A Myth-Understanding: Debunking the Fear of Change

This blog post was written by guest blogger, Darren Haber, MFT. Darren Haber, MFT, is a psychotherapist in West Los Angeles. He specializes in treating people struggling with actual or potential addiction, as well as partners and children of addicts or alcoholics. He also helps those suffering from what is sometimes called “codependence”, or from compulsive behaviors related to sex and love, whether sexual (i.e., pornography) or behavioral (such as pursuing unavailable partners). He is trained in EMDR and finds that addiction usually serves as “affect regulation” for underlying trauma. He also works with parents, partners and children of alcoholics and addicts.  For several years he was a residential clinician at Promises Treatment Center.  He writes frequently about therapy, addiction and recovery.

Please note that the opinions presented in the article are that of the author and not necessarily the opinions of RHN. RHN chooses to publish articles and share individual sites to evoke discussion and show all options, ideas and beliefs.

I find that most of my clients both desire and fear change.  They come to my office wanting change due to some obstacle or challenge that is making life difficult, while fearing it at the same time.  Most of us fear change since it involves the unknown – a new relationship, the end of a relationship, a new job, retirement.  What will life be like?  How will I cope?  Can I cope?   Often desire and fear commingle, so that therapy (and life itself) has a very “stop/start” quality, two steps forward and one step back.

Because fear and anxiety tend to put us in a black and white state of mind – i.e., this change is going to be terrible (or the best thing ever) – I like to educate those I work with by stating a couple of observations about the process of change itself.  For it is the process, not the “thing” itself, that is actually most important and that we have most control over.

1. Expect it to be slow.  Yes, occasionally a jarring life event occurs where suddenly we gain or lose something drastically.  We might inherit an unexpected sum, or lose a loved one, or anything in between.  Most of the time, however, changes happen slowly.  For example, most of the couples I see, who have reached a decision with my assistance – to marry, or move in, or end the relationship, what have you – often say, “well I sensed this was coming for a while now”.  We often find ourselves pleased at a new situation or circumstance, or displeased, but not overly surprised.  When we’re in fear, of course, we imagine change as a chaotic upheaval laced with terrible strife and unbearable emotion.  Yet most of the time, the most common thing clients tell me is, “It’s not as bad as I thought.”  The fear of something is usually worse than the thing itself, even when change is difficult.

2. Expect the unexpected.  Or, “stay open minded”.  Sometimes the change we think is going to be difficult isn’t; it’s the change we hadn’t thought much about that turns out to be more of a challenge.  A job that we figured was a piece of cake grows more difficult due to unforeseen circumstances (i.e. a new boss or co-worker), while moving in with a partner is easier than expected.  The project you feared completing seems to complete itself, but suddenly the client or buyer changes her mind and is no longer interested.

Life is complex and there are so many variables, we can’t predict how something will feel or be experienced with any certainty.  One client of mine recently lost a  mother who died at the age of 105.  She was expecting this loss for over two years, and was shocked at how intensely she grieved.  Another client of mine, commitment-phobic to be sure, is surprised at how much he’s enjoying his first marriage, it’s nowhere near as “pressured” as he feared.  A noisy neighbor, however, presents an unexpected challenge.

This is why I suggest – while remaining supportive of any fears or anxieties (highly normal) – using different criteria for evaluating decisions besides how it “might” feel, to not keep fear in the driver’s seat.  Some healthy apprehension or caution is appropriate, of course, but so are criteria such as, Does it feel like a good fit?  Is it challenging in a healthy way?   Will it be safe on the whole, enjoyable, even fun?  Is there room for growth?  Does it support your long-term hopes and goals?  Most worthy things require work and consistency – do you sense this change is worth it?  Which brings me to:

3. Stay consistent. Again, the fear of change tends to paint a portrait of change as dramatic:  You walk into that new job or new relationship and see balloons and confetti and things are eternally sunny…or you imagine, once you “get” him or her to return your attraction, you’ll have the most romantic time and the most amazing sex of your whole life …or once A, B or C happens, you’ll stop worrying and finally savor life now and forever… Or, if the change involves letting something go, you may imagine yourself putting down the drink or cigarette and saying goodbye forever…or ending that dysfunctional relationship once and for all. A tearful goodbye, an exclamation of independence, a wrenching farewell or joyous hello, with appropriate music on the soundtrack, of course.

Life is usually more subtle, grey rather than black or white, and certainly gradual (see #1 above).  Change requires new routines and rituals to repeat and rewire our brains, to teach ourselves emotionally and physically that life is different with or without a certain circumstance, person or situation.  Many people I know who have lost loved ones (through separation or death) often describe a lingering impulse to call or email that person before stopping themselves to realize, “Oh, not anymore.”  Some who begin a new marriage or relationship find that many old habits, not always conducive to co-existing, are surprisingly hard to shake.  Most folks seeking change via therapy or counseling or other support, did not find themselves “suddenly” burdened with whatever is bothering them; it developed slowly, day after day after day.  Doing something new and different will require that same repetition.  But if you plan to do several baby steps a day, you’ll find your work adding up much faster over time than if you pull an all-nighter and wear yourself out.

My wife and I, for instance, have decided to sell our condo.  The idea of moving is overwhelming, until we realized we could spend 20-30 minutes a day (with more on weekends) taking small steps with packing, preparing, researching, and so forth.  After a week we’ve accomplished a lot more than we planned and feel a lot calmer.  There’s more to do, some of it daunting, but as we tackle it in small, digestible chunks, it’s far less stressful than it was a couple weeks ago.  (I’m fortunate to have the help of such a lovely, hard-working partner.)  Which brings me to my final point:

4. Get help. There’s no way to soft-sell it: change is difficult.   Sometimes a grind.  It would actually be fantastic, much of the time, if we could just make it all happen with a magical wave of the hand, if we didn’t have to walk through all the uncertainty and anxiety of the unknown or the new, if we could just get there and be ok with it sooner rather than later.  More and more I find the biggest challenge, besides fear, is impatience; the flip side of fear.  It’s not “I’m not sure I want it”, but rather “I want it now!

It’s not easy, but it is easier if you have help.  Those who are strong enough to cop to vulnerability and ask for help have a greater chance of success.  I know we’re all proud Americans who love the “up by your bootstraps” mythos of the highly individualized hero who needs nothing and no one and chill out, people, I’ve got this. The truth is far more complex (darn it) and our lives are subtly intertwined with many more people than we even realize.  Asking for just a little bit of help, however small, can be a very self-supporting move.  Don’t worry, no one can “do” anything for you anyway, but having someone to vent to, or lean on, or throw a little support your way, can be of great benefit.  Change is difficult mainly for emotional reasons, so having another person to share the burden, even tangentially, can boost your chances of success.  Even James Bond, for crying out loud, has the assistance of a kung-fu expert (who looks great in a bikini), or all those gadgets designed by Q Branch.  The President of the U.S. has a cadre of advisors, and so forth.

This is why I applaud (not literally) those new clients who come to me for help.  Demoralized and dejected though they may be – since admitting we need help is often humiliating to the ego – they have the strength to say they can’t do it alone.  And often it is that feeling of disconnect, of having to do it all alone, that leads to the yearning for change in the first place.  But if you don’t feel therapy is the right avenue, talk to a friend or trusted advisor, someone who will support and help hold you accountable in a loving way (or give you a caring kick in the rear from time to time, much like Melissa McCarthy’s character poking Kristin Wiig in the ribs in Bridesmaids!)

I hope you use some or all of these suggestions, and begin pursuing the change your heart and spirit seek.  Happy new year, and thanks for reading!

Elana Clark-Faler
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