How do I get people to not antagonize my phobia?
June 28, 2008 12:28 AM   Subscribe

How do I get people to respect my phobia? How do I make them stop antagonizing me by showing me the thing I'm afraid of?

I am severely lepidopterophobic. Yes, I'm afraid of butterflies and moths. The teensy tiny ones don't bother me, but the bigger they are, the harder I fall, so to speak, and lately we've been getting some 2- to 3-inch-long moths with even bigger wingspans.

How do I get people to understand it's NOT FUNNY to point out butterflies to me in order to scare me? Recently I was at a friend's and one of the aforementioned oversized moths was in the livingroom, albeit dead. When I saw it I ran into the bedroom and locked the door, shrieking. My friend's daughter's 20-year-old friend was over and decided it would be hilarious to slip it under the door at me. Yes I screamed and cried and had to have someone open the door and remove the pest. In his defense he was not aware of my phobia. (Here's a big hint moron: If I run screaming from something, don't chase after me with it.) A few days later, a tiny little moth was in the house and he said sarcastically to me, "Hey IndigoRain, there's a MOTH in the house!" This was most definitely a patronizing tone and not a helpful warning.

How do I get jackasses like him to quickly realize that this is not funny and prevent the stupid things they do? I know many people don't understand my phobia - the most common replies I get are "but they're the most harmless creature on earth!" (not to me, to me they're big germy scary bugs) and "but they're so beautiful!" (see previous parentheses). I don't understand the people on Maury who are afraid of chickens or pickles, but you can be sure if I met them I wouldn't throw a chicken or a pickle at them.

I'm not interested in advice on overcoming my phobia - there's plenty of advice out there and I can't afford therapy right now. I just want to know how to get idiots to realize they're not making funny jokes - they're severely upsetting me. At least things that might work for the vast majority of people who aren't jerks who like to upset other people.
posted by IndigoRain to Human Relations (53 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I get the same thing with my fear of spiders. People putting spiders on my head, people putting spiders on my food, people leaving a large fake spider in my bed, etc, etc. I find it helps to take aside the people who really don't seem to get the meaning of "irrational fear" and tell them seriously how uncomfortable they're making you.
posted by tehloki at 12:34 AM on June 28, 2008

I think this calls for a one-on-one conversation with the people you think should know, separate from any incident. You can't expect people to understand your phobia -- it is, after all, irrational by definition -- if you don't sit down and explain openly what it's about. So start with the person you had this recent issue with, and talk to all the people closest to you individually.
posted by loiseau at 12:38 AM on June 28, 2008

Dear person who freaked me out with a moth,
I'm sure you found it hilarious to watch me absolutely paralysed with fear. I can't imagine how much fun it was to see me break down in tears from anxiety. I'm glad torturing me was amusing for you.
It would be really nice if you told me what your biggest fear is, so we can do something like this again. Perhaps you're afraid of spiders, that's a fairly common one. How about I wake you up one morning with a hairy tarantula crawling over your most intimate area. That'd be a jolly jape wouldn't it? What about lifts? I'm sure I'd wet myself laughing at you hammering the open-door button in futility. Or how about surprise skydiving! I know! Right now, we're going to the local convention centre, because you have to speak about yourself to all your work colleagues, including your boss and the company director. And no, you don't have time to prepare or change into a suit! It'll be great fun!
Yours Anxiously,
Indigo Rain

I find the best way to explainthe distress of a phobia is to find out their phobias (nearly everyone has one, but they may be able to 'grit their teeth' and get over it.) When you explain that antagonising your phobia is exactly equivalent to forcing them to do their most feared thing, they ought to get it. If not, they're arseholes, and will die sad and alone.
posted by Basalisk at 12:44 AM on June 28, 2008 [9 favorites]

A serious conversation when you've calmed down. Or find his biggest fear, and show it to him. Explain afterwards that that's how you felt.
posted by Solomon at 12:44 AM on June 28, 2008

Don't say you have a phobia, say you have a medical condition, perhaps even a severe allergy. Because you do, it's a mental allergy. People are less likely to joke around with things like that.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:50 AM on June 28, 2008 [4 favorites]

I can understand your frustration but unfortunately many a jerk are born without the empathy gene, and they're just not going to get it. And if they are made aware of your phobia, the latent 5th grader in them might emerge and they will want to torment you.

I know you said you can't do therapy, but is there any way that you can try to work on your immediate reaction to moths? Instead of reacting loudly, can you try to just close your eyes, breathe deeply and try to ignore it, or walk out of the room? I do this when I see the thing I'm phobic about and can't do anything about.

Talk with people you're close to, get them to try and understand your phobia. They can try and take care of it for you, maybe, or will at least understand and try to help if you're stuck in a situation like this. But I think the key here is to work on your reactions and not alert potential jackasses to your phobia because 1) you don't have the time to explain it to each and every person that doesn't understand and 2) it might not help anyways.
posted by Eudaimonia at 12:55 AM on June 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Not that it would help in general, but in this special case, does your friend not mind his daughter's friend treating you like this? It sounds like a cruel thing to do, and I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be tolerated with in any household I know of.
posted by themel at 2:12 AM on June 28, 2008

Don't tell anyone you're afraid of them from now on.
posted by fire&wings at 2:20 AM on June 28, 2008 [3 favorites]

I could try to lay out a useful and sensitive approach, but it's late and I only have 12% battery left, so I'll send this one from my gut: find a baseball bat, hide it behind your back, go up to the person and ask them if they're afraid of baseball. When they say no, hit them with the bat.

