One time a couple came in for a ‘3-hour power coaching session’ with me - let’s call them Simon and Alethia - and I witnessed them pull off a massive turnaround in record time.
When Simon and Alethia showed up to see me they had been dreaming of moving out of a big city and into a smaller, rural setting for no less than five years!
They were worn down by constantly thinking about this goal but never taking action on it - truly tired of having variations on the same conversation for years, feeling immobilized and endlessly ‘ping-ponging’ between wanting to go for their dream but feeling too afraid to do so.
In an intense and lengthy conversation, we covered many bases: we explored each individual’s fears and reservations as well as their hopes and dreams when they contemplated staying in their current home or lifting up their roots and transplanting to a new community.
The insights we unearthed were important and helpful but I believe the biggest catalyst that enabled this couple find the courage to finally make a decision and commit to it was to take an essential question that they had been pondering for five years and to turn it on its head.
So, what was that question?!
Well, what Alethia and Simon had been probing for so long was: “What could go wrong?”
Let me pause on this story for a sec and state a perhaps obvious but essential truth: most of us are afraid when we dare to create change in our lives.
Change is (not always but usually!) frightening:
Sometimes it’s a little bit scary, you know, butterflies-nervousness-level coupled with excitement and sometimes it’s a freaking ton scary: anxiety over the top or wanna-pee-our-pants-terror. (No exaggeration!)
Feeling afraid to move in new ways is not unusual: for my clients, for me, or for you.
For one thing, it can feel incredibly vulnerable to want or name what we really want and then pursue those wants: we might take a risk and fail… or succeed… or encounter rejection… or judgment...or feel completely overwhelmed.... I mean, we rarely get guarantees at the onset of ANYTHING!
Some dreams feel so bold, audacious or perhaps out of reach that it requires courage just to imagine them - let alone articulate them out loud to ourselves or others.
We may struggle to feel entitled to our ambitions, yearnings, and longings or to believe that could ever really act on them or turn them into realities.
Other times, it’s frightening or painful to contemplate how others will be affected by our choices and the change we want to put into motion.
If you can relate, if you’re harbouring some dreams or feeling called to move in new directions but not taking action on your heartfelt impulses, you’re not alone.
It turns out, we’re hardwired in ways that often impede our willingness to take risks and grow - that make it more likely that we’ll stay put with our status quo.
We’re Wired for Safety & Security
That is, evolution shaped our brains to be highly sensitive to perceived risk, unpredictability, and threat in order to help us avoid perils and survive. It has been largely adaptive that we stick with the familiar because the unknown could present unforetold threats. Our current reality is at least known and thus feels more predictable than the unknown (regardless of the limitations or even excruciating pain points of our status quo situation).
So, while our brains are adaptive and truly remarkable in their efforts to keep us alive and safe, one problem is that their defence systems can result in our avoidance of taking risks that could potentially serve us really well - risks that could help us grow our dreams, evolve the conditions of our lives in wonderful ways (and others’ lives, even if it doesn’t always feel that way in the short term), and enable us to actualize more of our fullest potential.
Three Specific Biases that Can Get In Our Way
All rightee, I’m not a neuroscientist, but I’m gonna try my hand at outlining three particular brain biases/tendencies that can hold us back when we’re contemplating moving away from the status quo and towards new possibilities:
Loss Aversion Bias
I believe we often need to confront and address all three of these biases in order to bolster the courage to let go of the status quo and experiment with creating expansive change.
I’ll break each concept down, weave them in with Alethia and Simon’s journey and suggest tools you can use to live the fullest, most generative life you can - because life is brief and you deserve to make the absolute most of your ride, right?!
Ok, so the basic idea I’m trying to drive home here is this: in the face of uncertainty and unfamiliarity, our brains have a tendency to overestimate the level of risk or threat we may encounter in the unknown and unpredictable future and underestimate the risks or threats of sticking with the status quo.
Witnessing so many clients navigate change, I’ve come to believe that it’s crucial we’re aware of this hardwired tendency to fear the unknown and cling to what is known so that we don’t let our biases and fears (often unconsciously) run the show and keep us playing small or stagnant.
Let’s Get Into It:
Negativity Bias & Loss Aversion:
My understanding of negativity bias is that we’re primed to pay more attention to the ‘negative’ than the ‘positive’ elements in our environment (because if we miss seeing that gorgeous delicate yellow flower, hey, no big deal; but if we miss noticing that tiger, oops, game over). Further, we’re inclined to retain an alertness of attention to the negative (in order to not miss seeing that tiger in the future, either) in a way we just don’t do with the positive.
