Can't change
September 18, 2009 6:59 AM   Subscribe

Why do I have a fear of people seeing me change or do anything out of character?

I can't figure this out. I have a fear of people seeing me change (primarily my parents, whom I live with). For example, I would like to do some weightlifting, but the idea of me buying some dumbbells is unfathomable because my parents would see that I have taken an interest to changing myself. Going for a walk or brushing my hair differently is pretty well impossible for the same reason. These are minor examples, but there are other "parts of growing up" which I haven't started doing because of this fear. It pretty much blocks me from doing anything out of character, thus my life is like Groundhog day. I can't associate this with any diagnosis myself... has anyone heard of or experienced it?

P.S: I have a referral to a psychiatrist, but, being out of character, I'm hesitant to go unless I can do so without anyone else knowing. That's how nuts I am. And yes it took a lot of guts to get that referral.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Because you'd feel ridiculous if you failed at the change, perhaps? Maybe your self image is so low that you think you'd be gilding a turd? You know, lipstick on a pig? Trying and failing is more embarassing than not trying, right?

These are my initial reactions, based on my own fears, most of which have been overcome after years of therapy. I've been that nuts. You're in good company.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:26 AM on September 18, 2009

Have you been ridiculed in the past for trying things that didn't work out or that you later discovered you didn't want to pursue? Or do you do it to yourself, perhaps? ("Oh yeah right, *you're* going to be a weightlifter; let's see how long that lasts.") If so, of course you'd want to avoid not being "successful" with new exploratory endeavors.
posted by Wordwoman at 7:28 AM on September 18, 2009

Read this book.

It has been very beneficial for me dealing with a similar feeling.
posted by zennoshinjou at 7:32 AM on September 18, 2009

I used to have this sort of problem. I would hide books, music, anything that made me seem like a different person at age 15 than I had been at age 13. I have no idea how old you are, but if you're that age, I wouldn't worry too much, it'll probably get better.

If you're older, then I would suggest, long term, thinking about moving out of the house. There's a freedom in living on your own that really helps with this. Your parents have known you your whole life, and when you deal with them you're dealing with your entire past.

For me, I think this was a lot of it. There was this implicit fear that if my parents saw me doing something I didn't do when I was 11, they would be disappointed in the "new" me and wish I hadn't changed. With people who aren't your parents, there's less of this, although it's still there a bit.

Short term, it might be worth trying to make a bigger rather than smaller deal out of any change you want to make. Something like "Mom, dad, I've made up my mind and I think I need to get myself dumbells." It might be hard to work up the courage to do this, but once you do it, it's done. Also, you'll notice that they don't care. This is the most important thing. When you sit down with them and make a big announcement about something totally trivial, they're just going to say "sure, whatever, let's eat." It makes it easier to internalize that they don't care when you make them tell you.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:34 AM on September 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Fear of criticism, fear of being asked "why" you are doing these things? How are you at taking compliments, accepting praise, or talking about yourself in general. Plus what if you try something new, someone notices, and then makes fun of you for it? It sounds like you have been shamed into inactivity. I hear ya, it sucks. Sometimes you just hav to not give a fuck about what other people might think. Easier said than done.
posted by mokeydraws at 7:36 AM on September 18, 2009

Whether or not we've decided we want them to, the things we do partially define us as a person, at least to others, and if we're still figuring ourselves out, then the scrutiny and attention can be intolerable.

This is probably why it's so common for teenagers to hole up and spend so much time in private. You are trying to listen to the still, small voice in yourself that lets you know who you really are, and you need as little interference as possible.

You MUST not let this keep you from evolving. I think you're just going to have to practice gritting your teeth and making these decisions on your own terms wherever possible. If your parents or others try to comment, you can (at least temporarily) keep your air of mystery by saying something like, "I'll let you know when I'm ready to talk about it." If you are respectful about it, that should be all you have to say, unless you're messing around with anything dangerous.

If a psychiatrist thinks you're depressed and in need of medication, then maybe that will help too. But it also helps to be able to talk about these things openly with non-family types, so talking may be all you need. Good luck!
posted by hermitosis at 7:39 AM on September 18, 2009

Not to be a copy-paste monkey, but this is kind of the critical bit that that book is about and its worth putting out in front of the link:
"Mindset is "an established set of attitudes held by someone," says the Oxford American Dictionary. It turns out, however, that a set of attitudes needn't be so set, according to Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford. Dweck proposes that everyone has either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. A fixed mindset is one in which you view your talents and abilities as... well, fixed. In other words, you are who you are, your intelligence and talents are fixed, and your fate is to go through life avoiding challenge and failure. A growth mindset, on the other hand, is one in which you see yourself as fluid, a work in progress. Your fate is one of growth and opportunity."
posted by zennoshinjou at 7:41 AM on September 18, 2009

I have done the same thing. I've always thought it was a matter of pride. If people see me change, they will know I wasn't mature and perfect to begin with.

