3 Strategies for Overcoming Fear of Change
“I have this recurring dream where I’m lost in the woods. I’m walking around trying to find my way home and I keep getting back to the same point. I’m literally walking in circles.” shared one of my clients in her discovery session earlier this year.
We talked about how this dream makes her feel (“panicky”) and where in her life she’s feeling this way (“in my career”). She shared that she’s been feeling lost in her career for a while now and that this visual of going round-and-round in circles, arriving at the same point, is exactly how she feels about having these lingering desires and ideas but not doing anything about them.
She had a list of ideas and directions she could possible follow. And yet, for each direction / possibility she had a rationale for 'why not' --
why not now
why it won't work out
why it's impossible
why it's not feasible
She wanted change so much that it often kept her awake at night. But she was paralysed, incapable of doing anything in the offset of fear. This is what fear of change does to us. It keeps us stuck. It holds us back.
So why is it that we fear change so much, especially when it’s something we’ve been craving for so long?
Fear of change is the fear of the unknown, and the fear of the unknown is the fear of failure. When faced with potential failure, our survival instinct pushes us to default to that which is most certain. The science behind it, in a nutshell, is this - the part of our brain that’s wired for safety is basically telling us “don’t do anything that hasn’t killed you yet.”
Our brain wants us to avoid taking risks for fear of being eaten by a lion or being isolated from the group, which would make us vulnerable and put us in danger. And that fear is the reason we’re alive. The problem is that our brain doesn't know the difference between being eaten by a lion and public speaking, changing careers, moving countries or dating - not exactly life threatening situations.
With this in mind, here are 3 strategies / shifts for navigating fear of change:
Take fear with you:
On a recent course I’ve participated in we were presented with a few core values and were asked to change the ones that didn’t resonate with us. I chose to change fearlessness for courage. When I was asked why I’ve made this change I explained that if I was holding fearlessness as a value, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today. I would be held hostage by this ideal of fearlessness. Waiting for the fear to disappear so I can take action. Courage, on the other hand, is not the absence of fear, it's about acknowledging that fear is present and moving through it.
I believe that fear is a part of us, and a part of life. I’ve always thought the goal shouldn’t be fearlessness, but rather, skilfully responding to fear when it arises. You can feel fear without becoming it. Rather than resisting it, fighting it or waiting for it to go away, take it with you, just don’t let it drive the car.
Permission to feel BOTH AND:
Lately I wondered about the things in my life I might have done differently, the doors I would have walked through, if I’d really known it was okay to feel BOTH AND. Eager for and sad about a change. Excited for and afraid of starting something new. Happy for and nervous about a decision. All too often, we don’t pursue the healthy changes, the leaps, that would bring sadness intertwined with happiness, or fear intertwined with excitement, because we think it’s wrong.
Can one take courageous steps without being at home with mixed emotions? I can’t see how. Can one make a decision without a mix of emotions about the path not taken? I don’t think so. Can one move, grow and change without mixed emotions? No.
You can hold mixed emotions and create change anyway. You can learn to discern between the sadness that says, “stop, don’t make this change” and the sadness that is simply to be felt and moved through.
Any change is progress:
There are no perfect decisions. There are only decisions and what we choose to do with them. I've certainly made decisions that in hindsight were “wrong.” But truth is, more often than not, we need the “wrongs” to help us find the “rights.” ANY step is a step forward and even failures are teachers if we allow ourselves to glean the valuable information that's offered to us. As the poet David Whyte says “A wrong-headed but determined direction is better than none at all.”
What would open up for you if you didn’t assign a negative meaning to failure? If you saw failure as information?
Fear loses its power over us when we turn and face it. Renowned Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron, in her book When Things Fall Apart, shares the following parable:
“Once there was a young warrior. Her teacher told her that she had to do a battle with fear. She didn’t want to do that. It seemed too aggressive; it was scary; it seemed unfriendly. But the teacher said she had to do it and gave her the instructions for the battle. The day arrived. The student warrior stood on one side, and fear stood on the other. The warrior was feeling very small, and fear was looking big and wrathful. They both had their weapons. The young warrior roused herself and went toward fear, prostrated three times, and asked, ‘May I have permission to go into battle with you?’ Fear said, ‘Thank you for showing me so much respect that you ask permission’. Then the young warrior said, ‘How can I defeat you?’ Fear replied, ‘My weapons are that I talk fast, and I get very close to your face. Then you get completely unnerved, and you do whatever I say. If you don’t do what I tell you, I have no power. You can listen to me, and you can have respect for me. You can even be convinced by me. But if you don’t do what I say, I have no power’. In that way, the student warrior learned how to defeat fear.”
In any situation where we may find ourselves afraid, we often have a choice as to how to confront it. We can be paralyzed by fear. Or, we can take a breath, slow things down, assess the situation for what it is, explore our options with curiosity, and move forward.
What if you could assign a new meaning to experiencing fear instead of making it mean it’s wrong? What decision would you make? What leap would you take?
For me, fear is not a sign to withdraw, but a reminder to persevere --
a life that is fully lived is a life empty of regrets.
Onwards & Upwards,