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On Your Own

Fatal Fear of Making a Fool of Yourself

January 21, 1985|HOWARD HALPERN

One of the great destroyers of spontaneity, joy and adventure is the fear of looking foolish. Because there are many unmarried people who fear that their singleness itself is a kind of inadequacy, they avoid doing things that they fear will make them look even more inadequate.

Carrie, a 33-year-old children's book illustrator, was envious of a married friend who, slightly high, got up and did a sexy song and dance at a party. "If I were married," she said, "I'd feel the security of having someone and then I could take the chance of making a fool of myself. But now I am afraid that if I fall on my face, I would be seen as pathetic."

Carrie, who is really quite talented and had had parts in college musicals, was longing to get up to do a number or two at that party where people were performing but, she added, "if I messed up, I'd be seen as a double loser--unmarried and untalented."

Not taking the risk of performing made Carrie feel even worse, because in succumbing to feelings of self-dislike and fearfulness, she was depriving herself of fun.

This incident is strikingly similar to one that Jim, a 24-year-old cabinetmaker, told me about. "I was on this big charity boat ride where about half the people were married and half were single. An accordion player began to lead people in a sing-along of old songs like 'Down by the Old Mill Stream.' I know these songs, but it seemed somehow uncool to join in. The married people were singing and having a great time, but I was with my friends and we just sat there. I have a feeling that they wanted to join in but were also afraid of making fools of themselves."

Joan, a 40-year-old lawyer, said, "We were all sitting around the ski house and people were telling jokes. There were times I wanted to join in, but I felt too embarrassed and inhibited. I was afraid I'd tell the joke wrong, or everybody would have heard it or that nobody would laugh. So I just became part of the audience, instead of a participant."

Later, Joan noted, "Come to think of it, about 90% of the jokes were told by men, so maybe it's a woman's thing to feel more inhibited about it." Women often do hold themselves back from being the center of joke-telling. A woman's socialization is also more likely to keep her from expressing strong opinions about political and social issues. Joan felt inhibited about expressing her views on current issues as well as about telling jokes. She was able to recognize that not only was she afraid that her opinions might be resented and opposed but that, if challenged, she wouldn't be able to defend them well. "I'd probably end up looking foolish."

For single people, this kind of fear is often intense--especially when approaching someone to whom they feel attracted. I have heard people say things like "I'm afraid I'll say something stupid" or "I'll probably look as awkward as I feel."

It's not that married people don't also have fears of making fools of themselves. Anyone's fears of appearing foolish are probably rooted in early childhood experiences that made them feel ridiculed and humiliated when they put themselves forward. Those fears will likely be carried into single life or married life. Married people are often afraid of embarrassing their spouse by being foolish. Or they think that "letting go" is inappropriate to their stable and responsible status. For them, too, these fears can often act as a kill-joy.

There is value in dignity. And there are times when your behavior could be so inappropriate as to earn ridicule and work against your best interests. But what if your concern with dignity has been so great that you can't take the risk of sometimes being undignified? What if your concern with being so-called "cool" has been so great that you can't risk actions and feelings that might be seen as "uncool"?

You are bound, then, to be less interesting to yourself and others. And you may be avoiding the very situations that would enable you to meet and get the attention of a potential romantic partner.

There are worse things than looking foolish. And, anyhow, if you explore the things you want to do, you probably won't look foolish.

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