Fear of change is a common phenomenon in humans. Why do humans fear change so much?
Once you understand what’s going on in your mind that makes you fear change, you can better curb this tendency in yourself.
In this article, we’ll discuss in-depth what causes fear of change and then look at some realistic ways to overcome it.
Change can be positive or negative. We can’t know if a change has been good for us or not until time passes and lifts the curtains on the outcomes.
However, it can be safely argued that change often makes us better. It helps us grow. We should be aiming for it. The problem is: We’re highly resistant to change even when we know it can be good for us.
So in combating resistance to change, we essentially have to fight against our own nature. But what does that even mean? Who’s fighting against whom?
Reasons for fear of change
Both nature and nurture can drive the fear of change. Other times, fear of change may mask an underlying fear like the fear of failure. Let’s go over some of the common reasons people fear change.
1. Fear of the unknown
When we try to make a change in our lives, we’re stepping into the realm of the unknown. The mind likes familiarity because it knows how to deal with it.
People often talk about the comfort zone, referring to the boundary within which a person confines their actions. Breaking out of this comfort zone then means expanding this boundary by trying new things.
The same also applies to the mind.
We have a mental comfort zone as well within which we confine our ways of thinking, learning, experimenting and problem-solving. Stretching the boundaries of this zone means putting more pressure on one’s mind. It creates mental discomfort because the mind has to deal with, process, and learn new things.
But the mind wants to save its energy. So it prefers to stay in its comfort zone. The human mind consumes a significant portion of calories. Thinking is not free. So you better have a good reason to expand your mental comfort zone or your mind will resist it.
The unknown is a breeding ground for anxiety. When we don’t know what’s going to happen, the tendency is to assume that the worst will happen. Imagining worst-case scenarios is the mind’s way to protect you and persuade you to revert to the realm of the known.
Of course, the unknown may not be free of risks, but the mind is biased toward worst-case scenarios even if the best-case scenarios are equally likely.
“There cannot be a fear of the unknown because the unknown is devoid of information. The unknown is neither positive nor negative. It is neither frightening nor elating. The unknown is blank; it is neutral. The unknown itself has no power to elicit a fear.”– Wallace Wilkins
2. Uncertainty intolerance
This is closely related to the previous reason but there’s an important difference. Fear of the unknown says:
“I don’t know what I’m stepping into. I don’t know if I can deal with what’s there. I think what’s there isn’t good.”
Uncertainty intolerance says:
“I can’t tolerate the fact that I don’t know what’s coming. I always want to know what’s coming.”
Studies have shown that being uncertain about the future can create the same painful feelings as a failure. To your brain, if you’re uncertain, you’ve failed.
These painful feelings motivate us to remedy our situation. When you feel bad from being uncertain, your mind sends you bad feelings to restore certainty. Remaining uncertain for prolonged periods can thus result in a persistent bad mood.
2. Habit-driven creatures
We like certainty and familiarity because these conditions allow us to be habit-driven. When we’re habit-driven, we conserve a lot of mental energy. Again, it goes back to saving energy.
Habits are the mind’s way of saying:
“This works! I’m going to continue doing it without expending energy.”
Since we’re a pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding species, our habits are always connected to a reward. In ancestral times, this reward consistently increased our fitness (survival and reproduction).
For example, eating fatty foods may have been highly advantageous in ancestral times when food was scarce. Fat can be stored and its energy can be utilized at a later time.
Today, at least in developed countries, there’s no scarcity of food. Logically, people living in these countries shouldn’t eat fatty foods. But they do because the logical part of their brain cannot suppress the more emotional, pleasure-driven, and primitive part of their brain.
The emotional part of their mind’s like:
“What do you mean not eat fatty foods? It has worked for millennia. Don’t tell me to stop now.”
Even if people know, consciously, that fatty foods are harming them, the emotional part of their mind often comes out as the clear winner. Only when things go from bad to worse may the emotional part of the brain wake up to reality and be like:
“O Oh. We screwed up. Maybe we need to re-think what works and what doesn’t.”