Neuroscientist Rick Hanson outlined this in a great way in an interview with Marie Forleo: he explained that our brains ‘hang on’ to negative experience like ‘velcro’ in order to prevent re-experiencing them while they let the positive stuff simply flush through as ‘though through a sieve’ (because we just don’t need to reinforce those joyful or beautiful experiences for survival).
Loss aversion in cognitive psychology refers to people's tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains: aka, it is better to not lose $5 than to find $5.
In the context of creating life change, what I’ve observed is that we’re so powerfully wired to resist loss that we’ll often fixate on and take significant measures to avoid or prevent it - and, in doing so, neglect giving our attention to all the potential gains of the transformation we long for.
I’ve seen negativity and loss aversion biases often ‘get all muddled up together’ and play out with so many clients as they attempt to brainstorm possible change in their lives - making it sometimes extremely difficult for people to dream big in the first place, let alone dare to enact small or big changes.
Think back to Simon and Alethia for a minute:
I told you that we burrowed into their endlessly looping conversation and determined that they were in the predicament of fixating on examining what could wrong: what could go wrong if they stayed in their current context, what could go wrong if they moved - it was like they were wheeling around and seeing only potential risks and losses in every direction they turned.
Individuals get mired in this all the time, of course - and for couples, intractable positions may get even more entrenched and drawn out because it can be very difficult for the two partners to get on the ‘same page at the same time.’
Alethia and Simon described to me that they seemed to ‘take turns’ holding the excitement and the fear about taking a leap to move their family to a new place.
For example, Simon would sometimes dream of and muse aloud how he would love living in the country, thinking of campfires in the backyard and hikes with his kids. But Alethia might then tighten up and remind him of all the risks a move might present to each of their businesses.
Another time, Alethia might be the one to start imagining how special it could be to be in a bigger home in a smaller place. Her fears would soften and she’d drop into a greater sense of faith that she and Simon probably could rebuild their businesses successfully in a new place. Then Simon would often contract; he might start fretting about the financial risks or comment, “I hear you, Alethia, but what if being in a rural place isn’t the best thing for the kids?”
So, the two of them would endlessly yo-yo around, often taking turns going to bat for the various paths (reflecting the ambivalence they both held). Very rarely - if ever - could both partners inhabit together the position of feeling excitement, hope and faith about their dream of moving.
No wonder Simona and Alethia felt cornered and trapped in their quandary: they couldn’t see any ‘safe-enough’ move to act on! So, in not making an active decision, by default they stuck with their status quo.
Can you hear the influence and underlying assumptions of those negativity and loss aversion biases embedded in their inquiry? Perhaps you can empathize, relate or even feel and sense these influences at play - for them, and maybe somewhere in your life, for you.
The Usefulness of Asking “What Could Go Wrong?”
Now, before we took Simon and Alethia’s primary question and gave it the old “flip it and reverse it” move (thanks, Missy Elliott!) I want to first express that I validate their instinctive inquiry.
I believe it can be incredibly empowering to entertain ‘what could go wrong:’
Examining our fears and reservations about our choices may be crucial and helpful.
Taking into account the risks we perceive in our options and assessing which ones we are or aren’t willing to take could be a mature and wise consideration.
Because hey, life isn’t always a cake walk - by any stretch - and the choices we face may have grave, difficult, even traumatic consequences, for ourselves or others. That’s true.
However, one key tip here is to get specific about your fears and anxieties - I mean, drill down and get nitty gritty granular detailed about them.
Please DO NOT let them run amok in an amorphous, stalking predatorial kind of way: nope, my suggestion is that you stop, turn around, look at that terrifying stuff right in the face and wrangle those super-specific fears and anxieties onto paper.
(You can do this, even if the prospect that feels daunting. I am cheering you on!).
When we do this, we don’t let the negativity and loss aversion biases continue to operate unconsciously - at the level where they ‘run the show’ and powerfully influence our decisions.
Rather, by getting specific and crystal clear about what exactly feels threatening and uncomfortable and what future outcomes we fear, we make those thoughts and feelings conscious and then have a better chance at making informed, thoughtful choices about how to proceed in our lives.
To use neuroscience lingo again, by examining our worst-case scenario fears clearly on paper, we can shift out of our ‘scared brainstem and limbic systems’ and pull our prefrontal cortex into the equation.
The next step is to assess how we might: i) prevent and ii) handle our fears - thereby empowering ourselves even further to tolerate the level of risk we perceive.
Because hey, it’s pretty cool to realize that we - especially inspired by our dreams! - can be bigger and more powerful than our fears.
For Simon and Alethia, that meant examining their concerns and getting strategic:
S: “Ok, so what if we made the move and one or both of our businesses were struggling?”