I'm only half-joking here; the real point is that you need to assert yourself about it, inasmuch as you're afraid of moths and butterflies, but presumably not of bullies and insensitive jerks. You can't make them respect your fear, but you likely can make them want to avoid provoking you.
posted by davejay at 2:27 AM on June 28, 2008 [5 favorites]

It's really hard for people to understand phobias they don't have. Especially with things that seem harmless like moths and butterflies. And we all have the occasional impulse to push someone's buttons.

To some extent, I think, you're always going to have to understand that people will find it hard to take seriously how uncontrolably afraid you are of some specific thing. My wife is afraid of moths (and butterflies in some circumstances) and spiders, but most problematicly she has a serious needle phobia, and even medical professionals don't really get it - they try to logic her out of it, "oh it's just a small needle... It will barely hurt" - she knows those things, but her fear isn't a logical thing at all.

You just need to make sure that people actually understand how serious and distressing this thing can be for you. Most will then get the idea. There'll be the occasional lapse, but overall once people know you have a really serious phobia then they will back off a little.

I also know someone who has a serious phobia of balloons, which is hard to understand. Today she literally cowered in another room while I removed a balloon from my son's room.
posted by sycophant at 2:35 AM on June 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

When I saw it I ran into the bedroom and locked the door, shrieking. My friend's daughter's 20-year-old friend was over and decided it would be hilarious to slip it under the door at me.

Echoing themel, it's reasonable to ask the daughter to deal with her jerk boyfriend on your behalf. She's the reason he's there, after all. This has the additional benefit that it draws her attention to the fact he's a jerk, and tests if he ignores her. So if she can't stop him doing it, it will bring them closer to breaking up - problem solved!
posted by Mike1024 at 3:22 AM on June 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Fire with fire. I have a problem with needles - weirdly localised to intravenous, rather than intramuscular. When I say a pronblem, I men that I explain, as a reasonably hulking specimen, that I do, nurses obviously don't believe me, they get the needle within a few metres of me, I turn funny colours, they decide I need to lie down and possibly have some nitrous before they stick me.

One person I work with thought, therefore, that it would be amusing to relate the trouble she'd had donating blood in gory detail. Again. And again. And again. Then I found out that she cannot abide the sound of joints popping and cracking. Well, I may be afraid of a little needle, but I can pop joints like a pro; even down the length of my spine if I'm tense. So every time the story about the problem finding a vein started up, pop-pop-pop went my knuckles, graunch-crack went my spine.

So yeah, fire with fire. People will have something they find unbearable that you'll be comfortable about. Feel free to share it with them. They'll get the message.

Also, WTF friend? They didn't kick their daughter's friend out of the house for acting like a total shithead?
posted by rodgerd at 4:37 AM on June 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

From the standpoint of someone who does not have the phobia, I might illustrate what might be going through the other person's head:

It's a butterfly/moth. It will not hurt you. It is tiny, it does not suck blood, and it is harmless to humans. Why the hell are you afraid of it?

That said, they were acting dickish. Tell them you have an honest phobia of the things and if they'd stop pushing butterflies in your face.
posted by kldickson at 5:20 AM on June 28, 2008

And actually, they're not very germy. You might want to see if you're a bit of a germophobe. Germs are not all that bad either; you're exposed to millions of them every day in the air, on everything you touch, and every person you come in contact with, but you don't get sick.
posted by kldickson at 5:22 AM on June 28, 2008

That sounds awful for you. However, you're not going to convince them it wasn't funny, because it was incredibly funny, for them. They're getting pleasure at your expense, and that means they don't respect you. For you to try and get them to stop making the jokes, you don't persuade them it's not funny, you make them respect you.

And if they don't respect you, it might be easier to cure the phobia, in all honesty. Or remove these people from your life.
posted by bonaldi at 5:44 AM on June 28, 2008

Bump to the assertive suggestions. Maybe it'd help to think about it this way: On one continuum, there's 2 kinds of people ... the norms who perceive reality in the "standard" muddled,hamfisted way.. and then there's everyone else.. from crazy people to artists to phobics to geniuses who perceive the world in a different way (for better or for worse).

People who antagonize you for your mental differences do so because they are jealous of a person who has any kind of perception that is apparently different from their own, mundane, soul-less view of reality. They resent you for having anything irregular or interesting (again, bad or good) in your life.

So yeah, one solution is to totally keep it to yourself, if you can. Another is to antagonize them back... they are kinda the enemy, after all. But thinking about it along those lines might reveal some better tactics.
posted by judge.mentok.the.mindtaker at 5:47 AM on June 28, 2008

I agree with blue_beetle's advice upthread about telling people that you are allergic to butterflies/moths. Maybe invent some unpleasant side effect (hives, swelling, whatever). I think that more people would be less likely to 'joke' with someone who has a physical reason to avoid those insects. Sad, though.

On a side note, sycophant: I am deathly afraid of balloons. I go into full-on panic mode when I'm near them. One of the meanest things anyone ever did was at a restaurant (!) full of people, finding a balloon and popping it right behind me. I'm still not over it, clearly.
posted by amicamentis at 6:18 AM on June 28, 2008

The problem is that basically, people are total assholes.

