The Appetite Episode #22: Facing Fears: Letting Values and Desire Lead the Way
An Opal: Food+Body Wisdom Podcast
What does your fear tell you about the particularity of your values or desires? Dr. Lexi Giblin, PhD, CEDS talks with host, Carter Umhau, LMHCA about the role of fear in personal growth. Lexi and Carter discuss the Facing Fears therapy group at Opal and why risk-taking matters.
Carter: Hello, and welcome to The Appetite, a podcast all about food, body, sport, and mental health, brought to you by Opal: Food + Body Wisdom, an eating disorder treatment program in Seattle, Washington. This podcast is all about bringing the themes of our work as clinicians into a wider conversation. I’m your host, Carter Umhau, a therapist, artist, and writer. Today, we’ve got Opal co-founder and psychologist, Lexi Giblin, to join me and talk about facing fears. Today, Lexi and I are here talking about facing fears, which is a group at Opal, but it’s also a bit of a philosophy to live by too.
Lexi: True that. So, I’m Lexi Giblin, and I’ve been running the facing fears group at Opal since we opened, and have major passion about facing fears in general in life, both because witnessing it in clients and what it does, but also in my personal life. It’s been a real kind of north star, I would say. My life would be very different right now if I didn’t face fears regularly, right?
Carter: Actively, yeah. Yeah, so with facing fears at Opal, I think probably … Maybe some people can imagine exactly what that is, and I would imagine most people can’t, so I would love to just start with getting a little bit of perspective and context around why that group is part of Opal, and then why we would be talking about it for everyone else and for ourselves too.
Lexi: Well, it was born out of this just noticing how much avoidance was happening and how much anxiety was guiding decision making. So, one of our ways of thinking in the group is to make decisions based on our values versus our fears, letting fear take a backseat to what we’re really wanting in our life, because of course, so often, we most want what we most fear. It’s tough, because of course, anxiety tells you to avoid the feared experience, right. So, when you’re facing fears, you have to go opposite to what your anxiety is telling you. Focusing on making decisions based on our values, and then also, in that group, we’re working on what we would call exposure therapy, which is confronting anxiety, so creating situations that typically bring up anxiety in order to have a different experience with the feared stimulus or experience.
Lexi: So, in exposure therapy, the feared experience or stimuli is paired with safety, and so over repeated exposures to that fear, the safety starts to get blended with the feeling of fear, and so safety starts to penetrate as we do more and more exposures. We’re doing some exposure therapy in there, and one of the ways we also talk about it is we think of our comfort zone in life as a confining box, and then what we do in facing fears is step outside of that comfort zone box and into where the magic happens, where vitality lives, because we can probably all relate to this feeling that you get when you move towards anxiety. You can feel really alive, especially if it goes in the way that you had hoped. This incredible vitality can be found, because you’re often just stepping right into what you care most about.
Carter: That feels really resonant to me in some ways, and I also have had the experience of very much not being in touch with what I actually want out of a situation and just knowing that I feel anxious and scared, and maybe should try it anyway, and it can be rewarding, but I definitely know that I grow whatever it is. At least I’ve gotten rid of the fear, a little bit.
Lexi: Right. So, you might just say I just am going to step into this and see what happens, so what’s going to happen next is unknown. You might not have an expectation, just want to see what happens, some hypothesis testing.
Carter: Yeah. So, with eating disorders, we’ve certainly talked on the podcast quite a bit about the overcontrolled temperament, and it’s easy for me to imagine and to know, too, out of experience, of course, that the eating disorder client often does have an overcontrolled temperament. So, leaning into anxiety and leaning into a place of risk-taking is not going to be natural. How would you explain some of the bigger picture benefits of that?
Lexi: Right, so risk aversion or risk threat sensitivity is one of the prominent characteristics of the overcontrolled individual. In the case of the overcontrolled temperament, the person may experience neutral stimuli as threatening, so that means they’re getting lots of false positives, right, so lots of information that’s telling them that this is to be avoided, when actually, it’s quite safe. So, you can think about … I mean, I think we all can identify with places in our lives where our anxiety is there, but there’s something that we may desperately want or need in our lives, and anxiety is telling us to avoid it.
