Under the heading of fear I include such emotions as worry, anxiety, nervousness, and panic. They are all forms of fear and vary in degree from the least intense — which is worry, to the most intense — which is panic. Fear and worry are created by two irrational ideas: (a) it is terrible and awful if things are not the way one would like them to be, and (b) if something is dangerous or fearsome, one should think about it, dwell upon it, and focus upon it endlessly in the belief that things will necessarily get worse.
You who are fearful persons see danger and threat in every situation, even in those that are clearly devoid of any danger. You convert a molehill into a Mt Everest. You get rejected, and you think it is the end of the world. If you don’t get a promotion, you think it is a horrible experience. Someone steals your parking place, and you think it is a catastrophe.
When you describe events in such extreme terms: horrible awful, end of the world, unbearable, tragic, and catastrophic, you are setting yourself up for a nervous reaction. How else could you feel? Are you supposed to feel calm and serene when you describe what you are facing in such alarming terms?
Examine issues very carefully to see if the one you are facing is really as bad as you say it is. In the vast majority of cases you will out of proportion. This is an extremely common human tendency and is the cornerstone of all emotional disturbances.
If you were to describe a rejection as a regrettable event rather than as a horrible one, wouldn’t you feel differently? Or if you thought of a demotion as a sad event rather than as a tragic one, wouldn’t that make a difference to you? In other words, if you define or describe what happens to you in less alarming terms such as: regrettable, unfortunate, disappointing, sad, annoying, or irritating, you would feel simply normally frustrated. But when you describe them in drastic ways, you are not only going to be frustrated, you are going to be frightened, scared, nervous, and worried out of your skin.
Try to imagine how difficult it is for you to be calm and resigned to unfortunate events in your life if you think that every bad event that happens to you is the end of the world. How can you tolerate something without being mightily up: everything you don’t like is a calamity? There is no way you can keep your stability and maturity and continue to carry on a pleasant relationship with someone if you are going to allow yourself to be destroyed emotionally because your perception of the entire event is way out of proportion? That is why the control of your fear is among the most important psychological tasks you need to learn.
Excessive passivity is unfortunately one of the forms of fear that destroys a great deal of happiness in very gentle people. Those of you who hate to assert yourselves are among the unhappiest of all persons I encounter. Yet, it is a pity that there are not more beautiful and giving people such as you. You do need to learn, however, not to be a coward when the need arises to stand up for yourself. I find there are five reasons why we act as cowards. Two of them are environmental and three are psychological.
The first reason why people behave as cowards is: they are afraid of being hurt physically. This makes good sense when you are facing a gorilla. If you know you are going to be pounded into the ground, run for your life. Nobody in his right mind wants to take on a physically superior opponent if he or she knows there is no chance of winning.
The second reason why we behave as cowards is: we are afraid of financial loss. The boss is always right. He writes out the cheques, and it is his business. If you don’t like what he is asking you to do, quit. If you value your job don’t argue with him too strenuously or you will find yourself out on the street.
The third reason we are timid and back off from our own convictions is that sometimes we are not sure of ourselves. We think, ‘Wouldn’t it be awful if I made a mistake?’ Suppose you wanted to buy a house but your mate argues strongly against it. Since you can’t know with certainty who is right, and because you have a great fear of being wrong, you give in to your lover’s decision. In the end you wind up very seldom getting things to go your way. What is so wrong about being wrong? If you make a decision and it turns out to be an unwise one, so be it. One of the best ways to learn how to make sound decisions is to make many decisions. The more experience you get the more you are going to learn what to consider in making smart decisions. If you don’t take the opportunity to learn by your errors, your partner does.
The fourth reason for not standing up for yourself is a fear of injuring the other person’s feelings. After all, not giving people what they want often leaves them angry, depressed, hurt, resentful, and tearful. What you need to understand, however, is that you have not hurt that person’s feelings. You can only hurt people physically, not emotionally. If someone wants to get depressed, angry, or nervous over one of your acts, that’s their problem, not yours. They take that frustration and insist upon converting it into an emotional disturbance. Then they have the gall to turn around and say to you ‘Look how you are upsetting me.’ Your response should be ‘Oh, I’m sorry dear, but you are doing this to yourself. Why don’t you read a book, or go and talk to a clinical psychologist about your disturbance? I certainly don’t want to see you disturbed every time I make a suggestion that you don’t like. I hope you get over your problem very soon.’
And the fifth general reason why people do not assert themselves is: they fear rejection. They think rejection is painful, that it has to hurt, and that not being loved or approved by others is among the most horrible experiences in the whole world. Certainly being rejected hurts, but no more than you allow it to. All of you have been upset by the rejection of people whom you eventually didn’t really much care about. At first rejection hurt, then you didn’t care at all. Why is that? Because you convinced yourself that you didn’t need that person’s love and approval. Suppose you could have told yourself that immediately upon the first rejection? Can’t you see how you would have been spared a lot of unnecessary pain?
If for a period of time, with a particular person, you are not having the kind of loving relationship that you want, it is hardly a catastrophe. It is not tragic; it is just regrettable. Do what you can to improve the situation and if it doesn’t work, don’t worry. There are always other people that one can love. It is also equally important to make sure people don’t hate you. Those who can stab you in the back and are much more a cause of concern than someone who doesn’t love you. So if you want to be greatly concerned about anything, be concerned about being hated, not unloved.
I have reviewed only briefly the self-defeating emotions that make it very difficult to achieve toleration without resentment. If you want to be a mature and loving person despite the negative behaviour of another, you cannot achieve this goal if you are highly disturbed. To return goodness for evil you are required to be in control of yourself.