So be an asshole back. Next time someone does this to you, say "Fuck you, clearly you have no respect for me whatsoever, don't ever talk to me again" and walk away. And, obviously, don't ever talk to them again. Anyone who behaves that assholishly to you, on purpose, time and again after seeing your response is not someone who is worth your time.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 6:43 AM on June 28, 2008 [10 favorites]

I work in a situation where butterflies are available for public viewing - as in, they can walk around in a room with free butterflies, although they are not allowed to touch (and the butterflies almost never touch them). They come in as chrysallis, and are released -- I released about 10 or so yesterday.

Until I worked here, it never would have occurred to me that anyone would be afraid of butterflies, but there are several people a day who are afraid and won't go in. Some people will go in the room, anyway, and then scream and try to kill the poor creatures.

I understand that phobias are weird things that have no reason behind them. Things don't get much less harmless to a person's body, than butterflies and moths, and they're very admired throughout all sorts of cultures. BUT. There are also cultures who think they're spirits of the DEAD, or some other ominous thing.

I think the best advice given so far, is that saying that you need to be extremely rude about this -- except it's not being rude, even if you think that it is. People as clueless and childish as this need to be addressed very directly and brutally. Or you need to kick them out of our life. Or, as mentioned, you could try to address this phobia (which would kill several birds with one stone).

And you are most certainly not unusual -- so don't let them make you feel that way. If the forest room I work in has 800 visitors one day, I would estimate 10% of them were incredibly freaked out about the butterflies, and that another significant group of people wouldn't come in at all due to phobia. There is nothing freakish about your fear, and do not allow people to maintain this control over you with it.
posted by Coatlicue at 7:33 AM on June 28, 2008 [5 favorites]

How do I get jackasses like him to quickly realize that this is not funny and prevent the stupid things they do?

You kick them in the motherfucking nuts, hard, while screaming at them that the NEXT FUCKING TIME I'LL KILL YOU MOTHERFUCKER.

Seriously. You need to go ape-shit on their sorry ass. Some people are just too fucking stupid to understand it any other way.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:52 AM on June 28, 2008 [7 favorites]

Unfortunately there are a lot of people out there who just don't get phobias. They think it's something you can talk yourself out of or that you aren't really as scared as you say you are. These people are either extremely lucky in that they have never had a phobia themselves or known anyone who does or they're just great big assholes. If your antagonist seems to be the former take him aside and explain what a phobia is and why it's not such a good idea to be taunting you. If it's the latter (and I suspect that it is) and he's just a great big asshole then take your friend aside and tell HER that as long as she allows someone to treat you so shabbily in her home you're not going to be coming over.
posted by lysistrata at 7:56 AM on June 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Not sure about all of the arguments for beating the person up, but I'd simply end the friendship. They found out something about you that you find difficult and extremely painful. But instead of dealing with that or simply acknowledging it and moving on, they allowed their family to exploit it for childish amusement, and again used it for amusement. That's not what friends do.

It's a basic betrayal of trust. It's what abusive idiots do; exploit someone's problems for cheap laughs. I know things about my friends and family that could be incredibly hurtful if revealed or used that way, but I don't do that.

What I would do is to find a mutual friend, and spend some time ranting to them about how painful that was for you, and how much of an ass you think that the original friend was. Explain the phobia to them (I think you'll find that most people understand this better than you might think) and that you are simply cutting off all contact with the original friend, because you can't trust them to not behave like an sociopathic ass again. People will quickly get the message, I think.
posted by baggers at 8:06 AM on June 28, 2008

Some people are just perverse. If you tell then you hate moths, they'll throw moths at you. If you are in new/fragile clothes and trying not to get wet, they'll splash you with water. If you hate dancing, they'll try to physically drag you to the dance floor, etc. And they think it's all in good fun. You can try to persuade them it's NOT all in good fun: "This phobia may seem silly to you but it's real, and worrying about encountering moths (water, dancing, etc) seriously reduces my enjoyment of your company. You don't have to respect the phobia, but respect me enough not to provoke me."

There is a good chance that with some people, you just won't be able to. If so, avoid.
posted by Mr Bunnsy at 8:09 AM on June 28, 2008

Can I explain a bit why someone would have a phobia about butterflies?

(Anyone with a phobia, PLEASE DON'T READ THIS NEXT PARAGRAPH. Sorry, guys, I'm just trying to explain it to the rest of 'em.)

I don't have one now, but I used to be freaked the hell out because the first time I went into Butterfly World at Six Flags Marine World (or whatever they call it now), a ginormous butterfly flew UNDER MY FOOT in mid-step and I nearly crunched it. Wouldn't go in Butterfly World for years and years after that. Good thing I don't live anywhere that has a lot of moths or butterflies on a regular basis. I don't know how the hell I got over it, though.

Really, some people are just going to be assholes. I don't like getting "Pillsbury'd" (i.e. jabbed in the belly button), so anyone who has found this out by trying it will do it again and again. If you can, try to suck it up and hide your fear as much as you can or not tell people. Or as other folk mentioned, bring up THEIR phobia.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:13 AM on June 28, 2008

The question was, "How do I get people to respect my phobia", not, "Are all human beings assholes?", which seems to be the question most respondents here are answering.

