Here at DGC, we have discovered first hand the power of reframing and Agency. One of the keys to building the capacity to make a decision (agency) is facing down your fears. I have talked about the coffee cup facing the flinch experiment and examining minor fears with data before. This week I found another very instructive situation in which there is a choice to build Agency or not.
A key tactic in the war to build Agency and overcome Fears is to pick your battles. Pick the right ones. The ones where you have an advantage. Ones where you have enough Agency to win.
This week a friend was over for dinner. Around 8:30 she headed out to her car to leave. She came back in 5 minutes later.
“I don’t want to leave.” she said.
“I only have 25 miles of gas and it is dark and cold and I don’t know if I can make it home.”
“There is a gas station less than a mile away, just stop there.”
“No, I am scared of getting gas by myself at night.”
“Well are you more scared of not getting home?”
“I don’t know, what should I do?”
And there you have it. Dueling fears causing paralysis. But a decision has to be made. How to decide which fear to face? My recommendation is always to face the fear in which you have MORE AGENCY, more capacity to make a decision. Regardless of the outcome, having made an affirmative conscious decision, builds capacity to make more decisions. Being passive and submissive builds more of the same as well.
Lets consider the facts and relative merits of each fear.
Fear of getting gas at night alone as a single woman. There certainly is merit to this fear. While the absolute probability of something bad happening is VERY low (probably less than 1:20,000) (FBI stats put overall threat of woman rape at 52:100,000 or a 0.0529% chance of being raped anywhere in one year, so a GAS STATION AT NIGHT is even more rare):, this one is very easy for the monkey mind to catastrophize about. The story is “don’t be alone.” And there are things you can do at a gas station to make you less of a target to reduce the odds even more. You can choose a full service gas station where the guy pumps for you. I offered to drive down in my car with her to fill up so she would not be alone. The bottom line is that with she had a HIGH degree of AGENCY with this fear; she could do some actions to modify the out come, change the odds in here favor. So the FACTS say this is a VERY unlikely event to occur, she had high Agency relative to the fear, but the emotional merits/appeal is quite high and understandable.
Fear of running out of gas. The facts for my friend were that she lived about 10 miles away and had 25 miles on the range meter in the car. Most cars are conservative on their range meters so you are likely to have half a gallon or so left when the gauge reads zero. With a 30 mpg car (which she had) that means the real range is likely 40 miles. So the probability of running out of gas is likely equal to the probability of an electronics failure causing improper measurement combined with the probability of some other major car system failure. While I couldn’t find any hard stats on either of these, I did find anecdotal predictions between 0.01 – 0.10 % of each type of failure (combined 0.02 – 0.20 %) It is not a huge logical leap to conclude that fear of running out of gas an fear of being attacked at a gas station are approximately the same. But there is VERY LOW AGENCY in running out of gas. You either are or are not. The only thing you can do to improve you odds is Fear #1, getting more gas. On the harm scale, being out of gas somewhere random is probably more dangerous than being out of gas at a gas station, but you have to stack the odds of attack onto the odds of running out of gas making the odds of both running out of gas AND something bad happening much longer than either event separately. But emotionally I can understand that being alone with a broken down car on the side of the road would cause more angst than being alone in a lit gas station with an attendant. So low probability event (likely equal to fear #1), low agency in fear, and roughly equal emotional appeal on outcomes.
So what did I tell my friend? To face the gas fear, go get more gas. Why?
- She has Agency in the gas fear. She can change the odds. Face her fear at a time and place of her choosing.
- By solving fear #1, you also solve fear #2. Two birds with one stone.
What did she do? Took her chances with the gas and put off the fill up. That is completely understandable. But it was also a missed opportunity. An opportunity to face down and practice overcoming a paralyzing fear. One which is keeping her from enjoying driving around the city at night. Why let a 0.05% chance event cause you angst EVERY NIGHT of the year? Instead her monkey mind choose the easy path, the path of passive acceptance that an unlikely event may happen and she would deal with it then. While that decision is understandable, it does not grow the individual. Not every growth opportunity should be taken every time, but I encourage you to take more when you see them. The first step is awareness and recognition that you do in fact have a decision and one option is better (growth) than the other.
So next time you are faced with a decision between two fears, choose to face the one in which you have more Agency. You will be stronger for it!