A Crazy Way to Gain Sanity

Here’s a zany but intriguing exercise for learning to overcome fear: get on a crowded subway train (if you have access to one) and call out the stops as they’re coming up. Why would anyone do this, you ask? Psychologist Albert Ellis, its originator, would tell you (if he were still alive) that it shows us how reflexively we manage to create fear for ourselves, even in situations that are not actually truly threatening.

Oliver Burkeman’s account of his experience in the London Tube is pretty hilarious and I can totally picture myself having the same reaction:

“…Ellis’s excruciating exercise…is intended to bring me face to face with all my unspoken beliefs about embarrassment, self-consciousness, and what other people might think about me. It will force me…to realize something about the situation that is psychologically intriguing: that my beliefs about how staggeringly awful it’s going to be, when they’re brought out into the open and examined, just don’t seem to match the facts…After all, I know nobody in the carriage personally, so I have nothing to lose from them thinking that I’m crazy. Moreover, I know from past experience on the Undergound that when other people start talking out loud to themselves, I ignore them, as does everyone else; this is almost certainly the worst that is going to happen to me.

…And so why – as the train begins to slow, almost undetectably at first, for the approach to Chancery Lane – do I feel as if I want to vomit?” (excerpted from The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking).

Burkeman does go on to tackle the exercise, croaking and terrified to begin with but eventually realizing that nothing is actually happening as a result of him calling out the names of the stations. No-one gives a hoot except him, so he stops giving a hoot, too. And that is hugely liberating.

The only person who was finding him unacceptably foolish was himself. The expected ridicule didn’t come, the people on the train didn’t at all mirror the reflection he’d envisioned for himself in anticipation. Interesting! How many times do we do this to ourselves? I can think of about a bazillion, off the top of my head.

I’m not about to get on the subway and try this, but I’m glad he did and shared his discovery. Think I’ll try and find some other ways to experiment with the idea.


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