[Author’s note: I suggested the topic of “The Courage to Change: Tips for making big life changes and how small changes often pave the way” without giving it too much thought. I’ve made lots of changes in my life and helped others make changes in theirs. Most recently I moved away from consumer culture to take up residence in an ecovillage and start a home-based internet coaching business to support my family. I know a few things about the courage to change.
Yet when I started writing this article, the subject reached in and touched me. I cried at my keyboard while I typed. During the writing, I read through some of my journals from 10 years ago and read my articulation of things I wanted then and still want now but have yet to manifest. So before you start reading, I ask you to keep a few things in mind.
Be gentle with yourself. Know that the courage to change is often long-lasting courage. It embraces the courage to make mistakes and to have life unfold in ways you didn’t expect. While some changes happen quickly, many take months or years to fully manifest. We still need courage to keep going and keep building our lives the day after the change and the day after that, too.
Throughout this article I’ll keep asking questions then offering some answers. I suggest you read the questions and then take a few minutes to write down your own answers before reading the ones I’ve written. These insights are coming from my work with clients in my parent coaching business, from my yoga students, from friends, and from my own life.]
Let’s start with a few questions about why we don’t change. When we want to change but don’t, what holds each of us back? Why do we often stay stuck in the familiar but dysfunctional?
Fear Keeps Us Stuck
What I have found working with myself and other is that fear keeps us stuck. Fear of embarrassment, fear of failure, and fear of success all rank in the top reasons people avoid change. When you are afraid to make a mistake for fear of looking bad, foolish, stupid, or incompetent, it is very hard to try something new. Especially if you did well in school, you have learned that it is wrong to fail or to make mistakes. Change requires that you be willing to do both. Yet fear of embarrassment is hard to overcome.
Inertia is another powerful force insisting that it is easier to keep doing what you have been doing than to change direction. Inertia is easier to work with when you take change in small, incremental steps.
The biggest fear, however, may be the fear of success. “What if I really change? What then?” you may ask yourself. You don’t really know what is on the other side of change. Perhaps, you worry, you will have to face something about yourself you can’t bear to face and you will lose your own regard. Perhaps change will cause you to give up something you can’t stand to lose like a person, a feeling, or a belief? You may feel fear that you will not be able to stand your life after the change or that you will fail trying.
Unspoken Agreements Keep Us Stuck
Do you have masks, fakes, or personas you live behind in order to keep the peace? Most of us do. Usually we have agreements, usually unspoken, about what we will and won’t do, who we are, and what we believe. We have agreements about how we’ll stay stuck and how we’ll keep enabling each other. In more extreme cases, they is called codependency, but most of us do it at least some of the time to some degree. We know how to react to our friend, our lover, or our co-worker when they stay in their same habits and keep telling the same stories. They might drive us crazy, but it’s a known sort of crazy where we are comfortable in our discomfort.
In order to change, you have to have the courage to break the agreements that no longer serve you. You have to have the courage to be different and make different choices with no guarantees for how those around you will respond. You don’t really know what changes you can make and still be met with love, tolerance, and approval.
On some cellular level most of us have a fear of being ostracized, kicked out of the group, or abandoned. Humans are social creatures who depend on one another for survival. Throughout our history we have needed one another in order to survive. Being kicked out of the group could literally be a death sentence. We may think we’re safe, but on some level we are aware that outliers are often punished. For example, not so very long ago, women were burned at the stake and thrown into rivers if they were too different, too powerful, too knowledgeable, or just too weird.
The courage to change is a very real courage. The courage to leave behind the known, safe, and livable for the unknown and therefore less safe is a powerful sort of courage.
Sometimes you need the courage to stay in a situation and stay the course. Hang in there through the rough spots of a marriage. Wait for our kids to grow out of a rebellious phase. Wait for the bad haircut to grow out. And sometimes you need the courage to change. The courage to ask for help and start seeing a counselor. The courage to say no. The courage to say yes.
Courage Needs Honesty
What allows someone to let go of old patterns? What gives a person the courage to step into the new and unknown?
The courage to change is the courage to look at what is. What is your reality? What do you want? Can you articulate what you want to yourself, to a higher power, or to your journal? Can you articulate it to a therapist, coach, or close friend? Can you articulate it to your boss, your co-parent, or your parent? If your heart’s deepest longing often stays hidden, it makes it much harder to manifest it. Speaking the heart’s longing is a very freeing level of honesty.
The courage to change is easier when the people around you support you. Yet, when you have the courage to tell the truth and live real and out-loud, you are most likely breaking a deal you’ve made with someone to stay smaller and be less than honest. They may get angry at you. Just when you want their help, they may pull away, get angry, and try everything to get you to go back to your old ways. Why?
Change is destabilizing. You are shifting the balance, the control, and the source of power when you change. In the midst of your own exhilaration and fear, can you remember the people close to you are forced to change by your changes? Being compassionate with them can help them embrace your change. Offering them compassion and empathy while continuing to tell the truth and embrace your own change can also be amazingly helpful to you. Then the obstacles people offer you become gifts and the people themselves become angels of change.
These angels of change don’t often wear white or have wings. Sometimes your angels challenge you to dig deeper and realize your own depths. Sometimes they hold your hands and offer support. Sometimes they pull away and say “do it yourself” and you must find strength you didn’t know you had. Who are your angels? Can you realize the gifts they offer you and say thank you?
Children Catalyze Change
Children are often the catalysts for change. They rock our worlds with love and with chaos. They challenge us to dig deeper and be more loving, generous, and giving then we ever were before. They ask us to grow up into the adults we want to be and to stop hiding out in excuses.
My husband stopped smoking after 15 years when I was pregnant with our first child. He quit his secure job as an electrician to start his own company when I was pregnant with our second child. Each pregnancy challenged him to step up into more of his potential and strength. Knowing that his children would be looking to him as a role model for life helped give him the courage to change.
A friend of mine is also finding that children are her catalyst for change. She’s been living with an emotionally abusive husband and making excuses to stay. But when he got violent with their children she found the courage to move out and face divorce, court appearances, and cross examination. To look her husband and supposed life partner in the eye while he tried to prove her crazy took significant amounts of courage. The welfare of her children gave her the courage to keep facing her road to freedom and find more strength than she knew she had.
Most of us are afraid to go through something like that. Most parents are afraid to change too much for fear that it could lead down the path of separation or divorce. The courage to change is the still, small voice within you that stays with you even when times are dark and your path is full of obstacles. It is the knowing that moving into the truest expression of your life is right, even if it is difficult.
This IS Your Life
The courage to change embraces the courage to look at what is without turning away. The courage to keep looking at it and not sink into self-defeating blame and guilt or to brush it aside with glib assurances or blame of the other person. To look at one’s own life and to own it. To say “Yes, this is the life I have created. It is exactly the life that I have created. I need to blame no one. I need to give responsibility for my life to no one else. I own it as my own. This is my life. If I want it to be different it is my job and my job only to change it.”
The courage to change is the courage to own your own life. To not blame others. To ask for what you want. To be aware and alive to your own life. To be responsive and trust that you have what it takes to weather whatever storms arise. As a parent coach this is the work that I help people do. I help parents be honest and courageous in the face of their own lives, their own parenting, and their own choices. I help you take change slowly, one manageable step at a time, allowing you to adapt and still be safe in your own world.
What changes would you like to make? Would you like help to live your own courage to change?
[About the author: Kassandra Brown lives and works at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage where she finds the courage to change and embrace life as it is go hand in hand. She coaches parents over the phone or internet.]
[Top image: paul bica]