal. However, one key to exposure therapy is that it be voluntary.
You probably shouldn’t watch…
Actually, some of the more helpful comments I’ve gotten are about movies to avoid. Sometimes I can handle them, and sometimes I can’t. But if someone goes on to describe the scene in question, it goes right back to being unhelpful. On the other hand, I could probably make a nice list of movies to watch if I want a mental challenge. Movies to watch when I’m a braver person.
Mostly, I’ve learned that if I tell anyone about my phobia, I must be clear. I’m not a little scared; I have an irrational fear to the point that I don’t want to see or hear anything at all. No stories, no pictures, no movies.
*A therapist told me that it’s better in the long run not to use code names like this. It’s another avoidant behavior, and it only gives the phobia more power. But it was funnier to me this way, because Schnauzer is a funny word.