The Fear of Change

It would seem obvious that people decide to start psychotherapy because they want to change something about themselves. Maybe they’re depressed and want relief. They might have some compulsive habits they need to break. Or they tend to over-react and want to gain control of themselves and their emotions. When clients consider changing, they invariably think about changing for the better; at least consciously, they view change in a positive light.

In general, if we strive to change our lives, it’s usually in order to improve them. Sometimes we’ll work very hard to alter the conditions that prevent us from succeeding in our careers or being fulfilled in our relationships. Most of us like that kind of change and believe we want it. Why is it, then, that so few people actually do change? Why do so many people stay in unsatisfying jobs and unfulfilling relationships? Why don’t more people who need it seek professional help?

As I discussed in this early post, part of the answer is that authentic change takes a lot of very hard work over time and usually involves facing pain. But another reason concerns the very nature of change itself, its unpredictability: while most of us want positive change, we also know that giving up the status quo means confronting the unfamiliar and all the
unknown feelings that might arise. There’s no guaranty that change will be for the better; you don’t know for sure how you’re going to feel when your world changes. For this reason, many people have a strong fear of change; they cling to the familiar, even if it’s not especially satisfying. I find that most of the people who seek out psychotherapy usually do so only because they’re in so much pain they can’t bear it, so much pain that it overcomes their fear of change. People with manageable amounts of pain or whose defense mechanisms work for the most part rarely come for treatment. They stick with the everyday unhappiness they know.

I’ve also found, with nearly every client I’ve seen over the years, that change unconsciously (sometimes consciously) stirs up an unpleasant awareness of time passing. We all understand that time is passing, of course; but most people live in a kind of denial about where that passage will ultimately lead us. You can’t live every minute with the awareness that you’re traveling toward death, so you repress it. Change, especially dramatic change, makes the awareness of time more acute and for that reason, unconsciously links up with the idea of death. In order to escape that knowledge, many people exist in a kind of stasis, as if time has stopped moving for them. Because they dread real change and where it will one day lead them, they cling to routines and repetition, as if every day were the same, as if time stood still.

One of the ways you can see the fear of change, even pleasant change, is by observing people’s behavior when they travel. I’ve know many people, both men and women, who become constipated the day before they go on vacation. If it were during the trip, you might say it was their body’s reaction to an unfamiliar diet or climate; but when it happens prior to departure, it has to be a psychological event. Consciously, they’re looking forward to vacation; on another level, they fear the impending changes — in routine, environment, etc. In the clients I’ve seen, their constipation always involved an (unconscious) attempt to gain control over those changes, as if by clenching tight, their bowels could stop anything unpredictable from happening. In my personal life, all the people I’ve known who suffered from pre-travel constipation had “control issues”, you might say: two neat freaks, another compulsively well-organized woman, a man who has his emotional life under severe restraint.

All of these ideas came up for me again this last week when I was having dinner with a friend I hadn’t seen in about a year. We were discussing his young children, and in particular, his oldest daughter who left her beloved pre-school this past summer and started kindergarten. A little girl who had formerly been cheerful and outgoing, who looked forward to school, loved her teachers and her classmates and was popular with everyone had become anxious and miserable at her new school. She seemed to have undergone a complete character transformation. Getting her dressed and ready to leave the house each morning has turned into an ordeal; she now “hates” her teachers and classmates and never wants to go to school. She feels worried and unhappy much of the time.

My friend was also telling me that they have two aging dogs, one of whom will likely die in the next few months. He and his wife have been trying to ready their daughter for this loss, preparing her for the grieving process (which already seems to be underway). At first, she wanted to have the dog stuffed and kept on permanent display in the house (a kind of denial of death); now they’ve settled on cremation, with the ashes to be enshrined in place of honor.

This little girl is struggling with both the unpredictable nature of change (how your world can suddenly alter and present you with an entirely different set of experiences), as well as with the passage of time and the inevitability of death. I was reminded of a night about 14 years ago when my oldest son came downstairs at around ten o’clock, sobbing to his mother and me that he didn’t want to die. Lying in the darkness, the fact of his mortality had suddenly come over him. He was six years old at the time. As with my friend’s daughter, it was a time of major changes for him, as well: we’d moved away from Los Angeles and he’d left behind everything he knew.

My friend and his wife have taken the whole family to a therapist who seems to be doing an excellent job, advising them on how to establish routines and predictability, helping their daughter to feel as if she isn’t entirely helpless in the face of change, with some control over her environment. As for the issue of death, the dog will soon die and I’m sure it will be traumatic for her. But with the help of her parents, she’ll get through and the anxiety about her own mortality will succumb to repression … as it did for my own son, as it usually does for most of us.