Similarly, other habits that we have in our life are there because they’re attached to some evolutionarily relevant reward. The mind would rather be stuck in those habit patterns than bring about change.
Conscious mind-driven positive change, such as developing good habits, scares and irritates the subconscious, habit-driven part of the mind.
3. The need for control
One of the fundamental human needs is to be in control. Control feels good. The more we can control the surrounding things, the more we can use them to reach our goals.
When we step into the unknown, we lose control. We don’t know what we’re going to deal with or how- a very powerless situation to be in.
4. Negative experiences
So far, we’ve been discussing the universal aspects of human nature that contribute to fearing change. Negative experiences can exacerbate this fear.
If every time you tried to make a change, life came crashing down, then you’re likely to fear change. Over time, you learn to associate change with negative outcomes.
5. Beliefs about change
Negative beliefs about change can also be passed to you via the authority figures in your culture. If your parents and teachers always taught you to avoid change and ‘settle’ for things even when they’re not good for you, that’s what you’ll do.
6. Fear of failure
No matter how many times you tell yourself that ‘failures are the stepping stones to success’ or ‘failure is feedback’, you’ll still feel bad when you fail. The bad feelings we get when we fail allow us to process the failure and learn from it. You don’t need any pep talk. The mind knows what it’s doing.
But because the feelings associated with failure are so painful, we seek to avoid them. We try to prevent ourselves from failing so we can avoid the pain of failure. When we know that the pain caused by failure is for our own good, we can avoid avoiding it.
7. Fear of losing what we have
At times, change means having to give up what we have now to get more of what we want in the future. The problem with humans is that they get attached to their current resources. Again, this goes back to how our ancestral environments had scarce resources.
Holding on to our resources would’ve been advantageous in our evolutionary past. But today, if you’re an investor, you’d be making a poor decision by not making investments i.e. losing some of your resources to gain more later.
Similarly, losing your current habit patterns and ways of thinking may cause discomfort, but you might be better off if you lose them for good.
Sometimes, to get more we need to invest, but it’s hard to convince the mind that losing resources is a good idea. It wants to hold on to every last drop of its resources.
8. Fear of success
People may consciously want to improve themselves and be more successful. But if they don’t really see themselves succeeding, they’ll always find ways to sabotage themselves. Our lives tend to be consistent with our self-image.
This is why those who become successful often say that they felt successful, even when they were not. They knew it was going to happen.
Of course, no one can know what’s going to happen.
What they’re trying to say is that they had constructed this image of themselves in their mind- who they wanted to be. Then they pursued it. The mental work comes first and then you figure out how to do it.
9. Fear of criticism
Human beings are tribal animals. We have a need to belong to our tribe- the need to feel included. This breeds in us the tendency to conform to others. When we’re like our group members, they’re more likely to think of us as one of them.
Thus, when someone tries to change in ways their group doesn’t approve of, they face resistance from others. They’re criticized and ostracized by the group. Hence, for fear of offending others, one may seek to avoid change.
Instant versus delayed gratification
In most cases, people resist change not because they fear criticism or have negative beliefs about change. They fear change because they can’t win the battle against their own nature. They want to change, logically, but fail again and again to make any positive change.
As mentioned earlier, it comes down to the logical part of the brain versus the emotional brain. Our conscious mind is much weaker than our subconscious mind.
Thus, we’re more habit-driven than we are choice-driven.
This dichotomy in our minds is reflected in our day-to-day life. If you’ve reflected on your good and bad days, you must have noticed that the good days are often those that are choice-driven and the bad ones are habit-driven.
There’s hardly a third way to live your day. You either have a good or a bad day.
A good day is when you’re proactive, stick to your plans, relax, and have some fun. You make deliberate choices and feel in control. Your conscious mind is in the driver’s seat. You’re mostly in delayed gratification mode.
A bad day is when you’re predominantly driven by the emotional brain. You’re reactive and are caught in an endless loop of habits you feel little control over. You’re in instant gratification mode.
Why does instant gratification hold such power over us?
For most of our evolutionary history, our environments didn’t change much. More often than not, we had to react to threats and opportunities instantly. See a predator, run. Find food, eat it. Pretty much like how other animals live.
