Choosing Fear Over Anticipation
by Erin Freeman
In the company of an intimate group of friends and with an array of social lubricants at my disposal I still managed to feel uncomfortable. All of the usual components of social anxiety were in the mix that night, but then someone decided to put on “Nathan For You” and I was saved. The show is pure cringe comedy, focusing on pushing the limits of social awkwardness and the night in question was the first time I had ever watched it.
As Nathan’s heightened awkwardness made the people he was interacting with, as well as my friends, visibly tense, I noticed my own body’s tension melting away. A show designed to make everyone in the room uncomfortable acted as an antidote to my own social anxiety.
Many people enjoy the anxiety elicited by media that pushes us out of our comfort zone, but for some it seems to provide sanctuary from the anxiety we feel already. Horror movies, for example, elicit different reactions in different people, with some being too afraid to watch them at all, some enjoying the rush of fear and some experiencing their pre-existing fears soothed.
I’ve always found people finding genuine comfort in watching gory movies, a fascinating and very confusing phenomenon, and assumed that the only catharsis that these things could provide was happy endings in which the killers are caught and justice is served. But maybe the relief comes from choosing to steep in the fear over the suspense that comes from trying to avoid it. Maybe I feel soothed by cringe comedy because it exposes me to the things that give me the most anxiety; I spend so much of my time in anticipation of social interactions turning awkward that watching my anxieties play out on TV alleviates that anticipation.
Stories can provide a safe space to confront and overcome our fears, but some fears are too stubborn to be overcome. Sometimes to soothe the anxiety rooted in waiting for our fears to come true, we have to use stories to pretend that they already are.