The fact of the matter is, dear Indigo Rain, that you won't get them to respect your phobia. Your question assumes that you are reasonable, and that they are not. However, your behavior (as a guest in someone's home no less) in which you ran into a bedroom, locked the door, and shrieked, is not likely to win you much respect.

Since you specifically asked not to be offered advice in overcoming your phobia, I won't offer any. But as one who has overcome irrational fears, I will point out that the problem is not with others, it's with you. Your reaction to a harmless entity is extreme, disruptive, and startling. Many, unable to understand your behavior, will assume you're just looking for attention. And they will give it to you.

If you want people to respect your phobia, it's not going to happen. If you want people to stop reacting to your outrageous behavior, take steps to stop it. You can if you choose. Or (and ask yourself this serious question) do you enjoy the aura of victimhood this phobia bestows upon you?
posted by dinger at 8:30 AM on June 28, 2008 [11 favorites]

Nicely said, dinger. As a person who's overcome similar (but maybe lesser) phobias, I was trying to think of how to say that as I read the thread, but you nailed it.

IndigoRain, ask yourself: are you going to let this phobia control you for the rest of your life? The answer should be: HELL NO! You are stronger than your fears. Good luck!
posted by Aquaman at 8:59 AM on June 28, 2008

I don't have much to add other than to vote against the suggestions to find out what they're afraid of and turn the tables.

Phobias are pretty common, but tons of people do not have any serious phobias. I think these are probably the people who are messing with you, and putting snakes or spiders or whatever on them, well they're likely to shrug it off and then wonder why you can't just ignore your phobia.

I don't think that there's any question that overcoming your phobia would be the ideal solution. The only reason I can think you might be discouraging answers in that vein is that you don't believe you can do that; I urge you to consider that stance. I think that with the right attitude you can do it, even without expensive therapy. But that's a long term goal.

For now, I'd say start with the generous assumption that the people doing this are insensitive rather than jerks; tell them that the shrieking indicates you're genuinely upset and please do not ever do this again. People do not need to respect your phobia, they need to respect you. I think they will be more likely to do this if you are able to tell them that you are working to solve this problem, and that their actions are hurting rather than helping.

If they still do it after you've told them this, they are not just clueless, they are deliberately trying to upset you, with full knowledge of their actions, and would probably best be avoided.
posted by aubilenon at 9:22 AM on June 28, 2008

But as one who has overcome irrational fears, I will point out that the problem is not with others, it's with you. Your reaction to a harmless entity is extreme, disruptive, and startling. Many, unable to understand your behavior, will assume you're just looking for attention. And they will give it to you.

Dinger hit the nail on the head. Your level of response will set the tone for most others' reaction. People are never going to "respect" your phobias (many people won't even respect a more rational phobia like snakes or heights unless they share it). Seeing an adult run screaming and crying from a dead bug isn't a behaviour that's likely to be respected by many, regardless of how legitimate it may be. Creating a scene, punching/kicking, saying "You don't have any respect for me, so I'm never talking to you again," etc: these are not likely to garner much respect either.

Ultimately, the only person who's behaviour you can influence 100% of the time is your own. Seeking some graduate exposure therapy (either on your own with a trusted friend or with a professional) is going to be a lot more fruitful than trying to find a way to force others to respect you. You may never get the point where you're excited to go to the butterfly pavilion, but being able stay in the same room and not shriek is probably a reasonable goal.
posted by Nelsormensch at 9:27 AM on June 28, 2008

say you have a medical condition, perhaps even a severe allergy. Because you do, it's a mental allergy. People are less likely to joke around with things like that.

Mmmmyeah, No not really a good idea. Please don't confuse allergies with phobias.

I'd like to think there is a special ring of hell for those mean people, including those who think it's high-larious to jump out at me and make loud noises because I startle big and easily. But despite the fact that someone thinks it's amusing to scare the bejezzus out of you , don't make up an allergy that doesn't exist just to get them to lay off.

Phobias are not allergies. I've a 2 yr old relative with life threatening allergies - as in she will go into anaphalactic shock, and possibly die, if she eats a tree nut or a peanut or shellfish or dairy allergies. Her parents took her to the park to play a while back. She picked up an acorn from the ground to show daddy and broke out immediately in welts and her airway began to close. That kind of allergy.

I also have a friend who self-reported himself as "deathly allergic" to a number of foods. We've been very very careful and I had great respect for meeting his nutritional needs at get-togethers ... until the night I asked him what flavor of allergic reactions he gets from those foods. Turns out, he's not allergic at all -- he just doesn't, y'know, like the taste of strawberries.

There are way more grown-up ways to deal with idgits than making shit up.
posted by mcbeth at 9:43 AM on June 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't think blaming the victim here is helpful, and it is NOT ANSWERING the QUESTION.

Look, it would be worthwhile if you could work on this phobia at your own pace (I dislike spiders, and I used to have a severe phobia-couldn't even look at a picture of them, didn't even want to page thru the S volumn of the encyclopedia but I was eventually able to touch the abdomen of a tarantula that someone else was holding. It was a major thing for me to even be in the same room with one!)

