January, 2006. Brooklyn. I was twenty-six and moving into my own apartment after a tough breakup. The apartment felt like a dream — a floor-through at the top of a brownstone in the quaint Carroll Gardens neighborhood — and I couldn’t wait to furnish it.
I spent evenings poring over design magazines and catalogs, marking ideas with sticky notes. A pink velvet sofa here, a patterned green slipper chair there. Multicolored suzani textiles and Moroccan rugs. Armed with these ideas, I headed out to the furniture stores where I fell in love with a mustard yellow settée and floral printed duvet cover.
But when it was time to order, what did I choose?
- An off-white sofa
- A beige daybed
- A white director’s chair
- A cream-colored textured coverlet
- A cowhide rug in (you guessed it) white
Though I loved color and had spent weeks fantasizing about it, I furnished my entire apartment in tones of white, cream, ecru, and beige.
Did the stores run out of all those glorious colors? Did I suddenly become a minimalist the moment it came time to order?
No. I’d just been overcome by chromophobia — my fear of color.
How to Conquer Your Fear of Color
“Color… is a kind of bliss,” wrote Roland Barthes, and it’s true that humans have gone to great lengths to enjoy color. Throughout history, people have made long (and sometimes even dangerous) quests to obtain the brightest pigments. Our celebrations and festivals always feature the most intensely saturated hues.
Our love of color can be traced to the evolution of our visual system. Around the time our primate ancestors shifted from being nocturnal to foraging in the daytime, they gained an extra color-sensing type of cell in their retinas. This allowed them to find ripe red fruits and young leaves in the green of the treetop canopy. Though bright colors don’t always signal nourishment in modern life, our attraction to them bears traces of this primal equation. Color is energy. Or as color theorist Johannes Itten once said, “Color is life, for a world without it appears to us as dead.”
Why then, do we so often fear color in modern life?
What is Chromophobia?
At its extreme, chromophobia, also known as chromatophobia, can be a debilitating clinical syndrome where people feel intense fear or have panic attacks around specific colors. If you experience serious symptoms when confronted with color, you should seek help from a licensed therapist. Therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be useful in treating chromophobia and mitigating irrational fear of colors.
In this piece, however, my focus is on the more day-to-day kind of chromophobia. This fear of color doesn’t make you break out into a cold sweat. But it does prevent you from fully expressing your creativity and living the vibrant life you desire.
After more than a decade studying color and mental health, I’ve found that chromophobia is not just one fear. It’s actually a catch-all term for a range of interrelated fears, each with subtly different causes.
Here are three of the most common fears behind a typical case of chromophobia.
Fear of Getting It “Wrong”
There’s a common perception that there’s a right and wrong way to use color. Many people fear choosing colors that are in some way “wrong.” We worry about choosing colors that clash or are dated. Or we worry about running afoul of some unwritten rule about how colors “should” look.
One reason for this fear is that people have been conditioned to think that color is a special skill that only some people are “good” at. It’s notable that children rarely fear color, only developing chromophobia as they get older and become more sensitive to the opinions of others.
The truth is that no one is doomed to be “bad at color.” Anyone can create beautiful, harmonious color combinations with a little training. But because most schools don’t teach basic color as part of the curriculum, people lack the tools to feel confident choosing colors. We’re actually working on fixing this with an accessible course that will teach you how to choose the right colors for any situation. (Sign up for the waitlist here to know exactly when it will launch!)
Fear You’ll Get Tired of It
With so many “color of the year” posts floating around on social media, it’s not surprising that many of us have come to believe that colors go in and out like fashions. We’re afraid that the blue we pick for our cabinets will turn out to be like the “shoulder pads” of kitchen design, looking dated in just a few years.
In reality, though, what matters more than trends is finding colors you truly love. When you love a color, you’re unlikely to get sick of it. In my experience, all of our fear around picking colors creates so much anxiety that it’s hard to know which colors we really connect with. Letting go of the fear is often the first step to finding colors that feel timeless for you.
Fear of It Being Tacky or Over-the-Top
Some people are drawn to color, but fear that others will judge them for the way they use color. As artist David Batchelor describes in his book Chromophobia, this fear may be rooted in a bias in Western culture that sees color as a dangerous expression of emotion. This notion was cemented during the Colonialist period, when color (along with vigorous dance, drumming, expressive singing, and other art forms) was coded as primitive. Colonizers repressed emotion as a way of declaring themselves superior to the supposed “savages” they sought to rule over.
To this day, color is often seen as childish, unsophisticated, and feminine. So it’s not surprising that we fear choosing colors that are too bright, or choosing combinations that are too striking. There’s a history of color being a mark against us in the workplace or in polite society.
This fear often leads back to the fear of making a mistake. If we just knew how to get the “perfect color,” then we believe we could avoid being judged as tacky or gaudy. But because we don’t know how to do that, we end up feeling stuck.
Symptoms of Chromophobia
How do you know if you have chromophobia, or just happen to love neutrals? Some people truly prefer being surrounded by shades of white, gray, and beige. But if that’s the case, then you probably won’t have a feeling of inner conflict around color. Chromophobia is marked by a sense of ambivalence — you love color, but you don’t feel confident in choosing it. If you sense a tension that comes up when you think about color, then you probably are experiencing chromophobia.
