Fear of Change and the Reptile Within
Do you daydream? You know, those beautiful, hazy moments when you allow your imagination to run free. What do you picture?
Floating on a crystal-clear, sparkling blue ocean in brilliant sunshine? Cruising in a shiny red sports car? The perfect home, with the perfect family, including the clean-up-after-itself, non-shedding dog? Smiling children—healthy and happy?
And then do you bump back down into your real-life only to find that you’re stuck in traffic, waiting for a train, staring out of your cubicle, or sitting at your laptop computer while the rest of the family is fast asleep?
What would you give to switch back into that dream world—this time for real?
In truth, you can always get a lot closer to that dream than you think you can…or, more precisely, if you think you can! But you’re going to have to change a few things.
Yes, that’s right—you’re going to have to change. You can’t get there from here.
Change Brings Your Dreams Within Reach
Why is it that change is so difficult, even painful, for most of us? We understand the benefits of making those few simple changes, but we struggle to get it right.
Well, for a start, you may not have understood that you’re fighting against a natural enemy within yourself. It’s called fear.
The problem is that this fear is fundamentally a good thing. It starts deep within your reptilian brain—the primitive center that enabled you to survive into adulthood in the first place. Here, Mother Nature has planted deep instincts to protect you from danger. Always on the alert for new threats, your reptilian brain works valiantly to keep you safe.
But somewhere in the dialogue between our higher centers—our emotional and cognitive brains—and our reptilian brain, things go horribly wrong. We allow the voices of fear to prevail…even when we see no good reason to be afraid.
Five Fears That Keep Us From Our Dreams
There are five primary fears that raise their voices to keep us from our dreams:
The fear of pain or discomfort (including effort). This fear is frighteningly common because it is closest to the original purpose of the reptilian brain: to protect us against physical danger. But are you really going to run out of physical energy while you launch the new business or start that new non-profit to help others?
The fear of failure. More complex to understand, this fear still boils down to a simple principle: Your reptilian brain wants to protect you from public humiliation—or worse, humiliation in front of yourself. You’re not really afraid of failure; you’re afraid of its consequences. But the truth is that you tend to exaggerate the negative consequences of failure. Would you really be the only person to ever miss out on the leading role in that sold-out-forever Broadway musical?
The fear of criticism. Again, your reptilian brain wants to protect you against harsh words that hurt—and, by the way, they really do hurt. But how many people do you know who have been thrown out of society for running in the mayoral election?
The fear of the unknown. Yes, it’s true that there will be many new things you will have to encounter and master on the way to the life of your dreams…and most of them you cannot anticipate. This is a powerful force that restricts many to a life of mediocrity. But look back over your life. How many unexpected obstacles have you already faced and overcome?
The fear of success. This is the hardest to understand, yet alarmingly common, and it can be profoundly debilitating. You wonder what will happen when your dream comes true. Will that be the end of your life? Will your vitality drain away with your waning hunger and passion? It’s true: When you achieve success, life changes. It really does. If you move to a tropical paradise, you really will have to leave this dirty old home that you’ve sweated and invested in, where your children were born and raised. But, hey…you seem to have forgotten how brilliantly the sunshine shimmered off those blue waves as you floated effortlessly on your dreamy ocean!
Fear Is Easily Beaten, If Understood
I don’t mean in any way to belittle the fears that rip you painfully out of your daydreams. I know that those fears are real, painful, and hard to overcome. But I am trying to illustrate a few simple points.
First, it’s helpful to acknowledge the source of your fear. After all, it’s an entirely natural and healthy part of who we are. I even recommend that you thank your reptilian brain. Thank it for wanting to keep you safe!
But then you must move on. Do not allow the negative voice to keep the upper hand.
Move quickly to questioning its rationale. Ask it questions like, “If Steve Jobs and Steve Wosniak could start the biggest company in the world in their garage, why couldn’t I build a profitable small business to provide my family with a reasonable income and the freedom I desire?”
If gentle questioning doesn’t help you to move forward against your fear, then you must challenge your reptilian voice: “There are plenty of good marriages and healthy families where the parents have had rough starts. I’m motivated, aware of what I want, and care deeply about the outcome. Why shouldn’t we be successful at turning this marriage into something spectacular?”
If the voice of fear is still winning over solid reasoning, then it’s time to kick your campaign into a higher gear. It’s time to bring some mental muscle into the game. It’s time to rebuke that unreasonable, limiting fear. “No, I won’t listen to your limiting arguments anymore…you haven’t considered all the facts and all the upsides. Enough. Be silent!”
It’s important that you remember through all of this that you are not rebuking or challenging yourself. You’re not the bad guy. It’s just that your reptilian brain is doing too good a job of protecting you. You’re strong enough to handle a little risk and a little pain. Don’t rebuke yourself. You’re not weak or timid. You’ve just been listening too attentively to that primitive, protective voice.
Finally, if that negative voice is still keeping you from your dreams, you need to distract it. Find things to be busy with, so you’re no longer controlled by fear and doubt. And the best way to do this is to get on building the road to your dreams. You’ll look back after a day of hard work, surprised to realize how little you heard the negative voice and how much progress you made toward your dream.
Step Out Today to Realize Your Dreams Tomorrow
Every one of my clients comes to me with two common aspirations. First, they want to be happy. Second, they want change…and often, this is the big reason they’ve sought me out. Change isn’t easy. Whether they’re in a desperate situation—fighting a messy divorce, trying to find their purpose, or simply overwhelmed by the frenzy of life—or they’ve come to me to be the best person they can be, our journey together is about change.
Change is always possible. Understand it, embrace it, be brave about it—and the reward is yours for the taking!
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 a personal health and happiness awakening. During this profoundly transformative time, he began applying his deep knowledge of performance neuroscience to his everyday life. He discovered that, in moments of stress, the brain develops intricate psycho-protective adaptations to ensure our short-term survival; however, these adaptations often impose substantial residual limitations, create profound (and often hidden) distress, and prevent us from reaching our innate potential.
Today, Roddy is an executive coach and author dedicated to helping others unlock their full potential throughout their lives by applying compassionate neuroscience and sharing his unique approach to Personal Mastery™.