It is not change that causes anxiety; it is the feeling that we are without defenses in the presence of what we see as danger.

May 10, 2012 – 4:22 pm

I’m tired of people saying things like “oh, people are naturally resistant to change” or “everyone’s afraid of change” or “change is hard,” and treating those statements like Immovable Axioms that One Cannot Change Or Argue Against. They’re not entirely untrue; change is sometimes hard and scary. However, we’re not going to get anywhere if we use that as an excuse for not looking deeper.

It is not change that causes anxiety; it is the feeling that we are without defenses in the presence of what we see as danger… –Kegan & Lahey, Immunity to Change

I love the first part. Seriously, folks; I put on a new t-shirt every day, but that doesn’t cause me to go into paroxysms of fear as I stare at the closet in the morning. I’d be bored to tears if I had to eat the same thing for dinner every night, and think nothing of the sky going dark every evening. I look forward to starting new classes, getting new books, to the births of my new little nephews (welcome to the world, Oobs and Ewan!) We go through tons of changes that we’re not the least bit anxious about. (Okay, maybe my cousins were anxious about their babies being born, but I sure wasn’t.) Point being: not all change causes anxiety.

So what does? That’s the second part of the quote. There are two parts to it that I want to highlight.

It is the feeling that we are without defenses.

The feeling. Not the objective reality (if there is such a thing). If someone believes they are defenseless — if they don’t realize there’s a safety net, if they don’t think others will step in to protect them, if they don’t trust their own abilities to make everything okay — regardless of the situation, they will be afraid, and they will probably resist change.

In the presence of what we see as danger.

Again, subjectivity. If you don’t see something as a danger but someone else does, then of course they’re going to be more anxious than you. This works the other way around too; my parents and boyfriend are a lot more concerned about me walking around strange cities alone at night than I am.

And note that these two things together; if I’m without defenses but am confident that no danger will arrive, I’m not anxious — actually, I feel pretty safe. For instance, I feel fine walking around my apartment barefoot because I know there aren’t sharp things on the floor that could hurt me. And if you’re in the presence of something you think is dangerous, but you have defenses you feel are sufficient, you’re also going to be just fine; I know I would stand no chance against a full-grown tiger, but had no problem watching one pace behind thick glass the last time I went to the zoo.

Implication: to fix anxiety (whether it’s linked to change or not), make the fearful person either (1) feel like they’re well-protected, or (2) believe that what they’re seeing isn’t dangerous.

Sounds simpler than it is; this is still hard work. But it’s a heck of a lot better than going “well, people just don’t like change!” and throwing our hands up and walking away.

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