Training Fleas and Taming our Fears


GlassA man walks into a bar carrying a suitcase and orders a beer. “What’s in your case”, asks the barman. “Performing fleas” says the man. “How do you train a flea?” asks the barman, with a skeptical smile on his face, handing him his pint. The man drinks in down in one and places the empty glass on the far end of the bar. Then he takes a box of his fleas out of his suitcase and drops them, at arms length into his empty glass, walking away. “Fleas”, he explains to the barman, “are naturally attracted to people. Watch.” After a few minutes a woman walks past and the fleas immediately jump out of the glass and onto her clothes. Screaming she runs out of the bar.

The man repeats the exercise with a second box of fleas, but this time puts a beer mat on top of the glass. When another woman walks past, they leap inside the glass, bouncing, one can only imagine painfully, off the bottom off the beer mat and back into the bottom of glass. “Keep watching” says the man. When a third woman walks walks past, the fleas leap up again, but this time stop just short of hitting the beer mat. “One more stage,” says the man, leaning over and removing the beer mat from the top of the glass. “Now you walk past” he says. The barman is reluctant, but his curiosity overrides his discretion. Sure enough as he walks past the glass, the fleas leap up again from the bottom of the glass. And once again, they jump up within a few millimeters from the top of the glass. There is no longer a barrier between them and their prey, but they behave as if there is. The training is complete.

What imaginary limitations do we put on our own ability? What do we believe to be true – even when it isn’t?

The world is hostile. I have to complete with people to succeed. When someone doesn’t reply to an email it means they don’t like me. I can’t learn to swim at my age. If my children play out at night they will be attacked. I am clumsy. I cant give up smoking. My husband is having an affair. People always under-estimate me. They will laugh at me. I cant possibly do that. Nobody listens to me. I must be careful. Everyone is looking at me.

Write down your own beliefs. They will be the sort of things children say. Which is unsurprising, as we construct most of these myths in our childhood, usually helped by our parents, our siblings or our teachers. They are at worst completely misplaced, at best a gross over-simplification. The grown-up world is more complex and far less dangerous and difficult than we assume. And yet so often, unthinkingly, we allow our negativity to limit us, inhibit us and cause us unnecessary angst and worry.

Dream, believe, achieve. A handy little triplet I learned on a leadership course last week.

In a positive mood (usually in the shower) I can dream all sorts of achievements and great outcomes. Inevitably, the bubble bursts as I start to imagine all of the difficulties and barriers. Typically they all come back to my fears about my own ability to persuade or influence others. Which then becomes rather self-fulfilling.

Our achievement can be no greater than our belief in ourselves and others. Which can be suffocating.

???????????????????????????????????????A small child has to cross a field of long grass on her way to school. She has been told to be aware of the bull, so she treads out a route around two sides of the field, as far away as the animal as she can. As she does so, her little shoes tread down the blades of grass. The next day she picks out the same route thorugh the now partly flattened grass, pressing it down further. Within a few weeks she creates a clear path around the edge of the field. Over the years of her childhood, the grass wears away under her feet and a firm, brown path is formed. As she grows up she skips along it daily on her way to school, no longer thinking about the bull in the middle of the long-grass.

Many years later, now grown-up, she returns to the field and nostalgically walks along the path once again. She is tall enough now to see over the top of the grass. There is no bull. So, for the first time in her life she cuts a new path through the field – a straight path through the middle. There is nothing to fear. In fact, there never was, the bull had always been in the next field, behind a gate, out of harms way. The new path takes her through a meadow of beautiful wild flowers with an exhilarating aroma.

So it is with our thought processes. Our brain is a field crossed with synaptic pathways of our own making. Most of these are chiseled out in our childhood. This is called learning. The routes are mainly helpful. But some are limiting and unnecessarily circuitous. They should be replaced with new routes.

My Sat Nav plots a journey from my home to the seaside. The route is winding, the traffic is dreadful, the road is bumpy and there are endless traffic lights and roundabouts. There is off course a far better route – a lovely smooth empty dual-carriageway. Unfortunately I hadn’t updated my Sat Nav. My map of the world was out of date.

If this sounds like popularist pyscho mumbo jumbo – it isn’t. It is demonstrably possible to create new synaptic pathways. Recent developments in neuroscience and brain-mapping mean we can see it happening. Through practice, counselling or therapy, new ways of thinking can replace the old. Positive, optimistic pathways can replace negative, pessimistic ones. And once they wear in, they become the default. Just like a river changing its course and leaving behind redundant ox-bow lakes. Thoughts which fire together, I am told, wire together.

Our subconscious believes all sorts of things – it cannot distinguish between fact, fiction and fantasy. So we may need to teach and retrain this inner child, until it learns new lessons and new beliefs. Once our subconscious thought catches up with our conscious thought, we have changed.

The real world is complex. Some of our fears are well-founded. Some fields do have bulls in them. Some of our limitations are real. Some pints glasses have beer mats on top. But many do not. It is our ability to tell the difference which makes us grown-ups. We can, over time, remove our imaginary fears and limitations and create new beliefs and possibilities.

  1 comment for “Training Fleas and Taming our Fears

  1. February 15, 2013 at 11:26 pm

    Nice! It’s fun to challenge those well-worn ideas. Even nicer when some of them don’t stand up
    …and we are free!

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