Lexi: With our clients at Opal, the feared stimuli or the feared experience is food, often, so we’re watching folks approach the feared stimuli meal after meal and helping them learn to experience the safety that can be found while experiencing food, which is a tall task. I mean, every day at Opal, it’s just … You would just watch the bravery, because anxiety’s so strong, they’re facing a fear every meal, often, and the keeping on, keeping on with it, it’s just … It’s a beautiful thing to behold, which also gets me to another idea that we certainly work with in facing fears at Opal, and I found to be so true in my life, is the facing fears together. When you share the experience of facing fears, maybe you have a friend that you’re both doing something that’s scary together, it’s so powerful, to have the connectedness within the facing of the fears. So, we often think about the relational impact of facing fears together at Opal and beyond.
Carter: Yeah, I was just thinking about the example of even doing some sort of risky type adventure, sport. I don’t know why I think of that with facing fears. Maybe it’s Fear Factor or something, but that you would be bungee jumping, but doing that actually holding someone’s hand. The clarity and the calm that might be able to come from okay, we’re in this together, and then the bond afterward to reinforce that that went well, we’re good. That was so fun.
Lexi: We inspire each other. I mean, that’s one of the things that … Oh, it’s so great to be in facing fears on Friday mornings. I go in super anxious. Every Friday morning, I’m a little anxious. We do the thing that we’ve decided to do, and then on the other side of that experience, I feel connected to folks in the room and feel inspired, often. Like, wow, if they can do it, I can do it. I’ve got to do this thing that I’m scared of in my life, and they’re doing it, and all these kinds of ways. It’s quite inspirational.
Carter: Can you tell me more specifically about what different tasks you guys would do in there? I’ve been in there before, full disclosure, but I guess for our audience, can you tell a little bit more about what happens?
Lexi: Yeah, well, we set up all situations that tend to create anxiety in most people, so we have probably 15 different feared activities that we do, including karaoke, and open mic, and eye contact. We have a just do it day, where we just go for whatever we’ve been avoiding, the emails, the voicemails, the applying to school, looking for a job, whatever it is, the just do it hour, and we all get together and say, “This is what I’m going to do, and then everyone helps each other as they do the feared activity.” We do retail therapy. Also, we go out shopping, and that is often quite anxiety-provoking for folks who are recovering from an eating disorder. So, that is just a number of different experiences.
Lexi: There’s a quote that I wrote down that I love that kind of highlights what we’re talking about, and this is from Marianne Williamson. She writes, “As we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” That is much of what we experience in facing fears, and also, just in our friendships. A lot of times we’ll see a friend doing something, and wow, I can do that. The possibility is more present in my mind by seeing you do that.
Carter: That makes me think of an example that maybe I’ve referenced on here before, of choosing to do an improv class when I was younger.
Carter: I remember very much talking to my best friend Sarah on her bed, when we were 18, 19 years old. I remember it very vividly, because I was freaked out. She was describing an improv class. She’s an actress, and she was describing some introductory exercise they were doing, and my eyes were just wide. There is not a chance in hell I would ever, ever, ever do that. I would die of humiliation. She just sort of looked at me, and I thought okay, yeah, you’re right. I need to sign up. So, that was the impetus, just to notice that I was scared out of my mind. Even imagining it, I felt scared, that it must be something that I needed to move toward. She’s an incredibly inspiring person, and I think that there wouldn’t have been even an access to imagine what it would be like to do something so new without having been inspired by her, for sure, and it wound up being transformative in terms of the amount of self-consciousness that I moved through just by showing up to do that weekly for six weeks or whatever it was.
Lexi: Wow. I love how the friendship plays such a strong role in that.
Carter: In my example, certainly noticing the amount of physically anxiety and nausea I felt around improv was an indicator that I needed to face a fear, but I’m curious what you think in terms of what other things can often be indicators for a fear that’s there.
Lexi: Well, I think when we have a strong emotion about something that could signal that there’s something there, there’s meaningful there, or you wouldn’t care about it, right. Sometimes, of course, we feel anxious, because it’s smart to avoid the situation, but sometimes we feel anxiety that’s telling us that there’s something important to be learned in this approach of this experience. Living in fear of an experience for your life is … If you always know that there’s a monster on the other side of the wall, you’re going to maybe live differently and make choices based on avoidance of the monster. That may limit yourself and you won’t have as much freedom in your decision making, perhaps, because you are aware of the monster and you’re making decisions to avoid the monster.
