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  • Pamela S

It's Not, Dr. Phil

Updated: Oct 23, 2020

Fear is a funny thing in children. From a grownup perspective, we see small childhood fears as innocent and sometimes funny. But to a child, an innocuous fear can produce the most terrifying experience.

I remember sitting in my 3rd grade class, playing with the perforated opening of a Kleenex box. I did not understand why we all had to bring in these boxes of tissue, and I was unsure of what I was supposed to do with mine. I never used Kleenex, and would certainly not use a whole box by myself. With my finger, I had pushed around the entire outline of the cover until I basically opened it. When the teacher began calling our names to give her our boxes, I realized with horror what I had done as I looked down at my open box. Being at the end of the alphabet by last name, I had to sit through all the names being called, and watch as everyone brought up their pristine boxes. When it was my turn, I slowly walked up to the teacher's desk as I fought back tears, and confessed my sin.

"I'm sorry. I accidentally opened my box," I said quietly with chin down, as I handed her my defiled box.

"Oh, that's okay," the young teacher said lightly, "we'll use your box first."

She then plopped my box squarely on the corner of her desk for all to see, which caused me a flash of mortification until I realized that she was not angry. I returned to my seat with a mixture of relief and confusion. I was still flummoxed as to why one person would need so many boxes of Kleenex.

We all carry our childhood fears forward into adulthood until we reprocess them from a mature perspective. Our coping mechanisms can morph into personal delusional habits that we faithfully indulge for decades. We need to ask ourselves often in our best Dr. Phil voice, "How's that working for you?"

Until shamefully recently, I would be sure that the shower was turned on before the toilet stopped running. It was just something that I did every day, and if the toilet stopped before I got the shower on, then I worried with a fleeting sense that it was bad luck. This sub-mental processing was so ingrained and habitual that I never noticed it on a conscious level. One day, when I was tripping over a towel to get to the shower quickly, I allowed myself to think back and reprocess.

We need to ask ourselves often in our best Dr. Phil voice, "How's that working for you?"

As a small child of four or five, when I should have still been in a bathtub, I was obliged to take a shower each morning before school. I was afraid of the shocking sound of the shower when it first came on, so I would have my older sister turn on the shower for me. After awhile, I figured out that if the toilet were still running when I turned on the shower myself, the sound was not so jolting. Ergo, a rational habit formed to ease my fear. Little did I know that habit would stay with me for forty years, long after its shelf-life expired.

Unfortunately, many of our outdated coping habits, especially in our relationships with others, are not so clear cut and easily dissuaded. I imagine most would take more to fix than a mere reflection while showering. Long ago, I used to think that behavioral therapy was the only way to uncover and dispel fear. Now I know that while therapy has its place, it is just one of many tools in a toolbox. I jumped from one self-help modality to another in my thirties, spending time and money on my new hobby of self discovery. Most helped in at least some small way, a few in sweeping ways.

The one that I slowly realized helped me the most was the one I should have started with in the first place. It is pretty much summed up in Philippians 4:6-8.

"Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." - Philippians 4:6-8

I first learned this verse in my Bradley birthing class for my first child. I was so fearful of getting this wiggly baby out of my body that I found such peace in this verse. In fact, it was the first time ever that Scripture impacted me. I wrote it on a card and brought it with me to the hospital. Instead of letting my mind race with fear, I would say to myself, "Whatever is pure and lovely, think about these things." My wiggly baby is now a grown woman herself, and I am still struck by this simple verse and all that it touches in me. It's definitely working for me.

(Addendum: I found out a few hours after I wrote this post, at evening Mass, that this Philippians passage is the second reading for today.)

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