What Are You Afraid Of?

Change can be good or bad, but scary either way. Why?

Posted May 31, 2020

At first glance, it would seem that we are all ready to get out of the forced lockdown. Even self-declared introverts who have genuinely appreciated the opportunity to shelter at home are expressing a desire for a little more freedom of movement. But as so often happens when change comes upon us, even when it’s something we want, we may also feel surprising amounts of anxiety and stress. As if we haven’t had enough of those feelings in the past months.

It’s a funny thing. Many of us fight change—even when it looks like something good could come out of it. And that tendency to fight change is what I’d like to explore in this post.

Let’s look at some examples of what I’m talking about.

Mary Lou* is a self-proclaimed introvert who has actually enjoyed the forced isolation of the coronavirus. “It really hasn’t been hard on me at all,” she told me. “Of course, I’m one of the lucky ones. My work is easily done online. I can’t say I love all the videoconferencing. But I do love the fact that I have to stay at home! My office is giving us the choice of whether or not we want to go back in as things open up. I definitely don’t want to. But I think there’s something else going on—something maybe I need to deal with here. The weather’s gotten beautiful, and I’d like to go out for a walk or for a bike ride. But I’m not doing it. I can’t get myself to go out of the house. I can’t even go down to the basement to check to see if my bike is usable. I don’t really even want to go outside right now. And I think maybe that’s not a totally good thing.”

For Colby* the lockdown was harder. “I have three kids at home,” he said. “And both my wife and I are trying to work while we’re also trying to keep them engaged in their online schoolwork and then to find activities for them when they’re not doing school. We have to be mother/father/teacher/guidance counselor/tutor/friend/babysitter/arbitrator all rolled up in one package. It hasn’t been easy.”

But he also said that the changes hadn’t all been bad. “A couple of times, after the kids were all asleep, my wife and I have had some good talks about our future. Things haven’t been good between us for a while, and we finally just forced ourselves to talk about what was going on. It was really scary. But it was probably one of the best things we’ve ever done. I’m just not sure where we’re going from here. We’re going to have to figure it out. For right now, though, I kind of like being forced to live in this bubble where we have to be with each other. We don’t have to make any decisions about the future. We’re just making decisions about how we’re going to get groceries or whether the kids can go out on their skateboards. So I’m not ready for the lockdown to end.”

A lot has been written about how you can use the COVID-19 pandemic as a time for growth. And in fact, research has shown that while crises, which are also far more common in human experience than we sometimes realize, can be disabling and destructive, they can also be an opportunity for growth. But with growth comes change. And as Spencer Johnson shows us in "Who Moved My Cheese?" his now-classic fable about change, even good change can be frightening, upsetting, stressful, and irritating as well as challenging, exhilarating and exciting—sometimes all at once.

The reality is that change is part of life, so it’s important for us to learn to deal with it. But what makes it so hard? In this post, I’m going to focus on one significant reason you might fight change. There are other reasons as well, of course, and I’ll talk about them in another post.

The issue I’d like to focus on today is fear.

Fear, or the feeling that something is dangerous, can be a motivator for change, as when you decide to shelter at home in order to protect yourself and your family from the coronavirus. But that same feeling can make us fight change. In the case of COVID-19, some of us are afraid that the danger still exists, as many epidemiologists have suggested. But for many of us, the worry is based more on emotions than science.

What are we afraid of?

Fear of the unknown. Change often takes us into new and unfamiliar territory. We also fear loss of control, which can accompany change. We fear being hurt or in danger emotionally as well as physically.

For Mary Lou, the fear of taking a walk outside included all of those worries. “I don’t know, it just feels like I’m safe here in the house. I’ve gone to the grocery store, and I’m wearing my mask and everyone else is wearing theirs, and we all keep our distance, and it’s fine. But if I take a walk—what happens if someone gets too close? What if someone wants to talk to me?” She takes a quick breath. “Actually, I’ve always worried about someone doing that—getting too close or wanting to talk to me. That’s not COVID. That’s my basic feeling that people are going to invade my space.” The lockdown had protected Mary Lou from worrying about those invasions. Going back out into the world, even in a limited way, opened up that old fear. Recognizing that the change that she feared was an old one, Mary Lou decided to go into therapy to work on that anxiety.

Fear of loss. Loss can take many forms. For instance, there is of course the loss of someone as a result of death. But there is also loss of security, loss of love, loss of status, loss of income, loss of ability—and I’m sure you can fill in many more possible losses. Human beings are both blessed and cursed by our ability to anticipate loss. Blessed, because anticipation makes it possible to avoid some losses and when it’s impossible to avoid them, to at least prepare for them. Cursed because the knowledge that we can, do, and will lose people and things we care about and/or need can interfere with our ability to enjoy them when we have them. 

For some of us, the Buddhist practice of non-attachment is a helpful way of coping with the knowledge of loss, and for sure, it can be extremely important to be able to let go of painful and unhelpful feelings, old grievances, and anger. But for others of us attachment is part of the pleasure of life. The work for those of us who do enjoy our attachments is to be able to 1) accept that such pleasure brings vulnerability, and 2) recognize that attachment doesn’t mean ownership. You don’t own your children, significant other, or parents, no matter how much you love them or how attached you are to them, for example.

The thing about change, whether it’s something good or something bad, something we want or something we don’t want, something we’re excited about or something we’re dreading, is that change always involves loss of some kind.

 Анна Останина/123RF
Source: Анна Останина/123RF

If you move from a small house to a larger one, no matter how excited you are about the new house, there will be something you will miss about the old one. The same is true when you adopt a puppy, change jobs, lose or gain weight, marry or divorce, become a parent for the first time or have your seventh child! The new experiences often feel more significant than the old ones—but if you don’t make some room for feelings of loss and sadness as well, you won’t be able to fully enjoy the new ones.

So, even as we open up from the COVID-19 lockdown, no matter how eager you are to get back into the world, try to recall anything that you actually did enjoy about time that you were sheltering in place. Maybe, like Mary Lou, you appreciated being able to just be alone; or maybe you enjoyed some of the Zoom sessions with friends and family you don’t usually get a chance to talk to. Maybe you got some closets cleaned out or a chance to binge-watch some show that’s been on your wish list for ages. No matter how small or even silly the pleasures might have been, giving them a place in your thoughts will help you make a better transition back into the world. 

*Names and identifying info changed to protect privacy.

Copyright @ fdbarth2020.

References

Welcoming the Unwelcome: Wholehearted Living in a Brokenhearted World. Pema Chodron, Shambhala Press, 2019.

Cognitive Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder by Marsha Linehan. Guilford Press, 1993.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019.