Lexi: Maybe I shouldn’t use monster. But what I would want to emphasize as well is the learning that takes place when we do something we don’t typically do. When we step outside of our comfort zone and into the magic where the magic happens, you will experience new stimuli, and that stimuli creates new learning. So, if we did the same thing every day day in day out, we wouldn’t have access to the same learning situations as we would if we do step into our anxiety and take risks. So, the learning is really important in all of this too.
Carter: Yeah. You have described many times the amount of fear you felt in opening Opal to begin with. I’d love to hear about what that … Yeah, what kind of monsters were there at that moment in your life.
Lexi: Yeah, so that was definitely, maybe, my biggest facing a fear of my life, for certainly my career. I was in it with Julie and Kara, so that makes it feel really different, but Julie and Kara and I were all also risks in our relationships, because we … How were we going to do working together? Was this wise for us to be in business with each other? What is this going to do for our relationships? So, there’s a lot of risk in that, and then, also, I mean, what we did to make Opal happen involved incredible risk that I just can’t even believe that we took, when I look back on it, because we took out an SBA loan, we put our savings in a pot, and we signed a 10-year lease on five, 6,000 square feet, and we had a bunch of credit cards with 0% financing if you could pay it off within a year.
Lexi: So, we racked up all kinds of debt on our credit cards, our personal credit cards, in order to launch Opal. Of course, we didn’t know what would happen. It was a tremendous risk, certainly financially, but beyond that, it was career risk in a major way, and all the emotions that come with that. So, before jumping, boy, we really were sitting with a lot of anxiety, and I never felt so incredibly vital in my work. I mean, the amount of energy I had during the launch phase and beforehand, I just … It was like I couldn’t even … I couldn’t stop doing the Opal work, because I was just completely gripped and excited, and had this incredible surge of vitality and just … It was an amazing time. It kind of has this feeling of I want to do that again, I want to do that again.
Carter: What did your life look like during that time? Or, even leading up to it. Were you working on other things, still seeing clients, and then moving into it, or …
Lexi: I was working private practice, and I was teaching at the Udub, and I left the Udub, which was my home for … I think I’d been there for 15 years with graduate school, and then teaching for seven or eight years. So, I left Udub, and that felt like facing a fear, to leave what felt like my home to launch Opal. So, I stopped teaching to work on Opal, but then I kept my private practice going and I was a mom to a younger child at that time, so that was a really intense phase. Really incredible, though. I just think of it as warm and fuzzies, but I think back, but that’s because everything turned out …
Carter: Yeah, that 10-year lease has been filled with actual people in the building.
Lexi: In this case, the risk was very much worth it in hindsight.
Carter: So, you said earlier, when you were talking about the philosophy behind facing fears, that it’s often pointing us towards something that we want desperately, or that we desire. I’m so curious about that and this story of opening Opal, because you clearly felt so at home at Udub, and you clearly were so invested in your private practice. Was there sort of a seed that started growing around oh, I could do this, or … Yeah, what was that about?
Lexi: Well, maybe I’d go back and share another big moment in my life related to your question, which was in graduate school, I had, I think, diagnoseable public speaking phobia, and I can remember going into my dissertation and the incredible, almost near panic I was in to go and present, and I went through graduate school in this really heightened state of anxiety, because there’s a lot of speaking publicly.
Carter: Yeah. Saying that on a podcast now-
Lexi: Yeah, and here I am on a podcast. So, then I was … When I graduated, I was offered a position as a lecturer at the Udub.
Carter: How ironic.
Lexi: I know. This meant getting up in front of 200 students four days a week for an hour. I remember feeling so incredibly scared and just … If I would have followed my anxiety, clearly I would have said no to the opportunity, but then, at the same time, I felt like there’s something in this that … I do enjoy teaching. If it weren’t for the anxiety, I would to do that job, and love working with college students, and love the subject of abnormal psychology. So, I decided to go for it, and so over the course of seven years of teaching, my anxiety eventually became manageable, and it’s really what I think allowed me space to consider doing something like Opal. I don’t think I would have ever jumped from public speaking phobia to Opal, right.
