Helen* prided herself on being a good mum. No matter how busy she was at work she never missed a school play or sports day, and she was always there to pick up her two little girls from school. So she felt terrible about having to let her youngest daughter down, who wanted a clown to come to her next birthday party. The fact is Helen was terrified of clowns (coulrophobia, to give it its formal name).
She didn’t know what had prompted the fear, but she had realised how disturbing she found them when she had to ask her mum to pick her daughters up from a friend’s party when she found out that a clown would be there. Now the youngest one wanted the same clown at her birthday party in a few months and Helen couldn’t face the idea.
The first thing that she was pleased to hear is that coulrophobia is very common fear, and it’s explainable – their make-up means that it’s difficult to read their real expression, and their clowning makes their behaviour unpredictable. The second thing that encouraged Helen was that we didn’t need to spend lots of time trying to understand what had triggered her fear.
Instead we used a technique that can help people to overcome fears very quickly. Imagining a cinema screen showing a clown, and herself at a safe distance, I got Helen to imagine different things about the clown that made it less and less scary. Repeating this while she imagined herself gradually getting closer and closer to the screen, within half an hour Helen had got over her fear.
Helen was amazed that something so quick could have such a lasting effect. Not only did she no longer have to change channel or walk out of the room if a clown appeared on the television, but she had booked the clown for her little girl’s birthday. “I feel daft for not coming earlier” she said “but I’m so glad I’m not stopping my daughter from enjoying herself”.
*Helen’s real identity has been protected, and she is happy to share her story of overcoming coulrophobia.