That having been said, it is rude and unkind and awful in the extreme that people would do that to you. Your best bet is to try to keep your phobia to yourself, and if someone is a jerkwad, leave immediately. I hate to say it but the world is filled with cruel people who just love to upset others for fun. If they don't know about your phobia they can't torment you with it.
posted by konolia at 9:43 AM on June 28, 2008 [3 favorites]

I'm afraid of chickens. Not dead, grocery store type chickens, those I like (more chickens in the grocery store means less chickens sharing my air), but live, clucking, moving about chickens. I was attacked by a rooster when I was a child and there was blood, and then they killed the rooster that attacked me and I got to watch it run around bleeding with it's head cut off (yes, that really happens) which was even more trauma. So, while my reaction to chickens (and other largish birds) is not quite as bad as your reaction to moths, let's just say that I get very tense and nervous around them.

I've had two people in my life who have thought this was *hilarious* and would point out chickens or places where there might be chickens or make up imaginary chickens (there not being a large number of actual free roaming chickens in the western world -- except, apparently in Key West, home of a huge population of scary fucking feral chickens). I took each of them aside quietly and made it clear that while my 'chicken thing' was completely hilarious, it was also very upsetting for me, and that I couldn't continue to be their friend if they were going to be so disrespectful. One of those people was all like 'Dude, I'm so sorry, I didn't realize it was seriously a problem, you didn't run screaming from the chickens or anything. I'll stop.' And the other kind of laughed it off. I'm only still friends with one of those people, and you can imagine which one.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:47 AM on June 28, 2008 [4 favorites]

But as one who has overcome irrational fears, I will point out that the problem is not with others, it's with you. Your reaction to a harmless entity is extreme, disruptive, and startling. Many, unable to understand your behavior, will assume you're just looking for attention. And they will give it to you.

Sorry, I call bullshit. I'm going to estimate that about 50% of our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors are all centered on irrational beliefs and ideas. Most of us are just lucky that our irrationality falls into the common pool of irrationality.

Here's an example: It is irrational to be attracted to members of your own sex, because the sex drive theoretically is driven by the need to procreate, which is impossible with members of your own gender. And yet, lots and lots of people are homosexual. And this is totally cool.

So that's just one example of an irrationality that now has wide acceptance over much of the general population in the West and is not even considered an irrationality today even though it was classified as a mental illness just a few decades ago.

It is perfectly fine to be irrationally scared of something. I personally am afraid of aliens coming and taking over my body. I full acknowledge that this is a totally unreasonable thing to be afraid of. Nonetheless, for years I would sleep on my back solely because I didn't want aliens to be able to enter my brain stem through the back of my neck and then take over my body (this lasted from around age 9 or 10 until I was well into my teens). Even though I knew that aliens did not exist (or at least not in the way commonly portrayed) and that even if they did the possibility that they would seek me out, let alone take over my body specifically by entering my brain through the back of the neck, was extremely low, I still could not fall asleep comfortably unless I was lying on my back with my neck firmly wedged against the pillow. I was lucky that my phobia was highly unlikely to be tested. No one could wave an alien in front of me and say "I'm going to put it in your neck."

Telling people to get over their phobias is not helpful. If someone lived in a society in which cannibalism was considered normal, but they had a "thing" about eating ground up bones, they would not be the one with the "problem" if someone shoved bones in their face. People need to be respectful of other people's fears and issues, no matter how irrational they are.

Moths and butterflies are easy enough to avoid that it's not something that's going to negatively this poster's their life if they never see one again. People who know that the poster is uncomfortable about it should not go out of their way to push this phobia.

dinger, I respect that you made the decision to face your fears and overcome them. But I don't think that this is necessarily the only response to this situation. I can't claim that I would "respect" a phobia necessarily (although personally I dislike nearly all bugs [except Spiders, because they kill other bugs!]) but I wouldn't go out of my way to taunt it. That's why when my mom comes to visit, my girlfriends adorable fake plastic rat is going into storage.

On preview:
People do not need to respect your phobia, they need to respect you.

Ding! Ding! Ding! We have a winner. Whether or not your feelings have a rational or irrational cause, they should still be respected. And I don't think you necessarily having to be working on a problem in order to be respected, either. If this is your only phobia, it really really isn't worth going to therapy about it. Why? So one day, you can be comfortable while some bug sits on your finger?

Sounds like both dinger and aquaman overcame some phobias themselves, maybe it might be useful if you both shared some exercises or techniques that can be used?

On preview again:
mcbeth, I hear what you're saying about the fake "allergies". I remember being a kid and not being able to eat a lot of things (suspected allergies for behavioral problems that turned out to be ADHD). All the time kids would say they were "allergic" to things that they didn't like. It pissed me off.
posted by Deathalicious at 9:54 AM on June 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

Jenfullmoon: that story really just didn't explain the phobia at all. It might resonate with someone who shares the phobia, but for someone without phobia, it simply sounds like, "So a bug flew under your shoe. And...?"

IndigoRain: The key is that it is a phobia, an irrational fear of something (in this case moths and butterflies) and it is not going to be explainable rationally. The best you can do is to set your "friend" aside and explain to them that, whether or not it's rational, you are extremely afraid and unnerved by moths and butterflies and that it just IS NOT FUNNY. The panic is real. The fear is real. Please, do not do that again.

If they can't understand that, then perhaps they're not worth your time.