Lexi: So, there was this bridge that I used to get to a place that felt capable of facing yet another fear and living into something that I care deeply about and not letting fear dictate my decisions. Yeah, so then I was teaching. I think that brought me confidence about it, and then I think Julie and Kara and I, when we were in conversations about Opal, we just … The three of us all just felt such excitement about it, and the feeling of creating something, taking risks with others is something that I seek out in different ways because of how incredible the experience has been, just to join with others in creating something that you are all passionate about and going for it, and share the risk. You’re kind of sharing the risk more. You wouldn’t be alone in the loss.
Carter: Yeah, it sounds so much more fun too, simply-
Lexi: So much more fun.
Carter: Right. Simply more fun in a way, to get to actually be able to bounce those things off of other people and share the excitement and share the thrill and share the process.
Lexi: Yeah, so I say without facing fears, I would be … I would have a different life. Certainly, I wouldn’t be talking on this podcast right now. Yeah.
Carter: I was thinking earlier about how … The idea of noticing where you feel desire, that can be an indicator of where there might also be fear attached to it, and also feeling fear can be a sign that there’s some desire that kind of works both ways. I also know that for myself, there have been times in my life that I’m really clued into desire and I’m very much I want to do that, and I want to try this, and I want to take this risk, or even I feel scared and I need to grow, and I’m desperate to grow, because this isn’t working. But the in between of feeling sort of apathetic, or comfortable, or just ambivalent is …
Carter: It’s a lot harder for me to tap into either fear or desire, and I think especially for people that are in a comfortable life already, or doing something that they care about enough, or whatever, that noticing an opportunity to face a fear, I think, could be difficult, if that seed hasn’t even been … Isn’t recognizable. I was going to say the seed hadn’t been planted, but I kind of trust that most people have some seeds of desire planted, but they might be hidden a little bit.
Lexi: Yeah. I love the way of thinking about it as desire, and using that language opens it up.
Carter: Yeah. I really want to write a book one day. Shouldn’t have said that on the podcast, but I do, I do, I do. I do, and I was at Elliott Bay Book Store last night, and I was just wandering around, and it’s sort of a dangerous place for me to go in when you want to write a book and you’re surrounded by books, and you haven’t even started. It sort of feels like both a … You’ve walked into a gold mine, and also, you’ve walked into hell a little bit. All these people have done this and I haven’t.
Carter: So, I was looking at all the books, and normally, I go oh, I wish I had written that, oh, it’d be so fun to write something like that. Oh, I really like that. Then I get all upset. Yesterday I was just like, you know, screw it. I’m not going to pick up a single book. I’m sitting down right here in this chair and I’m going to start writing. So, I did that for five minutes and left not feeling nauseated, but it was a place where the fear of not doing it was able to be an action step rather than suppressed desire in some way, or …
Lexi: Would you say you’re more in a stuck place with it, in a place of comfort and not wanting to step into discomfort of writing?
Carter: Yeah, definitely. Yeah. It feels hard to … I notice that there’s a lot of desire, and then that feels scary, the risk-taking of actually being like, well, that would matter a lot to me. I would like that. It’s difficult to even tolerate. It’s not that I feel like oh, I’m so scared that I would fail, but just even scared of the feeling of desire itself, sometimes.
Lexi: Claiming your desire. I love that you just claimed it on the podcast.
Carter: I know, what a regret I’m already having.
Lexi: We all know now. So, then there’s this … Now we have this social connection to you. I’ll probably nudge you about that moving forward.
Carter: Yeah. I feel sick. No, thank you.
Lexi: Think of something else that I would say is … When we think about the stages of change, usually, we are in a place of cognitive dissonance, or some … There’s an angsty part of us that … Maybe part of us that feels that desire and that feels the anxiety of avoiding, and you’re just feeling this emotion and discomfort, and that is a motivating emotion to have. It sounds like you are in, maybe, a dissonant place with writing when you were in the bookstore.
