“We each have two separate lives, our lived and unlived lives. We live everyday in our regular life, but we have another unlived life where we have an unrealized dream.” -Steven Pressfield
At the start of this year, I made the conscious decision to take all the learnings I’d gathered over the last few years and step with both feet into the role of teacher/guide/practitioner.
For anyone who’s spent a large chunk of their life in the role of student, you know how difficult it can be to take this step. In fact, anyone who’s stepped outside of their comfort zone gets the struggle that comes with stepping into liminal space. As Garance Doré described it in our podcast together, liminal space is the blurry in-between. The foggy place of uncertainty.
For a lot of people, this is also the place where fears fester (especially fear of failure and judgment), stress peaks, and exhaustion takes over.
Of course, there are the people that move through transitional periods of their life with grace, who take it all as a great adventure. And, depending on the circumstance, I can experience change in this way, too.
But when it comes to career…well, I nearly always experience the former.
And the thing is, it’s not as easy to “just get over” or “push through” as people try to make it seem on social media. Because, of course, when you start to be riddled with fear and exhaustion, you begin to wonder if you’re actually doing the right thing, if you’re headed toward the right path. And then, sometimes, even when you can get in touch with your truth and remember that, yes, this is definitely where you should be going, that knowing still doesn’t quite feel like enough to keep you committed to this growth. And so, often, we can slip back into old patterns slowly, until, one day, we find ourselves right back where we started, which can be comforting for a bit, but then, typically, feels incredibly frustrating, if not downright depressing.
If you’ve been here as I’ve been, I’m sending you so much love. Because, really, I get it.
Two things have historically helped me navigate difficulties in life. The first is faith, which, for me, comes from tapping into my spirituality, which is another post for another day. The second, which I’ll speak about here, is education.
There’s something that is so validating (and therefore soothing) for me, and for many others I know too, about understanding why we react to situations and go on to behave in the way we do. It makes us feel seen, understood, and not alone. And, too, once we know that what we’re going through is actually par for the course and not because we’re broken, we’re able to perceive our path differently.
Meaning, we’re able to see that we’re exactly where we’re supposed to be, that we’re experiencing precisely what we’re supposed to be experiencing, and that, as such, any difficulty we’re encountering is part of the path. With this perspective, we can appreciate the struggles in our lives as we can recognize them as teachers. And ultimately, this allows us to keep on our path, to keep on growing into the person we feel so called to become.
So, when it comes to navigating liminal space, what I felt compelled to understand is why on earth it is so challenging—on a biological and emotional level. Let’s start with our biology.
What’s going on in our brains that makes it so hard to embrace change?
According to Forbes writer Carol Kinsey Goman, the majority of our activities are habitual, and these habitual activities are controlled by the part of the brain called the basal ganglia. Because we’re so used to carrying out these activities, they don’t require a ton of energy.
You can think here of those activities that make up your morning routine. In my life, these include things like waking up 6am, putting on the kettle, taking my vitamins, going to wash my face, coming back into the kitchen, pouring the hot water into my french press, and taking my coffee into the living room where I sip it for a few minutes before rolling out my yoga mat. We all have our own routines that we move through each day without much thought.
These habitual activities are like well worn paths in our brains. Because we trod down them so frequently, there is not much energy required to do so.
Whereas, when we engage in new activities, it’s as if we are asking ourselves to walk off the beaten path and make our way through a thick forest. It takes more conscious effort, which makes it feel harder and more tiring.
What’s happening in our brains to make this harder, as Goman explains, is our prefrontal cortex is being stimulated. This is an energy-intensive part of our brain, which explains our fatigue when we’re in a season of growth—and also why we slip back into old habits when we’re stressed and tired. We’re low on resources when we’re stressed out and exhausted, and that causes our prefrontal cortex to disengage, and us as a result to go back to our old habits.
What’s more, Goman explains, “The prefrontal cortex is also directly linked to the amygdala (the brain’s fear circuitry, which in turn controls our ‘flight or fight’ response). And when the prefrontal cortex is overwhelmed with complex and unfamiliar concepts, the amygdala connection gets kicked into high gear. All of us are then subject to the physical and psychological disorientation and pain that can manifest in anxiety, fear, depression, sadness, fatigue or anger.”
So, since our bodies are interpreting change as, essentially, a threat, it’s not surprising that growth feels so hard. Our bodies are trying to protect us by encouraging us to get back to a place of comfort, a place that feels safe. And we’re fighting against our bodies!
You could say then that we are hardwired to resist change, to take the path of least resistance. This is just how we are designed. Our brains and bodies are doing their best to keep us out of harm’s way. And, unfortunately, they view change/growth as a threat.
If only we could upgrade this human suit of ours, right? That would make things a hell of a lot easier.
While we may not be able to do that, there are a number of things we can do to make change easier.
How to manage the fear of uncertainty
As mentioned, one of the reasons our prefrontal cortex gets overwhelmed and kicks in our ‘flight or fight’ response is our being met with uncertainty.This is something I’ve personally had to learn to befriend given the life I’ve chosen to lead, both as an expat and as an entrepreneur. How?
For me, the biggest thing that helped was strengthening my faith. I firmly believe that, provided I’m acting in accordance with my rightful path, I will be taken care of. If you want to learn more about this, I suggest reading Gabby Bernstein’s The Universe Has Your Back.
If you’re not particularly spiritual or that just doesn’t feel grounded enough for you, no worries. I get it. Uncertainty can be troubling as it can have us drumming up the worst case scenarios in our minds, essentially getting us to focus on all that we may lose.
So if spirituality isn’t for us, or just doesn’t entirely do it for us, how do we manage our fear of uncertainty when we want to make change? After all, change necessitates our stepping out of our familiar comfort zone and into the void of the unknown.