Here are some specific signs you might be suffering from a fear of color:
- You admire your friend’s colorful outfits, but you just don’t think you could pull them off.
- You feel overwhelmed or lost when you enter a paint store.
- Whenever you think about choosing something colorful, you remember a big mistake you made and cringe.
- You put off making decisions involving color until the last possible moment.
- You love using color whenever it doesn’t “matter,” like decorating holiday cookies or choosing a Halloween costume, but avoid color in your daily life.
- You love color, but most of your wardrobe and furnishings are neutral.
If any of these statements feel true for you, rest assured that there are remedies for chromophobia! You can learn to embrace color without feeling worried that you’re going to make a terrible mistake.
How to Overcome Fear of Color
Here are eight specific steps that have helped me reduce my own fear of color.
Try Exposure Therapy
If you worry about color being “too much,” try going to a colorful place and see how it feels to spend time there. You might choose a vibrant hotel lobby or a colorful market, or even a place in nature that is full of bright greens or blues. When you’re there, take note of the colors and color combinations that feel best to you. Notice, too, when it feels like there’s the right amount of color in a space. Proportion often matters more than the color itself.
Take Small Doses
No one said you have to paint your whole house overnight! If you want to bring more color into your life, start with small doses, like some multicolor throw pillows or a colorful piece of art. You can also add small doses of color to your wardrobe through accessories like scarves, sunglasses, or shoes. As you get used to these small pops of color, you may find yourself craving more.
Start With Consumables
If you’re not sure what colors you like and you worry about making a mistake, try starting with consumables. These are the non-permanent elements of your household like candles, soaps, paper napkins, and stationery. Try some colors you think you might like. If they don’t work out, they’ll be gone in a few months. And you will have learned a lot more than if you’d just bought the typical white.
Don’t Buy on Impulse
Sometimes we get so frustrated with our fear of color that we just go out and buy something colorful on impulse. Then we end up not liking it, which reaffirms the fear and keeps us from choosing color again.
When you’re tempted to buy something colorful, ask yourself these questions: Is this a color I’ve resonated to in the past? Does this color have any personal meaning for me?
If the answer is no, take a pause before hitting the buy button. A sudden interest in a new color is often a clue that you’re being tempted by a color trend. Waiting until the rush wears off can help you be sure that this is a color you’ll love for the long haul.
Choose a Signature Color
A signature color is a color that represents you. Maybe it’s your favorite color, or a color that you often find yourself wearing. Having a signature color allows you to add color to your wardrobe and home without worrying that it’s going to look crazy or too much. Because you’re only adding one color, it’s hard to go overboard.
As you get comfortable with your signature color, you’ll start to notice what colors go well with it, and what color combinations you don’t like so much. When you decide to start adding more colors to the mix, you’ll feel much more confident in those choices.
We’ll cover choosing a signature color in our upcoming color course, so make sure to sign up for the waitlist to know as soon as it’s released.
Test Colors the Right Way
You’ve probably heard it before, and it’s true: you should always test colors before you make a big purchase. Don’t rely on small paint swatches. Get a sample from the store and paint it on a board at least one foot square before making a choice.
One big mistake many people make when testing colors is looking at them in the wrong plane. If you’re painting a color on a wall, make sure to look at your test board vertically, not lying horizontally on a table or the floor. This is because colors placed horizontally will reflect more light and look lighter than colors on the wall.
It’s also important to account for finish. If you’re using high-gloss paint, the paint will reflect more light and look lighter than if you use a matte finish. Try to test with as close to realistic conditions as possible and you’ll end up happier with your choices. This will build confidence in your color abilities and decrease your fear.
Choose a Color Strategy
When color feels overwhelming, it always helps to simplify. One way that I do this is by choosing a color strategy for my home. A color strategy is an intentional choice about where to put color in your space. In the background strategy, you put color on the walls and large surfaces, and let your furniture be more neutral. In the foreground strategy, you use mostly white walls and add pops of color through furniture, art, and knickknacks.
Choosing a color strategy is a simple yet powerful way to ensure that you don’t go overboard with color in your home. You can learn more about these two color strategies, including which one is best for you and how to implement it, here.
Learn More About Color
If there’s one surefire antidote to fear, it’s knowledge. When you understand the key dimensions of colors and how to combine them, you can have fun with color instead of being worried about making a mistake.
Ultimately, I overcame my fear of color by using these steps, and now live in a house with a green kitchen, multi-colored floral wallpaper, and a pink office. I stopped wearing black and gray and feel most myself in colors like red, green, and bright blue. I love this colorful life, but what is most important to me is that I no longer feel that sense of longing I used to feel whenever I looked at colorful interiors and people dressed in vibrant hues. Overcoming my fear of color has given me the freedom to live a life that is more creative, and more fun.
If you’ve conquered chromophobia, what has helped you? Please share your tips so that we can all feel less afraid, and bring more joyous color to our lives!