Why We Fear Change (& How to Overcome Yours)


Over the past few years, I’ve been reading a lot of personal development books, predominately for my own benefit, but also with an eye on the challenges that clients are likely to be experiencing when it comes to career change. I’ve also completed a Diploma in Coaching Supervision, which ran me through the relevant psychological theories to consider when supervising fellow coaches who are working with clients on what they want to change.

The strongest theme that has emerged from reading all those books, completing that training, and coaching individuals seeking change for over ten years now, is how FEAR is the one thing that holds us back from doing pretty much anything new. It also massively skews our experience of daily life.

For example, if you’re deeply honest with yourself, how many of these fears ring true for you?

Fear that your life is meaningless
Fear that you’re not worthy
Fear that you’re not respected
Fear that you’re not of value
Fear that you’re not lovable
Fear that you’ll be abandoned
Fear that you’ll be rejected
Fear that you’ll be alone
Fear that you’re not enough
Fear that you’re not good enough

I can’t help but feel that all of our worries in life generally stem back to one or two of these deep, ingrained fears. Someone says or does something that hurts you; you see a great job but don’t apply; you get nervous meeting new people; you argue with your partner about something they’ve said or done, etc. Nine times out of ten, it’s because one of these fears are being triggered.

The Part Neuroscience Plays

It’s taken me a long time to appreciate the importance of neuroscience in understanding what we go through when considering and implementing change. I remember studying it for my Psychology degree, and it being way over my head. However, I think I get the gist of it now - basically our brains are still extremely primitive. We forget that we are just animals, with a fight or flight response, just like them. Like them, our brains are designed to scan for threats and risks in order to keep us alive. That’s why we love routine - it saves energy and it keeps us safe through predicability. This is all great if you’re still out hunting and gathering, less so if all you want to do is change career!

A well-known acronym for FEAR is: False Evidence Appearing Real. And that’s the problem right there…we experience and think about past, current, and future events, interactions, choices and decisions, and our imagination runs wild. Our brains also have a built in negativity bias (again, designed to help keep us safe by getting us to plan for the worse so we don’t die), which means that we often perceive these things in an inaccurate and pessimistic way. We run through all the above eventualities, determine if there is any risk of these happening, then we make an assessment on how to proceed. To the person, the evidence seems completely compelling, accurate, and therefore real. So, what happens? We decide not to take the risk, based on false evidence appearing real. We forget that outcomes are not always predictable, and that we are resourceful and capable enough to deal with many of the risks and ‘dangers’ that we might experience. For example, if one of the above fears came true, what’s the worst that happens? Absolutely nothing. So what if you’re not good enough, so what if someone rejects you, so what if someone doesn’t like, so what if you’re alone, so what if life doesn’t have meaning - honestly, it’s not a big issue. You’ll be totally OK if any of these things happen.

If we know this, then what is fuelling all of these fears exactly? Our desperate need to be part of the ‘pack’, that’s what. We are social animals, who, traditionally, were more likely to survive when part of a group. If you were rejected, ousted, or not strong enough to keep up, you would be at risk of being on your own, making you more vulnerable to danger and death. Again, super helpful back in the day…not so helpful when you’re just considering changing your job!

Our Human Needs

A few weeks ago, I attended a really interesting talk by Lori Shook where she introduced her ‘Be SAFE & Certain’ model, which highlights a set of needs that we assess decisions against before proceeding. If any of these needs appear threatened, the brain sends out red ‘stop’ signals, designed to discourage that action and keep you safe. If there’s no trigger or threat to that need, a green ‘go’ signal is received, and you feel safe to continue. Clever, huh?

Capturing the essence of the fears I outlined above, Lori clarifies these fundamental needs as:

  • Belonging – feeling like a part of a tribe
  • Status – knowing our position in our tribe
  • Autonomy – having a sense of independence
  • Fairness – feeling there is a fair exchange
  • Expectations – anticipation (or dread)
  • Certainty – feeling clear about what’s to come

When you’re considering a career change, it’s highly likely your brain will be sending you red stop signals left, right and centre. For example:

  • Leaving a job and company you feel loyal to can feel like a threat to your belonging. Maybe you fear your family will disown you.
  • You have an established career already, a sense of status, and perhaps an identity attached to that. Changing career threatens that status - who will you be without that career? How will others see you? You might have to start again, which feels like a step back in status.
  • You might have to reduce your salary, depend on a partner or parents, threatening your sense of autonomy and independence. You might need to rely on introductions and a lot of help from others, threatening your sense of maturity and independence. You might even need to move back in your parents.
  • Career change (and life in general, for that matter) often doesn’t feel fair. Others have careers they love, why don’t I? How have they had those opportunities and I haven’t? It’s not fair that employers aren’t willing to take a chance on me, etc.
  • Career change can feel like a slog, like a big mountain to climb. You expect that it will take a long time, be hard work and tiring. There’s real sense of dread for what’s to come.
  • When considering a career change, the future can feel very uncertain. You might not know what you want to do, and, when you do, you don’t know how to make it happen. It might not work out, you might not like it…uncertainty seems the only certainty.