Meanwhile, seek therapy for this phobia. No one's saying you have to love, appreciate, or want to go near these bugs ever again. However, you want to at least get it to the point where you are able to swat them away like a fly, gnat or bee rather than full-blown panic.
posted by explosion at 9:56 AM on June 28, 2008

My bee/wasp phobia is commonplace, so I don't get quite as teased. Still, outdoor summertime picnics and the like can be rough, though, because of those little itsy sweat bees and the very small (relatively harmless) ground-dwelling yellowjackets that gather around the the sodas and beer.

When I get the funny looks, I point out that I've got a terrible phobia of bees. Nice people say "ohh, no biggie. Let me get your lemonade for you." But invariably someone says something condescending and smarmy while I'm trying to not squeak too loudly and remain breathing (my usual response is to hyperventilate) and not drop what I'm holding like a hot potato. To which I snap something along the lines of "yes, I'm aware that it's irrational. Do you know what phobia means?" If they persist, I'll just say something like "you're kind of being a jerk for no reason." Sometimes followed with a little condescension of my own, like "Why don't you think about that."

(If you need a revenge strategy, IndigoRain, consider tossing a big fat roach at the offender. They are also "harmless" in that they don't bite or sting, right?)
posted by desuetude at 10:11 AM on June 28, 2008

(Oh, and nthing not to say it's an allergy. In this particular case, that doesn't even make sense -- how can you be allergic to moths?)
posted by desuetude at 10:12 AM on June 28, 2008

The problem with this question is that, at its essence, you are asking, "How Can I Control Somebody Else's Behavior?". In which case, the only correct answer is, "You Can't" (unless we are going to start getting into the business of advocating torture techniques on AskMe).

It would be nice if people who didn't share our phobias still completed respected and understood them (Hello everyone who has ever told me over the years that I really would enjoy roller coasters if I would just gave them a try), but in the real world as it actually is (as opposed to the fantasy world we might like to live in where everyone is nice 100% of the time) that simply isn't going to happen.

I agree with the advice that the only thing you are in control of here is your own behavior/reactions. I'm honestly not trying to blame the victim, sharing some completely irrational fears myself that I wish others were more sensitive to, but it's true that when you react to a phobia by shrieking uncontrollably, running away and locking yourself away in a room, you are drawing undo attention to yourself that is likely to cause some people to react in a less than sensitive way. I'm not saying you can control your fear of moths/butterflies easily, but certainly you can react in a less dramatic way that would draw less attention to yourself (quietly removing yourself from the room in a less obvious way)?
posted by The Gooch at 11:00 AM on June 28, 2008

I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to agree with the others upthread who said your best bet is to work on lessening your reaction (not your fear, just your immediate reaction to the source of your fear.)

I realize this is probably a horrible example, but it's the only one I can think of. When I was a kid at slumber parties, I always ended up the main target of "tickle fights." Why? Because I was the most sensitive, and I reacted the loudest and the longest. It would always end with me sobbing on the floor for breath begging my friends to get off of me.

They targeted me because they knew it would get the funniest reaction. Your story reminds me of something similar.

I hope I don't sound like I'm being insensitive by comparing a phobia to tickling, that's not at all my point. But I do believe that the less dramatic you can make your reaction to butterflies and moths, the less reaction you will attract from any potential assholes around you.

Also, just to let you know, you are absolutely not alone in this. My mother's one phobia happens to be large moths (although for some reason, butterflies don't scare her...). We've had to leave baseball games early (where we live, for some reason, large moths come to baseball games frequently...I think because of the stadium lights) and I've rescued many large moths that our cats bring in while my mom hides in the bedroom.
posted by Squee at 11:01 AM on June 28, 2008

I find the best way to explainthe distress of a phobia is to find out their phobias (nearly everyone has one

No, they don't. Most people have fears, which is not the same thing at all, and taking this approach with the insensitive lugs in this scenario is just going to lead to more "see I can deal with my 'phobias' so you should learn to, too. Toughen up!"

Basically, you have to make a call: if it's the kind of person who cares about your feelings at all, tell them what it's like and get them to understand what you're going through. If it's the kind of person who won't, just insist on respect and bring whatever other interpersonal pressure you can to have them lay off. Around those people, you don't go describing what it's like. That's like saying "you hurt my feelings" to a bully.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 11:28 AM on June 28, 2008

In my case, I tried to learn more about the particular class of things I had an irrational fear of, and in learning more about them, I grew to appreciate them in the abstract, which led (very very slowly) to a grudging respect for them in practice.

(It was spiders, for those who care.)

Cultivating an understanding and appreciation of their qualities allowed me to minimize the irrational reaction in favor of an aggressively rational one. (i.e. "Uh, that thing still kinda freaks me out, but it sure is cool the way it spins silk webs and so forth.")

I still think dinger nailed this one. You CAN be stronger than the impulses which control your reactions.
posted by Aquaman at 12:01 PM on June 28, 2008

You kick them in the motherfucking nuts, hard, while screaming at them that the NEXT FUCKING TIME I'LL KILL YOU MOTHERFUCKER.

