Mind Matters: Do you fear others?

Ever get on a subway? Or any mode of public transit, especially in a city? Recently, I rode the T, the subway system of Boston and wondered about how we conjure up the “fear of others.”

Encapsulated in a tunneled tube, people mostly are respectful of this anonymous intimacy of bodies without intrusion into another’s tiny piece of personal space. Jostled next to one another, people read books, listen to their headphones, transporting themselves to other realms. It would be ludicrous in this situation to fear the other for the way they look or how they are dressed or for what color their skin is or for what language they speak. Of course, there are people to watch out for, but hypervigilance and being paranoid of everyone destroys discernment and good judgment for when a real threat arises. If everything you perceive is red (read dangerous), then the red flag of your internal warning system or the metaphorical red light of a “stop!” is not seen or heeded.

So how do we come to a “fear of others”? Brian Resnick (Vox, Jan. 30, 2017) addresses this in his essay “Seven Lessons from Psychology That Explain the Irrational Fear of Outsiders.” Fear is an emotion that is easily manipulated by politicians so it behooves us to recognize the psychological underpinnings of how we get set up to fear others. Our prehistoric roots reside in our reptilian brain that quietly categorizes “us” versus “them” mentality. Unless we are acutely aware, we are easily triggered into buying into the artificial separation of “us” versus “them.” Next step is that if our behavior is shaped to fear outsiders then we also dehumanize them. If this fear is fomented by hateful rhetoric, we exaggerate the threat. We latch onto singular anecdotes that exacerbate the fear rather than factual data that would give us evidence to the contrary.

The good news, says Resnick, is that it is possible to teach people “to turn fear into something more positive.” Because “negative reaction to refugees is more emotional than rational,” psychological research has found that statistical evidence cannot sway such emotion. However, if negative emotions (“refugees are dangerous”) can be overridden with positive emotions (“refugees are human beings who need help”), it is possible to change people’s fear reactions. “Us” and “them” are, after all, arbitrary artifices, no more real than saying a resident in Pennsylvania is more human than that “other” resident in Delaware.

 

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About Kayta Gajdos

Dr. Kathleen Curzie Gajdos ("Kayta") is a licensed psychologist (Pennsylvania and Delaware) who has worked with individuals, couples, and families with a spectrum of problems. She has experience and training in the fields of alcohol and drug addictions, hypnosis, family therapy, Jungian theory, Gestalt therapy, EMDR, and bereavement. Dr. Gajdos developed a private practice in the Pittsburgh area, and was affiliated with the Family Therapy Institute of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, having written numerous articles for the Family Therapy Newsletter there. She has published in the American Psychological Association Bulletin, the Family Psychologist, and in the Swedenborgian publications, Chrysalis and The Messenger. Dr. Gajdos has taught at the college level, most recently for West Chester University and Wilmington College, and has served as field faculty for Vermont College of Norwich University the Union Institute's Center for Distance Learning, Cincinnati, Ohio. She has also served as consulting psychologist to the Irene Stacy Community MH/MR Center in Western Pennsylvania where she supervised psychologists in training. Currently active in disaster relief, Dr. Gajdos serves with the American Red Cross and participated in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts as a member of teams from the Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.Now living in Chadds Ford, in the Brandywine Valley of eastern Pennsylvania, Dr. Gajdos combines her private practice working with individuals, couples and families, with leading workshops on such topics as grief and healing, the impact of multigenerational grief and trauma shame, the shadow and self, Women Who Run with the Wolves, motherless daughters, and mediation and relaxation. Each year at Temenos Retreat Center in West Chester, PA she leads a griefs of birthing ritual for those who have suffered losses of procreation (abortions, miscarriages, infertility, etc.); she also holds yearly A Day of Re-Collection at Temenos.Dr. Gajdos holds Master's degrees in both philosophy and clinical psychology and received her Ph.D. in counseling at the University of Pittsburgh. Among her professional affiliations, she includes having been a founding member and board member of the C.G. Jung Educational Center of Pittsburgh, as well as being listed in Who's Who of American Women. Currently, she is a member of the American Psychological Association, The Pennsylvania Psychological Association, the Delaware Psychological Association, the American Family Therapy Academy, The Association for Death Education and Counseling, and the Delaware County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Board. Woven into her professional career are Dr. Gajdos' pursuits of dancing, singing, and writing poetry.

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