Of Fear, Black Widow Spiders and Personal Growth

I admit it, I like spiders. They get a bad rap. Undeserved, I might add. Not only do they eat a lot of those pesky flies and other bugs, but they often provide great personal growth lessons.

At least they have for me. I’ve already written about the little jumping spider who taught me a lesson about gratitude. And then there was the little guy who sacrificed his beautiful web in order to teach me about where to build my creations.

And now there’s this spider lesson about fear. And while the event that catalyzed this post and the original article happened two years ago, the lesson is still important.

It all began one Saturday morning. My wife came out of the bathroom and said, quite calmly, “Ed, there’s a big black spider in the bathtub.” Since I was watching my daughter, Ella, at the time, I carried her in there to investigate.

I was a bit surprised that my wife did not call it a Brown Recluse. That’s our running joke. She grew up in Brown Recluse territory, and whenever she sees a brownish spider she says “Ed, I just saw a Brown Recluse. Go get it.” And every time she says it, I gently remind her that the Brown Recluse does not live in Northern California as I go to gather up the culprit and take it outside.

But this morning, when Ella and I went to look in the tub, I could understand why Melissa had not called it a Brown Recluse. This spider was a deep shiny black. Now, while most spiders can bite, the only truly dangerous spider in our area is the black widow, a very distinctive, shiny black spider that I had never actually seen. So I’m usually pretty casual about spiders. But the color of this one caused me to act with a bit more caution. And it was good that I did. When I gathered up the critter in a Tupperware bowl, I could see, through the translucent plastic, the distinctive red hourglass on its belly.

Here was my first Black Widow Spider.

This was an exciting day for me. Unfortunately, Melissa did not share in my enthusiasm at this discovery. She promptly took Ella from my arms and commanded me to take the spider far away from the house. I must admit that I was pleased and a bit surprised that she did not insist that I immediately squash it.

Spiders Get A Bad Rap

Now I want to stop and put in a bit of a plug for spiders. They get a bad rap. They take the blame for a lot of stuff they don’t do: flea bites, tick bites, bed bug bites, even mosquito bites. You name it; spiders take the blame for it. Most spiders don’t bite humans, others only bite when confronted, and of those that do bite, there are only a handful that are truly dangerous to humans. (At least here in the US. There are a few countries that have some seriously dangerous spiders!) Even the bite of the supposedly deadly Black Widow is fatal in less than 1% of all instances.

And then there are the legends that have grown up around the infamous Brown Recluse. Over 60% of the medically diagnosed Brown Recluse bites occur in regions in which the spider does not live! How a spider that lives only in the South Central portion of the USA can be responsible for so many unexplained ailments here in California and elsewhere is beyond me.

Here’s a brief excerpt from a spider info site at the University of California to give you some perspective:

This website presents evidence for the lack of brown recluse spiders as part of the Californian spider fauna. Unfortunately, this contradicts what most Californians believe; beliefs that are born out of media-driven hyperbole and erroneous, anxiety-filled public hearsay which is further compounded by medical misdiagnoses.

This DOES Relate To Personal Growth!

At this point, you may be wondering what this has to do with personal growth. Fear not, I do have a point. And as the good Dr. Seuss would say, “This may not seem important I know. But it is, and that’s why I’m bothering telling you so.”

How do you feel about spiders? Do you cringe when you see one walking on your wall? Do you quiver at the thought of one crawling up your leg?

Where do those feelings come from? When you were a youngster, did someone in your family go into paroxysms of fear whenever a spider was spotted? Did you inherit that fear? And does that fear continue to control your relationship with these critters?

Ok, lets face it, a fear of spiders is not going to prevent you from living a successful, abundant, joyous life. But here’s the catch: What fears do you harbor that DO prevent you from living that life? What other fears have you inherited from your family and friends and the culture around you? And how do those fears hold you back from becoming the person you have the potential to be?

Fears Always Appear Larger

Your fear, because it is rooted in the past, always appears much larger than it really are. When we feel fear, we’re almost always reacting to the projection of something that was planted inside us long ago. Just as the shadow of a spider walking in front of a light appears huge and frightening, so too do our fears become magnified many times when we look at the projection. The reality of the spider, when viewed from a place of present-time awareness, is much less scary. So too do your fears become manageable when you shift your perception from the shadow to the source.

Fears thrive on the lies and exaggerations that are possible only in the dark, hidden places. As soon as you bring those fears out into the light you can begin to see them for what they really are. The trick, of course, is knowing how to pull those fears out into the light.

So here’s your assignment:

When you see a spider (or a snake or a mouse or you look down from a balcony or get onto a plane or fill in the blank) and you notice the dread that lives in the pit of your stomach, know that you have a great opportunity to practice shifting your perception.

