Change, Fear and Your Brain
Most of us have lofty dreams. We hope for health, happiness, and prosperity. Despite these big plans, many of us stay exactly where we are … a long way from our goals. Here is why!
As a little boy, I loved going to the circus. The sights and sounds of the big tent with its orchestra and dazzling lights transported my dreamy little mind into a magical world of adventure and possibility. My favorites were the trapeze artists, who soared effortlessly through the air with athletic grace. One moment always transfixed me: the few seconds before they released their grip on the swing to fly into the cavernous void of the big top. Each time I approach a big change in my life, I reflect on their courage and faith.
Change can be hard, especially big change. We have to release the old to embrace the new. But this can be scary, as any young aerial artist must know. It takes immense courage to completely release your grasp on the swing that represents the security of the old. If you’re lucky, you find the big muscular forearms of the catcher hanging upside down in the middle of the tent, or the grasping hands of your colleagues waiting back at the platform high above the upturned faces of the gasping crowd.
Sadly, in life, many people never let go of the swing. Regardless of their draw to the other side, or even the misery they are going through at the time, their fear of the release is too strong, and it’s easier to maintain the status quo.
Fear is a powerful force, originating deep within your primitive brain. This part of your brain is responsible for your survival. It shouts loudly, urging you to be careful, to avoid risk, to play it safe. Its language is fear and doubt, and it is a powerful opponent of change, even when the “grass looks greener on the other side”.
Your primitive brain surfaces fears in several recognizable guises. Once you understand and acknowledge their origin, you should be able to actively engage your cognitive and emotional brains to overcome fear and doubt, allowing you to embrace change.
Here are several common presentations of fear:
Fear of failure. Actually, if you dig deep behind this one, you’re not really afraid of failure itself but the consequences of failure. The trapeze artist doesn’t fear missing the grasping hands of the catcher (their goal), but rather they fear landing on the ground 80 feet below (the consequences). Although the fear is somewhat logical, you tend to inflate both the likelihood and the consequences of failure.
Fear of pain. This often relates to the fear of failure. You fear that the consequences of failure may be painful, as in an 80-foot fall. Sometimes, the consequences of success can appear painful too. Your protective brain quickly alerts you to the pain of having to move city if you get the promotion, or the new job. It works to preserve status quo.
Fear of effort. Few valuable things are attained without effort. You may genuinely be lazy; the thought of working hard, or making sacrifices can invoke fear. I don’t think I’ve seen this too often. Instead, I believe that your brain surfaces this fear to protect you from deeper concerns. If you tell yourself it’s too hard to achieve your dreams, dig a little deeper. You will probably find one of the other fears lurking there disguising itself as the fear of effort.
Fear of criticism. Some people, often driven by their own insecurities, criticize the efforts of others that work hard to achieve their goals. I’m sure that you have experienced this. Perhaps it wasn’t cool to do your homework, for example? None of us like being criticized, and if you suspect that this will be the reward for your efforts, you may be afraid to try. Sometimes, over-zealous parents, who with the best of intentions praise their children for their achievements, inadvertently evoke the fear of criticism. The child may fear the loss of affirmation in the event they don’t meet the parents’ expectations. Again, your protective brain has the habit of exaggerating the likelihood and importance of your fear of criticism.
Fear of the unknown. Instinctively, we are cautious of the unknown. Our primitive brain served our ancestors well as they explored their early worlds. An unknown cave may have concealed mortal danger, and as they competed with others for scarce resources, it was reasonable to assume danger from a stranger. But realistically, what percentage of new situations today are truly dangerous for us? It has to be a tiny number. Yet, our well-intentioned primitive brains still train us to fear the new and unknown, rather than embrace it.
Fear of success. This is a hard one to understand, but in my experience, a frighteningly common one. There are two obvious reasons we fear success. Firstly, success will change us, especially if we achieve our biggest dreams. Picture the big dream that you have placed outside of your own reach. Imagine if you had already achieved it. Life would be different, right? Why should this frighten you? Part of it is your primitive avoidance of the unknown creeping in again. But there is more, and I suspect that the second reason may be more common. We fear success because we fear that we don’t deserve it. “Why should I become famous, rich or even just happy? Isn’t that reserved for good and talented people that deserve it?” When we don’t believe that we deserve success, then “failure” is inevitable.
So how do you overcome these fears?
First, acknowledge their source. Your primitive brain does a great job in protecting you. Sometimes it goes too far though, and you have to recognize this.
Challenge your fear with questions and facts. “What is the real likelihood of your failing? Are the consequences really as dire as you imagine them to be? Will it really hurt you if somebody ridicules you for trying?”
Invoke the power of your cognitive brain. This part of your brain is under your complete voluntary control (if you choose), and can override the negative influence of your primitive brain. Say bold words, hold encouraging thoughts, and paint pictures of success in your mind. The power of positive thought and BELIEF is immense! Study it. Practice it. Use it.
I hope that this insight gives you the courage to embrace change, even seek it out. I hope that you will release your grip on the swing, to soar through the air. You will enjoy the exhilaration of the catch, and the applause of the crowd.
Neurocentric Coaching is designed to help you reach your dreams.
Dr. Roddy Carter, MD, has over 30 years of experience working across a range of medical disciplines and corporate settings.
At the height of his successful career, Roddy experienced his own health and happiness crisis. During this profoundly transformative time, he began applying his deep knowledge of performance neuroscience to his everyday life. He discovered that, in moments of trauma, the brain develops intricate psycho-protective adaptations to ensure our short-term survival; however, these adaptations often impose substantial residual limitations, create distress, and prevent us from reaching our full innate potential.