As is so often the case something in my real life brought to mind something from a cartoon.
Remember the Charlie Brown Christmas special? There is the scene where Charlie Brown goes to Lucy at her psychiatric stand to seek answers. Lucy rattles off a list of phobias, everything from cats to crossing bridges. When she gets to pantophobia, the fear of everything, Charlie Brown yells, “That’s it!” sending Lucy spinning into a snow bank. I found my “That’s it!” phobia the other day, katagelophobia. Luckily I was alone at the time so I did not send anyone spinning into a snow bank.
Katagelophobia is the fear of being ridiculed or embarrassed. Now at first glance people who know me might be a little confused by this notion. I have, quite on purpose, done things that would embarrass many people. I have performed in plays as characters with pretty embarrassing attributes. I did stand-up comedy at an open mic night at a real comedy club (not even filling my allotted three minutes and apologizing at the end of my truncated set). I have been the mascot for a minor league basketball team wearing basketball shorts and cowboy boots, at the same time. I have been a parent of teenage girls which means I was an embarrassment to them by doing things like breathing and being in the same room in which they were currently residing.
The thing about the above mentioned situations which made them not embarrassing for me had to do with the fact that I was in control of what was happening. If I choose to do something which might lead to embarrassment I can handle it better than a situation that comes up more organically from circumstances. For example, I truly hate going into big city style delicatessens. I have an abject fear of ordering something stupid which compels the sandwich aficionados behind the counter to mock me. “He wants mayonnaise on that! What an idiot.” This doesn’t come into play when I go to Subway. Those “sandwich artists” are as interested in their work as a septuagenarian is interested in the latest musical release from Lil Wayne (I had to look up the name of rap artist for that last joke).
Way too much of my self-image is wrapped up in being smart. This also works into the katagelophobia. There have been times when I hold forth with some sort of pontification (now, gentle reader, don’t be too shocked by this) then I find out I am horribly and irretrievably wrong. I’m not talking just a little bit wrong but “Dewey Defeats Truman” wrong, Snape is a bad guy wrong, there’s a viable reason Kim Kardashian is famous wrong. The embarrassment I feel when it dawns on me that I was so very wrong is entirely too debilitating, especially considering just how often there is “wrongness” put forth into the world – just ask CNN.
Really, it is ridiculous. The other day I was having a simple conversation with some co-workers and we were discussing a set of television commercials we found funny. We then talked about the fact we couldn’t remember what the commercials were plugging. Anyway, I was rather determined to contradict one person’s statement about what company was being advertised. Fast forward to the next day when I saw one of the commercials and it turned out I was patently wrong. I couldn’t get to sleep that night. I can pretty much guarantee none of the other people in the conversation remembered or even remotely cared that I had arrogantly disagreed, but that didn’t stop me from e-mailing the person I had disagreed with and admitting my mistake. It is easier to admit mistakes than put up with others pointing them out when you are katagelophobic. (That is a self-diagnosis. I have not, as of yet, sought professional help for my problem.)
Another manifestation of how this phobia impacts my life is I have become less and less able to do things I have not done before, simple things, for fear of showing ignorance and being mocked because of it. Being a Kansas boy I took my first ever taxi cab ride last summer in New York. I spent the entire ride in a half panicked state worrying about what I was supposed to tip the guy, oblivious to the fact he almost got me killed by ignoring the septic cleaning service van hurtling toward us. (That would have been one heck of an obituary.)
Christopher Pyle is more likely to do another horrific stand-up comedy performance than he is to try ordering food from the new sushi kiosk at Dillon’s. You can mock him at firstname.lastname@example.org.