As I said, red stop signals all the way, mainly because your negativity bias is helping you see all the negative things that could go wrong, in order to protect you and keep you in a routine, comfortable and safe. But, of course, all that leads to is staying the same and not making any changes. And, how does that future look? Not great, I imagine.

So, how can we overcome our fears, and turn some of these red stop signals into green ones?

1. The first thing to do is to just be aware of all of this. Understand that the default of the brain is just not helpful when considering change. That’s why it feels so hard, and we ALL struggle with it.

2. The second key is to realise that, half the time, the evidence your brain is making you consider is utter crap. What it isn’t taking into account is how much the world has changed, and how capable and resourceful you really are. You’re not scraping around for food anymore; you’re not living in a cave, open to predators and enemies anymore; your tribe is not on its own anymore, it’s part of a wider, stronger community; you’re problem solving and planning is second to none these days.

3. Following that, run through the above needs and consider how you can switch your perspective so that it’s not a stop signal at all, but a green light opportunity instead. For example:

  • Belonging: It’s OK to detach from one tribe and immerse yourself in a new one. You’re safe and nothing will happen to you in the meantime (see this article on liminality to explain why we find that middle bit so hard though). Your new career will provide a new sense of belonging. You will still belong to your friendship groups and your family. Surround yourself with other career changers so you gain a sense of belonging there too. Remind yourself that you are not alone, and, even if you are, you’ll be fine.
  • Status: You can survive without status for a while. I think it can be helpful to acknowledge what subjective and societal bullshit status is anyway. It doesn’t mean anything in reality. If you’re the most junior in the room, so what? Better to be at the bottom of a ladder that’s meaningful to you than at the top of a ladder that feels miserable and empty.
  • Autonomy: Again, acknowledge that it’s OK to rely on others. They’re not going anywhere. People are generally helpful and get their own kick out of helping others (like you do, I imagine). It’s OK to move in with your parents in your 30’s. Life is not a race, and, either way, you’re always moving forwards anyway. You are still an independent adult. You have autonomy through your decision to change career and work towards something that’s fulfilling to you, whatever the cost. You can survive, even if you are dependent on others for a while along the way.
  • Expectations: Remind yourself that hard work pays off. No one gets anywhere without hard work, determination, grit, resilience, patience and determination. Consider it a challenge that you can’t wait to accept. Remind yourself that the journey is part of the career in itself. Expect it to take a while. Expect it to be hard. But anticipate that with excitement too - something to get your teeth stuck into. More things to learn, new people to meet, new experiences and memories to be had. And, remember that the negative expectations are likely to be false, and far from likely to happen, because you will be prepared and have a plan to counteract any foreseeable hurdles.
  • Fairness: Funnily enough, the harder you work, the fairer life can seem. Although, it's worth accepting that some things in life just aren't fair, but don't let that put you off moving forward. Back yourself to make things happen for yourself, even if things aren't fair at times.
  • Certainty: So many of us try to control everything - what happens to us, what people think of us, our feelings, etc. The sooner we realise that very little is within our control, the easier life gets. The future is uncertain, of course it is (2020 proves it!). Nothing is certain in life, apart from death. The trick is to try and be OK with that by being confident in your ability to deal with whatever happens in life. Yes, there will be ups and downs, hard times, obstacles, hurdles, brick walls, emotionally challenging times, but you will cope. And, by cope, I don’t mean you’ll be hunky dory 24/7 - I mean that you might need to retreat for a while, lick your wounds, but you’ll be back. You’re stronger than you think. You’ll keep going till you get what you want, because you know the path ahead leads to a more fulfilling, meaningful, and purposeful life. You might need to develop your resilience along the way, but we all do. As a result, fortunately there is so much support and a wealth of resources to help you with that these days (e.g. therapy, coaching, books, videos, podcasts, etc).

So, when your brain is having a field day around the above (some refer to this as our Chimp, our Gremlins, our inner-critic, our saboteur), try to see it simply as a scared animal that needs calming down. Reassure it that you’re safe, everything is OK, there’s no real threat and you can make it work. You’ve done it before (think of all the adversity, challenges, and drama you’ve overcome to get here today), and you can do it again. Calm it down (perhaps through breathing exercises, mediation, or mindfulness) and assess the reality of the situation in a logical and rational way (CBT works wonders here). Remind it that most problems can be solved, and I’m sure you’re living proof of that.

Alice Stapleton

About Alice

Alice coaches those who want to change career but don’t know what they want to do instead. She offers Career Coaching designed to help graduates, early to mid-level career-changers, and parents returning to work gain a clear vision of what career is right for them, and how to achieve it. She is also an accredited Coach Supervisor, and host of The Career Change Diaries podcast.