A husband complains that no one helps him with the yard work, but if they do, he says, “Never mind.” A mother dreams of resurrecting a social life outside of the house, to have a break from the kids, but if lunch invitations do come, she inevitably declines. A high school graduate keeps saying he wants a college degree but can’t seem to get the application materials in on time.

For every action, an equal and opposite reaction?

We say we want change. We want less stress, more intimacy, more free time, better finances, healthier relationships, better self-esteem, and, of course, a perfect body. So why do we sometimes fight against the very things we want? Why do we resist changing in the direction in which we earnestly want to change?

How do I fear thee? Let me count the ways

The answer often comes down to one of several fears. Perhaps the most obvious one is the fear of failure. “What if I lose the weight, find the partner, get the job and the joy and then can’t keep it all going?” “If I have all that and then blow it, I’ll be so disappointed I just couldn’t handle it.” “Do I really believe it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?”

On the other hand, there may be a fear of success. If we succeed in making substantial healthy changes, we may stand out in a way that is uncomfortable. We may elicit unwanted attention or questions from others. We may be subject to judgement, criticism, jealousy and envy from others. If misery loves company, then stepping away from les miserables may upset the social network.

Sometimes a fear of loss keeps us from making better progress on the healthy changes we want to make. The longer we live a certain way, the more that pattern of living may become familiar and part of our identity or reputation. As frustrating as our old computer operating system might be, we’re so used to it that we might resist the necessary learning curve of upgrading to a new system. The husband who does a bang-up job on the yard, year after year, all by himself, though he might complain about it, may also quite enjoy the reputation of Mr. Independent who doesn’t need help from anyone.

Another fear that can keep us stuck is the fear of losing our favorite excuse or justification for being so unhappy. It’s tempting to think that we would be so much happier if only we didn’t have all the emotional, relationship and financial stress in our lives. But sometimes our problems can serve as convenient explanations for our unhappiness and we can be reluctant to let go of them. What if these problems were to significantly improve and we’re still unhappy? Then we might have to look at ourselves more deeply and discover that happiness is more of an internal project and less about removing problematic people or circumstances around us.

Finally, we can fight our own forward movement, oddly, out of a fear of being satisfied. We may be so chronically unsatisfied that we truly would not know what to do if we were satisfied. Do we simply enjoy it, and can we do so without feeling selfish and guilty? Do we share that good fortune with others, and if so, how do we do that and how much do we give? We all strive to feel satisfied, happy, content and at peace, but if somehow we were to achieve these, we might be faced with new, challenging, existential questions about how to live life from there.

The physics of psychology?

Like objects in the universe, we are bodies in the world, sometimes at rest, sometimes in motion. We have inertia, momentum, resistance and friction to contend with. Unlike objects in the universe, we also have fears; and our solutions are not mathematical, but psychological. With honest exploration and self-analysis, we can better understand our fears which will help us to identify the adjustments we need to make in order to move forward.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of hotblack/ morguefile.com

Articles

Psychological Fitness

“Psychological Fitness” is my monthly column featured in the Binghamton, NY Press & Sun Bulletin since 2004. This page highlights articles, or adaptations thereof, from that column.