Updated: Aug 16, 2021
Human beings do not like change. The physiological reason behind this fact is down to the part of our brains called the amygdala, which perceives change as a threat and subsequently releases the hormones for fear, fight or flight in an effort to keep us safe.
But why are we hardwired in this way to be so resistant to change?
For starters, people favour predictability and stability and are therefore naturally conservative in their behaviours and choices. Coherence and familiarity usually trump chaos and the unknown, and this is due to our acute survival instinct, finely tuned through millions of years of evolution.
Secondly, our levels of self-belief and confidence are important factors in how well we adapt to change. Go-getters with bucketloads of self-belief tend to embrace change in a more positive way than individuals who are lacking in this area. For those who are insecure and struggle to believe in their own abilities to succeed, change can represent a minefield of potential failures, and the thought of venturing into this scary place results in inertia.
Another factor behind resistance to change is our past experiences. For anyone who’s had his or her fingers burnt in a similar past situation, the memory of such emotional pain can be highly effective in preventing that person from leaving their comfort zone. The idea of putting ourselves through the same kind of trauma again can be so unappealing that we decide it’s safer to stay put, even if where we are is not bringing us happiness or contentment. This is often the case in relation to heartbreak, with a perennial avoidance of commitment becoming the modus operandi in order to keep hearts from being broken a second time.
Although our ability to assess and swiftly react to threats is impressive, the associated tendency to circumvent change is frequently an obstacle in our personal development. Change, even when it would shift us out of pain and discomfort to a happier, more positive place in life, is difficult – and this explains why so many of us remain for years in unhappy relationships or unsatisfactory jobs, or why we continue to engage in destructive and unhelpful behaviour patterns.
And to add insult to injury, while human beings evidently find change to be so challenging, the world is a dynamic and constantly evolving place, where nothing stays forever and everything is destined to change. Basically, we are hardwired to avoid change in an environment where change is inevitable and ongoing.
But embracing change is a skill we can learn. With the right strategies, you can begin to introduce positive changes into your life.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Not in his goals but in his transitions man is great”, and we can employ this sentiment as one effective strategy (although let’s amend this quote internally for gender equality!) for tackling change in a positive way. When setting out to accomplish something, like training for a long run or a more immediate goal, such as baking bread, we often think in terms of the outcome. Instead of savouring the experience of slowly improving our stamina and fitness, enjoying the increasingly long runs through the countryside and noticing how our bodies are changing, or mindfully kneading the dough and breathing in the aromas of freshly baking bread, we instead create expectations of the end product, missing out on enjoying the process along the way.
We often look at our goals in life in the same way. Whether we want to make a big change, or a change happens to us, we tend to focus acutely on the end goal. If we can shift this perspective so we enjoy the journey that's taking us to the end goal, we can absorb and appreciate all the benefits and pleasures along the way. This results in a less daunting challenge and transforms the whole experience into an exciting and interesting project, full of enlightening twists and turns.
While there’s no doubt that it’s helpful to set goals, fixating too much on the end result means missing out on opportunities for personal development, growth, and even having a little fun along the way. There will inevitably be setbacks and challenges along the route to reaching any goal. Therefore, adjusting our thinking to a growth mindset means we can perceive each and every one of these as a little challenge, something to conquer, an opportunity to grow and build our resilience and capabilities, helping us become better versions of ourselves.
It’s also helpful to research and mentally picture how any change is likely to impact upon you and your life. In doing this, we can lessen our evolutionary, innate fear of change, and give ourselves a chance of making an impartial decision about how to proceed. For instance, if you are considering leaving your current job to set up a business, the fears of financial insecurity and the unknowns of self-employment are very probably going to fill you with terror and make it difficult to take the leap.
To counteract this, create a detailed business plan, carry out comprehensive market research, visualise how you will fit into your schedule all the different elements of running a business, build a ‘dream team’ around you who can support and mentor you in any areas in which you feel less confident. Jumping ship will still feel like a leap of faith to a degree, but in doing your homework and helping familiarise your brain with what’s around the corner, you can begin to reduce the natural fear of change and channel your energy into the practical steps required to get a new business off the ground.
And finally, writing a good old 'Pro's and Con's' list in relation to any impending change is a helpful tool for obtaining a greater sense of clarity. By reflecting on the positives and negatives, and, importantly, putting this down on paper, we can stop the endless swirling thoughts in our head; the 'what ifs?' that seem never-ending will be silenced by a more realistic, sensible and rational analysis of the situation.
To summarise, next time you are facing a scary change, remind yourself that fear of the unknown is entirely natural and hardwired into us, but we can combat it by engaging in some, or all, of the above techniques, and, ultimately, make our decisions based on rationale as opposed to knee-jerk fears.