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Someone asked me once, “How can I start overcoming fear of change in my life? It seems like that’s the hardest part—not the change itself, but the fear of change.” I think she’s right, and overcoming fear of change (the anticipation of, and uncertainty about, what is to come) is often harder than actually taking action or seeing how things shake down.
First, I think it’s helpful to understand what our habitual responses to change (or fear, in general) are. If I’m to classify the most common fear routines that we go into by default, I’d say that they could be loosely categorized as the Perfectionist, the Martyr, the Saboteur, and the Pessimist routines—all of which encompass those sorts of behaviors (e.g., perfectionists might respond to a fear of change by going into perfectionism and trying to control the circumstances; pessimists might respond to a fear of change by going into “What’s the point?” negativity).
When you know how your fear routines operate, you can start overcoming fear of change in a different way—through the lens of habit formation, creating better habits that are rooted in the value of courage.
For example: Let’s say that you know you go into perfectionism when you feel fear. If you get clear on what perfectionism looks like, for you, what a perfectionist fear routine encompasses, then you’ll be able to recognize when you’re caught in the routine. That’s the moment when you can course-correct. “Ah, yes, I do this thing when I’m afraid of change. Let me ask myself, with presence, what I might do differently.”
Practices for Overcoming Fear of Change
What are the practices of courage when there’s a fear of change? Really, I think they’re always applicable, whether it’s a fear of change or financial uncertainty or just maybe-kinda noticing that our 45th President is a shit-show:
1. Access the body. You feel fear in the body, so deal with it in the body. Adopt mindfulness practices that keep fear sensations from completely overwhelming you during times of change.
2. Listen without attachment. Listen to what your fear says, without getting attached to it—without believing it. That’s part of how you stay savvy to the fact that the routine is running.
3. Reframe limiting stories. Nope, not reciting affirmations—reframing limiting Stories. It’s highly pragmatic to notice that fear tells Stories about how hard or difficult the upcoming changes will be, and you don’t actually know if the Stories are true.
4. Reach out and create community. Fear thrives in isolation, and it diminishes in community. Talk to others about your fears of change. Some people (mistakenly) believe that wanting to receive reassurance from others is a sign of insecurity. No—reaching out to receive reassurance is a sign of resilience and health!
Yes, change is scary.
You are normal.
You are not somehow “doing life wrong” if you find that fear of change has hobbled you.
Overcoming fear of change is really about being willing to be with the uncertainty—and, I might add, the idea that there are times when life is certain, ever, is just a perception.
In reality, all of life is uncertain. There could be an asteroid headed for us at this very moment. How we move through our lives in the face of uncertainty is by quite literally deciding that we will live, even as we know that no one escapes life without challenges.
Particularly with the courage habit step of reaching out to others and creating community, we remind ourselves that when we fear change, we are not alone.
I was thinking about this question of how to change your life when I ran across this quote:
“Resistance to change is a natural part of the human condition. We all want progress, but we don’t like change, especially change imposed from the outside. No matter how crushing our problems, we generally prefer them to uncertainty.” -Mary Pipher
So it would seem that if you want to change your life , the first step is going to be cultivating a willingness to be uncertain, to fumble, to not have the answers. Also, to tolerate that gap between the person you have been and the person you are becoming. It’s something that I talk about in both the Courageous Living Coach Certification and to facilitators in Facilitate With Impact: how do we support the clients or participants that we work with during that tumultuous time when they’re letting go of what is familiar and going on nothing other than trust that there’s something waiting for them if they take that step?
How To Change Your Life : A Handy Metaphor
I often invoke this metaphor with people who want to change their lives: that when you are trying to make a decision to change your life , you cannot have one foot on the boat that’s trying to cast off, and another foot on the dock.
Imagine it, if you will: two legs stretched between these two points, the boat trying to move away. At some point, you either jump on the boat or you stay on the dock and admit that today just isn’t the day for change.
Much is made of (in this metaphor) jumping on the boat and seeing what adventures await, but really, deciding to stay on the dock is okay. There’s plenty of powerful growth material to work with if you make a conscious decision to stay where you are. Why did you stay? Why was it not the right time to leave behind an old way of being? How have old habits influenced that decision? What capital-s “Stories” are you believing that might need to be reframed? If you access the body, what does it tell you? How can you cultivate courageous habits so that the next time you’re considering getting onto the metaphorical boat of change, it feels like a more doable move to make?
How To Change Your Life : Explore Resistance
We spend so much time resisting change, that we get caught in thinking our options are either to change or to fight change. There’s actually a third option: explore your resistance. Get curious and try to understand it and see it from every possible angle. Arnold and Amy Mindell say, “Resistance to a process, is a process.”
And of course, “Explore resistance” is just another way to say “Explore fear.”
We become more comfortable with uncertainty—and less resistant—by intentionally cultivating a life where we are exposed to uncertainty. You try new things, you make new plans, you invite daring people to dinner and ask them your most honest questions. You risk being unliked, because the reward will be finding out the people who love you for taking the risk of being yourself.
What we mostly do as humans is return to our old habits, over and over, because they are familiar. It’s possible to break old habits and create better habits with enough conscious attention on what you do and how you do it. But that curiosity, that willingness to explore your resistance and develop resilience amid uncertainty, is part of that process, too. It’s right when things get uncertain that we usually go back to our old habits and then the process of change is halted.
