Change is unavoidable – it is written into the fabric of our existence. So, it seems, is the fear of change, the opposing force that tries to keep the status quo firmly locked the way it is. Because change represents a step into the unknown, a movement away from the safety of the familiar. Even in those circumstances when we actively seek change, fear of transformation arises, often manifesting in subtle and subversive ways that are difficult to spot. Yet, far from something to be beaten back and repelled, this natural resistance needs to be embraced and understood. Within it lies tremendous value to our personal evolution.
‘You could not step twice into the same river,’ said Heraclitus. It’s one of my favorite quotes, containing the immutable truth that change is constant, and reminding us of the need to let go. In the flow of life, what is gone is gone – there’s no point in holding on to the past. But the past is not all we are attached to. We also cling to the present. It is our comfort zone, even if we’re not happy with it (which most of us aren’t). For, in the present, we take solace in what we know, what we are familiar with, and any threat to that normality is met with a primal fear. This fear is the inertia that holds most of us back from personal growth, from changing patterns and ways of being that do not serve us. That self-limiting habit of yours may be a devil, but better the devil you know.
Befriending your fear of change
Nobody likes to feel afraid. And ‘feel’ is the operative word here. Because, though many of the things we are afraid of are all in our heads, we feel that fear in our bodies. Our heart rate increases, our vision and focus contract, we get hot, our muscles tense, our minds become clouded in a fog that prevents us from being able to think sensibly. In short, we feel like we are in danger. And what is our natural biological response to danger? Fight, flight or freeze – three reactions that may, in very rare circumstances, save our lives, but in general do more harm than good in a modern lifestyle.
With such negative connotations to fear, it easy to overlook its value. But fear is natural – it exists to serve us. Historically, its primary role was to keep us alive, but as our needs have evolved, what we are afraid of has too. 50 000 years ago, for example, consumption by a wild beast was a realistic fear, but for most people on the planet that is no longer a part of everyday life. If you’re reading this article, your fears are far more likely to be linked to social and psychological needs, like financial security, personal status and recognition, physical attraction or positive self-worth. For most individuals in the developed world, life is fairly comfortable. They have a roof over their heads, food on the table, clothes on their backs, and the ability to earn an income. Of course, there are things that they would like to change, but generally, life is better than it was in pre-industrial times. So, when is fear principally triggered? When that comfort zone is threatened. And what is the greatest threat to that comfort zone? Change. It is for this reason, that most people will avoid change – it is easier than dealing with the fear, even if staying in the current position promises significant losses over the long term. But, it is actually when the fear kicks in that we should pay more attention, not look away. As Tim Ferris says,
‘Fear is a friend. Fear is an indicator. Sometimes it shows you what you shouldn’t do. More often than not it shows you exactly what you should do.’
Tim even advocates a fear-setting exercise to complement goal-setting, that enables you to visualize, contain and moderate fear of the future. Leaning into your fears and becoming acquainted with them empowers you to use them to your advantage.
This takes courage, and not the type presented by the ‘brave knight’ who rides into battle with a fearless heart. Courage is not the absence of fear, it is the willingness to go through with something despite the fear. Anyone who has done this will tell you that they are stronger for it. It teaches you that you are not at the mercy of your body’s stress response, or the countless worst-case scenarios that your mind is capable of conjuring up. ‘We suffer more often in imagination than in reality,’ said Seneca, and anyone who examines their past will see this to be true. Think of all the things that you thought could go wrong, and compare with the number of things that actually did. Not even close. The odds are forever in your favor.
From fear to resistance
But, as usual, things are not that simple. Even when we have identified an area of our lives that we wish to change, and consciously commit to the process, strange things start happening that prevent us from actualizing that change. We realize that we actually don’t have enough time or enough money, or that this just isn’t the right year. Someone talks us out if it, or we talk ourselves out of it, or suddenly the current situation doesn’t look so bad after all. These are all examples of resistance – the subtle manifestation of fear that prevents us from following through with change. As Joanne Hunt, co-founder and principal teacher at Integral Coaching Canada, points out: resistance is a natural biological function. Our immune system, for example, responds with resistance the moment it identifies a new virus or new organ.
Resistance to change is mostly unconscious, which makes it hard to spot, but it is inevitable. And it is a good sign. It means that you are shifting, growing, and moving into a new way of being. It is why a coach is so important when implementing change in your life – he or she is trained to help you spot your resistance showing up, and guide you in moving through it. But most of the power rests with you, and it begins with self-awareness. Everyone has their own type of resistance to change, and getting to know yours is key to personal development.