A: “Well, maybe we could continue to keep a base of your business in the big city for now, as we build up new clients in the new community? Hmmm, and perhaps I could do more virtual work, so my career is less geographic dependent, anyway?”
S: “Heck, and if we really couldn’t make a go of the new venture, we could keep our city home rented out, so that we could always come back, if needed.”
Together, they started to tap into new levels of creativity, resourcefulness, and courage.
You, my dear, can do the same.
Let’s Flip It: What Could Go RIGHT?
So, the above work of facing fears and getting strategic was helpful and useful for Simon and Alethia.
But, as I said at the beginning, the MOST transformative, catalytic moment was when we flipped their core question.
I reflected to them that I was hearing the powerful underlying assumption “what could go wrong” reverberating through their discussion and then asked gently,
“What I’m curious about is, when you think of your dream and leaving the big city for life in a smaller community and more nature, what could go right?”
I mean, in the pause that followed, it was almost like I could see both their brains doing a double take, stepping back in confusion and literally reorienting to hold that question.
And then it was like a dam broke.
Something got unleashed in them (and I feel a bit emotional just bringing the moment back to mind, truth be told): the two of them were almost talking over each other, spilling out a huge amount of energy and inspiration, giving themselves permission to dare hope for the best.
Alethia blurted out, “Imagine if my business actually thrived even more than here, once it had time to get established?”
Simon built on her vision, “Wow, yeah! You did such an amazing job growing your art practice here - why wouldn’t you be able to do the same in a new community? There might be even greater need and less competition in the new town!”
Alethia added on, “And you know what? The kids love our weekends out of the city. Why would we doubt that they would be thrilled to be in nature all the time, out on their bikes as much as they want, swimming in the nearby lake, playing in the woods like it’s their backyard? And, Simon, we’re not moving to Alaska - we can do weekends when we want in Toronto. I bet this would be great for the kids.”
On and on they went, suddenly both on the same page - and the atmosphere was electric.
For so long, their focus had centred around all the variations of what could go wrong.
Simply inviting them to deeply focus on what could go right was a game changer.
Simon and Alethia left that three hour power session, and - I am not kidding! - secured a place to rent in the country within two weeks, preparing to move there another six or eight weeks later.
Five years of contracted ambivalence and sticking with the status quo.
One catalytic session.
Two weeks later & Simon and Alethia started to turn their long held dream into reality.
I don’t hear from Simon and Alethia often but when I do, they let me know they are thriving in their new home and how grateful they are that they made the move - and didn’t wait any longer!
Let’s Not Forget About Uncertainty Bias
Ok, so I honed in on the influence of negativity and loss aversion bias and how we helped reduce their impact on Simon and Alethia, freeing them up to take a very courageous leap.
The uncertainty bias is the third player in the triad that often keeps us in our status quo that I wanted to bring your attention to in the first of this three-part-series.
Ok, let me be honest: I just did a quick google check in at attempt to nail down an exact definition of uncertainty bias - and I’m not finding it right off the hop.
But you know what?
In this moment, I’ll speak from experience and observation, rather than claim that I’ve got the definitive science backing me up on this one.
Here’s my take: uncertainty bias is the tendency for us to feel more affinity with and allegiance to that which is perceived to be certain and less comfort and affinity with that which we perceive as uncertain.
(Again, this my own made-up definition. Lol, I have an academic social science background and I swear, I’ve read about as a legit studied cognitive bias but I am laughing to be pretty much winging this here. Dear god, the last thing I want to be a part of is any ‘fake news’)!
However, I can say with confidence - through supporting myself and so many others in creating change - that what I’m trying to get at here is a real thing.
That is, we tend to experience our status quo as more known, tangible, predictable and certain than an obscure, enigmatic future.
It’s as though we’re comparing a real apple, a green one sitting right in our hand - available to touch, smell, taste, even hear (as we crunch into it) - to the briefest sketch of a mango, an image that keeps morphing on the page and we’re attempting to draw it, then we erase it, and we keep trying to bring it into view but we can’t quite see it, let alone taste, smell, or touch it.
If you had an actual apple and mango together in full sensory reality, it would be a more fair comparison, right?
But that’s not how time works: that’s not how our present and potential future(s) exist in relationship to each other.
We don’t get to make our life choices with that kind of ‘even playing field’ between the status quo we perceive (and believe we ‘know’) and the future that is more difficult for us to perceive, know, or have confidence in.
On a practical level, how this translates is that, without concerted effort to imagine the future that we really yearn for, we’ll be biased towards maintaining our ‘certain’ current reality (even if it’s crappy) over taking action to create an ‘uncertain’ future (even if it could be amazing).