Since our environments didn’t change significantly, this habit of responding immediately to threats and opportunities stuck with us. If an environment changes significantly, our habits have to change as well because we can no longer interact with it the way we used to.
Our environment has only changed dramatically in the past few decades and we haven’t caught up. We’re still prone to responding to things instantly.
This is why people get easily derailed when working on long-term goals. We’re simply not designed to pursue long-term goals.
We have this bubble of our awareness that covers mainly the present, some portion of the past, and some of the future. Many people have a to-do list for today, few have one for the month and fewer have goals for the year.
The mind isn’t designed to care for what happens that far into the future. It’s beyond our bubble of awareness.
If students are given a month to prepare for an exam, rationally, they should spread their preparation equally over the 30 days to avoid stress. Doesn’t happen. Instead, most of them put maximum effort in the last days? Why?
Because the exam is now within their bubble of awareness- it’s now an instant threat.
When you’re working and you hear your phone’s notification, why do you leave your work and attend to the notification?
The notification is an instant opportunity to get a reward.
Instant. Instant. Instant!
Get rich in 30 days!
Lose weight in 1 week!
Marketers have long exploited this human need for instant rewards.
Overcoming the fear of change
Based on what’s causing the fear of change, following are the ways in which it can be overcome:
Tackling underlying fears
If your fear of change results from an underlying fear like the fear of failure, you need to change your beliefs about failure.
Know that failure is going to feel bad, and that’s okay- there’s a purpose to that. If the change you’re trying to bring about is worth it, the failures you encounter along the way will seem insignificant.
If fear of criticism is behind your fear of change, then you might have fallen into the conformity trap. Are they really worth conforming to?
If you’ve had negative experiences with change, you can overcome this by embracing change more often. It’s not fair to declare that all change is bad if you’ve only given a few chances to change.
The more you embrace change, the more likely you’ll encounter one that’ll change you for good. People give up on change too soon without trying enough times. Sometimes, it’s just a numbers game.
When you see the positive impact change has had on you, you’ll begin to see change positively.
Overcoming natural human weakness
You now understand why we’re prone to chase instant gratification and seek instant pain avoidance. We can’t really fight these tendencies. What we can do is leverage them to bring about positive changes in our lives.
For example, say you want to lose weight. If you’re overweight, the goal seems too big and too distant in the future.
If you break the goal down into easy, manageable steps, it no longer seems that scary. Instead of focusing on what you’ll accomplish 6 months later, focus on what you can accomplish this week or today. Then rinse and repeat.
This way, you keep your goal within your bubble of awareness. The small wins you gain along the way appeal to your instant gratification-hungry brain.
Life is chaotic and you’re likely to get derailed. The key is to get back on track. Consistency is all about consistently getting back on track. I recommend tracking your goals on a weekly or a monthly basis. Progress is motivating.
The same applies to changing habits. Overcome your natural tendency to conquer a big goal in one go (Instant!). It doesn’t work. I suspect we do this so we can have a justifiable excuse to quit sooner (“See, it doesn’t work”) and go back to our old patterns.
Instead, go one small step at a time. Fool your mind into thinking that the large goal is really a small, instantly attainable goal.
When you break your goal down into small chunks and hit them one by one, you’re leveraging both immediacy and emotions. The satisfaction gained by checking off stuff keeps you moving forward. It’s the grease in the engine of bringing about positive change.
Believing you can reach your goals and visualizing you’ve attained them is helpful for the same reasons. They reduce the psychological distance between where you are and where you want to be.
Many experts have stressed the importance of ‘knowing your why’ i.e. having a purpose that drives your goals. Purpose appeals to the emotional part of the brain as well.
Hi, I’m Hanan Parvez (MBA, MA Psychology), founder and author of PsychMechanics. I’ve published one book and authored 400+ articles on this blog (started in 2014) that have garnered over 4.5 million views. PsychMechanics has been featured in Forbes, Business Insider, Reader’s Digest, and Entrepreneur. Feel free to contact me if you have a query.