Why is it that I’m so afraid to change? Or, I want to make a change but find myself dragging my feet, back paddling, or completely freezing when the time comes? Whether it’s a change in my job or my relationships, even a change to improve my health, or my outward appearance, it’s as the great author and humorist, Mark Twain, said, “The only person who likes change is a wet baby.” And even they cry about it!
Change will always bring with it the unknown, which can be exciting or frightening depending upon how I meet change in general, or to what degree I have what I call, ChangeAbility. My ChangeAbility is my ability to navigate change with effectiveness and ease—which I’m either doing well or not so well depending on the day, and the quality or severity of the change at hand. In this fast-moving world of complex, modern life, it serves me well to develop a flexible response to change, whether I’m initiating that change for the first time, like starting a new business, or having to adapt to a change that has already occurred, like finding a new job after twenty years because I was downsized. If I don’t build a flexible response to change, I can become overly stressed, confused, and overwhelmed; or I can become rigid, stubborn in my ways, and toppled over by the forces that are changing around me. I’m sure you know the feeling.
It’s important to understand that change is happening all the time. From moment to moment and from breath to breath, nothing ever remains the same. My biological processes, my organs, the nature of the cells that comprise my body, and the elements of my environments are in constant cycles of flux, by design. The nature of my human existence is fluid, mutable, and forever changing. It’s a miracle that I can recognize myself in the mirror when I wake each morning because so many tiny events within me and outside of me changed while I was sleeping. Therefore, I look upon all change as the movement of change, and as I say in my book, “What I experience of change is either the flow of the movement of change or my resistance to it.”
OVERCOMING RESISTANCE, OVERCOMING FEAR
The movement of change wants to flow like the river, but it is often impeded by resistance. Physical resistance, emotional resistance; we all recognize it. Resistance to change can profess a myriad of reasons and take many forms. These are the voices that either stop me in my tracks or slow me way down, often knocking me out of the rightful, effective timing in my response to needed change. The most familiar voices of resistance are:
Attachment: “I want things to turn out my way or no way at all.”
Procrastination: “Sure, I’ll make a change, only I’ll do it later.“
Denial: “There is no change happening, and therefore I don’t need to respond, adapt, or do anything differently.”
Anxiety: “OMG, things are changing and I can’t handle it!”
My response to my anxiety: “I don’t like feeling this anxiety so I’m not going to do anything that will cause my anxiety to rise, therefore, I’m not going to make that change.”
And, self-doubt that can come in at any time and undermine it all: “Really? You think YOU can do THAT?”
All of these expressions of resistance are different faces of fear, and the ultimate fear of all fears is the fear of endings. It’s a harsh thing to say, but the fear of endings is the fear of death—deaths large and small. These fears show up as the fear of the ending of an era, of my marriage, of my career path, of the way it used to be—however it use to be. I don’t want to make a change because it will mean the end, and I don’t want—fill in the blank—to end. In the most personal way, my fear that this body of mine will no longer serve me in health or in beauty, as it ages, can cause me to hit every expression of resistance on that list: attachment, denial, procrastination, self-doubt, anxiety and anxiety over my anxiety. Change often brings with it loss, and grief is a necessary response to allow the movement of change to flow.
When open, the flow of tears moves like the flow of the river. And so, we grieve the endings of places and times as we would grieve the death of a loved one; a necessary transition for something new to be born.
MAKING A MISTAKE
When it comes to the fear of making change, some fears are large, some are small, but even the small fears are still fears. And the largest of the small fears is my fear of making a mistake. Somehow the fear of experiencing embarrassment, shame, or hurt feelings does not equal a true death, but my fear of rejection or the ridicule of appearing the fool can prevent me from taking steps on my own behalf if the territory is new and perceived of as a risk. How many times have you stepped back because you were in a new situation and didn’t want to make a mistake? I know I have.
It may well be an exaggeration to say that my resistance to changing the color of my bedroom, or the make of my car, or the style of my hair is a fear of death, but with each change I make I do change how I perceive myself, or how I believe I’m perceived by others, and if I’m attached to how that goes, then I experience it as an end or a death of how I have known myself. If that self-perception is somehow judged, criticized, or ridiculed, then I could be very reluctant and resistant to take steps towards change, even simple ones. Dying my hair bright pink may be shocking and have my friends thinking I’ve gone all hipster, but it can grow out. Take that into something with a more serious impact and consequence, like if I have my breasts removed in mastectomy surgery as a treatment for cancer, then the way that others see me, or how I see myself, can become radically altered. If not welcomed, it can leave emotional scars as well as physical ones, and I can feel shame. In wanting to avoid feelings of shame, I might not elect the necessary medical treatment, and that could prove tragic.
Why is the fear of public speaking always at the top of all lists of common fears, higher on the list than the fear of being mauled by a bear? I’m afraid of making a mistake—and doing it in public!
