Dear Therapist Within:
For some reason, I have extreme anxiety and fear when older men, especially men with authority look at me. My boss right now is only 34, but for some reason I find myself always trying to avoid his gaze and hate making eye contact with him. After he hired me, he told me that he had graded me on attire and marked me down 8 points because of “my chest.” I am bigger chested than my co-workers, but I don’t think I wear clothes that show it off, so I am not sure where that is coming from, but it makes me very uncomfortable
My dad often stared at me when I was little. And, as I got older he made comments like “you’re sexy” and told me I dress like a stripper which made me feel disgusted. He told me how older men could abduct me. How they could do things to me. I was so afraid. I remember being little sitting outside of the grocery store with our dog waiting for my mom being in a panic as men walked by or waiting in the car with my older brother thinking that a man was going to get us. (Well, I just had a panic attack and cried. That’s probably good! I feel better already.)
Anyway, now when I go out I get really mad at men that cannot control themselves and stare at me – which happens even at the gym I go to. I’m so afraid of these men and hostile and angry as well. What can I do? Fearful of being ogled.
ANSWER: This is the kind of letter that scares me to the core. Why? Because we tend to attract the situations that trigger our old emotional pain. When the things that trigger our pain are dangerous – being abducted by old men, for example – you are in real danger of unconsciously attracting the very situation that fills you with terror. Let me explain.
We know from research conducted by some of the best neuroscientists in the world, that when we experience emotional trauma, the chemicals of the trauma undergo a protein synthesis and are stored in the amygdala, a part of the brain that is also called the “emotional brain.” We also know that when we experience events that remind us of the original trauma, we re-live the feelings we had during the original event (the protein is disrupted and begins to break up). If we try to suppress the pain, it will undergo another protein synthesis and be re-stored. But if we go toward the pain, experience and release it, the pain will begin to dissipate, and eventually we won’t be attracted to those situations anymore.
Why? We know that our minds and our bodies are engaged in a continual effort to heal us and make us well. In all likelihood, nature unconsciously attracts us to those situations that remind us of old painful events in order to give us an opportunity to re-experience the pain and get rid of it – i. e. to “resolve” our childhood issues.
So what would I advise you to do?
First, when you have panic attacks, do exactly what you did when you were writing this letter. Go into the emotion, don’t back away from it. Experience it fully. Play your childhood through your mind like a movie, especially the parts that relate to your fear of being ogled or abducted by older men until you are completely cried out.
Secondly, you are a very attractive young woman who dresses in the style of today. (NOTE: In full disclosure, to other readers, I happen to know the letter writer.) Would this normally concern me? Not at all. However, in this case, I would advise you to immediately (and temporarily) change your style to tone it down – especially in the gym – baggy T-shirts and sweats – and in public, look for longer, looser styles that don’t emphasize your figure. Am I insinuating that you are responsible for the ogling that you experience? Not at all. You are NOT responsible. The “dirty old men” are responsible. However, we are dealing with reality here, not an ideal world. You cannot control them, you can only control yourself. Until you get rid of the emotional baggage from your father, I am afraid for you – afraid that you are unconsciously attracting the type of men who could be dangerous for you.
Third, monitor how you are feeling as you go through the process of letting go of the emotions. Within a short period of time, you should find that you don’t notice men looking at you and/or you don’t care. As you become more comfortable and confident, you can slowly go back to dressing the way you are comfortable (we don’t want you to be a fashion schlump forever!!) and monitor how you are feeling. If uncomfortable feelings start to arise again, go back to step one and step 2 until you are completely at ease with yourself.
My prayers and hope for an early resolution to this situation are with you.