The Most Common Phobia: Fear of Other Minds
Arachnophobia is the fear of spiders and other arachnids such as scorpions.
Claustrophobia is the fear of being enclosed in a small space or room and unable to escape.
Pyrophobia is the irrational fear of fire, beyond what is considered normal.
To date, there has not been a defined fear of other minds – yet this is arguably the most common phobia in all of us, starting at a very young age and lasting until death. If you’re a first-time visitor to The Cities Within – welcome! I’m excited for the mental, philosophical, and spiritual capacity TCW will hopefully add to your life. For those that are returning, you may already be suspecting the underlying and more implicit objective of today’s story. It’s not to instill fear or stress in you. Instead, we hope that being simply aware of the said fear will actually allow you to recognize it, overcome it, and make the most out of this temporary existence we call life.
Fear of other minds (as defined on TCW): the fear of other people’s judgment, beliefs, or preferences around yourself or your speech, actions, and decisions. Don’t believe it’s a real thing? Allow me to illustrate with a few examples.
You’re waiting in line for the cashier to pay for something mundane – say, new slippers – and the lady (3 bodies ahead of you) at the front is asking all sorts of questions about how to return or refund previously purchased items. You’re getting impatient. Soon, you’re frowning at her as if that would magically speed up the process. You have an urge to throw your hands up in the air, and to yell “Get on with it already lady!” But you hold back, because you play the scenario in your head, and it doesn’t make you look good – it makes you look like a gigantic douchebag. In that hypothetical, people “tsk” and glare at you in disgust (“so rude”). Fearing others’ judgments and disapproval, you conform to the social norm, and keep your lips sealed.
You rush out the door at 8:35am, knowing you’ll be late for your 9am meeting if you don’t make a sprint for the train you take every morning at 8:30am sharp. As you speed-walk past the mirror in the lobby, you notice that your shirt doesn’t match your pants. Well, crap. That ship has sailed though – there’s no way you can run back up to change into a different shirt, and still make it to the 9am meeting, and you really don’t want to be late for the meeting. So you spend the rest of the day being self-conscious, wondering if people notice how “off” and uncoordinated your outfit looks today. You take compliments the wrong way (“nice pants”), thinking they’re sarcastic.
You get into a packed elevator. The first thing you do, subconsciously, is observe where everyone is facing (and it’s most likely inwards from the sides and outwards at the door from the back and center). Depending on where there is space, you adhere to the norm for that region of the elevator. There is no way in hell you are going to face people directly – that’s so weird, it’d make people so uncomfortable, wouldn’t it? Without even realizing, you’re reacting to your fear of how others would perceive you if you didn’t conform to the “elevator norm”.
Did you catch the overarching theme across the three examples? In every one of them, you are choosing to do (or not do) something solely based on what could result in others’ minds. The intriguing thing is that these decisions are made subconsciously most of the time and are made hundreds of times a day. Okay, but that’s just called being a normal human being. So how can this post be relevant or help me in any way? You’re right, it does seem perfectly reasonable to not yell at a person in line who’s slow, be a little self-conscious about your mismatched attire, or conform to elevator norms. But what if this fear of other people’s thoughts and judgments in mundane daily-life scenarios actually causes “mental friction” in our minds throughout the day, day after day?
If you have bad sitting posture, on a day-to-day basis, you probably won’t notice any negative effects on your body. But maintain that bad posture for decades, and I guarantee that you will experience back or shoulder issues down the road. Similarly, although the little mental friction caused by our fear of others’ minds may seem negligible today, it can condition us to constantly be self-restrictive and self-controlling, producing unintended stress and unhappiness in the long run.
Consider alternative motives for doing things reasonably in the above scenarios. For the slow lady, you are patiently, compassionately waiting for her to have her questions answered because she could be someone’s mother or sister, she’s someone’s daughter, and maybe she’s simply unaware of the line behind her. Hence, you’re not yelling at her not because you don’t want people to think you’re rude, but because you are being empathetic, one human being to another. For your mismatched shirt and pants, give yourself a break – if we’re all allowed to have bad hair days, we should be occasionally forgiven for “bad outfit days”. And if anyone makes fun of you, indulge in some self-deprecating humor and roll with it (you’ll not only appear more confident, you’ll feel it too). And the elevator? Who cares? Face the crowd once and see what happens. Nobody will call you out on it. The planet isn’t going to stop spinning. Honestly, nobody really notices or cares.
As mentioned at the beginning of this post, the goal of understanding this fear of other minds is to equip you with a mental tool to recognize it, address it, and ultimately free yourself from the bad vibes (however small) one event at a time.