My Friend’s Fear of Snakes Seems Silly to Me. Can I Help Him Get Over It?
I think he’s overreacting, and it feels embarrassing
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Welcome to Tough Love. We’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Small Game and Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have a friend who is terrified of snakes. He’s from Australia, where the snakes are much more dangerous than the ones who live around us now. Technically we have rattlesnakes here, but I don’t even know anyone who’s seen one, and most of the snakes we have aren’t venomous. However, my friend is still terrified to the point where if we have a barbecue or hang out in the park, he usually gets startled at least once. We went swimming in a lake and he screamed because something touched his leg. It made a scene and was kind of embarrassing. How do I help him realize that he doesn’t have to be worried here?
I mean, just googling Australian snakes makes me jumpy—I can’t imagine how much more alert I’d be if I grew up there. Yes, I know, people get used to their environments. But it sounds like your friend developed a completely reasonable and well-earned survival instinct. Getting startled once on an excursion doesn’t strike me as necessarily excessive, particularly if your friend is open to hanging out outside and isn’t limiting his plans out of fear. A lot of people wouldn’t even get in a lake if they were worried about water snakes. Heck, I stay out of a lot of water just because leeches are gross.
Does your friend think he has a problem, or is it just you? Was he embarrassed when he screamed in the lake, or were you embarrassed for him? If you’re not sure how he feels, you could try posing a question: “Hey, I know you’re nervous around snakes. If you could snap your fingers and make the fear go away, would you?” If he seems baffled, or shakes his head, then clearly he feels just fine with his snake anxiety, and the appropriate response is for you to let it go.
If he says something along the lines of, “Yeah, honestly it’s kind of a phobia for me and I wish I could get over it,” then he’s making an opening for you to offer help. You could teach him a bit about the very nice, polite, not-gonna-kill-you snakes in your region, or—better yet—take him to a nature center where he could encounter some up-close in a totally secure environment. (Nature centers love teaching people about their local species. That’s a big part of what they’re for!) Education probably won’t make his fear go away completely, but it’ll give him the tools to talk himself down when he’s startled. He might even start to recognize certain non-venomous species when he’s out and about.
Regardless of whether or not he wants your help, I think it would serve you to do some thinking about why your friend’s startle reflex strikes you as embarrassing. Do you think it reflects badly on him? Do you think certain types of people shouldn’t have phobias (or at least show them publicly)? Is it that you don’t like making a scene? If so, maybe that’s a phobia of your own that you could confront. Know that there’s nothing shameful about being afraid of something, whether or not it’s rational. That’s just how our brains work sometimes.
And if you’re ever desperate for a completely calm activity, plan a ski trip. Snakes don’t live in the snow.
I’m hoping you can settle a debate I’ve been having with my girlfriend. She’s a trail runner and likes to listen to music while she runs. However, she says that she doesn’t feel safe wearing headphones because it makes her less aware of her surroundings, so she plays music on her phone out loud while she runs. I understand her logic, but it seems extremely rude to play music aloud on shared trails. There are other people trying to enjoy some peace and quiet, and they don’t want to hear whatever she’s listening to. She says I just don’t get it. Which one of us is right?
You both are. It is rude to play music aloud on shared trails. Also, if you’re male, your girlfriend has to stay far more aware of her surroundings than you do. If she felt comfortable doing so, the most polite solution would be for her to wear a single earbud and keep the other ear open to her surroundings. But, given the circumstances—and assuming that she’s only seeing people every few minutes, rather than being constantly surrounded by fellow hikers and joggers—I think it would be appropriate for her to play music out loud quietly, so that folks she passes would just hear it for a moment when they’re directly beside her. It’s not ideal, but that’s not her fault; sometimes an imperfect world forces us into imperfect solutions. I’m sure she’d much rather live in a world where no one would bother her and she could wear her headphones in peace.