On one occasion I was working with a young woman (I will call her ‘Ella’) who was struggling with a lack of assertiveness. She found it very difficult to say ‘no’ to people and to stand up for herself. Consequently, she very often felt pushed around and not treated with respect.
Ella was very distressed about it, to the extent that her whole body felt infused with a damp, murky feeling of impotence and hopelessness. I asked her what would happen if she could let these feelings go. She felt she would feel brighter and lighter, more energized and alive. However, when I suggested that she went ahead and released that dreary fog from her body she was not prepared to do so. She voiced her concern thus: ‘What if I then become a rude person and people don’t like me?’
You may find Ella’s response surprising, yet it is very common. We are paradoxical creatures for while with our conscious mind we may want one thing, at a deeper level we are often not ready to embrace the change. This happens even when we are suffering from physical pain.
Another of my clients (‘Jeff’) had been plagued by debilitating headaches that had severely impaired his life for a very long time. The headaches were a symptom of a deep trauma and its ensuing acute inner conflict – on multiple levels. When, after some months of work, the past wounds began to heal and Jeff began to feel the desire to engage more with the world around him, the headaches became less gripping in their quality and ‘almost ready to go.’ However, when we asked his ‘subconscious mind’ whether it was OK to release the headaches completely, his body responded with a strong panicky sensation, bubbling in his chest, stomach and arms, like a stormy sea threatening to sweep him away. “I guess I am scared to let go of headaches completely because then I won’t know what to do with my life.”
Familiar is safe
I have pondered a lot over the phenomenon of our deeply rooted fear of change. It seems to have neurological, psychological/cognitive as well as spiritual dimensions.
To begin with, our brain, just like the animal’s brain, is wired for safety. In order to feel safe we need to know the territory in which we operate, to know what to expect from it, to be familiar with the possible traps and emergency exits. We associate safety with the familiar, and therefore any encounter with the new and the unknown naturally brings about a certain amount of anxiety.
The instinct of self-preservation does not concern just our physical survival. As can be seen from the examples above, psychological changes may present just as big a challenge, if not an even bigger one.
Even though Ella suffered from being pushed around and ‘trampled upon’ by other people, her situation felt safe because it was familiar. She knew what to anticipate and was used to her pain. Although uncomfortable, it didn’t scare her as much as the unpredictable reactions from the part of others (friends, colleagues, managers) had she dared to assert herself.
Similarly, Jeff was used to his headaches. While they stopped him from doing things he might have enjoyed, they also shielded him from facing life’s challenges and assuming greater responsibility for his way of being. For both Ella and Jeff, the anxiety associated with stepping into the unknown was overriding their desire to heal, and it took a long time to shift that.
All of us, whether consciously or unconsciously, have in our minds a certain picture of ourselves. What we believe about ourselves becomes an integral part of our self-identity, which gives us a sense of presence in the world and helps to define our boundaries and our position vis-à-vis other people and events. When our self-perception is challenged we can be plunged into a state of uncertainty. We feel lost, unsure of who we are and how to relate to others. It is a very uncomfortable state to endure, and we instinctively avoid entering it, even if the change would be beneficial for our growth.
Ella feared that becoming more assertive might come at the expense of losing her gentleness and sensitivity. She was concerned that people would perceive her as ‘rude’ and would not like her anymore. It is certainly true that when we leave behind our old ‘skin’ and develop new qualities, some who were used to our old ways will not welcome the change. This is a risk to consider. But the question really to ask is whether these people truly cared for us in the first place? Did they genuinely want the best for us or did they find our meekness and inability to say ‘no’ convenient for them?
These fears are real and facing them requires a lot of courage. The first step is to admit that we have these fears. Then we can explore them, weigh the risks, assess our strength and find the support that we need to help us make changes.
Dying to one’s self
At the bottom of it, our fear of change is very much akin to the fear of dying. Indeed if we think about it, dying signifies the most final and permanent form of change. Even if we believe in reincarnation or some other form of the afterlife, our existence as we know it is going to change forever once we cross the threshold we call ‘death.’
And sometimes it can be easier to accept physical death than to give up our beliefs, e.g. when people say they are ready to die for the sake of an idea. This also explains why people who were fearless in battle can mentally crumble when the ‘gods’ who led them into that battle are revealed as hypocrites and tyrants. That happened to many a bona fide communist when the atrocities of Stalin’s regime were brought to light.
As I wrote above, we derive our sense of who we are from our self-identification with our beliefs (about ourselves and about the world and life in general). Thus we may resist acknowledging the betrayal of our partner, or the abusive behavior of our parents towards us as children. We may also avoid being exposed to new ideas through reading or listening to the members of a different faith community, or social group.
Letting go of our beliefs is the same as dying to our selves: our former ‘selves’, the ‘selves’ as we know them. The ‘selfies’. The challenge of this act cannot be overemphasized. Yet in dying there is a rebirth. As it is written in the Gospel of Matthew: “he that loseth his life … shall find it.” I am not a Christian believer, but I find that this saying contains profound truth about our psychological and spiritual predicament. If we resist this change we will never evolve. We will just stagnate and continue to exist while not being truly alive.
For me, personal growth is about learning to see more clearly what I am grasping at and why, and learning to embrace change by letting go of the old props. I must admit to being a rather heavy-going student and appreciate that this is a life-long class. But I draw much inspiration from the people I work with and their admirable courage. I challenge them, they challenge me, and together we walk the path.