How Change Creates Fear in Others

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“If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we aren’t really living.”

— Gail Sheehy

Have you made any changes in your life recently and been surprised by the reactions from the people you love? Oftentimes when we make big changes, the people around us resist.

Years ago I moved to New York City to attend acting school. Besides teaching drama and theatre history, the school also trained us how to speak for the stage in accent-free English. They showed us how to walk with good posture so we could be more commanding on the stage. With enough practice, these habits become a part of your body. Even if you’re not training for a career on the stage, these habits serve you well in the business world and in life.

When I went home for my first holiday break, a friend said to me, “You’re preparing yourself for elitism, aren’t you?” One of my favorite aunts accused me of “putting on airs.”

Whaaat?

And this came from people who love me.

Wanting to learn to speak distinctly and move with authority for the stage did not mean I was trying to climb a social ladder.

I was cleaning up my act. I was changing and growing and that scares people.

Skip ahead a dozen years, I had moved out of the theatre world and into a new career as an automotive journalist. With no auditions to go to, I had put on some weight. I became a workaholic trying to get ahead in a male-dominated industry.

When I finally got to the point where I was burned out and my blood pressure was high enough to need medication, I took a step back and started taking better care of myself. I stopped volunteering for every project that came up at work. I began to eat healthier and add movement to my daily routine.

My goal was to get off the medication and feel better, not to upset those around me.

I was no longer available to work late every night. I enrolled in a dance class. I wanted to fit in a workout after work and be home in time to prepare a healthy meal.

The Backlash

People started to feel uncomfortable because I was no longer fulfilling my expected role. I wasn’t slacking off at work, just not doing all the extras.

In her best-selling book Lean In, Sheryl Sandburg encouraged women to take charge at work, to lean in at the conference room table and speak up. I had already done that successfully. But I needed to do the opposite. I leaned out from work, and started to “lean in” to my life.

And it didn’t take long for the little needles and digs to start coming out.

Beware the insults that are veiled as caring. At first I got comments like, “You look great, what’s your secret?” that soon turned to “You look thin. Should I be worried about you?”

They should have been worried about me when I was the red-faced, unhealthy workaholic. Now I feel great and am trying to have more in my life than a job.

You’ll find that as you grow as a person, the people around you will get very uncomfortable, discouraging even. They want the you that they are used to. They may even try to undermine you or insult you. But you can’t let them get to you. I know it can be tough. But they are speaking out of their own fear. They are afraid to lose you, that you’ll outgrow them. They’re afraid they can’t follow or don’t have it in them to make changes in their own lives for the better.

They are afraid.

What To Do About It

Change is hard for you as well as those around you. It doesn’t have to be about weight loss, or a new school. Maybe you’re starting a new job or your own business, ending a relationship, learning Italian, mountain biking or tap dancing.

The hardest part is that a lot of this negativity will come from the people closest to you. Change brings fear to a lot of people.

Remember this: You get to choose how you move through this world. You’re not responsible for how other people feel about it, only how you feel.

Have compassion for those people. Wish them well and hope they find the courage to live their own lives. Don’t worry about pleasing them, and most importantly don’t let them hold you back.

People will count on you to be the fat friend, or the hard worker, or the giver, or always there to take their phone call, or lend them money, whatever role you have traditionally played for them.

Don’t get trapped into their comfortable image of you. You don’t have to listen, and you don’t have to explain yourself. This is your journey, not theirs. They’ll catch up eventually. And if they can’t accept the new you, then maybe it’s time to move on and find friends that suit your new lifestyle.

Of course, there will be wonderful people who support your every move, and think it’s cool that you want to speak like Grace Kelly. These are the keepers.

You only get one go-around in this world. Make it the life you want.

Have you experienced resistance to changes in your life? How did you handle it?

Photo by kris krüg