Fear of Change.

Fear of Change. January 19, 2015

I used to be so afraid of making big changes; I used to hate change so much and avoid it whenever possible.

Another creature that dislikes big changes. (Credit: Trish Hamme, CC license.)
Another creature that dislikes big changes. (Credit: Trish Hamme, CC license.)

In the book The Last Unicorn, the unicorn is like that as well. When she realizes she is apparently the only unicorn left in the world, she feels an obligation to find out what happened to the others, and then either rescue them or join them wherever they went. But she is also the only force keeping her forest and the animals living in it safe from hunters, disasters, and bad weather, and that obligation presses on her every single day and conflicts with the larger concern she’s having about her fellow unicorns. She vacillates about it for many days. Finally, something simply crystallizes for her:

But at last she woke up in the middle of one warm night and said, “Yes, but now.”

I’ve thought often of that quote–“Yes, but now”–over the years. That’s what it feels like to me when I realize that it’s time to make a major change.

It can take me a really long time to get to that point though.

Sometimes change can be really scary–and big changes especially so. Religious indoctrination, especially, can leave people ill-equipped for making those changes. Studies show that very religious people fear uncertainty more than other folks do. The Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism talks as well about the high need such Christians have for certainty. We associate more harmful forms of religion, as well, with greater measures of authoritarian behavior, about which I can only note that it’s certainly not liberal Christians who are trying to seize control of America currently. Add it all together and then add a deconversion, and you’ve got a person who might struggle quite a bit with how to kick-start a life.

I certainly turned out to be completely unsuited to the entire process of making changes, from recognizing when one needed to happen to planning one out to executing the plans I’d made. I don’t even almost wonder if the religion’s leaders planned it that way, considering that “leaving one’s religion” is one of the biggest changes of them all for most folks. Even after leaving Christianity, I floundered and struggled for a while as I learned those skills.

I want to share today the reasons why I struggled with and so greatly feared making changes. I know my reasons won’t hold true for everybody, any more than my solutions and strategies will. And I’m talking here about the voluntary decision to make a change, while sometimes, as Ghost Rider‘s dad put it in the movie, changes happen whether we want them or not; we don’t always have a choice about whether or not we’re going to go through a huge change in our lives. But I’ve been reading and hearing a lot of folks lately say that they’re struggling a lot with making necessary changes, and what with it being the New Year and resolutions and changes on our minds, maybe it’s time to talk about it a little here.

Nor do I lay the problem solely at the feet of Christianity. I think the Christian indoctrination I in particular received caused a lot of problems for me, but there are folks in other religions and no religion at all who probably have the same problems. That said, I do think the religion I practiced had a great deal to do with shaping my fear of change and reluctance to make changes that needed to be made. Christianity’s emphasis on selflessness, sacrifice, self-negation, suffering, and martyrdom–and the way that most of its denominations treat women as second-class citizens whose needs are purely secondary to those of the men around them–wrought in me a serious unwillingness even to confront the fact that I was unhappy, much less take steps to correct that unhappiness.

Why I’ve Struggled with Change.

It felt safer to stick with something that wasn’t working well than to plunge into something that might not work at all.

Sometimes the situation I was contemplating changing wasn’t explosively disastrous, just not ideal at all. Our culture’s filled with admonitions to women especially not to be picky, not to be too demanding, not to be too selfish or insistent. My entire religion told me, especially the evangelical end of the pool, that my happiness was not important and that there was something vaguely suspicious about making waves or rocking the boat.

Faced with a situation that wasn’t actively destroying me, the impulse was to look at the unknown future if I changed anything big and wonder if it was worth the effort, risk, and possible failure to do anything different.

I was afraid I’d fail entirely.

What if the job hunt didn’t work out at all? What if I turned out to absolutely hate the new town I was going to land in? What if I left Christianity and “God” punished me? Those sorts of fears simply crippled me long ago. Fear of failure starts looking more scary than the change itself, and because this was a fear of the unknown, there was not much of a way to resolve it–except to either plunge in and do it, or to cringe away and not do it. I didn’t have a lot of self-confidence, which made me even more reluctant to consider making changes. Imagine that! A religion tells its young people that they are worthless, that they can’t do a single thing that is good on their own, that they need someone else to drive their lives, and that they’ll be punished for noncompliance, and those young people freeze like deer in headlights at the idea of taking risks. (Isn’t it just the weirdest thing?)

