Why we fear change
By: Pulkit Sharma
Published on: June 22, 2015

Dr Everyone wants to change
All of us fantasize, aspire and work hard to bring desired changes in our life- success in career, loving and caring relationships, self-growth; physical fitness, quitting bad lifestyle habits and the list can go on endlessly. In my practice of psychological treatment, people come with a wish to change something about their self. Inhibition, shyness, inability to fully concentrate on work, emotional outbursts, infidelity, difficulty in establishing and maintaining a relationship, fears and phobias, sense of worthlessness and low self-esteem, lack of assertiveness, lack of a coherent self and difficulty in living out one's authentic self are common issues that people bring into psychotherapy.

A majority of these people are highly motivated and desperate to change and have tried multiple times. They have tried to motivate themselves, derived strength from friends, parents, spouses and motivational gurus, made firm resolutions, done yoga and meditation but the dysfunctional patterns continue to haunt them. Multiple failures make them feel helpless, hopeless and powerless. Yet the failure has a relentless power. Even in psychotherapy sessions, after they get some insight into the functioning of their subconscious mind it is hard to make progress. Progress comes in a back and forth manner; there are multiple cycles of progressions and regressions.

Thought of change brings up fear
Why is changing so hard for many people? It is not because they lack motivation or are not trying hard enough. The main reason is the terror of change. Although consciously we want change, unconsciously we fear and resist it. Often the dysfunctional patterns, no matter how frustrating or painful they might be for us, serve an adaptive function in handling some deep-seated anxieties which we are largely unaware of. The prospect of change and renunciation of the dysfunctional pattern is therefore extremely unsettling: the person has to confront the terror. The following three case vignettes elucidate this point.

Suneha (name changed) is a professional working in a leading MNC at Noida. She came for psychoanalysis as she experienced panic attacks and insomnia whenever she was working on an important assignment. She had tried relaxation exercise, challenging her thoughts and had also taken some medicines but she felt stuck- the anxiety was so debilitating that it sabotaged her performance. Suneha was frustrated as she was unable to get a promotion due to her average performance while she knew that she was capable of giving it a far better shot. Her life was fraught with multiple episodes where due to anxiety symptoms she ended up giving a bad performance. She would get sleepless, restless, tensed, obsessive thoughts about failure would pervade her mind and these symptoms ensured that her performance got sabotaged. As we delved deeper into her subconscious mind, it became apparent that Suneha had ego-ideals that forbade her from being competitive. Due to her childhood experiences in a highly moralistic family atmosphere she had a deep-seated conviction that aggression, competitiveness and envy were bad virtues inviting punishment. At the same time she had a wish to defeat others and be a winner. The two intrapsychic wishes clashed with each other making her feel extremely anxious whenever she pursued any achievement-oriented activity.

Rajeev (name changed) is a Delhi university student who came for help because he had never been able to enter into a romantic relationship. He was a very good student, endowed with good looks and a happy-go-lucky nature. It was hard for him and his friends to understand why he could never enter any romantic relationship despite yearning and trying hard for it. When we tried to understand his attempts at developing a relationship an unusual realization came up: whenever he liked a woman he tried to get friendly but after a while found the person to be very undesirable. He got put off by some aspect of the woman and simply backed out and tried searching for a new person. This pattern had persisted for years. Further understanding of his mind revealed that he had a tremendous dread of separation- he had a deep-seated terror that if he got attached to someone, that person would abandon him and he would disintegrate due to the traumatic experience. He had several nightmares where he was alone in an empty space. This anxiety had a basis in his past experience. His parents shared a very bad relationship. Although his parents loved him, due to frequent fights between them, the fear that he would be abandoned someday loomed large on his mind. At the same time he felt lonely and needed a reliable companion. This got translated into his current conflict where he longed for a companion but dreaded abandonment.

Prateek (name changed)a multimedia professional from Gurgaon sought counseling because he was unhappy with his own self. He lacked a coherent self, his self, likes and dislikes communication patterns, goals seemed to change dramatically from one relationship to another. We were able to understand that as a child Prateek was never given any freedom to be spontaneous. Both the parents were very controlling to the extent that they never allowed him to go outside, told him what should be his likes and dislikes even in very small matters such as food, T.V. programs and clothes and whenever he differed from them he was subjected to physical abuse and deprivation. These experiences translated into a pattern where he learnt to model his own self according to needs, wishes, likes and dislikes of the other person. He hated himself for being so scared of other people but could not help it. There were episodes where he would be overwhelmed by hate, rage and a sense of helplessness but could never take a stand in any relationship. As we were able to understand and work through these feelings he felt like taking a stand. But whenever he went closer to taking a stand he felt paralyzed. In his words he felt, "it is like I'm going to die, everything around me would fall apart and my mind would become dazed." The prospect of disagreeing with others brought up a terror which threatened him.

Individuals who want to change but cannot are often confined by fears: the fear is so intense that it does not let them go forward as they feel that if they go forward it is going to be extremely painful or devastating. There is a desire to end the frustrating and dysfunctional pattern but this evolution is perceived as dangerous and traumatic deep inside the mind. Often consciously they have little awareness into this fear and feel perplexed why they are unable to progress. Reasoning, support and reassurance fall flat in face of these terrors and therefore these people find it so hard to change. Self-destructive behaviors are repeated to prevent re-experiencing unbearable pain: pain emanating from guilt, abandonment and loss of self. The person prefers safety in frustration rather than in facing precariousness of growth until the terrors are understood, faced and worked through. Therefore, in order to transcend these fears it is important to look closely at them, understand their origins and how they influence our decision making. Once we understand them fully we are able to overcome them.

Pulkit Sharma is Clinical Psychologist & Spiritual Therapist in private practice at Pondicherry (Puducherry), near Auroville. Email:- info@thepsychologistindia.com