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Weekly Blog #72 - Existential dreads... or 'how to unlearn fear'

I am not an expert on anxieties or depression. I believe that I have anxieties as everyone else does. Sometimes I'm aware of them, most of the times I'm not - although my conscience is telling me that something doesn't feel right. I also fear a great many things. I am not going to go into details but there is at least one thing that frightens me on a daily basis. One existential dread. One small reminder of my weaknesses, vulnerabilities, shortcomings, flaws that I have to reflect on and deal with in some way or another. Every. Single. Day.

Skinner's Rats...

I've recently stumbled across an analysis of Skinner's experiments with rats. Not a scientific analysis, rather one from a philosophical standpoint. Most of us know about Skinner's Box and his experiments with rats. But not only has Skinner been conditioning rats, he's also taught dogs, pigeons, and all kinds of other animals. Even for military purposes. Skinner was no joke!

According to the analysis, Skinner didn't teach the rats fear as many of us might think. The rats in Skinner's experiments learned that they were safe. At least until Skinner gave them another electric shock. These electric shocks are what I mean when I'm talking about daily existential dreads... You feel safe until something or someone gives you another little electric shock to remind you that your basic state of being is not a safe one.

Think of a 3-year old. The natural state of a 3-year old is not a state of safety and peace that he or she feels in his mother's or father's arms. If you leave this child alone in a crowded mall and walk away from it, at a certain point - some sooner, some later - it will probably start to cry. It feels unsafe alone, it gets scared. Yours and my natural state of being is not safety, it's much rather some form of fear and uncertainty. The feeling of safety occurs because we do something about our fears. We act to feel safe, we unlearn fear. And we do that all the time.

Here's a snippet from the analysis on Skinner's experiments: “Skinner has not not taught the rat fear. The rat knows everything about fear. It learned that it was safe - but it was wrong. It’s a really important thing to understand - also about what you’re like. Anxiety needs to explanation. Depression - that needs no explanation either. What needs explanation is the question how in the hell you ever feel secure and 'together' ever? That’s the mystery! And partly the way you do that is by never going anywhere where you’d get upset. You stay in your territory.”

Dealing with adversity...

That is exactly what I've done for most of my life. Not the part with the rats, of course, but the "staying in your territory" bit. I don't like being in uncomfortable situations, even though I usually handle them quite well. But who likes that, really? Yes, some people love the thrill of the unknown. Some people purposely seek discomfort. But these people are aware that situations where they meet the unknown are not safe. People like that challenge themselves. They put themselves into unsafe situations and figure out a way to deal with them.

I do believe that this is something all of us should do more. As long as we are in a safe spot that is. While we have the mental and physical capacity and capabilities to deal with challenging situations, we should put ourselves into these situations willingly. Here's a another quote that re-emphasises the aforementioned: "Don't hide unwanted things in the fog." The fog is referring to parts of our sub- and unconscious. We push things away into the these areas of our conscience. We create wilful blindness. There they dwell until they pop up again, become overwhelming, and require immediate action.

If you deal with unwanted or uncomfortable things while not being under immense stress or being affected by other factors that create chaos and disorder or induce fear and uncertainty, you can actively expand your above mentioned territory of safety. You will also be a bit more prepared if something from the outside enters your "comfort-zone" and shakes it up. I assume that's one way of developing resilience. You are not living the illusion of constant safety that is being torn apart once an unforeseen disaster strikes. You are more prepared for those situations that you get thrown into. You don't lose your balance as fast. You start figuring out what the fine line between order and chaos might be for you.

None of us is entitled to safety just because there are periods in our lives when we feel it in abundance. Our inherent form of being is rattled with fear and uncertainty. We can't rely on others to create safety for us. We have to unlearn fear by reminding ourselves of this and trying to deal with adversity by facing our 'demons' willingly - as soon and as often as we can.

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