It felt like an admission of failure to leave the old situation.

There always felt like there was something I’d missed, something I might have tried that I didn’t think of, something that might have fixed the old situation and made everything if not perfect then at least way more acceptable. A big part of why it takes me forever to start over is because I have to be really sure that I did everything I could to fix the old situation. I end up pouring myself body and soul into whatever the problem is, bashing my brains out against a brick wall trying to fix it. It didn’t help at all that sometimes the people around me haven’t always understood how bad the situation was for me–sometimes they’d actively sabotage me (like the proverbial friend who always brings over donuts when you’re trying to lose weight!), or speak against making the changes–and if I wasn’t already blaming myself for not doing everything I could have done and second-guessing myself, they were happy to help me out there.

It felt selfish to do something that big “just” for myself.

“Selfish” is probably the worst accusation anybody can ever lob at a Christian–especially a Christian woman. That’s why it’s used as a weapon so often. If there were a word that cowed Christians more, you can bet they’d be using that instead. I never had kids, so I never had to worry about dragging anybody from pillar to post in my wake, but even so, thanks to religious indoctrination I had a real self-sacrificing, self-negating streak that I had to figure out and recover from. Whenever we end a situation of some kind and start over, there are going to be people around us who don’t like that we’re removing ourselves from the old situation and who are consequently going to object to the idea, sometimes very strenuously! For me, that went triple. I was trained to dislike the idea of disappointing anybody, especially people I thought had authority over me, and those authority figures took advantage of that training to try to keep me in situations that weren’t good for me and to discourage me from making changes. But they didn’t need to go to all that trouble. I was doing that just fine all by myself. It took me years to reclaim the word “selfish” for myself and to stop caring if toxic people thought I was.

Looking back at the programming that I had internalized, the real miracle is that I managed to step past it and make those changes at all–however fitfully, however incompletely, however haltingly. But I did eventually get better at it.

I learned that adapting to change, recognizing when a change needs to happen, and thinking on my feet are skills that can be learned. Maybe some people are born with these qualities or raised in families where those abilities are valued and encouraged. But even though I hadn’t been lucky enough to fall into either one of those camps, I could learn those skills–and I did, over time. Like any skill, the more you do it, the better you get at it. And that’s a good thing, too! Changes are coming our way all the time. We might as well learn how to deal with them in a constructive and positive way, and in a way that’s at least a little our own choosing rather than a way that’s imposed due to circumstance or procrastination.

The pot must be stirred. And it’s going to be, whether we like it or not.

It’s really easy to fall into complacency and a rut. When I was about thirty, I really didn’t have any big plans or anything. My mother developed cancer and I immediately began helping her, which jarred me out of my own headspace and into realizing that I had somehow let my life become very dysfunctional. I’d developed a number of health issues that I’d failed to address and had somehow acquired a number of phobias and neuroses that were making it difficult for me to engage with society and make progress in my personal or professional life. I was in a romantic relationship that probably should have ended a couple years previously, and living in a city I didn’t even like. Most of this stuff was due to me just coasting through life, which is how I’d lived since leaving Christianity some five or ten years previously.

After my mom died, I had a lot to sort out. We should all be so lucky as to have had a parent as loving, as supportive, as kind, and as generous of heart as my mother was, but she’d gotten much the same programming I had and I could see how her own fears–of the unknown, of change, of failure, of disappointing anybody–had kept her in the same self-defeating patterns I now recognized in my own life. All those fears and worries I’d had just evaporated in the shock and grief I felt after her death. Much like a certain football team did recently, I decided to try something really different and take my chances, because playing it safe suddenly seemed like it’d do nothing but keep me where I was.

I began actively making changes that I hoped would bring me peace, happiness, independence, and clarity. I didn’t want to just exist; I wanted to live. That process was not an easy one. “How come it never goes smooth?” I have asked, along with Captain Tightpants, more than a few times in my life. But we’ve all got to start somewhere:

Yes, but now.

On Wednesday, I’ll share how I began making those changes and the steps I took to alleviate the fears I struggled with. I hope you’ll join me! Bring your favorite sandwich fixin’s and we’ll have a picnic.

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