The Fear that Binds You: What Is It and What to do About It
Written by Jackie Woodside on August 9, 2018
Talk to anyone about what’s going on in their lives, and you will almost universally hear a list of areas where people want to make changes. The common ones are changing jobs or careers, getting into shape, losing weight, making improvements to one’s home and finding ways to make more money. You can probably relate to these, right?
Here are a couple of real-life examples from coaching clients of mine:
- A married man purchased all of the materials to do give his kitchen a much-needed makeover but left those materials sitting in a closet for three years. Once he entered coaching, he had the project done in a month.
- A woman who purchased a walk in shower and then proceeded to leave it sitting in her living room for two years before entering coaching and hiring someone to replace the one in her bathroom.
- A middle-aged woman had wanted to leave her husband and a loveless marriage for ten years but could not muster the courage to do so (but was divorced within ten months after entering coaching).
- A successful businesswoman wanted to leave her corporate job to do something she felt was more meaningful to her but was afraid of the financial fall out of doing so. Within a year, she was actively engaged in a new career.
If desire for growth and change is so universal, why do so many people struggle to take action?
Fear of change is probably the most prevalent reason that people resist changes and have difficulty with life transitions. Fear is a pervasive human experience and can render successful people powerless and powerful people helpless. It is sad but too often true that everyone wants a better life, but no one wants to change.
The phrase “fear of change” is somewhat of a misnomer. It is actually anxiety that you feel when thinking about creating change. Anxiety and fear are often lumped together but are two different emotions.
Fear is what you feel when you are being chased through the woods by a big, hairy grizzly bear. Your heart races, your adrenalin pumps through your body, and your senses are elevated. You are on alert and ready to act.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is like a hyperactive watchdog. It never comes to rest, is always on alert and a bit too jumpy. It reacts to anything that goes bump in the night, or day, or any other time for that matter. Anxiety never lets you rest. It fills your mind with pending doom and the all-pervasive “what if’s” that never end. It is anxiety – facing the great unknown – that leads to avoiding change.
General anxiety about creating change consists of a conglomerate of other concerns that we have come to call fears. Here are some examples of things we have come to label as fear. The fear of:
Failure or conversely fear of success
What others will think of me
Choosing something that is unpleasant
Discomfort or that the new endeavor will be too hard
Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of the anxiety that arises when thinking about creating change is the degree of vulnerability that it creates. It is common to feel a loss of control when life is changing, mainly when a change has been sudden and unplanned. But even with planned changes, there is a sense of vulnerability with the newness and the unknown.
We live under the illusion that we are in control of our lives. I say “illusion” because we are consistently at the whims of life, but we live as if all of our plans will work out, our goals will succeed, our cars won’t break down, our basements won’t flood, and our children won’t go through the terrible twos or teens. Of course, we live as though we are in control – to live any other way would leave us continually feeling frightened, anxious and even immobilized.
When we feel anxious (what we label as “fear”), we feel vulnerable. We too often relate to vulnerability as weakness. Dr. Brené Brown gave an excellent TED talk on the concept of vulnerability based on her social science research and found that vulnerability leads to tremendous personal and relational strength.
Recent social and neuroscience research points to the fact that many people experience resort to what is called an “optimism bias” in the face of fears. Optimism bias that means that you believe you are less at risk of experiencing an adverse event compared to others. You think things will be better in the future than in the past, and in general, tend to anticipate that things will turn out better than they do. Optimism bias is one of the best defenses against fear.
Thinking “it will all be ok” or in fact, even better than it is now (whatever the “it” may be at the moment) helps you face uncertainty with a sense of hope and power.
A study done by the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota studied the levels of optimism versus pessimism in 839 people over a 30-year span. The study found that those who scored higher on the optimism scale lived longer! The study showed that every 10-point increase in pessimism correlated with a 19% increase in death rate.
Optimism bias helps to be resilient in the face of fears. It enables you to feel hopeful, and hope gives rise to possibility.
Optimism bias can be seen both as a defense against the powerlessness and vulnerability of the fears that plague your mind or also as a belief system. I, for one, have been accused more than once of being more optimistic than realistic and I would say my life is better for it. I don’t want to settle for what is merely reasonable or realistic in life. I want to believe in miracles and look for them. I want to see the partly cloudy day as mostly sunny. It’s a big world out there, with lots of change that comes and I want to take it on as if every turn that comes my way is undoubtedly a blessing – sometimes bright and shining as the day, sometimes in disguise – but a blessing just the same.
Given how uncomfortable fear can be, why venture out beyond your familiar and comfortable life to the great unknown? Despite feeling anxiety about things that are new, fear of things that are unknown and vulnerability with feeling exposed, you can engage with life with a sense of curiosity, exploration, and adventure. You desire to master your destiny and to explore new possibilities. You long to explore, to connect, and to contribute. Thus, you can learn to face your fears and grow beyond what had previously stopped you.