My blood phobia revealed itself during biology class in primary school. Our teacher was holding a lecture on the human body and the blood circulation system. I fainted, fell off the chair, and when I woke up the entire class stood around me. They were all silent except for one guy who asked me what I was doing. I felt weird. After that, I learned the body’s signals and hurried off to the bathroom where I could pass out in peace, without a bunch of nosy classmates and a horrified teacher leaning over me. The talk of blood, as well as the experience of fainting, was unpleasant, but the others’ incapability of understanding my reaction was worse. I was embarrassed, it was weird. Blood was a natural thing. And fainting from just hearing about it was illogical.
When I was in high school I got a summer job at the hospital. Besides it being a job with all the related benefits, one of the main reasons why I wanted it was because it was a great opportunity for me to work on getting rid of my blood phobia. It’s always easier to recognize the shortcomings in one’s arguments afterward. I continued to faint in the bathroom, though it didn’t happen that often and always after I had done the duties that I had been assigned and that I thought that I “should” be able to carry out. I was going to do the job and I was going to get rid of the phobia.
One day the other summer worker, a guy a year or two older than I, said to me; “You know that we’re not supposed to do the things that they’re asking you to do, right?” I knew that he was right. It wasn’t appropriate that a 15-year old summer worker was helping to remove stitches after amputations. Still, the possibility to decline to do the tasks that were asked of me didn’t exist as a possibility in my mind. This changed something. Even if I continued to do things far outside of the job description, my perspective began to change after that conversation.
Today I think that this story is a bit funny. Since it happened to me, and because I got over it a long time ago, retrospectively I’m able to smile as I speak of it. But when I see or hear of others that push themselves this way it’s not amusing at all.
It’s funny how one can consider it normal to pass out in the bathroom at work just because one has decided to overcome what one considers to be a challenge. But when reflecting upon this I can see that I’ve had a similar attitude towards challenges in other areas and I’ve also encountered the same attitude in other people. “I just need to solve it!” An example of an underlying attitude that’s generally praised and encouraged in today’s society. How can we measure these norms and how much do they influence us? I would have liked to share statistics and research studies to quantitatively measure this, and perhaps I’ll do so in later articles. For now, though, do we need statistics to determine that we have a culture that is generally performance-based and that it’s putting pressure on individuals? On the other hand, I’ve had great use of this attitude that I’m now questioning, but isn’t there something missing in these attitudes and the context in general?
"Besides integrity, he embodied compassion."
Even if it might be good to challenge one’s fears there’s also something called compassion; towards others but also towards oneself. Without the demonstrated integrity of my young colleague, which came about because he declined to perform tasks he considered inappropriate for a summer worker, I wouldn’t have listened to him. Besides integrity, he embodied compassion. That conversation was probably the main reason why I stopped fighting my blood phobia after that summer. I stopped judging it, accepted that it was there and nowadays it’s no longer a (big) problem. In the end, my fear almost disappeared entirely when I didn’t fight it.
What we often tell ourselves is that the only way problems are solved is if we solve them. That creates enormous pressure on what we “should” solve and what we “should” manage. In my case, I experienced the judgment of the phobia as the worst thing, not the phobia in and of itself. If I hadn’t had any valuation whether it was good or bad, I wouldn't have perceived it as a problem.
We are the ones doing the judging but the values, norms, and expectations of the world around us enter the story by telling us how to think and therefore what to judge and how. This affects us both on a conscious and an unconscious level as we risk interpreting that something’s wrong with us and that we “should” change. Because of that we sometimes believe that we want to change or work on something when in reality we like to do so to fit in, to belong.
But how do we know which battles to fight and which ones to walk away from? That is to say, when is it appropriate to challenge one’s fears and when isn’t it?
In other cases though, we want to overcome something because it keeps us from something genuinely good for us. I could have overcome my phobia in other ways but that’s not the point. What I needed to learn is that sometimes the right thing is to NOT take the fight. But how do we know which battles to fight and which ones to walk away from? That is to say, when is it appropriate to challenge one’s fears and when isn’t it?
When I have similar questions I usually turn to the yogic principles. They have lasted through the test of time and remained preserved for thousands of years and as far as we know, are still being practiced in the same way today.
The first one of the 10 principles is harmlessness. In this context, harmlessness is referring to the use of non-violence in actions through deeds, words, and thought towards others but also towards oneself. Since this is the first principle that means that implementing harmlessness is the first thing to do before undertaking any endeavor. It sounds so obvious in theory but it’s so easy to overlook all the ways one deceives oneself in reality. Once the first principle has been implemented one is ready to move on to the second which is truthfulness. Here it’s thereby possible to start to challenge the fears and notions held, but not if it means violating the first principle, which always has precedence.
How to apply this principle always depends on the person and their circumstances. When confronted with a situation where one has to decide whether to challenge oneself or not, one may ask oneself the following questions:
Which alternative of the ones available will cause the least amount of harm, to me as well as to others?
When I’ve chosen one alternative; how can I implement it with harmlessness as well as going forward?
To be able to do this one needs to have some idea of how to align to the second principle, that of truthfulness. That way the ancient teaching of yoga may serve as a good indicator when it comes to whether to challenge oneself in different areas or not and also how to do it.
It’s naturally a good thing to try to overcome fears if one experiences the fear as a problem. However, it’s never appropriate if the process is more harmful than that which one is trying to overcome.
The attitude that “you should just solve it” is good in certain contexts but rarely useful without at the same time being carried out with compassion. You are the one doing the judging. The influence of the norms and opinions of our surroundings, as well as our need to belong to the group, is not to be underestimated when it comes to which fears or qualities we choose to work on. The influence that they have is that they tell us what to think and therefore what to judge as good or bad.
In certain contexts, it could serve a purpose to challenge ourselves and to develop more grit. This article’s purpose is though mainly to make you aware of the situations when you tend to push too hard and therefore need a more nuanced picture.
Deciding not to take on certain challenges can sometimes turn out to be the wisest choice. That’s why it might be helpful to engage the principle of harmlessness before deciding on when to act and how. This principle might also be helpful before the practice of compassion, both towards others as well as oneself, is natural. If we can begin practicing compassion towards others like the unexpected hero at the hospital, compassion towards ourselves will be easier to develop for all of us.