So the next time you find yourself face to face with a spider (or whatever your fear is) rather than running away or calling for reinforcements, try to stop and breathe for a moment and become an explorer of your inner world. If you need to catch the spider and place it in a hermetically sealed container in order to breathe, that’s ok! And then see if you can observe that spider with the objectivity of a scientist.

This practice will serve you well the next time you find yourself confronted by a fear that really does hold you back from the life you want to live. When you feel yourself quaking as you prepare to give a presentation, when you watch your arms quivering as you walk into a job interview, when your mouth becomes drier than the Sahara desert as you share your portfolio with a gallery owner, whenever you notice yourself entering a place of fear, become a scientist, objectively exploring the phenomenon. Become a neutral observer of your own life. When you discover the source of your fear, you may be surprised to find that the reality is much less scary than the perception.

And just so that you don’t think I’m asking you do something that I’m not, I have a confession to make. Before Ella was born, I would not voluntarily pick up a spider in my hand. While I “logically” knew that it could not hurt me, the ferocious look (and some of them do look quite fearsome if you get up close) and the spider fears I inherited from both of my parents caused me to exercise caution.

But after Ella was born I made a conscious decision to do whatever I could to keep my fears out of her. So now, when I see a spider, and Ella is with me, I’ll just reach over and grab it with my hand. (I do grab a container to relocate those Wolf Spiders: Their bites aren’t that dangerous, but apparently can be quite painful).

I feel the fear as I’m doing it. It’s alive within me as I reach out. But my desire to give Ella the option to choose her path without the weight of my fears is enough to help me push through that fear and grab that little creature.

Remember, courage is not the absence of fear, it is feeling the fear and doing it anyway!

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    10 Responses to “Of Fear, Black Widow Spiders and Personal Growth”

    1. ZHereford on April 4th, 2008 5:36 am

      Interestingly, my husband is the one that has a fear of spiders!

      I’m the one who has to dispose of them while he cringes. I don’t get it! He’s generally a strong, brave guy. Go figure. 🙂

      It just goes to show that many fears are irrational.

    2. Mike on April 4th, 2008 6:54 am

      Great post, Ed. An important message with a great example!


    3. Erok Jensen on April 4th, 2008 8:26 am

      You’re explanation about facing fear is great. And yes, it’s true that there are fair numbers of people who are scared of spiders. In fact, I have some friends who get terrified whenever they see spiders especially the big one…

    4. Ali from The Office Diet on April 4th, 2008 12:12 pm

      Your point about the shadow and the source really struck home for me. I think too often I focus on the unpleasant feeling of dread/fear rather than the (often small and managable) thing that is at the root of it…

      I really like the spider analogy too. I’m not scared of them myself, but I know how strong a phobia can be.


    5. Elizabeth Able on April 4th, 2008 12:16 pm

      I’ve been thinking a lot lately about procrastination and resistance. It’s funny how fears or resistance associated with getting something done can be bigger than what tasks really involve.

      Hmmm… my “spiders” of the day are getting the kitty litter changed (LOL) and making progress on a certain web site. Spiders beware – the gentle hand of commitment is upon you.

    6. Asia'h Epperson on April 9th, 2008 7:17 pm

      It’s amazing that you can relate spider and personal growth together. Nice to read this article and yes, I do have a fear for spider.

    7. Edward Mills on April 10th, 2008 6:56 pm

      @Ali: What you focus on expands! Focus on the fear and it’s going to get bigger. But that’s exactly what most of us do.

      @Elizabeth: Check out this post on perfectionism and getting things done from earlier today:

      @Asia’h: If you read Evolving Times for very long you’ll discover that I can relate pretty much anything to personal growth! 😉

    8. Edward Mills on April 10th, 2008 6:53 pm

      @Zhereford: But don’t you just love it when he gets all whimpy like that and you get to come his rescue?! 😉

      @Mke: Thanks!

      @Erok: It’s funny how the big ones tend to scare people the most, but it’s usually the small or medium sized spiders that can cause the most damage. The bite of a tarantula – and they rarely bite – is about the same as a bee sting.

    9. billige mobiler on February 22nd, 2009 2:24 am

      I totally agree with Dr. Seuss!

    10. Kathy Loh on July 26th, 2009 12:58 pm

      I’m in N CA too and we have black widows in the shed. I usually scoop them up and move them down the hillside somewhere. But what I didn’t realize is how soft bodied those shiny things are and smooshed one. I usually save spiders and I let the daddy long-legs live in my home. They are good to have around and they represent creativity. I like snakes too except rattlers. Recently rescued one from deer netting (4 ft long gopher). That was quite the adventure.
      Thanks for championing these creatures and inviting us all to think twice about our automatic fear reactions. I see all animal sightings as messages and I am not interested in killing the messenger.

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