Age has mostly cured me of this. Now that I'm mature and perfect.
posted by The Deej at 7:43 AM on September 18, 2009 [7 favorites]

I can definitely, definitely relate to this. I think for me it had to do with being afraid of the comments and questions that would follow any change I made to myself. I was also afraid of being considered 'inauthentic.' And I was horrified by feeling watched and scrutinized. Finally, constant self-changing and experimentation sort of seems to go along with 'youth'. I was afraid of being seen as immature. And yeah, I think pride has a lot to do with it.

Changing things about yourself puts you into new territories and makes you feel vulnerable as a result. This is scary. You may be afraid that your efforts at change will fail, leaving you embarrassed. Or that people won't like you once you're different. You might also feel a great deal of anxiety, which inhibits you (in which case, seeing a psychiatrist is a great idea. If that's not it, though, you might want to see a pychologist instead. But then again, a psychiatrist can perform a proper assessment).

I took baby steps to get the changes going. It stared at about 17 and more than 10 years later, I'm still at it. First, I dyed my hair a different colour, then wore 'uncharacteristic' clothes. Hung out with new people. Developed interests that my peers thought were wierd. These may feel like silly, petty things, but these are significant steps. What you are working towards is the freedom to find out who you are. To try all kinds of things. To decide what you like and what you don't like. And the older you get, the less you'll care what other people think of you (lord knows I'm still working on this one).

I got a neat kind of confirmation this summer that changing myself doesn't really make me seem weak, insecure and immature. My uncle said to me "You're an interesting person. You're always different when I see you. I like that."

That felt really good.
posted by kitcat at 7:54 AM on September 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I do the same thing around my immediate family, but it's not so much about fear of failure as it is a fear of appearing weak. For the same reason, I don't like to cry around them or share anything that really troubles me. We are still loving and open, but I do avoid appearing weak. It makes me sad because I fear I will regret this mindset as my parents age. I may someday wish I had shared more with them.

I don't know if this requires a diagnosis, per se, but in working to change it I have found the best thing is just to take small steps to move out of your comfort zone: in small ways every now and then, take that risk and show them one little change. Don't do it all at once. It will get easier with time.
posted by Pomo at 7:55 AM on September 18, 2009

Also, take a listen to this Cat Stevens song. It's just great.
posted by kitcat at 8:02 AM on September 18, 2009

Depending on the home environment (although the parental home is probably a prime candidate for this), changes of the type described may result in you having to give an account for yourself, or in reactions of a 'who do you think you are?' variety. Which can be quite dispiriting.
posted by robself at 8:03 AM on September 18, 2009

I have the same sort of hangups, although I manage to fight through them. Something like dressing a little nicer strikes me as something I'll end up getting ridiculed for, even though I am sure it won't really matter in the end. I think it comes down to not wanting to fail - but I'm trying to embrace failure a little more.
posted by backwards guitar at 8:20 AM on September 18, 2009

I think there will always be normalizing societal forces on us from any number of directions. And particularly from Family when we are living at home.

it sounds like you need to try and move out of the house, or just learn to say the hell with what they think. I'm going to do X anyway.

I found goign away to University really challengaing in that way and I know people who have re-invented themselves significnatly when moving to another city.
posted by mary8nne at 8:21 AM on September 18, 2009

Why do I have a fear of people seeing me change or do anything out of character?

Yup, I've experienced this fear. You mention your parents specifically, so I would ask yourself: how do your parents tend to behave when you do something "out of character?" Do they make a big deal out of it, or act surprised? This can can feel intrusive and embarrassing, even if they're trying to be supportive. I'm willing to bet they're the source of the idea that something is out of character in the first place. They might be imposing their own notions of what you're "really" like, or how you're supposed to behave, and refusing to accept that new behaviors are also part of who you really are. I don't think there's a named disorder for these feelings, but I've done some reading in the field of attachment theory, which suggests that intrusive or over-controlling parents can instill in their children a long-lasting residual fear of acting independently. That fear might be adaptive when you're small and helpless, but doesn't serve you well in adulthood.