Carter: Yeah. That idea of dissonance, I think, is significant to that point around what if you’re not feeling something really large, because I would imagine if you’re feeling a lot of dissonance a lot, then maybe you start numbing out, just kind of an overwhelm state that could happen, to be in conflict with yourself in some ways. That makes me just curious even about our clients again, around a numbing out that happens eventually if there’s too much conflicting feeling.
Lexi: You used the word comfortable earlier, and if you’re not … You’re not usually comfortable if you’re feeling dissonance, and you can bring about dissonance in different ways, but I also think life just has a way of sending us challenges and dissonance.
Lexi: Another way of thinking about this, a lot of our culture thinks about approaching anxiety … The idea is more to decrease anxiety, to increase comfort, decrease anxiety, and when we’re facing fears, of course, we’re coming from a different paradigm where we’re saying facing anxiety is where it’s at, so it’s a different way of thinking, right. This is choosing to be uncomfortable, and that is not necessarily the way our culture thinks about emotions. Moving towards difficult emotions is foreign to lots of folks, and we think about it as good therapy hurts. Usually, when you’re changing, it’s uncomfortable. When you’re learning, sometimes it can be uncomfortable. When you’re doing good therapy, it can be hurtful, it can be painful, but it’s a sign that growth is happening, and you’re taking in new experiences.
Carter: So, if there was some sort of cultural shift, even around risk and growth being more of a value than comfort, I can only imagine what things would shift.
Lexi: Yeah. Also, too, think about how perfectionism plays a role in facing fears, because a lot of times, we’ll not want to do something because we’re not expert at it yet, and of course, when we start something, anything new, we’re just not going to be good at it, and you’re not going to be perfect at it. Perfectionism can often be a reason to not do the thing that scares you, because you’re just going to be floundering, probably, if you’ve never done it before, you don’t know what’s what, it’s going to be messy until you reach that place of expertise. It’s going to be a while to tolerate all of the imperfection of approaching. It’s really uncomfortable.
Carter: So, when you were starting Opal, back to that example, was there … How did you tolerate them, the mess of that? I would imagine a lot of stuff that you were doing was not stuff that you had done before.
Lexi: No, yeah, the learning curves were steep in all directions. I’d learned commercial real estate and all these different domains that I didn’t study in school, and the learning curve was really steep, and the anxiety and dealing with perfectionism was part of that, for sure, because it just was not going to be perfect, and it was messy all the time, and mistakes were made constantly. That’s probably why we have the value of wabi-sabi, which is where we celebrate imperfection and the beauty in imperfection. I think that a lot of those values are born out of our … Julie and Kara’s and I’s experiences. But perfectionism, it would not … If I was to be perfect, try to be perfect, and have to have that standard for myself, there’s no way … I mean, every day it’s a new mistake, or a new learning something that we need to do differently, so this is making that assumption that that’s going to happen most days in some way or another.
Carter: So, starting something off with the assumption that it’s maybe not going to go so well, but it’s still important is part of dealing with the perfectionism?
Lexi: Yeah, I think so.
Carter: Yeah. Is that kind of values-oriented thinking one of the main ways that you would say is kind of the way that you would walk through dealing with perfectionism?
Lexi: I do, personally. I think about what is this … What’s the purpose of my life? What’s the meaning, and you can tolerate a lot when you’re doing something you really care about. When you are really engaged and feeling vital about something, you can tolerate all kinds of difficult emotions, because it’s deeply meaningful to you and it’s … Existentially, it’s tapping something in you that matters, and it overrides … I found it tends to override the discomfort that comes with it. Yeah.
Carter: I love that. Thanks so much for joining us today, and thanks to Jack Straw Cultural Center for sound engineering, to Aaron Davidson for The Appetite’s original music, and to Sarah Taylor, for production assistance and editing. Stay in touch with what’s new on The Appetite by subscribing to the podcast on your preferred podcast app. If you have the time, we also love getting reviews of the podcast, so write a little something or another to us and let us know how you’re liking it. If you have any questions, or just want to connect, email us at email@example.com. If you or someone you know is struggling, please feel free to check our treatment options at opalfoodandbody.com. It’s also a place that you can just get a little bit more of a sense of our culture. To stay in touch otherwise, please follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Talk to you next time.