The 3 Most Dangerous Psychological Barriers to Change

When you embrace an agile lifestyle, you also embrace change.

But change can be a scary thing. Here’s how you can break down those psychological barriers to change.

3 Psychological Barriers to Change

Welcome to Throwback Thursday, where we take a look at a past Agile Lifestyle feature that’s still as timely and relevant as ever. This article has been completely updated with the latest research and information.

Nothing endures but change.

— Heraclitus

Change is the one constant in the universe. It happens in your personal life and it happens in your career. It can happen by choice, and it can also happen without your permission or input.

There’s no question that a view of life that emphasizes change can leave you feeling rudderless. But once you understand its essential truth, you can begin to equip yourself with the necessary tools to ride the waves of change.

I call these set of tools, principles, and values “agile” but not everyone would agree with that, and that’s okay. Whatever you call it, you must recognize that adaptability is the most important character trait to have moving forward.

As we speak, in a garage or basement somewhere, two people are creating the next Microsoft or Apple or Facebook. And what they create will topple the current order and disrupt the status quo.


What will that technology do to your industry? Your personal life? Your career?

We can’t answer these questions because it hasn’t happened yet. But knowing that they will happen, we can prepare ourselves to adapt.

But first, we have to knock down the psychological barriers to change.

What Is Change?

In an interview with Lifehacker’s Adam Dachis, relationship and family therapist Roger S. Gil defined change in the following way:

For our purposes, let’s define change as “a modification to a person’s environment, situation, or physical/mental condition that results in circumstances that challenge their existing paradigms.” What our definition implies is that humans have a tendency to define how their world is supposed to work. Whenever something happens in our personal world or to our own being that is inconsistent with the way we feel the world should be, we encounter change.

Gil notes that any kind of change, good or bad, is likely to cause stress.

Our brains are pattern recognition and prediction engines. We receive some external stimuli, try to match it to our pre-existing experiences and worldview, and forecast what happens.

The psychological pain of change is at its greatest when:

  • We have no experience to match. What we are experiencing is truly new, and therefore frightening; or
  • Our prediction turns out wrong. This is the pain of unmet expectations. It’s millions of college grads entering a job market that doesn’t want them. It’s millions of homeowners going upside down on their mortgages.

Change is constant throughout your life. Everyone goes through the painful lessons of being a kid, graduating school and starting your career, getting trapped by the siren song of homeownership (or not), and changing careers (perhaps several times).

The friction of unmet expectations creates the mental experience of change.

After all, if you had no expectations in life, would you ever know what it meant to experience “change?” Your life would be in a state of constant flux; the concept would be meaningless for you.

I’m not saying you should live your life with no preconceived notions or expectations. That’s probably impossible.

What I am saying is that fear of change increases the more “in control” you need to feel. People who are less afraid of uncertainty and ambiguity are, by and large, people who aren’t stressing out about things they have no control over.

The truth is, there’s not a ton of things in life that you can control. Stressing out about what you can’t control is like trying to fight the ocean. You can’t.

Better instead to ride the wave.

What Are Psychological Barriers?

Psychological barriers are the beliefs and emotions you have that inhibit your actions.

Let me explain.

Most people who are unhappy and stuck in meaningless jobs know that they need to make a change. The problem isn’t with the rational side of the brain. Your rational brain understands that if you continue to do what you’re doing today, there’s no reason to think things will get better.

But we’re not purely rational creatures. Heck, we’re not even mostly rational.

We erect psychological barriers to change in our lives, even though we know we need to adapt to survive.

The three most dangerous psychological barriers are these:

  • Fear of Change. Change is uncomfortable. Just thinking about change provokes a physiological reaction. We’ve evolved a psychological barrier to change, because change used to mean the possibility of dying. Even though it doesn’t signal death so much now, we still have this basic fear response that results in an instinct to resist change
  • Fear of Failure. Not everyone can accept failure. We have a culture that worships winners (while casually ignoring how many times they failed before they succeeded). High achievers like you and me were taught from a young age to never tolerate any mistakes, errors, or uncertainty. Every question has only one right answer. Even though we know in reality that the most important questions have no right answers, no answer at all, or have yet to be asked. That mental programming has made it difficult for our adult selves to take genuine risks.
  • Belief in the System. Human beings are social animals so groupthink is pervasive and tough to crack. When society says you need to check off boxes x, y, and z to guarantee success and live the good life, you get an overwhelming urge to do just that. Going against the Herd is one of the most difficult things you can do as a human being. So I don’t take it lightly.

I can’t say there is a sure-fire way to break through these psychological barriers. Remember that your rational mind already knows what to do. The solution doesn’t come from a logical place in your mind. You can’t out-think your psychological barriers.

But you can get comfortable with them. Here are a few observations to get you on the right track:

1. Have patience.

Agile living won’t bear fruit on day one. Sorry if you were expecting it to. Focus on the big picture and you’ll start to realize which activities are adding value to your life. Then you can start iterating them.

2. Get comfortable with failing.

Michael Jordan missed over 9,000 shots in his career. James Dyson created 5,127 prototypes before getting his revolutionary vacuum right. It’s okay to fail.

In fact, your mission today should be to go out and fail at something. This could be trying to get the phone number of an attractive stranger. Or negotiating the price of an item you know isn’t negotiable. You will most likely fail.

Once you realize that failure isn’t fatal, your comfort with failing will rise.

3. Test assumptions.

One way to defeat the Herd mentality is to probe the assumptions that underlie conventional wisdom.

Take, for example, the social script that says you should go to the most prestigious college you get into, regardless of cost. The assumption here is that prestigious schools will open doors for you that “lesser” schools won’t.

Check out these studies showing that students who could have gone to Harvard, Yale, etc. but went to a “lower tier” school ended up doing just as well in life.

In all likelihood, prestigious schools have been taking credit for their students’ achievements, not the other way around.

Faulty assumptions like this riddle nearly every social script you can think of.

Walking the unconventional path can get a little easier when you’re armed with uncommon knowledge.

4. Take action.

I’m sure there’s a hobby or a skill you’ve thought about pursuing for a long time. Give yourself license to experiment.

You can’t master anything until you go through a long period of sucking at it first. Click to tweet

So don’t be afraid to suck!

A version of this article first appeared on June 6, 2012.

Image by Matt Buck.

Opt In Image
How Much Time Would You Save With the Right Tools?
Get the 'App Guide' for Download NOW

In this free guide, I reveal the top 7 apps that make my career and personal life run smoothly. Hint: 5 of the apps I use every day are totally free! Sign up to receive blog updates, exclusive content, and the resource guide FREE!