Therapy and the Fear of Change

A corporate executive that spent half of her life chasing her career, getting one promotion after the other and moving up the corporate ladder, only to find out—usually in her thirties—that she in fact never achieved what she wanted, whilst her life is slipping by. She wakes up anxious, not knowing what she is doing, where she is going and slightly doubting that she knows what she wants to achieve. She cannot take pleasure in fruits of her hard work although she can afford to. She sees younger generation as competition and starts wondering how long she can keep this up. And what then? When? She can no longer relate to the little girl that sat on her daddy’s shoulders, pulling his hair as they walked through the zoo.

It might be time to change…

But fear of change might stand in the way

It seems illusive, but fear of change is one of the most common obstacles working with clients in psychotherapy. Most often this fear of change is going to be unconscious and will come out manifesting itself as personal preference of “what a person should be like” or personal traits one is proud of. However, sometimes it will also be very conscious—most often once a client has had some history of therapy—and will come out as genuine fear of not being able to live if the change in fact happens. Overcoming fear of change is one of the first milestones in the course of therapy.

The pain is one side of the coin—the other side is perception of survival

Most common reason for people to search for therapy is not actually some altruistic wish of self-transcendence and personal growth. It is actually to get rid of the bad feeling—the bad feeling a person is facing in their life when they are looking for therapy. And that’s a valid reason to have. So, clients don’t really ask themselves whether they are afraid of change when they sit down in therapy room. They don’t even consider the fear of change as something relevant at that point in time. Because they do want a change—change in the bad feeling. But the trick is in the fact that, in order to change the bad feeling, you need to change yourself or at least an aspect of yourself.

Short-term therapy, which is what I practice within my NHS practice, is actually often aimed at relieving the immediate problem. If, doing that, my client and I have time, emotional space, and willingness to go further, we will. But, generally we’ll set a very precise focus to what a client wants from their engagement in therapy—not only because time is limited, but also because any therapist needs to focus on what the client wants and not what they as therapist might feel the client should want.

It is usually not long before we find out that the pain and the bad feeling we came into therapy for is part of our perception of how we survive in the world and how we live in it.

To change, you first need to acknowledge there is room for it

But, once we initially contain the bad feeling, we simultaneously also often uncover the source of pain. And that is usually deeply embedded in clients conscious or unconscious perception of themselves and the world—of themselves in the world. And here is where the first challenging milestone often arises.

Namely, in order for one to change, they will first need to accept themselves as they are—that is after all the base of change. They will need to acknowledge that there is room for improvement. Because, how can you better something that has no room for improvement. So, being honest to yourself and accepting whatever seems flawed or imperfect to you is an essential part of the process.

Where does the fear of change come from?

The question we face then is whether the client really wants to change these aspects of themselves or whether the fear of change will prevail. But why would anyone be afraid of change? Because the bad feeling is usually the result of our flawed perception of reality. And if we want to get rid of it, we will need to open our eyes to an up-to-date perception. However, that also means learning to accept that what we thought was actually important and working for us, is in fact hurting us.

The young woman I mentioned earlier wants to get rid of the bad feeling. But, she’s afraid of change. It’s the fear of change that’s holding her back. If she changes, will she be weak? Will she be perceived as unsuccessful? Will she not be perfect? What if she wasn’t perfect at all—ever in her life? Can she take that? Why is it important for her to be perceived as successful to others, if at the end of the day it’s not making her feel content with herself? She doesn’t know the answer. It just is!

“Will therapy force me to give up what drives me?” is a common question. Your need for perfection or your consciousness in relationships or the perception of you as a successful person might have worked for you at some point. But it doesn’t work for you anymore—clearly. And if you keep on doing the same thing, you’ll keep on living the same way. If you don’t push yourself to the point of pain, that doesn’t mean you’ll just fall apart if you stop. It just means that you are free to choose what you want and how you intend to get there.

What are you changing into?

If you can get rid of the bad feeling just by changing yourself, and if when changing yourself, you need to change from something old into something new, then refusing to do it is not an option. The fear of change won’t cut it. You will need to do it to get rid of the bad feeling. So, the obvious and intuitive question at this point is “What are you willing to change it into?”.

So, whether it is depression, anxiety, loss of hope, grief, panic attacks, phobias, obsessions, anger, relationships, burnout, loss of purpose, and even narcissism—all this might need a deeper look, honesty with yourself and your self-activation.