You have a right to be different from your parents' preconceptions of who you are, and you have a right to privacy if that's what it takes to keep people from bugging you about it. Maybe you can't hide the dumbbells or your new hairstyle, but I like hermitosis' suggested answer, "I'll let you know when I'm ready to talk about it," if your parents make a fuss. Another idea I have is to say, "There's all kinds of things you didn't know about me. Pretty cool, huh?"
posted by Dixon Ticonderoga at 8:48 AM on September 18, 2009

I think this is a pretty normal feeling. For one thing, people you're close to actually do define their own identities in relation to what you are like to some degree. So it can actually be a little off-putting or even threatening to them when you start to change. And then they may start making subtle comments or hints as a reaction to this, etc.

I think the main thing is to realize that all of these feelings, both your own and those coming from others, don't actually have to tie you down. You can just accept them as being part of the overall situation, and make a decision about what you want to do. Try small changes at first, and notice the reactions coming both from yourself and others. Then you can notice that actually, you can ride all of this stuff out a lot more easily than you previously thought. If you start to notice that, you'll feel much less restricted in what you can do.
posted by dixie flatline at 11:24 AM on September 18, 2009

For me, this went hand in hand with depression and some pretty shitty self esteem.

I was astonished that anyone would want to hang out with a total pathetic loser like me. The only explanation I could think of was that I'd managed to hide my total pathetic loserdom from the world. I wasn't a good person — no, that clearly wasn't it; I didn't feel like a good person — but apparently I was putting up a good enough act to keep my friends and family from hating me as much as I hated myself.

And that meant that whatever I did, I could not change the act. I had to stay consistent, because if I made any changes the cracks would start to show and I would be revealed as a total pathetic loser once and for all.

I suspect that some of it also stemmed from having been at the low end of the totem pole in grade school. If you're an unpopular, sort of dorky kid, it seems like there's some secret formula you need to know to make friends — what to say, what to wear, what to like, what to dislike. When I made it to high school and started making friends of my own, it was like I'd hit on that secret formula totally by accident. I had no idea what I was doing right, which led me to the same conclusion — I just couldn't change anything or I'd lose all those friends again.

For me, there were two things that helped. One was tackling the depression — which meant seeing a psychiatrist, which I really recommend you do, and also seeing someone for talk therapy, which I recommend as well if you get the chance. And the other thing that helped was learning to trust my friends. That was something that came with time for me. The longer you've been close to someone, and the closer you get with them, the easier it is to believe that they like you for who you are. By now, I've been close with those same friends from high school for ten or fifteen years. I'm pretty sure if they were gonna ditch me for eating the wrong breakfast food or wearing the wrong color socks, they'd have done it already.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:41 AM on September 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

I felt this often when I was younger. For me, I believe it was somewhat an issue of security. My identity (even if I didn't like it) was what I knew and felt secure in. Changing into someone else was so foreign that it felt scary and unsafe. And, I was also fearful of the expectations people would have of me, and of course the criticism that I imagined they would have. Have you gotten criticism from people when you have changed?
I didn't (besides from myself) fact, I got praise, but I just didn't want the attention because I wanted to be more invisible. Do you like to take up less space in the world? (maybe its an issue of not drawing attention to yourself).

This might be helpful:
- Be kind to yourself, really. It sounds hokey, but you have to befriend yourself and give yourself a break.
- Notice those self critical thoughts, maybe label them "self criticisms" or keep a notebook of them.
- Give yourself credit for getting that referral. It sounds like this was a big step for you. Great! Use this momentum to go to the're getting so much closer, and he/she will be so much more helpful than us, who do not know you.

Good luck!
posted by hazel at 5:28 PM on September 18, 2009

Agree about seeing the psychiatrist. Also a good therapist. Generally, whatever the surface reasons for the fears, the ultimate underlying reasons usually turn out to be fears that if you change (1) the people you need(ed) to survive will abandon you, and/or (2) if you change you will start to view things differently and want to leave THEM (but will be too scared to because...see (1)

The fact that you still live with your parents only complicates things. You probably feel/are not ready to be out on your own.

These are all reasons to consult a good therapist, who will help you work out these problems.

What is really positive about your situation is that you recognize that your thoughts and fears are irrational. This is a VERY good prognostic sign. As is getting the referral in the first place. However, if you do go to the psychiatrist, it may be that you'll walk out with a prescription as if that's all there is to it.

But that's not all there is to your "issues." You need to ask the psychiatrist to refer you to a psychotherapist (a psychologist, social worker, mental health counselor, etc. Most psychiatrists don't practice psychotherapy) -- meaning somebody you go to at least once a week, generally, to sort through these thorny issues).

You need to explore your fears of change on a verbal level (in my opinion), in a SAFE place.
You need a therapist who is there just for YOU, not for your parents or anyone else, someone objective who is there to professionally help you without a vested interest in what you do.

Good luck to you!
posted by DMelanogaster at 6:37 PM on September 18, 2009

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