Meet Your Fears Head On
Jonathan Fields’ book Uncertainty suggests a few things. First, as much as possible, come face-to-face with your fears. So often I find that my thoughts are far scarier than the thing I’m getting wound up about actually is. In fact, that’s always been the case for me. So, consider what it is that you need to do next in order to propel yourself closer to the change you seek, and rather than put it off, lean into it.
Fields uses the example of the author of War and The Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger, who overcomes his fear of failure by harnessing the energy created by the fear, and using it as a motivating force to drive his creativity. This is a beautiful example of not letting fear keep you from what you want to do, but rather leaning into fear.
Stay Grounded via Routines and Rituals
Another tactical piece of advice is to avoid getting tunnel-vision and keep your life multi-dimensional. This is one that is particularly important if, like me, you can tend to be super passionate… and neglectful of those things that fall outside the scope of your goals.
It’s easy to be in that headspace. You feel like you have tons to do, and you’re excited about it all too, and so you push other things out of the way.
The thing is though that your routines and rituals—your standing brunch with your best friend, your date nights with your partner, your exercise class, your morning meditation—these act as what Fields calls ‘certainty anchors.’ They are pieces of your life that you can rely on, and that bring you joy and a sense of calm, replenishing you for when you do return to the more demanding parts of your life—such as doing the uncomfortable work needed to create change!
On the note of exercise and meditation, there are also a number of physical and mental exercises we can strategically employ to strengthen our focus, and, like the certainty anchors, induce calm, in order to ultimately thrive in uncertain times. Fields mentions the following specifically: zen meditation, hypnosis, visualizing your working progress, running, and biking. I personally am inclined toward the graceful, soothing movement that is Ballet Beautiful, and I will forever evangelize about it.
One of my favorite perspectives on navigating any type of fear comes from Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art. He writes that fear is not a sign that you should give up. Rather, it’s a sign you’re on the right track.
The way he explains it, the emotions that come up for us are indicators that we care. We wouldn't be afraid of failing if we didn’t.
Fear is a solid indication that your dream—whether that’s a creative project, a behaviour change, or a lifestyle you’re feeling called to embrace on the whole—is meaningful enough to pursue. Harness this fear as Sebastian Junger does and use it to motivate yourself to keep on your path.
Reflect on the Bigger Picture
Ask yourself any or all of these questions to reduce your fear of uncertainty. They’ll bring you back to your ‘why’ and ground you at the same time.
- How will my life look if I give in to fear and do nothing?
- If I go for it and fail, how may I recover?
- If I am successful, what would that look like? How would it feel?
That last point is crucial—not only for getting out of fear, but for actively creating the change you seek.
How to Create Change with Greater Ease
As Dr. Joe Dispenza writes about in Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself, shifting your focus on what you do want through reflection, yes, but also through gratitude and positive visualization, allows you to create the life you are after.
Ultimately, his work boils down to the idea that you can shape your reality with what and how you think about yourself and the world.
Earlier we talked about neural pathways by likening them to a well-worn path (those deeply ingrained, long-standing habits that are hard to break out of), and a thick forest with no path (the new habits we’re trying to create that are hard to stick to).
But we didn’t talk about what to do about this. How do we actively implement new habits when it’s so hard?
Here’s where Dispenza’s work with meditation comes in, specifically visualization.
When we engage in this practice of visualizing our goals, we are pruning away old habits and crystallizing the details of what we want to call into our lives. Once we get clear, we can focus in on this picture, which creates a roadmap for our transformation.
So, this is a two-part process. Pruning away, and planting anew.
To effectively prune, we must get clear on the issues that are bothering us and observe them without judgment. This self-awareness allows us to understand our patterns and see clearly that which we need to release and that which we need to strengthen.
When it comes to releasing that which is holding us back, we need to actively challenge the beliefs that are holding us back by getting to the root of where these beliefs came from. Once you’re aware of the root, you need to focus on the truth, which is that you are deserving of what your soul is desiring.
Part two, this planting part of the process, involves mental rehearsal. You may have already done this if, for instance, you used to imagine yourself doing your speech in front of your class back in high school prior to actually doing it. Unfortunately, many of us do this in the not so helpful way, and imagine ourselves flubbing. That was my experience anyway—wouldn’t recommend it!
The point with mental rehearsal is to, yup, do the opposite of what lil Mackenzie did and see yourself achieving what you would like to. Get super clear on the details. How does this 2.0 version of yourself walk and talk? What does (s)he think about? How does (s)he think? Who are you looking up to? Spending time with?
The clearer the picture, the easier it is to step into.
In sum, the reason change is so hard is because we’re hardwired to stay “safely” in our comfort zones, and when we step outside of it our brains signal to our bodies that we’re unsafe. What’s more, change means letting go of old habits that are less energy intensive for us to carry out, and requires conscious effort to act in new ways, which requires more effort at first.
To embrace the fear of uncertainty that comes with stepping into liminal space, consider strengthening your faith, and if that’s really not your jam, meet your fears head on, reframe them as signs that you deeply care about where you’re headed (and therefore on the right path), and keep your grounding rituals in place so that you maintain space in your life for calm and joy.
To call in the change you seek, prune away the limiting beliefs holding you back, and get clear on what you really want—then mentally rehearse living that life through visualization.
Resources for further reading
Breaking The Habit of Being Yourself, by Dr. Joe Dispenza
Uncertainty, by Jonathan Fields
The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield
The Universe Has Your Back, by Gabby Bernstein
Top 10 Reasons Why Change Is Hard
Why It Is So Hard To Change
Why Do Humans Resist Change?
Why Do We Resist Change
Why We Resist Change & What Leaders Can Do About It