The Comfort of Familiarity, Part B

To make a long story short, I’m working on a new mindset. It is based on my attitude toward anxiety, but it addresses many aspects of my life. This is in response to my process, over the last week or so, of beginning to put my new mindset (inspired by Kelly McGonigal’s incredible book, The Upside of Stress) into practice:

Lots of people say that change is difficult, that newness is scary.

Very few ask why.

Having an idea, after all, isn’t terribly difficult. We each have thousands of them every day, whether we try to or not. Change starts with an idea, right? Step one, then, seems very possible.

Even putting an idea into practice isn’t, technically speaking, a hard thing to do. One may have to do a little research, make a few phone calls, or put in some extra time, but just about any action can be broken down into discrete, manageable steps.

So why is change hard? Why don’t people change their lives every day?

My realization, based on the past several days (and, retrospectively, weeks…months….years) of my life, is that change is difficult because it requires editing or entirely revising the story we tell ourselves about who we are. Change is hard because the way we spend our days, the goals we allow ourselves, and the values we profess aren’t just associated with us– they are our identities. Making a change– from switching grocery stores, to applying for a new job, to leaving a bad relationship– evolves our very sense of self, and choosing to step out into the world one day with an unfamiliar sense of self can feel very frightening.

It is also the most liberating thing in the world, of course. But that doesn’t make it (for me, at least) any less scary. Making a change, whether it’s forming a new habit, a new mindset, or even moving to a new place, can feel like a state of existential free-fall. Your reflection in the mirror stays the same, but everything inside– your motivations, desires, sense of agency– feels different. It’s like getting an absolutely insane new hairstyle… but invisibly, from within. The outside world hasn’t a clue. And that can absolutely feel a little crazy.

I am speaking to myself here just as much as I am speaking to all of you. I need convincing that I can do this. My advantage in this situation is that I trust myself to be able to convince myself (how’s that for a mouthful) that I can change and evolve in fundamental ways and still be me. It’s like getting a software update. Sophia Version 2.0: Debugged and ready for action.

My coping strategy yesterday, when I felt panicky and alien in the face of my own new mindset, was to remind myself of all the ways I am still the same, still “me”. This might seem totally counterproductive. After all, the point of change is to be different, right? Well, yes. But it feels far more manageable to change one variable of myself at a time than to attempt a total overhaul in one go. There are likely brave souls out there who change their lives like they change their socks, but I’m not one of them, at least not today. And that is absolutely fine with me.

This all probably feels really abstract. Luckily, I have the perfect, narcissistic example:

So, for clarification, here is what I wrote on the bus yesterday as I wrestled with a new mindset (which, eventually, will help to overcome anxiety) that made me feel so uncomfortable (triggered anxiety).


“Following this morning’s quote from Mom (available here): It’s amazing how I can be scared by how not-scared I am! Why is growth so hard? (and fear-inducing?) I am still “me”, I am still a ballerina and sometimes a modern dancer, who likes to write. And for goodness sakes, reading about severely agoraphobic people doesn’t make me one! I cannot unlearn all the tools I’ve taught myself, all the meditation I’ve practiced, and the mindfulness– everything I’ve received from others, too– the research I’ve done, my therapist in Boston– Just as I can’t undo all my years of dance training, my teachers and mentors, my sense of musicality, or my natural turnout and flexibility. I can remember and be reassured by the fact that I have the same dreams and goals– I’ve just added a couple, and I’m learning to see the world and interact with those around me in new and exciting ways. It’s ok for that to feel unfamiliar, and for replacing old patterns with new ones to feel a little scary or disorienting! I still have all my tools, familiar needs and actions, my same body, thoughts and feelings. I can still give myself (and others!) loving-compassion, I can still remember to breathe, and I can still use my network of support– even as I expand it– just like before. Positive self-talk, too. Like the fact that I made it to campus!” [gets off bus].



I hope this also helps to explain why progress, which is after all a form of change, isn’t a linear process. We are not beings of pure logic, and our sense of humanity must be taken into account as we move to redefine ourselves. Personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way 🙂

Is there a change you’d like to make in your life? Recognize exactly what has been holding you back, and write to yourself about it. As you try to enact that change, you can write to yourself for reassurance, as I did. Please let me know if and how you find it helpful!



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