Understanding Xenophobia, the Fear of Strangers

Exhibiting Hatred as a Reaction to Fear

multi ethnic business people in urban setting

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Xenophobia, or fear of strangers, is a broad term that may be applied to any fear of someone who is different from us. In someone who suffers from legitimate xenophobia, hatred is generally a reaction to the fear. In addition, xenophobia need not be limited to those of a different race. Homophobia, fear of those from different cultural backgrounds, and even fear of those who dress, speak or think differently could be considered subsets of xenophobia. Whether xenophobia qualifies as a legitimate emotional disorder is a subject of ongoing debate. 

Xenophobia and Hate

The desire to belong to a group is pervasive and primal. Throughout history, those who have banded together in families, tribes or clans have thrived, while individuals who were separated by choice or circumstances faced increased dangers and limited opportunities.

While strong identification with a particular group can be healthy, it can also lead to suspicion of those who do not belong. It is natural and possibly instinctive to want to protect the interests of the group by eliminating threats to those interests. Unfortunately, this natural protectiveness often causes members of a group to shun or even attack those who are perceived as different, even if they actually pose no legitimate threat at all.

The twisting of a positive trait—group harmony and protection from threats—into a negative—imagining threats where none exist—has led to any number of hate crimes, persecutions, wars, and general mistrust. Xenophobia is rare among the phobias in that it has a great potential to cause damage to others, rather than affecting only those who suffer from it.

Symptoms of Xenophobia

Certainly, not everyone who suffers from xenophobia starts wars or performs hate crimes. Most sufferers are able to contain their reactions and live within societal norms. They are able to look past their initial reactions and become friends with individuals who happen to fall into a particular category.

A classic example occurred during the first season of the hit CBS show, Survivor. Retired Navy SEAL Rudy Boesch was known for his outspoken opinions, which included a distaste for "gays," particularly flamboyant ones. Nonetheless, he developed first an alliance and soon a deep and lasting friendship with extremely flamboyant and usually naked tribemate Richard Hatch, although Rudy was quick to comment that their friendship should not be taken "in a homosexual way."

If you suffer from xenophobia, you may feel uncomfortable around people who fall into a different group than your own. You might go out of your way to avoid particular neighborhoods. You may discount the possibility of friendship with certain people solely due to their skin color, mode of dress or other external factors. You might have trouble taking a supervisor seriously or connecting with a teammate who does not fall into your particular racial, cultural or religious group.

Combating Xenophobia

Many people who suffer from xenophobia have lived relatively sheltered lives with little exposure to those who are different from them. Fear of the unknown is one of the most powerful fears of all. If you have not been exposed to other races, cultures, and religions, conquering your xenophobia may be as simple as gaining more experience. Traveling the world, or even spending a week at a youth hostel in a nearby city, might go a long way toward helping you face your fears.

If your xenophobia is more pervasive, recurring despite exposure to a wide variety of cultures, then professional treatment might be in order. Choose a therapist that is open-minded and interested in working with you for a long period of time.

Unlike many phobias, xenophobia is often deeply rooted in a combination of upbringing, religious teachings, and previous experiences. Successfully combating xenophobia generally means confronting numerous aspects of the personality and learning new ways of experiencing the world.

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