I know this advice sounds crazy, but it is the only way to get someone's attention when they're being childish. I consider myself a reasonable, empathetic person, and it would be real fuckin' hard for me to take the balloon phobia seriously. I would just be incredulous. "This balloon? It's, like, all round and smooth and there is nothing less dangerous than a balloon, are you fucking kidding me, etc" and unless someone went apeshit and screamed at me "I'll fucking kill you" I would not get it.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 12:07 PM on June 28, 2008 [5 favorites]

Telling people after having met them (not right away, but when you realize you're becoming friends) will probably help. Let them know it seriously bothers you and that if they make light of it, you'll know they don't respect you. I can see how in the above example, the person might have thought you had an average fear of bugs----most of us will stomp and scream and flail, but we aren't phobic. Push home that point---that it's a phobia---and refuse to associate with those who will not respect it, if it is as important to you as it sounds.
posted by lacedback at 12:19 PM on June 28, 2008

I have a phobia of dogs, vastly better than it used to be but still occasionally troublesome. (I acquired it pre-verbally; a large, unleashed dog attacked me in my stroller and had to be fought off. Joy.) And I generally react in a quiet, tense fashion. I express myself rationally, explain myself seriously and openly, and calmly request that dogs in my presence be physically restrained and, when appropriate, slowly and carefully introduced to me -- or, if the dog growls or (God forbid) snaps, that either it leaves the scene or I do. I am about as low-key and non-hysterical a phobic as you're going to find.

And you know what? I'm spared the sort of asshole who'd sic a dog on me just to get a big entertaining emotional rise out of me, but there are plenty of other assholes in the world. There are the aggressively stupid people who like to believe that if they can just trick or bully me into an unspeakably unpleasant situation, I will be magically, instantly give up my silliness and be all better. And there are other people, the sort of folks who can't get their heads out of primate politics for five minutes, who see it as a handy flaw to exploit in order to establish social dominance, or who see my request as some kind of dominance move which must be vigorously opposed. And then there are others who are so insecure about their own character that they feel some sort of pathetic need to denounce all weaknesses. Sometimes you get all three kinds of jerk in one package, which is a good time to head for the door.

No -- it's a good thing if you can learn to tamp down the yelling and running away, for sure, but it will not protect you entirely from the antisocial shitbags of the world.

The only thing I find that works much at all is to adopt the attitude that people who cannot deal appropriately with those who have phobias -- we are, after all, about 10% of the population -- are beyond the pale. That their behavior is deeply shameful -- they have utterly embarrassed themselves, but are too dim and broken to understand it. In short, they are the equivalent of a Cat Piss Man. So I might take a tack of, "How mortifying for my friend that such a jerk would carry on like that in her home. Let's see if I can help her vent about what a jerk he is." This is, basically, the relational aggression equivalent of kicking that guy in the balls.
posted by sculpin at 12:59 PM on June 28, 2008 [4 favorites]

Aside from finding a way to rid yourself of the phobia (which is almost always a wise decision, unless it's a completely reasonable fear, like the way I know that geese are just itching for a chance to leap up into the air and claw my eyes out with their talons while that hideous whon-k! whon-k! whon-k! never stops), the best way to deal with people like that is to ... completely freak out. Not just a little freak out, but hurling fragile items, screaming bloody murder, peeing in the corner, emerging with a lighter and hairspray so you can roast the moths before they get you, freak out. If they slip one under the door, grab something heavy and just smash away, howling "DIE DIE DIE YOU FUCKING HELLBUG!" with the kind of primal loathing you can imagine from Sigourney Weaver in the first two Alien flicks. Sorry about that hardwood floor. I did tell you that butterflies and such freak me out.

Yes, it's over the top. So is trapping someone in a bedroom with their phobia. Sometimes, people do not respect communication, and that's when you either give up or you pull out the big stick.

It's not the fear part you want people to understand, it's the irrational. When irrational stops looking like "crying and getting a reaction they want" and starts looking like "unpredictable and likely to grab sturdy items and swinging at anything mothlike," that's when the fun is over for them. One hundred plus pounds of bulgy-eyed, madly sweating, panicked primate screeching and wreaking havoc forces witnesses to make a sudden emotional connection - oh, yeah, this person is completely freaked out, this is not funny. I have something that I've worked on but haven't been successful in ridding myself of, and I have found that giving in to the basic fear reaction (first, run away, then, when cornered, flip over to rage) is a lot better than holding it in until I can find somewhere quiet to vomit and stop shaking.

It's also enjoyably cathartic. Have a ball with it.
posted by adipocere at 1:13 PM on June 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

Not just a little freak out, but hurling fragile items, screaming bloody murder, peeing in the corner, emerging with a lighter and hairspray so you can roast the moths before they get you, freak out. If they slip one under the door, grab something heavy and just smash away, howling "DIE DIE DIE YOU FUCKING HELLBUG!" with the kind of primal loathing you can imagine from Sigourney Weaver in the first two Alien flicks. Sorry about that hardwood floor. I did tell you that butterflies and such freak me out.

This, and the earlier posts echoing it, is utterly narcissistic and really horrible advice. It may be hard to hear, but dinger had it right.
posted by gerryblog at 2:05 PM on June 28, 2008

Okay... don't follow the advice of people who think going batshit insane will help. Just imagine the responses, keeping in mind that you're looking for some respect:

Person A: Person B starting crying because I threw a moth at her! Hah!
Person C: Huh, that's weird but you're also kind of a jerk. Who knows.

Person A: So... Person B just threatened to kill me because I threw a moth at her. She started swinging a bat around and swore at me and screamed and broke stuff.
Person C: Whoa, what's up with her?! That's outrageous!

