Who doesn’t love a horror film? Me actually, but many people do. Why do we snuggle up on the sofa to watch gore? Why do we invite terror into our homes? Isn’t life stressful enough anyway?
Christian Jarrett wrote about this in The Psychologist magazine. “Fear coils in your stomach and clutches at your heart. It’s an unpleasant emotion we usually do our best to avoid. Yet across the world and through time people have been drawn irresistibly to stories designed to scare them.”
As he says, seeking out terror isn’t new. Take the Old English poem “Beowulf,” from around 700–1000 AD. It’s all blood, guts and dread. Here’s how it starts: Hrothgar, King of the Danes, built a towering hall for feasting and celebration. But deep in the night the swamp-dwelling monster Grendel is lurking; human-like in form but enormous and terrifying. His skin is so tough that even the sharpest blades just bounce off. Each night the evil Grendel makes the journey from his swamp to attack the hall, killing and devouring warriors as they sleep. Again and again, night after night.
“Féond on helle wæs se grimma gaést Grendel háten maére mearcstapa sé þe móras héold fen ond fæsten.”
“A fiend in hell this ghastly demon was named Grendel, infamous stalker in the marches, fen and desolate strong-hold.”
What to do when your best swordsmen are being eaten alive and when you can’t sleep a wink for fear of the very same fate? Beowulf steps in to save the day. A quick re-write and we could be watching a modern horror movie like Alien, The Thing or Jaws.
We have the same attraction to roller coasters. Richard Stephens, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Keele University writes about them here: “Perhaps the draw of roller coasters is the enjoyment of the visceral sensation of fear itself, much like watching a horror movie.” A pounding heart, faster breathing and an energy boost are all caused by “the fight or flight response. We know that a roller coaster ride is likely to trigger this response.”
I interviewed over 100 people going through change in their lives and many of them talked about roller coasters, but not in a good way. Choice is everything here — desiring thrills is quite different from having them foisted upon us. Being forcibly strapped to a roller coaster isn’t fun, especially when it’s a surprise.
Jessica worked in Human Resources and took a role as Head of HR for a private business. She didn’t know what she’d let herself in for until she’d already started. “It was a bit of a roller coaster. There were some crazy people and some things that were acceptable in the 80s that I didn’t know people still did in business.” She had to “stand up to a lot of bad behaviour — it was a really difficult time. I thought ‘sod this — I really don’t want to be part of this.’”
Teresa worked in events management for a decade. “It was very much a roller coaster for the first couple of years.” She went to work everyday thinking “I’d only be driving here for another month if I were to hand my notice in. I was literally just living and going through the motions.”
There was a point in David’s career that he felt “pretty lost.” But he “fortunately did a bit of a shift to another rail.” It turned out OK, but in reflecting back he felt “it was a bit of a roller coaster journey.”
David didn’t desire being lost, but if we’re seeking it out, it’s more fun. In The Psychologist’s February 2021 edition Charlotte Higgins is interviewed about her book “Red Thread: On Mazes and Labyrinths.” She says children love mazes and labyrinths because it’s “the fun of being lost, but not really being lost. A sort of contained, safe, jeopardy.” We might be afraid, but it’s OK as we’re embraced within a structure. We’ve put a boundary on how lost we can get. It’s contained.
Being lost in our careers is not the same thing at all. There’s no sense of being held when our employment is in the firing line. The word “lost” came up multiple times in my interviews. I interviewed another David who had lost his way and his confidence. “I think the real tipping point was when I did my postgraduate.” He went from being “one of the golden pupils to a fast, downward spiral to failing. It was a really sudden hard crushing realisation and I lost all my confidence.”
Lucy felt that “it suddenly crept up on me and I thought, ‘am I just getting a bit stale? Is this best for me?’ That’s where I thought I’m a bit lost. It’s the age-old question: which direction do you go in or what avenues have you got?” Adam said “it’s only when I’m completely lost that I leave. Normally the trigger is that if I don’t leave now, I’ll either have a complete mental collapse or I’m going to be fired.”
Being scared or afraid was mentioned 80 times in my interviews. Fear is great when you want to be scared witless by a film. It can be exhilarating being terrified on fun fair rides. It is different when it’s our livelihood at stake.
Bez was scared about a move to a different country. “What if it doesn’t work? What if we have no money? What if I have to go back to having another boring office job after having tried something and failing?” Yasmeen worked in education for years but wanted to break into acting. “I’m scared of it. I’m taking classes but I’m not going to the auditions yet because I’m scared to fail at something that I actually love.” Simon has been struggling to find the right organisation where he can make a good living and be himself. “I’m afraid of not having enough income. I want to be associated with credible institutions, but at the same time, I’m disruptive. I always have to speak up, I can’t play the political game very well.”
When we’re considering a change in our lives or our careers, we need to experiment and try things out in a safe space. As Christian Jarratt says, one of the reasons we might like horror is that it’s a simulation. “Like play, it allows us to rehearse possible threatening scenarios from a position of relative safety.” But how do we do experiment if we’re considering a change in our lives? There are few opportunities to try before you buy.
This is where therapy or coaching comes in. They both encourage safe experimentation — testing things out in a session with a coach or therapist, extending this step by step into everyday lives.
Fritz Perls developed Gestalt psychotherapy with his wife Laura and described the therapy as a “safe emergency.” Simon Stafford Townsend expands on this: “It means doing something that stretches your comfort zone, taking you into unknown territory. It’s safe because the therapy situation is a well-contained space, and the experiment is facilitated by a supportive therapist.”
This is what also happens in coaching. We test, we investigate, we try new thinking, stretching the client whilst in a protected environment. As Stafford Townsend says, a “safe emergency can then become a space in which you develop new behaviours.” It’s a way of “rehearsing them in a supportive environment, with valuable feedback from your therapist.” Coaches and therapists help their clients practice outside sessions too — encouraging them to be scientists, trying out experiments to see what shifts in the world.
So, here’s a thought. Why not ditch the horror movies, give up on the sky diving, avoid the roller coasters and instead conquer the scary edges in your life through coaching or therapy? As Stafford Townsend says, “the world becomes a vastly different place when seen with experimental eyes!”