Joe is the author and the owner of, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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    Interesting, as always. However , I find myself disagreeing ; surely the failure of thinking constantly of death cannot be termed repression? Should a six year old go on thinking of death, or should he/she get on with living?

    I have nearly 67 full years behind me, and for the past two or three years thoughts of death have been a daily happening. I consider these thoughts, or reminders if you like, to be nought but a hindrance to full living. I suspect there may be some sense in the old saying “memento mori”,remember you will die, yet I fail to grasp that sense,nor do I see what is the purpose of keeping in mind that death is awaiting around the first, second or tenth corner.
    Awareness without purpose?

    Repression can be a GOOD thing — it’s not just pathological. Maybe it’s useful to remember than time is fleeting but you can’t live with the constant awareness of it.

    I enjoyed this posting because I hadn’t considered the fear of change as a defense mechanism before or as sort of an existential crisis as the reason for the homeostatis. You have really got me thinking about this in a different direction. I agree that to change is to look at some pretty dark parts of the self and people do change through pain. To me, it seems that clients will get very close to their deep pain and then suddenly know what to do. I do a lot of work with couples and as much as they want the situation to change they usually come to sessions wanting the other person to change. I know I have made progress with them when they start looking at how they are contributing to the cycle. Thanks for this post. I am always interested in what you have to say.

    Renee, when I used to work with couples, I found the same thing, at least in the beginning. It’s much more comfortable to blame the other person and expect him or her to change, than to do the hard work of changing yourself. I think it’s fairly common for many of us to think we’re “just fine” and other people are the problem.

    I´m an American psychotherapist living in Spain and deal with many bi-cultural couples; mostly, American women who marry Spanish men after studying their Study Abroad years/semester here in Seville. Of course they think “love conquers all”, but in reality they both have to give up and change. In my view the American partner is the one giving up the most, and they come to me terrified with the many changes they are faced with plus their hidden resistance to make those changes in the first place. I´m pleased to say that most, if not all my clients do give up their resistance and make the transition into becoming “expats married to Spaniards living in Spain” with great success.
    Thank you for your posts, I enjoy them tremendously.

    That’s very interesting. It reminds me of something my own therapist once said to me long ago, that without idealization, most of us would never overcome the anxiety of becoming vulnerable to and intimate with a stranger … in other words, that romantic infatuation might be a necessary phase in developing intimacy. It sounds to me as if your clients have to face a much more extreme version of the changes we all confront when we marry.

    There are some people who actually aren’t able to repress the thought that they will die, who are paralyzed and made miserable by the more or less continual awareness of their mortality.

    Thank you so much for this post. I’m often extremely change-averse, and experience a great deal of shame around this. I find reading about fear of change being part of the human condition helpful, as it normalises something I’ve often pathologised. This may be due to having received a ‘diagnosis’ at 14, and subsequently perceiving every aspect of my personality as a potential sign of insanity.

    One of the issues I’ve been thinking about lately is the value and inevitability of defenses. We do tend to pathologize defense mechanisms but none of us could get by in life without them.

    I have been sitting here for the past 2 hours reading over your posts and found them remarkably insightful into the issues in my life. I am extremely afraid of change, because I feel that it will end up in a more horrible situation than I am currently in. I have family who if I complain it becomes a comparison game, e.g. It might be bad but it is not as bad as.. and I end up feeling worse for even complaining. I also tend to stop talking because I feel I am not heard. I feel that my husband is narcissistic and cannot see staying or leaving as a good option. I prefer him to change (yes, i know it is cliche to want the spouse to change) but how can you changing work for the relationship when you giving too much with little return is the reason you are feeling the signs of your shame. I have many, many underlying issues that I address, but I see him projecting everything. He even says things like “Look at all these people on the road. They always come out in droves when we come outside.” For years I thought he was joking (after all at this time of day everyone is picking up kids or getting off work) but realized he was actually serious.

    I feel like I am running out of time. I am getting physically sick from being in my relationship, not abusive outwardly but I feel awful, and undervalued every single day. I also feel guilty because I believe our eleven year old is exhibiting narcissistic behavior based on our actions. I even feel guilty for posting a comment like this instead of talking to someone about my issues, but I am too poor for insurance but too rich for assistance.

    Thank you for your site, knowledge as power is extremely undervalued.

    Talk to someone. Insurance is not the answer, and is increasingly less of a viable answer in our culture. How much is your life actually worth to you? — that’s the question. Make it a priority.

    He isn’t going to change, and you know it. He can’t give you what he doesn’t have.
    I echo Joseph’s question: “How much is your life actually worth to you?” That is the heart of the matter.
    Somehow or other you will need to find a way.

    All the bst