“It’s not fear that makes our lives narrow and small – it’s avoidance.”
– Harriet Lerner



More than 7 years ago, I attended a conference in South Carolina.   I had the privilege of hearing Harriet Lerner speak, author of multiple books including “The Dance of Anger” and her new book out at that time, “Fear and Other Uninvited Guests”.

She told the story of a friend that called her.   He had been recently divorced but was having trouble on the dating scene.   He wanted to invite a specific woman for dinner but couldn’t get past his fear and phobia of being rejected.   He told Harriet that he didn’t want to spend months in counseling.   He wanted a quick and fast solution.

Harriet told him he would have to do exactly as she said, and he agreed.  She sent him to the shopping mall near his house, and told him to stand at the bottom of the escalator all day.  Every time a woman, who was by herself, came down the escalator, he was to ask her if she would have a cup of coffee with him.

He had some say no but surprisingly enough, he had many women say yes–so he had coffee with several throughout the day.

He called Harriet sometime later and told her that he didn’t stay as long as she told him to.  He said that he had stood at the bottom of the escalator long enough.  He finally just called up the woman that he had a crush on, and asked her out for a cup of coffee.

Avoidance is natural in new and unfamiliar situations, but it WILL NEVER help you get past your problem and your discomfort.

You’ll just stay there and years later, you’ll still be dreading them.

I’ve watched a lot of people in single parent and stepfamilies over the years including my own.  It can be agonizing to see people who, years later, still can’t be in the same room with others in their extended family without looking anxious or angry.

So— start attending the sports games you’ve been avoiding, the parent event that makes you crazy or whatever situation makes you feel awful.

Show up and be uncomfortable.  If you can show up enough- do it enough, just like the guy at the bottom of the escalator, it does and will get easier. Acknowledging your discomfort and not avoiding helps you to get past it.

And just for clarification, this doesn’t mean that you can’t ever miss anything either.  Even the best person has times when it would be better not to go.   But just don’t do this all the time.

Research shows that the more you avoid, the worse your fear, phobia, discomfort and anxiety becomes. You can learn how to manage your discomfort and get more skilled at learning how to get through it.

Be willing to be uncomfortable- Not for your partner, your kids, or anybody else. Change for yourself by taking charge of your own actions and feelings- and your avoidance.

Be willing to practice– see every new event you attend as practice for this new skill of yours:

  • Exercise or  stress release in some way before the event or the time to reduce the anxiety you feel about being around the uncomfortable person or situation.
  • Do not drink or take pills to help you relax. This would defeat the purpose of learning how to be comfortable being uncomfortable.
  • When you are at the event or  around the person, don’t try to have a full blown conversation.
  • Think “diplomat”, and be courteous.  A smile, a few short sentences about the weather or what a nice event it is, and that’s all you have to say.
  • Don’t talk a lot but practice looking and faking that you are comfortable-even if you are not.  Fake it til you make it!  (If you don’t know what you look like “comfortable”, then practice that look in the mirror until you can simulate it even if you don’t “feel” it.
  • Deep breathing  works well when  you are just standing there, and don’t know what to do or say.
  • And have a running  conversation in your head complimenting yourself profusely.  “Good job!  Way to go! You’re almost done!”
  • And last, I find it helps to see the scene as if you are a third party looking on. Watch all the people including yourself, almost like a movie. It can be almost fun to see how everyone is acting, and it doesn’t feel so scary

Yes, it may very hard at times, and yes, others may try to make it more difficult for you. But, if you follow the above steps just a few times, you’ll find yourself feeling more confident about those situations or people who cause that bad feeling in the pit of your stomach. You will watch others continue to be uncomfortable, but you won’t be.

I’d love to hear how these tips work for you.  Try them out and let me know.

And before you know it, you’ll be standing there with the umpteen people who love your kid (but who you may not like or who may not like you)- and you’ll be just fine. And that is, indeed, a powerful thing.