What’s Behind Our Fear of Change?



I quit my job two years ago. It became official on the day after my 26th birthday. When I went to pick up my office belongings with my friend Emily, I found that my key fob had been deactivated. It was a rude awakening to the reality of my decision. Emily will tell you about the look on my face then, the pallor and sheer panic that overtook me. I kept repeating, over and over: What if I’ve made a mistake?

This wasn’t a decision I had taken lightly or in response to a potent quarter life crisis. No, I’d really thought this through. So why was I freaking out? Well, it had suddenly become clear that everything was about to change in a major way. Because despite having evolved in many ways, humanity still has trouble embracing change.

There are three reasons that we fear change. The first, and in my opinion, most important, is that humans fear the unknown. The second is that, at our very cores, we’re creatures of habit. Sure, you may enjoy finding yourself in a different city every weekend, maybe at a different job every other year. But that’s a pattern in itself. We take solace in the predictable. And third, we fear failure and loss. What if, by making a change, we’re starting down on the long road towards failure?

Whether it’s fear of the dark or fear of what happens after we die, question marks terrify us, so much so that we often let fear of the unknown talk us out of a decision. We can’t quite take all the credit for our fears, however; as humans, we’ve inherited this from our evolutionary predecessors. We fear things that we don’t know or understand because we weren’t always the top predators; long ago, humans were prey. To survive, we stuck to what we knew worked. Deviating from that is difficult, and it often feels like self-sabotage.

When I finally quit, I felt insecure about my decision for months afterwards. Turns out, it wasn’t just a change of job; it was a life overhaul. Things that had been comfortable became, suddenly, consciously difficult. Honestly, some days, I just wasn’t up to the challenge. I wished I’d have stayed in my cozy security blanket.

I also fell into the trap of seeing my past through rose-colored glasses. I forgot how unhappy I was, how perpetually frustrated I felt, and started remembering how good it felt to have free coffee every day, a quiet designated space to do my work and oh, a job that my parents and several other unnamed assailants referred to as “real.” People have a noted preference for the old, the more established, the easily understood. They deride, dismiss and demonize the unknown. I started blaming myself for wanting too much, for having lofty and unrealistic aspirations, for making selfish decisions and for not living in “the real world.”

Ultimately, my biggest and most crippling fear was that of failure. I felt at many points as if people who knew about my decision were watching and waiting for me to fail. I realize much of this was probably in my own head and due to my own insecurity. But you’d be surprised if I told you how much resistance I experienced to a decision that was only mine to make. Turns out, people don’t just dislike change when it comes to their own lives. They dislike change, period. A big move — whether ultimately successful or not — makes others feel like they should be doing something, too. But inertia is much more powerful than change envy, and most people don’t end up doing anything.

The looming specter of failure, whichever shape it may take, is scary mostly because it’s irrational and surprisingly long-lasting. Sure, excitement-filled beginnings are fun and the happy endings are vindicating. But the part in the middle — the growing pains, hard work, bad days racked with self-doubt and criticism — that’s not all that much fun. Change is hardest during this middle part, according to Kanter’s Law.

Happily, something else happens in the middle, too: growth. Whether your change is met with wide applause or overwhelming resistance, the unnatural discomfort intrinsic to change is the catalyst for all the good stuff: self-knowledge and acceptance, confidence and gumption. It’s the New Year — go out there and change things up. Embrace the panic, the growing pains and the inevitable mistakes. If nothing else, you’ll have a good story to tell.

Helena Bala is a writer, former lawyer and the genius behind Craigslist Confessional. Follow her on Twitter @Clistconfession. Collage by Maria Jia Ling Pitt; photographs via Getty Images.

Helena Bala

Helena Bala is a writer, former lawyer and the genius behind Craigslist Confessional. Follow her on Twitter @Clistconfession.

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