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Why Emotional Growth is Scary: 3 Ways To Defeat Your Fear Of Change

Emotional growth does not come easily to most of us.

Some growth actually happens naturally in response to the passage of time, the development of our brain or challenging life events. But in most cases, we do have to fight for our forward steps.

Truth be told, real emotional growth is quite similar to building physical muscles. First, we must decide to purposely build ourself up, and then we must engage in an activity that’s challenging and uncomfortable for us in order to grow.

There are all kinds of ways in which being challenged or uncomfortable makes us naturally want to pull back and take comfort in the familiar (our old ways), even if it means giving up or going backward.

Part of the discomfort we experience as we grow comes from the fact that the more emotionally strong we get, and the more we begin to feel differently and act differently, the more it can upset the important people in our life. They may react with surprise or resentment when we do or say something unexpected, even if it’s it’s a sign of increased strength and health.

Fear of becoming different, plus the reaction of others to our changes, can make us doubt ourself, and question whether our growth path is the right one.

To see some examples of how this happens, meet Belinda, Matt, and Shelly.


Sitting across the table from her mother, Belinda began to feel very sad. This was the fourth time she had tried to explain to her mother her reasons for quitting her reliable job and enrolling in graduate school. “She will never understand why I needed to make this change,” she thought to herself. “Maybe she’s right. Maybe this is a mistake.”


Matt called his oldest friend from high school, as he usually did a few times every year, just to catch up on what was happening in their lives. But as they talked, Matt realized that Ricky was talking on and on about his drinking escapades, almost as if they were both still teenagers. Trying to listen to Ricky while also wishing to change the subject to something more interesting, Matt realized with a pang of regret and sadness that at this point he had little in common with his old friend. “That can’t be true. I can still party with the best of them,” he reassured himself.


“What movie do you want to see tonight?” Mark asked Shelly, his wife of 30 years, knowing full well that she would never express a preference and that they would end up seeing whatever he chose, as they always did. “I really want to see that new James Franco movie. Can we go to that one?” Shelly piped up unexpectedly. Mark practically jumped, he was so taken aback. He felt a jolt of anger that his wife would be so selfish as to request a movie he had no interest in at all.

When you are in the process of emotional growth like Belinda, Matt and Shelly, it can change your relationships in unpredictable ways. Someone you thought would always understand you suddenly doesn’t. Someone who once seemed like your forever friend suddenly seems stunted and boring. Or someone you thought would be proud of you for becoming more assertive disappoints you by being irritated instead.

The people in your life, who should be supporting you, can often fail you in this way. When they do it’s easy for their reactions to make you question yourself. Belinda may find herself doubting the decision she had courageously made for herself months prior. Matt may go barhopping with Ricky to try to prove he’s still able to be a partying guy.  Shelly may feel a pang of guilt for making her normally kind and loving husband so irritated, and be more hesitant to speak up for herself next time.  All three will lose some wind in their sails and some spring in their step, and this will be a great loss.

3 Ways Growing Pains Can Hold You Back

  1. The reactions from people you care about make you feel guilty or negative about your growth. This very clearly happened to Shelly. Even the most loving and supportive people in our lives may be unsettled or surprised when we begin to behave differently. If you allow their reaction to hurt you, it will hold you back from change.
  2. You see yourself faltering, begin to doubt your ability to change, and become discouraged. If Belinda allows herself to lose steam because of her mother’s doubt, she may begin to falter on her path. Seeing herself falter, she may be in danger of giving up.
  3. You realize you are losing someone important to you, and it pulls you backward.  Belinda and Matt are both in danger of this. Belinda is seeing that she is in danger of outgrowing her mother, and Matt realizes he’s outgrown his old friend Ricky. Each faces an increasing sense of loss in their relationships with important people in their lives. This may hold them back from change.

3 Ways To Cope and Keep on Growing

  • Talk to the people in your life about what you are changing and why. Recognize that their reaction is a momentary adjustment to change, not a blanket disapproval of the good work you’re doing.
  • Know that all change comes in fits and starts. Being knocked off your game is part of the game. Losing your momentum is natural and normal, and not a sign of failure. When you see yourself faltering, take note, have compassion for yourself, and get yourself back on track.
  • Realize that with every gain in life, there comes a loss. Some people in your life may become inspired by your growth, and begin to change as well. Others may be threatened by it, and try to hold you back. Others, like Ricky, may be so stuck in their own lives that as you grow, you have less and less in common with them. In these situations, begin to set boundaries to protect yourself, and allow yourself to grieve whatever you are losing in the relationship.

To learn much more about how to improve your relationships as you grow and change, see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

If you are prone to self-doubt like Belinda or have problems knowing what you want like Shelly, you may be living with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). CEN can be hard to see or remember. So to find out if you grew up with CEN, Take the CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.

Why Emotional Growth is Scary: 3 Ways To Defeat Your Fear Of Change

Jonice Webb PhD

Jonice Webb, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist who is recognized worldwide for her groundbreaking work in defining, describing, and calling attention to Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). She writes, speaks, and trains therapists on the topic, and is the bestselling author of two books, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. She also created and runs the Fuel Up For Life Online CEN Recovery Program. Since CEN can be difficult to see and remember, Dr. Webb created the CEN Questionnaire and other free resources to help you figure out if you have it. Take the CEN Questionnaire and learn much more about CEN, how it happens, and how to heal it at her website

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APA Reference
Webb PhD, J. (2018). Why Emotional Growth is Scary: 3 Ways To Defeat Your Fear Of Change. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 Mar 2018
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