The goal here is not to up the behavior that others are already viewing as strange and over-the-top.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 2:35 PM on June 28, 2008

aubilenon: "The only reason I can think you might be discouraging answers in that vein is that you don't believe you can do that; I urge you to consider that stance. I think that with the right attitude you can do it, even without expensive therapy. But that's a long term goal."

I do not understand why people don't understand that I don't have health insurance and and cannot afford therapy right now. I have a pretty serious foot injury and I am actually saving up to go to the podiatrist, who is only charging me half price at the initial visit. Look, I'm broke, okay? (Aubilenon, to your credit you said something about without expensive therapy. Thanks.)

To those who wonder why my friend didn't kick him out of the house: Yes, she was upset with him but had she kicked him out, her daughter would have been upset too. It was a kind of middle-ground situation.

To clarify: The first time, I said I shrieked, not screamed - I kind of yelped. I didn't run across the house - I darted into the bedroom that was *right there* and shut the door. I didn't slam the door or scream bloody murder... I think some of you are thinking my reaction was more extreme than it really was. And at first I didn't know it was dead - it was stuck behind an oversized wall mirror that hangs over the couch and it could have been alive.

Thank you for all your answers and I am certainly not saying that I won't seek treatment for my phobia some day, but right now I just can't afford to.
posted by IndigoRain at 3:55 PM on June 28, 2008

IndigoRain, as much as this suggestion is going to sound like a candidate for the "put this off forever" bin, I'll say that I did find a little self-guided internet amateur acclimatization therapy to be helpful in modulating my reaction to bees. I went from shrieking to squeaking, and I can force myself to breathe slowly long enough to leave the area. Anyone who knows me can tell by my clenched jaw and stiff gait that I'm freaking, but it doesn't otherwise attract too much attention. I found several things helpful: looking at images, listening to the buzzing sound (I don't have much tolerance for this, though), and best of all, overeducating myself.

I may be fucking terrified of bees (I'm not much better with roaches,) but I can ID the type, where it lives, etc. Known thine enemy, right? And focusing on geeking out on the knowledge is a buoy to cling to while your brain is trying to panic. This also can help shut down the obnoxious people -- "what, you're scared of that little moth?" "It's actually a juvenile blaha blahae butterfly, and yes."
posted by desuetude at 5:18 PM on June 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

To clarify, there will always be people who find your fear of moths and butterflies funny. All you are going to do is alienate your friends then move on to another group of people, whereupon there is a good chance one or two of them will laugh and throw a dead moth at you when you tell them you're afraid of moths. And so on. Live with the fact that you have a phobia that people may find stupid or amusing, and learn that the less of a deal you make it the less they will be encouraged to push your buttons. Friends and associates have no reason to ever confront you with moths accidentally - don't tell them you're afraid of them and they probably never will, for any reason.
posted by fire&wings at 5:26 PM on June 28, 2008

Uh, screw you? My advice is predicated on the idea that friends should respect one another; actively taunting someone with their phobia is a far cry from finding it amusing. The latter is acceptable, the former is not.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 6:07 PM on June 28, 2008

dirtynumbangelboy's advice is utterly ridiculous.

When dirtynumbangelboy and konolia sorta semi kinda agree and both get a best answer, it makes my day. I agree with them.
posted by Robert Angelo at 6:09 PM on June 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

"what, you're scared of that little moth?" "It's actually a juvenile blaha blahae butterfly, and yes."

This right here: Yes. Free therapy for bug phobias is available right here on the internet in the form of educational sites like Wikipedia. Try it. Start with plain text (disable images in your browser if you have to), and get a sense of the nuts & bolts of moths (how they live, what they eat, their basic anatomy and life cycle, and so on). Then move on to pictures. As much as an actual moth can't hurt you, a picture of one is even more harmless, and can go away forever at the click of a mouse. Build up a tolerance for the sight of them. If you make it that far, move on to video.

That's how it worked for me and spiders.

I can now go back into my bedroom and muster enough courage to actually approach whatever enormous arachnid invader has crawled out from under the baseboard. I'm still totally freaked out, but I can do it. And I'll even use that brief period of terrified paralysis to have a good look at the ugly son of a bitch, and identify his species and gender. And then I'll stomp him beyond all recognition.

While, yeah, this acquaintance of yours is absolutely a jerk, this phobia is ultimately your problem, and will continue to be a problem until you assert control over it.
posted by Sys Rq at 6:43 PM on June 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

When I was little I was afflicted with a fear of mushrooms. I would not eat them (the edible kind), touch them, or even walk near them where I might step on them.

I don't know where this phobia came from. I was a bookish kid and i think I read about how mushrooms and fungi grow and it freaked me out. . .invisible spores, hyphae, mycelia twining beneath the ground, slime molds, toadstools, parasitic fungal diseases.

I am no longer afraid of mushrooms, and I eat edible ones, but I still can't abide molds and if I find any moldy food, such as bread or cheese, my impulse is to throw the whole loaf or piece out.

I don't remember people ridiculing me by waving mushrooms in my face, but nobody except my family knew about this and they were annoyed by having to leave the mushrooms out in my portions of salad or pizza.
posted by bad grammar at 6:50 PM on June 28, 2008

Just an update... I figured out that guy was just an ass, as he kept finding giant dead moths to show to me and telling people who were unaware of my phobia to show them to me too. I made sure not to be around him, and now it's a moot point as something happened and he is persona non grata.
posted by IndigoRain at 12:28 AM on September 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

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