Alterophobia: Afraid of the Other

by Augusto Cuginotti

Chapter I – Anxiety of the Unknown

What can be more terrifying than what we haven’t yet come across? How much our own imagination can travel way beyond our experiences to imagine a negative future?

I was part of a training some years ago in the exact moment when moving to another country, an unknown place for an unknown period of time. When I shared my anxiety with the group, our very experienced facilitator brought what in her definition meant to be anxious. Anxiety, she said, comes with making a negative prediction of the future.

Why would I project a negative future about moving to this new place?

I definitely could find reasons and create stories of a change that wasn’t sucessful, but when taking the time to explore more, I could also find reasons and stories to support the very opposite. My previous experience could inform me that a culture change would mean challenges but also learnings and sweet discoveries.

And in knowing all that, why create a negative version of the future?

I went on to imagine that what makes us (me) anxious has to do with not knowing what story will unfold. Not knowing makes us (me) apprehensive and afraid. Something about not being in control of my story, about not knowing what will happen, that brings up these emotions.

And even if I repeatedly heard the central motto of many self-help books about there: control both the present and the future is a myth, how to actually deal with this?

Chapter II – The Need to Control

Why do we need to be in control, to generate previsibility and create a purposeful future?

I believe this need for control has little to do with our personality or “level of consciousness”. My sense is that is might be deeply rooted in the way we are as human beings.

And the way we are as human beings in two different domains: our biological nature and our social nature. Despite the first being very present in the last decades, informing us about how we work as biological beings (take neuropsychology, for instance), it all falls short when we do not take into account the way we relate as human beings, our social construction and fabric together.

Relational and Social Complexity

We are relational beings and use language to structure how we relate as a collective. We bring our learnings, including the ones on our biological complexity, to the domain of language.

It is by the use of language that we give meaning to the world and our lived experiences. And those experiences can be fully predicted. It is uncommon to known in advance and be in control of what will unfold of them.

Think about what happens when you meet someone for the first time – how many possibilites can unfold from that! The sensation of not knowing how the other will respond. Or how a group, an institution or someone at your family will respond to the “abnormal” situation that has just happened.

How do we deal with the constant complexity of the relational and social world?

Not a ride in the park, I’d say. Minimum side effects are us going through emotions like anxiety and fear or physical sensations like goosebumps and a revolting stomach. All typical of the emotional beings that we are.

There are, of course, strategies. One way of dealing with the ocean of complexity is through reducing, individually and collectively, our possibilities: we create deals, routines, habits and institutions, all to make sense of a world where everything changes in such an unpredictable way.

It is those creations we simplify the world, create certain previsibility and then soothe our social operations.

We can reduce the unexpected by creating agreements and conventions. Remember the meeting someone for the first time? Soon you might be talking about the weather, traffic, politics or about something that has in common the fact that we have little agency about it.

It is a relief: we can relax from the complexities of the world for a while. For a while, but for how long?

Chapter III – Being Different and Dealing with Difference

Imagine being different in a world of equals? Imagine to be at home “Here” and not knowing what you can expect “There”?

How would it feel to be the only one with a beard in a world of unbearded people? How would a world which does not know what a “beard” is deal with you? How would you, the only beard individual, deal with it?1

How does one deal with the unknown if that possibility has never been explored before? And what if this new possibility triggers a complex situation that is extremely hard to process?

Peoples’ reactions when facing complex issues have been present in our society these days. Reactions towards minorities, the team we are playing against, anything that are different really.

How do I deal with difference of colour, belief, ideology and sexual orientation? How do I deal with the other who process the world differently than me?

Defense Strategies

Generalizations, putting people into preconceived boxes, fight and flight are some of the automatic strategies to defend ourselves from the challenge of being in contact with difference.

Difference troubles us.

We talked about how hard it is to deal with the complexities of the world. As a coping mechanism, we judge and pre-judge in ways we can create approximations of things we don’t understand by making them more simple or connected to something already part of our current reality.

It’s just the way we work. The problem starts when our approximations do not answer the challenges anymore. When that happens we cannot continue to operate based on old judgements and it is likely that we will be flooded by emotions like confusion, anger, frustration.

Can this emotional flooding be prevented?

Could the reaction of being afraid of the other simply our natural defense mechanism?

If we can’t prevent it, what should we do? What could prepare us for this moment?

Strategies to Live With the Different

To accept that we have a tendency to simplify the world and also that difference can put us in reaction mode can, at one hand, relief us from the burden: we accept we are indeed reductionists without feeling guilty and also that we can sometimes judge the different as a threat automatically.

If this is to be human, we are human beings.

But being human does not justify acting in inhuman ways.

How to respond rather than react to this ‘reaction mode’ we fall in? How to respond to a cultural shock, a threaten belief or the inconceivable?

How can we be wholly responsible for the responses we give?

I don’t believe this is a question for an individual to tackle. We are not able to answer well to the things we are unable to see or when we are in reaction mode.

If we believe that sometimes we might be like this and in those cases we just can’t handle, what can we end up doing when we ourselves are not enough to handle something?

I’d imagine that one can ask for help. You can ask for help for those who walk this life journey with you, family, friends…

This work is not individual work, it is relational work. It is work to process collectively, in group or within a community.

The more diverse the community is and the more this diversity is shown and discussed explicitly, less transparent the world will be and bigger will be our capacity to respond. The more we are capable to respond, the closer we are to integrity as individuals, collectives and as humans.

Recognize the fear of difference is the first step towards, with the support of others, responding with integrity and courage to the complex world we live in .

  1. To see what comes out of this story please check the great The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil.