Afraid of change


Afraid of change


your avatar   Claire (30 year-old woman)

I work in an administration job that is stifling me. I don't understand why I can't make a decision and move on. I feel lost and alone and ashamed of myself. It's not looking good, is it?

I feel like I've lost myself. I know the present situation I'm in is doing me no good. I know I have to be fulfilled in my work to feel good about myself.

I do administration all day. Very badly, as I can't concentrate because I'm terrified I won't be able to make a decision.

I feel I have something to give to the world but I don't know what it is. I have always enjoyed writing, thinking -- though it's very hard work, too! I was a good academic at university, I found it hard but I loved talking about ideas, and thinking.

Friends say I am a good communicator. I've always been interested in writing, but for months I haven't been able to write. I know the standard advice is to look at yourself, think about what you really want. I've tried to do this for the last four or five years (some people really need a life, don't they?!)

My life has consisted of trying to make the decision - looking at courses, taking evening classes in journalism, acting, teaching English; getting work experience as a careers advisor, and in a theatre.

I feel worn out by the decision making and no closer to what I want. I've gotten to the point that I don't know what I like doing because all I like doing is trying to make a decision.

I have several theories about all this. I guess part of the problem is I'm so scared of making the wrong decision. I've been hovering between getting a Masters in career advice, in counseling, in creative writing, in astrophysics (ok the last one is a joke. I think). I know the answer is probably that any decision is better than no decision. So I pick up an application form and try to make a decision. And then I get terrified and put it down again.

Theory number two is that I should stop the decision making and self-pity and go out there and do some volunteer work with people who really have problems. I have tried this, but after the first hour I'm longing to get away and be on my own so I can curl up on my bed. Then I just feel more ashamed for being healthy and young and wasting my life when other people have far worse to deal with.

I have always felt like an interloper in the adult world - someone who doesn't really deserve the love and freedom and fulfillment that becoming a grown-up is supposed to involve. I am lucky enough to have good friends who put up with me, but I look at their lives with their homes and their careers and their families and I feel as if I'm stuck outside a club that I don't have the intelligence or ability to join.

When I think about the future, I feel this terrible black aching panic. If I could concentrate on any activity for more than 15 seconds without wanting to cry I guess it would help. Then I think I'm just longing for a home (I rent a room) and a feeling of belonging (my parents want the best for me but I find our relationship very difficult) and I should shut up and buy a house (somehow) and get on with it. But I'm also longing to do a course and stretch my mind before I shut down completely.

There's a little mantra in my head, "You've failed, you've failed, you'll never sort yourself out and you'll lose everyone." If you've got to the end of this, well done, you have won prize for most patient therapist of the week. Thanks so much.


    Bob Rich, Ph.D.

Dear Claire,

I can feel your despair. You have been a clipper ship in a calm: all that wonderful ability to race, and no wind to fill your sails. No destination. No rudder even, just drifting without power, without aim. You have been here for four or five years, and I read behind your message that now you are ready to move on. Your question is, how can you determine the direction you need to move in?

My question, rather, is, what is getting in your way? Claire, change is the rule. If you've been stuck for all this time, it's because there is an active force imprisoning you in the problem, one you need to identify and fight.

Two of your statements give me hints:

  • I have always felt like an interloper in the adult world -- someone who doesn't really deserve the love and freedom and fulfillment that becoming a grown-up is meant to involve.
  • There's a little mantra in my head, you've-failed-you've-failed-you'll-never-sort-yourself-out-and-you'll-lose-everyone.

Another hint comes from what you DON'T mention: a husband/boyfriend/partner; anyone you love (you have family and friends but...). You mention work, which is frustrating and restrictive, past study, which was good but is in the past, but nothing about leisure: what do you do for fun? You know you are good at writing, and you've implied involvement in theatre, but with your current preoccupation with your problem, you haven't had energy for such things.

Let's look at these three hints in turn.

Interloper in the adult world: You have felt like this, but is this feeling based on fact? Examine the evidence. Just because you have a feeling or a thought, that doesn't make it true.

Look, you are not alone. EVERYONE has such irrational beliefs. Some people are lucky, and their irrational beliefs are of the kind 'Blondes are stupid, lucky I have dark hair.' Or 'Never trust anyone who is skinny.' (Julius Caesar had this, didn't he?) Mine was, 'I am a screw-up, can't do anything right, ever.' And this made me suffer, for many years. However, I defeated this inner monster. First, I tracked down where it came from, and among other things, this has led to an award-winning book. Second, I learned to examine it in the light of the evidence. Precisely because I had this irrational belief, I was a compulsive achiever, and I can now honestly say that I can do more things right than almost anyone else I know. So, when I have a relapse, I can choose to wallow in it, or talk myself out of it, in the way I did the first time.

This process, as I have just described it, is the essence of cognitive therapy. I did it on myself, reinventing the wheel, but you can contact the British Psychological Society's referral line, and find a psychologist who is competent in showing you how.

Self-destructive mantra: Argue with it. Again, seek the evidence that this mantra is not true. You have NOT failed. You have proved your intelligence and ability many times. What has happened rather is that you have certain lessons to learn in this life. You have been exposed to the relevant learning situations, and passed them by. I don't know what the lesson is, what those situations were, but life will keep rubbing your nose in repeats until you learn the lesson. What you look at as failures are the most valuable parts of your life. Think back, and with hindsight, ask, 'How should I have acted then?' And so, convert them into LEARNING EXPERIENCES.

Success is great. But failure is the step up to growth.

No love, no fun: Claire, I suspect this is the key to your prison. Life was meant to be lived. It is not a race to be run, but a wonderful stroll along an adventure path. You have been self-absorbed, but anything but selfish. Well, now start looking after yourself. Risk enough to enjoy yourself as often as possible. Take on a sport, rejoin an amateur theatre, find a boyfriend, or a series of them. Keep it light. Learn to tell jokes, or for that matter, see if you can make them up. You are not a problem to be solved, but a capable, intelligent young woman with a life to live.

You have tried, for five years or so, to solve your problem by concentrating it. It hasn't worked, so try something else. Enjoy life, be a little selfish, ignore the big issues.

And seek counseling. Many people have defeated similar problems, and have moved on to perfectly satisfactory lives. You can too.

Bob Rich

Email me if you read this.

This question was answered by Dr. Bob Rich. Dr. Rich has 30+ years of experience as a psychotherapist. Dr. Rich is also a writer and a "mudsmith". Bob is now retired from psychological practice, but still works with people as a counselor.For more information visit:


Be mindful of negative self-talk and change it to something more positive.
"When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on."
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Own your successes, whether you made a perfectly cooked omelet or achieved a PhD.