Dear Therapist:

I have a silly fear of getting an aliyah. I have actually heard others that have it as well. This is even though I actually don't have an issue with doing other things in public. In the past I have managed to "white knuckle" it when I needed to but recently, I have found myself slipping out of shul during laining to try and avoid it. I do well otherwise and have no traumas or anything like that in my life. I am wondering what lies at the root of this and whether you can provide me effective fixes that I can do by myself. Thank you. 



These types of fears are pretty common. A number of years ago, a similar question was asked with regard to doing hagbah. I will include much of my response to that question, while adapting it to yours.

It sounds like you clearly recognize that there is no logical reason to be afraid. Nonetheless, you are. There is a discrepancy between your logical thoughts and your feelings. The trouble is that when you’re in the actual situation, your logical thoughts take a back seat to your triggered emotions.

We all experience this type of conscious-unconscious dissonance on a regular basis. We all do things that we know we shouldn’t, feel more strongly about issues than we believe we should, and react more strongly to situations than we would like. Simply put, this is due to our emotions ruling over our thoughts. When an unconscious emotion surfaces, it causes us to “believe” what it tells us. If I feel highly anxious, my conscious mind automatically tries to tie the emotion to something within the current situation.

When the time for laining draws near, an emotion appears to get triggered on an unconscious level. These unconscious triggers often cause our conscious minds to try and make sense of them. For instance, for the person afraid of doing hagbah, the emotionally-driven conscious thought identified the possibility that he might drop the sefer. As long as the source of the trigger was present (i.e., while in shul or when the sefer torah was out) it was very difficult for him to focus on his logical recognition that this made no sense.

I don’t know whether you have identified a particular fear and simply dismissed it since it made no sense, or if you never really consciously recognized what your unconscious mind is so afraid of. Generally, the first step is to identify your unconscious fear. For instance, you may feel that you will make a fool of yourself.

The next step is to focus on how this might happen, along with all the factors involved. In our example, this might look like: I will make a mistake. What mistake? I will make the wrong bracha. Or I will get confused and there will be an awful silence.

Then, you would think about the feared effect of this event. For instance: People will think I’m an idiot. They will make fun of me. They won’t want to have anything to do with me. I will be shunned and will lose all my friends. When these thoughts are clearly delineated, they likely seem silly. Your instinct may be to dismiss them out of hand. Remember, however, that your fear is unconscious—meaning irrational. The point is to identify the irrational fear that is hiding within your unconscious mind and place it under a microscope. The more detailed you are, and the better you connect to these fears, the faster and better your conscious mind can dispute them.

When our fears are unconscious, it is our unconscious mind that is controlling the narrative. Our conscious mind simply goes along with whatever the unconscious mind is telling it. Once our conscious mind gets directly involved, we begin reversing this process.

As long as your conscious thoughts are controlled by your unconscious fears, you will “believe” what your feelings are telling you. This explains the reason for a fear that is out of proportion to the circumstance. If your unconscious mind is telling you that you will lose the respect and friendship of everyone in shul, it “makes sense” to be very afraid. The question is what fear your unconscious mind is making you believe.

What you seem to clearly believe is there is nothing to be concerned about. In retrospect (for instance while you were writing the above request) you recognize this, and probably wonder why you can’t bring this logical reasoning into shul with you. Likely, at different times you either think logically or emotionally. When you’re not triggered, you think logically; when triggered, you think emotionally.

When we’re thinking logically, our instinct is to convince ourselves not to be afraid. We focus only on our logical thoughts, reminding ourselves that our emotions don’t make sense. This instinct stops us from properly challenging our fears. What you’re probably not doing is identifying and analyzing your fear, then thinking about it from a new, rational perspective. This can be very difficult to do when your fear is present.

Often, the best time to work on this is when you are not being triggered. You might close your eyes and imagine being in shul and being called for an aliyah. You would then identify the (illogical) fears and imagine them coming true. Give yourself time to think about these fears and whether they make sense.

Of course, this is a basic concept. Not everyone can properly do this alone. It will not necessarily work the same for everyone. There are things that can throw a wrench into the works. But as a simple technique, it can be helpful, and you can get a sense as to whether you’re on the right track.

 -Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

   psychotherapist in private practice

  Woodmere, NY

  adjunct professor at Touro College

  Graduate School of Social Work

  author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 516-218-4200


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