Exposure therapy is a behavioral therapy aimed at helping people overcome anxiety and fear. It was originally developed to help people with PTSD, but it’s been shown that exposure therapy works well in many other situations, from spider phobias to stage fright.
I believe that avoiding all forms of discomfort is not a path to a happy, fulfilling life. But that doesn’t mean you’re itching to step out your front door and go give a public speech, ask someone on a date, or do whatever scares you the most.
Don’t worry — I’m not going to ask you to dive into the deep end and learn to swim. Research shows that being forced to face a big fear all at once only leaves you traumatized, swearing you’ll never try again. That’s not at all my goal here.
Exposure therapy is more like dipping your toes in the water. You start with a tiny first step that scares you just a little bit, getting used to the fear and realizing you’re capable of handling it. Then you build up gradually to bigger and bigger steps, until you’re finally swimming in the pool.
Some exposure therapy is done in real life. For example, I took a client who was afraid of heights to a nearby building for several sessions, working our way up the floors until she was comfortable standing close to a railing many stories up. Other times, imagining the situation is enough to practice grappling with the fear.
The key is repetition; you can’t try facing your fear once and then wait a year and try again.
Here’s an example of how Kurt, who feels he doesn’t have the confidence to attend networking events in his industry, might use exposure therapy to overcome that fear.
Week 1: Go to a networking event with someone he already knows and stay just 30 minutes.
Week 2: Go to an event with someone he knows and introduce himself to at least one new person.
Week 3: Go to an event with someone he knows and introduce himself to three new people.
Week 4: Go to an event by himself, greet everyone he’s met before, and introduce himself to three new people.
Week 5: Go to an event by himself, introduce himself to five new people, and follow up with one of them via email the next day to set up a one-on-one coffee meeting.
Remember, we’re going to do this in baby steps and I’ll guide you through the whole process. I’ll never ask you to do more than you can handle. You’re in the driver’s seat.