When we have low self-esteem we can often experience high levels of fear and anxiety with regards to certain people and situations. To get some level of temporary relief from this fear and anxiety we might start to engage in safety and avoidance behaviours. For example, given we are afraid and anxious what people might think about us in a social gathering and how they might consequently react, we might make sure we are with someone else in a social gathering (safety behaviour) or avoid social gatherings altogether (avoidance behaviour), rather than engage with those people and situations authentically.
What happens next is our continued safety and avoidance behaviours reinforces our fear and anxiety. This is because our safety and avoidance behaviours prevent us from habituating or, in other words, becoming accustomed to those people and situations that make us fearful and anxious, and therefore relaxing with them. Consequently, those people and situations remain novel and fearful to us, and therefore arousing and fear/anxiety provoking. Furthermore, avoidance tends to generalise over time and this may also be our experience – for example, we might have started to avoid the café at work and then, over time, we began to avoid all cafes, and then perhaps all buildings with cafes.
Moreover, when we avoid something that scares us, we experience a sense of failure. Thus, every time we put an avoidance or safety behaviour in to place, our fear and anxiety gains strength, whilst we lose some. The more we do this the more we accumulate experiences of failure, which we take as another piece of evidence attesting to our inability to overcome the problem. Furthermore, safety and avoidance behaviours also eliminate practice. Without practice we cannot gain mastery, and without mastery confidence is less likely to rise.
Consequently, our attempts to avoid fear and anxiety through safety and avoidance behaviours only serves to magnify and reinforce it to the point where it has reached the level of phobia. At this level, our fear and anxiety gets so high when we are faced with the person or situation we have conditioned ourselves to fear and avoid, that we lose all perspective and rational thought. We also go to such extreme lengths to persistently avoid this situation, event, person, place or thing, so much so that our fear and anxiety significantly interferes with other areas of our life – e.g., even when we are removed from the person or situation, there is always an undercurrent of fear and lack of personal power/confidence/control.
Exposure is key in the recovery process. Exposure involves experimenting to see if your fears are really true. By finding out the truth you can break free from the cycle of fear once and for all. You do this by gradually and repeatedly exposing yourself to what you fear in a safe and controlled way. During this exposure process, you’ll learn to ride out your anxiety and fear until it inevitably dissolves. Through repeated experiences of facing your fear, you’ll begin to realise that the worst isn’t going to happen; your catastrophes/disaster predictions won’t come true. With each exposure, you’ll feel more confident and in control and your fear and anxiety will begin to lose its power and eventually dissolve.
Amanda Morgan is a counsellor practicing in Cambridgeshire and Newmarket (Suffolk). She is passionate about supporting adults and young people (16+) to recover from low mood, anxiety and low self-esteem and enjoys writing about these subject areas.