But there’s this crazy-amazing thing that you can do, right at that gap point between old ways of being and deciding to change your life: practice courage. This won’t involve fearlessness; it’ll involve putting conscious attention on every critical voice inside suggesting that you quit or back down, and deciding to lean in, anyway.
If you want to change your life, it’s less about the goals you establish and more about the way of being that you adopt.
Curious, flexible during times of uncertainty, willingness to take risks in the name of what you most desire? Those are the things that we can consciously choose, every day.
This is the problem that I see myself, and most women I know, struggle with: tolerating what is in fact unworkable and ultimately, intolerable.
The job with the boss who asks that we come in late even after we’ve already said that coming in late has compromised our family life, too much. The partner who finally agrees to start communicating with you more respectfully, but who acts so sulky about it that you give up and stop trying to fight for a better relationship. The children who slowly siphon away every last ounce of energy, without meaning to, while mothers quietly pile more onto themselves, endlessly self-sacrificing.
The bigger problem becomes the culture that is bred from a conspiracy of silence: since everyone is over-working, and everyone is quietly pretending that their marriages don’t encounter serious bumps in the road, and everyone is buying into the idea that endless self-sacrifice for your children is how you show them love, it starts seeming like “that’s just the way it is.”
Everything that is unworkable will eventually become…intolerable. Sometimes, these things become intolerable in ways that don’t feel like a choice: your body totally shutting down, for instance, or you wake up and suddenly, all you see is white-hot rage or feel crippled by depression.
There’s a better option than that, however. You could decide that you’ll start paying attention to what you feel through accessing the body and deciding that the things that don’t feel great need to be examined.
And once you start to examine things, you’ll need to raise the bar for what you will allow .
Examining: Reframe Limiting Stories
“That’s just the way it is” is your red flag that something is amiss and you are under the spell of a limiting capital-s “Story,” an internal narrative that needs to be reframed. When we make assumptions about what’s possible, we limit ourselves.
This is not a rallying cry for reciting positive affirmations like a zombie and ignoring socially ingrained privilege. “That’s just the way it is” is a signal to pay attention to, because it points the way to where we need to take action to change the culture, starting by changing our very own lives (as the saying goes, you can’t draw water from an empty well; we don’t change the larger social issues at hand without first examining how we as individuals are limited by, or complicit in, the systems that have created those social issues).
And with women in particular, what I see are limiting Stories that are all about accommodation: accommodating unrealistic expectations, at work, at home, and from society.
I see women accommodating over-work because “this is what you do, to be a good employee.” I see women accommodating unsupportive partners because embedded in accommodation is “this is what it takes to be a good partner, myself.” I see women tolerating ridiculous behavior from their children because, “this is how a good mother behaves.”
Accommodation is tied to “this is just how it is.” We accommodate when we believe “this is just how it is.” We accommodate when someone has fooled us into believing that it is what you must do, to be “good.”
And I say…no.
And you can, too.
Raise the Bar For What You Will Allow
To raise the bar of what you will allow, you will need to question the limiting Story that “goodness” is tied to accommodation. Then you’ll need to start saying…no.
Truth: is difficult to say “no” after a lifetime of practicing accommodation. It requires courage, because the social consequences for not being accommodating in a society that expects accommodation from women are real (and for some women, and in some parts of the world, it’s deadly).
Nonetheless, I’m going to take a chance that you, the person reading this, might be willing to unhook from the culture of silence that surrounds accommodation, and start looking at your own life for where you will raise the bar of what you will allow, by not being quite so…accommodating.
Identify the top three areas that feel ridiculously stressful to you (I’ve might’ve already highlighted them, here: the job-partner-kids trifecta, anyone?).
Where are you lowering some basic standards, in order to be accommodating? Where is behavior that’s truly unworkable taking place, and where are you playing along?
Again, the work of saying “no” after a lifetime of accommodation—and especially in a culture that expects any answer but your “no”—is difficult (so hey, blame isn’t helpful, here).
The thing is, no one else is going to raise the bar for what you will allow , for you. No one else is going to hand you better standards.
Jobs who consistently demand too much from their employees don’t just say, one day, “Hey, let’s see if we can get Sally Sue Jones some more reasonable work-life balance.” Partners who are entrenched in dysfunctional relationship dynamics don’t typically wake up one day and offer to do things differently.
And your kids? Well, they are the ultimate boundary pushers, and without an adult willing to say “No” and stand firmly in it, they are unlikely to do anything different. So if you don’t like being a short-order cook, having no time to yourself in the evenings because the kids won’t go to bed, or being hit/kicked/yelled at, then it’s time to stop assuming that kids can’t understand not to do these things–because even two- and three-year-olds can understand, I promise you–and start saying “No,” over and over and as many times as it takes.
It takes two sides, to perpetuate the things that are unworkable: the side that makes demands and the side that accommodates the demands.
To live courageous lives will require asking ourselves where we have become conditioned and habituated to accommodate that which is unreasonable, unworkable, and intolerable—before these unworkable circumstances overwhelm us. Raise the bar for what you will allow .