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Fear of Change

By Aaron Tempel LGPC​, Addictions and Mental Health Therapist

Tranquility Woods

I just got off the phone with a potential client about coming into the program.

Themes of “crisis,” “life or death,” and “out of control” are pervasive in almost all of my calls. Above all, fear, is the most common emotion elicited by the voice on the other end of the phone. Fear of death, fear of loss of a job or marriage, fear of loneliness, and fear of finding their loved one dead are all common examples of stated fear. Most addicts and their loved ones can identify with these fears.

But then, out of left field, the caller hits a wall. They spent several minutes detailing how their addiction has ruined their life, personally, financially, and professionally, and suddenly they get cold feet. I always feel shocked, confused, and frustrated after a call that stops dead. I imagine these feelings are the same as the family member calling about their loved one.

So what happened? Prior to becoming a mental health therapist, I always wondered why is addiction and mental health treatment so challenging? Why, despite the far reaching media coverage of the opiate epidemic, the messaging on the dangers of drugs and alcohol, do so many struggle to attend treatment seriously and learn to manage their illness?

I believe it has to do with, in part, the same reason the person called me in the first place: fear. But it is an unspoken and often overlooked fear; the fear of change. Psychologist Virginia Satir has been attributed with the following quote: "Most people prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty.”

Let’s break that down a bit. People tend to prefer to know that they will be miserable, thus giving them control and ability to predict the future in a way, than the agony of not knowing what is coming next. I sometimes refer to this experience as someone’s “uncomfortable comfort zone.” Take for instance, an alcoholic, who has been drinking since 21 and is now in his 50s. That familiarity is immensely strong, so despite being told the damage it has done to his liver, losing a marriage, losing a job, and experiencing loneliness, he still continues to drink. In his mind, this fear of change and lack of control is more unpleasant than the costs of the familiar behavior of drinking.

I don’t doubt that people living with addiction want to change. Like most people, change often leaves us feeling ambivalent. For example, on one hand I could work out and diet, which would make me feel better physically and emotionally and benefit my overall health. On the other hand, I may I enjoy the familiarity of lazing around and eating fast food. It often takes immense courage for an addict to face this fear and embrace the unknown, but I believe everyone has the power within themselves to challenge it. While it may not be the sole barrier to change, I believe that rolling with this fear instead of avoiding it can substantially impact a person’s engagement and benefit from treatment, addiction or otherwise.