WE ALL TRY OUR BEST
No one tries to make a bad choice in the moment. We all try our best with what we know at the time. I know I do. “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” I tell myself. I wouldn’t have made that choice if it had seemed otherwise, nor would you. But sometimes even the best ideas go astray, or more likely, as time goes on the fuller picture fills in, like the way the sunlight interacts with that soft green color I painted on my bedroom walls turning it to a mucky gray, or that job I took requires way more time and overtime than I expected. Anyone who has ever volunteered for a committee at their child’s school will know exactly what I mean about something that seemed like a good idea at the time, but then the job fills in to be way more work than you ever could imagine.
When I’m in a difficult patch, I find it reassuring to remind myself that things are always changing, always moving, and that this too will pass, this too will change. Whether it’s during one of my most arduous times, or my most cherished ones, it all changes over time, and always will. That awareness helps me let go of my resistance. Accepting the constant movement of change helps me appreciate the specialness of the moment, even as it is evolving into something new.
THE BENEFITS OF RESISTANCE
Not all resistance to change should be given a bad rap. My very resistance, my procrastination, attachments, even my cautions and fears helps me regulate whenever life is giving me too much, too fast. Resistance has the function and the ability to slow things down when needed, like how the landing flaps of an airplane provide resistance in order to slow down the speed of the landing aircraft, or the open parachute provides resistance to break the speed of the descending skydiver. Resistance can also be used to harness energy and create movement, like when the wind meets the fabric of the sails on a sailboat, pushing the vessel along, or when an NBA basketball player presses down into the floor in order to get the lift in his jump as he reaches for the basket. Cell walls create a protective boundary, keeping everything that belongs inside the cell, inside, and everything that belongs on the outside, out. So does my human skin. Resistance can serve me well in helping me pace out and parcel out what my nervous system and psyche can accommodate when it comes to integrating new information and events. Taking it slowly, even through procrastination of action can allow me to reorient to new circumstances in a timing that is more comfortable to me. In that case, my own resistance assists me to proceed incrementally through the change scenarios of my life. However, I don’t want to get stuck in my resistance, so much so that there is a logjam in the flow of the movement of change.
LOCATING THE NATURE OF THE CHANGE
Using my ChangeAbility, when I navigate change I’m also navigating my resistance to change. I do that by locating the nature of the change that I’m in. Sometimes my resistance to change is not a resistance to the change itself, but to other factors such as the speed of change, or to the unseen, unknown aspects of what is being asked of me. I may welcome the change, such as anticipating the birth of my child, but I may have difficulty with the speed of the movement of change, like in those last weeks of heavy, overripe pregnancy when it feels that the baby will never come but my entire physiology is ready and all I can think about is getting this baby out, or the opposite, when the baby arrives early and I don’t even have diapers in the house. The challenge I have with change could also be because so much of change cannot be seen until it arrives, and often it arrives, unannounced, with force, like if I had no warning signs when I suddenly went into labor in the middle of a department store.
I could say, “I am not a person who likes change,” but what I might really mean is that I can’t tolerate change when things go too quickly and I feel swept up with no time to reorient. Even desired change, when it’s moving too fast for my system to tolerate, could cause me to put up resistance. I might love my boyfriend with all my heart and be ecstatic when he proposes marriage, but when he tells me he’s being transferred in his job across the country and we have to move next week, then it becomes a complex change, the speed of which may just be too much for me to cozy up to. If I experience resistance, it’s because events are simply moving too fast, and I need to slow them down. On the other end of the spectrum in my tolerance for the speed of change, if I say, “I’m not good at making change,” it may just be that I lose patience, hope, and stamina when a change moves so slowly that I can’t see the results, like recovering from a long illness, going on a diet, or the difficult daily work of recovering from addiction.
I work hard not to judge my resistance to change, and I hope you can too. When you find compassion for your resistance, you can be afraid of change and still step into its stream. Look to see how slowing down the movement of change might serve you. Are there any benefits to creating a delay? If it’s not serving you, then ask yourself about the nature of the change you are in. Is it a fast change, or a slow one? Is it a seen change, or an unseen change? What are the rhythms of change that you are most comfortable with, and how can you bring your change scenario into those rhythms? What is needed to help bring more movement to this change in the direction you want it to go?
I have discovered Seven Principles for Change that are extremely helpful to understanding more about the very nature of each change scenario that I am in, and how to bring more movement into stuck situations, increasing ChangeAbility at all levels. These helpful tools illuminate how you can find more support in navigating change. You might want to find out more by reading ChangeAbility, How Artists, Activists and Awakeners Navigate Change.
Please, don’t be afraid of change, for change is moving all the time. When you recognize the movement of change, and align with that movement then your resistance softens and you are already supported in guiding the changes of your life in the direction you hope they will go. Step in to change, and proceed incrementally, navigating as you go. You will find that your ChangeAbility will carry you far.
Sharon Weil is the author of ChangeAbility, How Artists, Activists and Awakeners Navigate Change (Archer/Rare Bird Books 2016), a book designed to help readers navigate all the changes of their lives, drawing upon the collective wisdom of twenty-five change-innovators across many fields. She is the author of the novel, Donny and Ursula Save the World, “the funniest book about love, sex, and GMO seeds you’ll ever read.” (Passing 4 Normal Press 2013) She is also the host of Passing 4 Normal Podcast, conversations about change. sharonweilauthor.com