Personal computers today are so widespread, you'd think we were all having one big love affair with the little gray machines.

But for every person smitten with the power of the PC, there's another person cowering. As a stark counterpoint to the enthusiasts who think personal computers are liberating, there are significant numbers who find them oppressive.

Up to 85% of us are hesitant about or outright resistant to technology, says Larry Rosen, co-author of a new book called TechnoStress: Coping with Technology @Work @Home @Play.

In a telephone interview, Rosen, psychology professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, said it's OK to select which technologies you want to use - which work for you - and to leave the rest alone. But the pressure to be computer literate is enormous.

Fear can be a formidable foe. Some time ago, when a company I was working for outfitted all the employees in our department with new Macintoshes, I tried to help a co-worker get up to speed with his new machine. We had all been through a training program, but he still preferred to have the department secretary type out his handwritten notes instead of using the computer himself.

The very act of sitting in front of the computer made him uncomfortable. When I showed him how to open and save a file, and had him do the same, sweat beaded up on his brow.

Fortunately, there are ways to deal with computer phobia, whether you're experiencing it yourself or know someone else who is.

Perhaps, most important, understand that you're not alone in your fear. This is one of the themes in Rosen's book, which he co-wrote with his wife, Michelle Weil, who is a clinical psychologist. Knowing you have company here can help you overcome the feeling that you're incompetent; destined to be a slave to the technology rather than a master.

Here are some other points to keep in mind to conquer computer phobia.

* Have fun. Start with computer games. The more you use computers, the less fear you'll have, and computer games are a terrific, non-threatening way to get your feet wet. By becoming familiar with how to turn on a computer and navigate around with a keyboard and mouse, you'll begin learning how a computer "thinks."

* Don't worry. There's little likelihood that you'll break your computer merely by using it - unless of course you throw it out the window. Novices sometimes feel that if they hit the wrong key, the computer will explode. Even if you accidentally delete a particular file, chances are you'll be ableto recover it from the original installation disks or backup tapes or by using a specialized program for this purpose.

* Take it easy. When you move on to "productivity" software, consider starting with a "works" program such as Microsoft Works or ClarisWorks. These scaled-down collections of programs can be less intimidating and easier to use than their full-scale cousins, the "suites" such as Microsoft Office and Corel WordPerfect Suite.

* Take it slow. First master simple tasks, such as automatic paragraph indenting in a word processing program, before moving on to more complex tasks, such as mail merge. If you're teaching someone else, don't overload that person at the outset with all that you know.

* Forgive, don't forget. You'll make lots of mistakes in the beginning - everybody does. Don't blame yourself or get discouraged. Computers may be easier to use then ever, but there are still procedures to memorize and hand-eye coordination to master. Try to learn from any mistakes that you do make.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Fear always springs from ignorance." The same can be said today about personal computers.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached by email at reid gold@voicenet.com or by Internet at www.voicenet.com/~reidgold