Red flags vs fear of new things

I don’t know a solution to this, but this is a problem I think it’s worth discussing: It can be hard to identify red flags when you have a general fear of change and trying new things.

For some of us, anticipating change always or usually feels bad, regardless of whether there’s anything actually wrong. For instance, I hate all new TV shows until I’ve watched them with someone else at least three times. To use more weighty examples: for a lot of people, moving to a new apartment, taking a new job, starting school, getting close to another person, exploring a new hobby, eating new foods, or anything that involves change, will at first invoke an unreasonable sense of dread whether or not anything is actually wrong.

For most people who have routine fear of new things, it can sometimes be important to override that dread and do some new things anyway. Because sometimes change is necessary, or an improvement. But overriding and ignoring dread all the time causes a serious problem.

The problem is - sometimes the feelings of dread are because you’re noticing red flags. Sometimes the problem isn’t that you’re generally averse to change; sometimes the problem is that you’re noticing something that’s actually wrong.

I’m not sure what the solution is. Most people get told that the best way to avoid walking into trouble is to always trust your gut. That’s not necessarily viable for people whose guts tend to dread all change. Trusting all of those instincts would mean never trying anything new, and also never walking away from bad situations (since that would have to involve change). But disregarding your gut all the time doesn’t work well either, because sometimes it’s the only thing alerting you to trouble.

I think the best approach might be: listen to your gut, but don’t necessarily obey it. I think it’s a good idea to think, in as concrete terms as possible, what your gut feeling might be about. Some examples of questions that some people find helpful in that regard (not exhaustive, and not all the questions on this list are helpful for everyone with this problem):

  • Is the dread you are feeling the same way you always feel when you’re doing something new, or does this feel different?
  • (If it feels like a different feeling, it’s very likely something you should be taking seriously)
  • Are you afraid of a particular person?
  • Do you know why you’re afraid of them? Is it that they’re unfamiliar, or something in particular about them?
  • Are you afraid of a particular risk?
  • Does something seem physically unsafe?
  • Are there other available options that would be safer?
  • Do people seem to be treating you respectfully?
  • Is someone being mean to you, or to other people, in a way that’s making the new thing seem inadvisable?
  • Are people assuming that you can do things that you can’t?
  • Is anyone treating you like a child?
  • Is someone taking your private decisions weirdly personally?
  • Are you being pressured into spending money you can’t afford to spend?

I don’t think that there is a general answer to this. I think that deciding whether to go with your gut feeling, or whether to assume that you’re just fearing change, is something that you have to decide on a case by case basis. Either option involves risks; it’s ok to decide which risk you’d rather take in a certain situation. Sometimes that will mean you do the new thing (and risk ignoring a red flag); sometimes it will mean you don’t do the new thing (and risk avoiding a necessary or beneficial change for irrational reasons). Sometimes that will mean doing the new thing, but cautiously. Sometimes that will mean modifying the new thing. All are legitimate approaches; you’re the only one who can decide.

It’s ok to decide that something real is going on and that you’re not going to do the thing (even though it’s possible that you’re afraid for no good reason). It’s ok to decide that you’re going to risk doing the thing (even though it’s possible that you’re ignoring a red flag.) Both have risks. There’s no generalized answer to every situation; it’s a decision you have to make for each situation.

tl;dr If you’re generally averse to change, it can be really hard to tell whether your apprehension about a new situation is irrational fear of change, or a red flag you’re picking up on. It can help to evaluate in concrete terms what you think you might be noticing. 

For those of you who have a general aversion to change and want to be able to do new things sometimes: How do you deal with this? How do you tell when bad feelings are related to general aversion to change, and when they’re related to red flags you’re picking up on?