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Counter Phobic Behavior

Counter Phobic Behavior

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Published by Elena Sandu

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Published by: Elena Sandu on Aug 01, 2010
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07/11/2013

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13
C
OUNTERPHOBIC
B
EHAVIOR
What is it like to be a counterphobe, someone who seeks danger? The best wayto find out would be to interview one. The choice was simple. I interviewedmyself. I have been a mild counterphobe as long as I can remember. I traveledto East Africa twice, driving my own family through Uganda, Kenya, andTanzania. A short journey to Rwanda ended in 12 hours when our host, a retiredBritishcolonial,warned our family that the Tutsis and the Hutus were about tostartfighting a few milesaway.In Kenya my son Josh and I were chased by an angry rhino, who tried tooverturn our Landrover. At a lodge in Tanzania we watched in horror as a capebuffalo gored a woman to death right outside our cabin.A trip with a group of 12 tourists to 10 West African countries was bound tobe dangerous and exciting. This time I went without my family. Ten of the twelvemembers dropped out after a few weeks, owing to the rigors of the trip, and thevarious diseases to which we were exposed. An 8-hour hike to see mountain goril-las in Eastern Zaire brought me face to face with “Musha Muka,” an alpha malegorilla twice the size of any I had seen in the zoo. He was beating his chest inthe approved manner and screaming at me. I averted my gaze, as I had been toldto, so as not to challenge him. We were only a few feet apart. The three pygmyguides later told our French-speaking guide that Musha had killed another malea few days ago, but had received a large shoulder wound which made him veryirritable. I got more than my money’s worth of fear, but of coursesurvived,whichis the joy of being a counterphobe.Years ago I took my family to Tobago. I had not learned to scuba dive, so Ibought a floating compressorthat had two 50-foot hoses to which face maskswereattached.I put one on, and my guide, a very friendly, large, and athleticTobagan named Courtney, put on the other. We dove down. Buccoo Reef was aparadisethen. It had not been destroyed by too many divers such as myself.Suddenly I was gasping for air. I looked over at Courtney, and saw that he hadthrown off his mask and was kicking his fins to get to the surface. I did the same.
159
 
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CHAPTER 13
A large wave had overturned the compressor, and it conked out. When I got tothe surface, I took a huge breath of air, and suddenly began to sink to thebottom. I had panicked, and was confused by lack of oxygen. I kicked to the sur-face again, breathed, and sank. I was desperate. I swam to a coral head, andcrawled on it into fresh air. Then I looked down. In my panic I had forgotten tothrow off my weight belt. I had come very near to drowning.This search for adventure and danger has neverstopped. Around 1975 Itook a trip up the Mahakam River in what used to be called Borneo (nowKalimantan) to visit a tribe of headhunters. My only companions were a retiredguide and a young Swiss steeplejack/travelagent, who was reading
Future Shock 
while we dodged huge logs coming down the river as we went upstream. Thesteeplejack was reconnoitering a swamp where the only black orchids in theworld grew, in preparation for a trip by the Swiss Orchid Society. He got off about half-way, and I never saw him again. He was a wonderful companion forthat short time. Later on, in one village, a sworddancer made his local audiencelaugh by pretending to behead me while I photographed him with flashgun andcamera. Then a wild boar hunt proved to be rather tame, but I must admit beingscared of the poison darts in the blowguns.With my present wife, Susan, I went to Iquitos on the Upper Amazon. Fromthere we tooktrips to a few headhunting tribes, and got stuck sideways in a lightcanoe in the middle of the Amazon with waves breaking over us. Our guideMoises, always cheerful, gave us his usual reassurance, “No problema!”Some of the natives unfortunately had traded in their shrunken heads forAdidas T-shirts, which reduced the danger considerably. A spider the size of asmall plate seemed drawn to Susan’s hammock, but she bravely brushed it off.We fished for piranhas. Sue caught a large one, and another guide, “Secundo,”pointing to the large teeth, got too close and lost the tip of his finger. What both-ered me terribly, in addition to his lost fingertip, was that he wouldn’t let me fixhis wound with my antibiotics and first aid kit. (Half the fun for a counterphobeis being “prepared” for danger.) Instead he used a greasy rag, with which hewiped the motor, to stop the bleeding!Our guide to various tribes,“Moises,” wanted us to try “ayawaska,” a hallu-cinogenic root that he claimed could make you see clearly in the jungle at night.He gave us a copy of an article from
High Times
magazine, which was apparentlya Bible for U.S. druggies. We turned down his “drug trip.” The other alternativeswere living on roots for 2 weeks, or visits to tribes. We chose the latter.It is clear to me that I have had a lifelong fear of death and dying.Counterphobic behavior was only one of many mechanisms I used to cope withmy fears. I had to prove that I could take risks and still live. I review my own“choice” of coping mechanisms at the end of this book.Everyone has taken a dare at some time—to leap from an overhanging rock into a lake or river, to ride a bike with no hands, or to snatch some object in a
 
COUNTERPHOBICBEHAVIOR
161
store and pocket it without getting caught. These relatively innocent episodescan’t compare with skydiving, scuba diving, or bungee jumping, but they seemto be part of the process of growing up for all but the most timid souls. Some of us (such as myself) never grow out of it.Probably one of the earliest and best discussions of counterphobic behaviorwas by Otto Fenichel (1939). He refers to:
… a definite type of these fear-defences, which is usually referred to under the inex-act name of ‘overcompensation against fear’, but which could much more preciselybe called the ‘counter-phobic attitude’ (Fenichel, 1939, p. 263)It often happens that a person shows a preference for the very situations of which heis apparently afraid. And even more frequently he will later on develop a preferencefor the situations which he formerly feared. (Fenichel, 1939, p. 264)
Fenichel explored the conditions under which counterphobia might turnout well—that is, succeed as a defense mechanism. The first condition occurswhen a passive position is made into an active one. “We frequently see that inadults too, the search for situations which were formerly feared become pleasur-
able precisely because they are actively sought …”
The second condition has to do with a feeling of trust or protection.
Children overcome their anxiety not only by playing actively at what has threatenedthem, but also by letting a loved person, whom they trust, do to (with) them what theyfear to do themselves … pleasure may be enjoyed so long as one believes in the pro-tection of an outsider. (Fenichel, 1939, p. 264) (parentheses added)
The third condition involves pleasure or excitation from the counterphobic
activity:
Fear, like any other excitation, may be a source of sexual excitation. But this is true—justas in the case of pain—only so long as the unpleasure remains within certain limits,for example, in feeling sympathy for the hero of a tragedy. (Fenichel, 1939, p. 271)
The fourth condition is a little obscure. The counterphobe is testing out the
reality of his fears, to convince himself that they were imaginary, and that he is safe.
Search for the anxiety situation has the character of a ‘flight to reality.’ This meansthat the reality of the situation with which imaginary expectations of punishmentwere connected is sought, presumably to convince the subject that this connectionwas purely imaginary and that actually only the situation itself occurs. (Fenichel,1939, pp. 271–272)
This continual testing of the reality of the fearful situation is due to the fact that“there is no proof that the punishment will not occur eventually.” In addition,the pleasure of the release of the tension that is created by seeking the danger issought over and over again, in a sort of addictive process.Fenichel was one of the first to point out that part of the joy in sports is that“one actively brings about in play certain tensions which were formerly feared”

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