Ripples From the Fear of Change
Don't Ever, Ever Leave This Box
It wasn’t my intention to start off the third year of this blog with over two weeks between posts. It isn’t because I’ve been too busy to write, or sick, or on vacation, or have writer’s block. It’s because there’s a little too much going on in my head, a lot of which I’m still sorting out–trying to understand, make sense of conflicting emotions and facts, and figuring out just where I stand on things or which course of action I want to take. We’ve all been there, to one extent or another; some of us have been there on a regular basis.
People are not simple, no matter how much they want to be. The sum of our genetics, environment, health, times, and chance is constantly changing. As that changing sum interacts with changing sum of others, it is amazing that there is any constancy in life at all, that people can form lifelong friendships, or work at the same job for thirty or forty years.
Constancy, however, requires positive reinforcement. For things to stay the same, avoiding pain (risking change, upheaval, financial ruin, etc.) is not enough–there has to be some key need being met in order to resist the overwhelming odds for change. When we think of people who are in a rut or in a bad relationship or job, seemingly unhappy, it isn’t necessarily avoidance of pain that is keeping them there, it could also be they have developed a need for their misery. Some people really are happy in their misery and negativity. They actually derive their validity from it. They know their misery, and it makes them feel secure, keeping them in a fear-of-change loop.
Fear of change leads to all sorts of crazy, self-destructive behavior. It can come in sneaky forms, like rationalizing things to death, finding a million reasons something can’t be done, and undermining the confidence of others so that they don’t go and change, either. I wonder how many illnesses and bad situations are actually caused by people turning themselves into victims so others around them don’t feel free to make natural changes, to grow? Think of all the variations on parents who can’t cut the apron strings, or friends and family with dependency issues–if you move on, you’re abandoning them, you’re disloyal, you’re bad.
Confronting the idea that you’re bad in the mind of someone important to you can take a while to sort out. That is what’s cluttering up my head at the moment, the conflict between my natural need to grow, for simplicity, for a wholesome life, and the old conditioning and expectations of family members who are trying to stop this process by self-destructing. That is in of itself complicated enough, but in this particular case it revealed that I’ve been operating under a lot of illusions about this relationship for most of my life.
The current weapon of suppression is the checklist of things that aren’t done to their satisfaction–not enough visits, phone calls, emails, and, well, not enough everything, flung not as complaint but as vituperation. No “hello, how have you been?” but looks and words that range from maudlin self-pity to demeaning contempt. It was then that I realized the checklist had been in action in this relationship for its entire duration.
Love was measured against a checklist of conditions, and I couldn’t remember a time when I wasn’t coming up short. My son was on the receiving end of it, too, so we’re both dealing with the realization that what we had thought of as family love was actually fear of change; the emotional and behavioral hoops we had to jump through were designed to suppress growth and change in us, to create a sense of security and validity through any means of control necessary: ritually, financially, psychologically.
People in love with their misery are rarely conscious of it–in fact, they’ll scream in horror at the suggestion that they cling to their fears. No, feeling hard done by is part of their autonomic nervous system, as natural and instinctive as breathing. Knowing this, however, does not make things easier for those on the receiving end of their machinations. It is simpler to detach from someone who is being deliberately mean than from someone who is operating out of instinct. That’s when one must focus on oneself and come to terms with our own conflicts between ability and obligation.
Suppressing growth and change in others infantilizes them, limits their ability to adapt to life’s changes and challenges, and keeps them trapped in a box of obligation. It also limits their ability to not take criticism to heart, because the sense of coming up short, of not quite meeting expectations and obligations, is the tool by which they’ve been controlled, and their thinking conditioned.
The great irony is that in my own case, the relationship has created in me the very sort of person least equipped for dealing with it. The constant lashing out, expressions of disappointment, twisting of history, strange manifestations of self-pity, nursing of old wounds, obsession with superficial expressions of affection, and using minor shortcomings as reasons for cutting someone off have created a situation that makes me want to keep my distance even more, and to take courses of action to avoid living in fear myself. Other friends and family members have reacted in similar ways to similar situations, so I know I’m not alone in this: sadly watching loved ones create self-fulfilling prophecies.