How Change Creates Fear in Others


“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.”


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

29 thoughts on “How Change Creates Fear in Others”

  1. Hi Donna,
    What a great post. I feel like you speek directly to me.

    When I was fat my closest family members told me I eat too much. But when I got lean they said I was too thin.
    When I became interested in the stock market my dad was unsupportive at first and it totally shocked me.

    What I learned is that there are naysayers everywhere. Even in your closest family.
    They don’t want to harm you. But they are jealous. Jealous of you doing the things they only dream about.

    What worked for me is to focus inside myself. To draw my powers only from my inner self. And when you grow such confidence, no one can prevent you from walking your own path.

    1. Hi Benny,
      Thanks for sharing. I’m so glad you learned to walk your own path. It’s not easy but eventually our friends and loved ones will come around and be proud of our accomplishments. — Donna

    2. Hello Donna ,
      Its really great to read your latest mail in the change blog.

      I feel very comfortable after reading your change blog newletter.
      Its mostly resembling my present mindset.

      Thank you for you email.

      Good Luck

      With regards

  2. Hi Donna. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I think many of us can identify with what you have written. I like Benny’s comment where she is drawing power from inside herself to grow her confidence. It’s that confidence that enables us to persevere. It’s hard, but persevering is worth the results. The important thing I gained from your post is that we get to choose how we move through this world and we’re not responsible for how other people feel about it. Thanks Donna.

    1. Exactly. You’re not responsible for how other people feel about you. You can’t control what they think. But you can control your own mindset. We have free will. — Donna

  3. This is one lesson I have had to learn the hard way, but the key is I learned. I actually started my own blog to tell my story to help others. It was a very painful process, but I’m thankful for it.

    Great stuff. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Hi Donna,

    Change does make others uncomfortable, even if it’s for the good! Your article was refreshing to read, especially during this time in my life. Thank you :)

  5. Many years ago I read a great book, The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner. It’s all about change and she discussed how that change creates anxiety in others and they give us the “change back” messages. I’ve gotten many of those and I see it in my client’s lives all the time. As an aside, that book was just rereleased this year and I believe it’s a classic. There’s a link to it if anyone wants to see it.

  6. Hi Donna,

    Thank you for such a perceptive post!

    As with many of your readers, I can relate. The choker is that so much negativity can come from those who love us!

    I am glad you mentioned compassion. I can look back now and laugh because I know that the criticism came from their place of fear – as so often in life, it is their stuff being imposed on us.

    So thank you and I look forward to your further posts.

  7. Excellent post, Donna! I certainly can appreciate what you’ve been through because it happened to me as well.

    I won’t go into details from my own life, but you are correct that other people find it threatening when you try to make improvements.

    In my work as an organizing consultant, I see this all the time. After years of being badgered by family, a person will contact me for help with decluttering and getting organized. As soon as we make progress, the same family members who were critical of the mess actively sabotage my client’s efforts to do things different.

    It takes a lot of work to initiate a personal improvement change to begin with; it’s that much harder when you get the rug pulled out from under you from the very people you thought would give you the most support.

    Of course, the upside to that is learning not to depend as much on others and realizing that it is OK to appreciate ourselves and our efforts to be our best.

  8. This really hit a chord for me. I feel like I’m constantly playing a role of what others want, not what I want. I swear I teared up just reading it. I’ve made a lot of changes this past year, trying to make myself better, but I feel like I’m still holding myself back, trying to grasp onto this old life I’ve had. However, the old life hasn’t been satisfying, which is why I am trying to make changes. I’m going to keep this tucked away somewhere to read when I’m feeling down. Thank you so much for it.

    Also, I love the line: “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.”

  9. This is an amazing article. I feel like it spoke to me directly. I made some huge changes in my life in the past year, a complete 180 degree turnabout, and negativity and disapproval surrounded me. The hardest thing was to find someone who would support my decision to be me, and I ended up losing many relationships due to their inability to accept my changes. I really liked your insight on this, especially when you said: “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.” That really helped me because I put too much weight on the opinions of those around me, and I’m just now learning to let them go. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Thanks for another great post. You are absolutely write people becomes fearful when you change. many times also is because they are guilty that your changing will require them to want to change. Your changing is a call to action also on their part and change is hard for everyone around you.

  11. I’ve experienced this before but I don’t think I ever put it together and fear makes others uncomfortable. It’s so hard to finally conquer some fear in your life only to have other people doubt me. It makes me feel as if I didn’t do the right thing in the first place. Thanks so much for sharing. This was great!

  12. Hi Donna,
    “The hardest part is that a lot of this negativity will come from the people closest to you.” – This is so true.
    However, as you say, it’s important to recognize this as natural. We can try to make them understand, but if they don’t, we shouldn’t let that discourage us.
    The world would be a very different place if we got dissuaded every time we tried to grow!
    Excellent post!

  13. Donna – this was beautiful! My favorite part “I leaned out from work, and started to “lean in” to my life.”

    When we learn to take care of ourselves and live our lives as our true selves, all the other parts, like career, start to fall in place.

    Thanks for sharing your story. It should inspire many (it already inspired me)!

  14. Amen sister! Have experienced this so well over the past four years. Our own desires to shift can cause others to react; “How dare you change… *I* won’t know where I stand with you anymore.” It is quite the experience. I find letting go quickly is so much better than trying to pacify the fear of others, or worse, revert to old ways of being to appease them. Happy trails… keep on standing tall!

  15. Thanks for the awesome post. I am currently going through that right now and believe you couldn’t be more right. Change causes so much fear in those around you it’s is sometimes why many people are fearful of making the change as well. Thanks again for a great post.

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