For Simon and Alethia, the ‘what could go right’ question opened up new terrain for them in regard to this uncertainty bias in addition to countering the negativity and loss aversion biases.
They started off with holding their current reality in mind akin to the apple I described and their potential future in the country was like that ephemeral sketch of a mango.
But once the “what could go right” question opened up the floodgates of their imaginations and expanded their perception of possibility, their ‘mango’ got enhanced and illumined and suddenly the comparison was a lot more balanced in their minds. Their ‘desired future’ began to feel more tangible, certain, and enticingly ‘within reach’ on a whole new level.
I’m guessing that kicking that uncertainty bias’ a bit to the curb was part of what enabled Simon and Alethia to step with greater confidence from their familiar reality to the brave new landscape of a whole new home and community.
Is this making sense?
Pro Tip: Fake Some Future “Certainty”
Listen, if you’re in the boat of contemplating a choice between your status quo and a totally unknown and unknowable alternative, you may benefit from doing what Simon and Alethia did: build up your as-of-yet-unactualized-scenario in your mind.
Write down, think about, and speak aloud about the future you want.
Try to create sensory attunement: what are you hearing, feeling, touching, smelling, or tasting in your new reality?
Try speaking or thinking in present tense, as though you’re actually inhabiting that new reality. (e.g. have a conversation with someone who’s game or write a journal entry as though you’re in your desired future - using present tense language)
For example, for someone wanting to embark on a new career path, projecting into the future might look or sound something like this:
“Wow. I’m doing it. I left my law practice and I’m running my own art business! At this moment, I’m sitting in my new studio, looking at my business card and getting ready for people to come for my first exhibit. I’ve partnered with Tabitha Brown, the collaborator I dreamed of - and she’s about to arrive to help set up the final details. I couldn’t be more thrilled. [Then please add way more sensory details yet!]”
This practice may sound cheesy or woo-woo, but on a brain level, it matters.
When you deeply imagine a future you want, you create an illusion in your brain of a more known, certain, and secure alternative to your status quo.
(Side note: please consider that your status quo is mutable and capable of multitudes of change and transformation but it often doesn’t feel that way - and there may be established ‘grooves and patterns’ in your longstanding conditions that are not easy to shake, evolve, or shift. A different future often holds the promise of a ‘clean new slate’ to work with and may feel or be embued with more limitless potential).
Of course, we don’t actually know what any path we choose will bring in the future - whether we stick with the status quo or not.
But my encouragement for you to dream big and detailed and imagine what you really want is not about trying to assure, control, or force what will happen in the future.
This isn’t ‘law of attraction’ stuff or suggestions on how to tip the scales in favour of ‘getting what you want’ - this is about using a brain hack so that you don’t cling out of bias to your status quo and give it an unfair advantage over the ‘unknown path’ when you’re making a choice about how you move forward in your life.
In effect, you’re tricking your mind to create a more equal playing field between the familiar reality you have now and the possible future you could have.
You’re creating an illusion of greater future ‘certainty’ so that you diminish the uncertainty bias effect: you’ll be less likely to stick with the status quo out of a distorted sense of fear and more likely to feel confident enough to seriously consider taking steps in the direction of your dreams, longings, and instincts.
This Isn’t About An Idealized - Or ‘Better’ - Future, Per Se
Listen, I’ve said it other times: drop the fantasy of a problem-free or overly idealized future.
What I’m trying to convey here is not that your life will necessarily be improved by making a change (maybe, maybe not).
And I’m certainly not trying to portray Simon and Alethia as an example to emulate or put on a pedestal for you to compare yourself to, though I find their story inspirational.
I’m thrilled for their courage and delighted in their happiness but I’m not trying to convey that:
Committing to change is inherently better than ‘recommitting’ to our status quo OR that
Quick, radical leaps are valued above a ‘slow and steady’ approach to change or life
I’m offering my perspective and tools in this post in hopes that more and more of us move through our lives motivated less by fear and more by love (as Rumi invites!).
So, let’s bring these biases into our awareness and not let them run the show, shall we?
I wish for you to dream up possibilities for your life grounded in your inspiration, wisdom, and joy - and that you increasingly trust yourself to act from those qualities or states of being.
How About You?
So, when you reflect on your life, is there anywhere that you may be falling prey to these negativity, uncertainty, and loss aversion biases?
Are you more focused on what could go wrong (especially what you might lose) and less in touch with what could go right (especially what you might gain) if you summoned up the bravery to move in new directions?
Sometimes, all three of these tendencies roll up together to stack the decks against you risking a change (big or small) - even if your status quo is no longer in your best interests.
You know how I emphasized at the beginning that we’re more likely to overestimate the risks of moving into a new direction and underestimate the risks of sticking with the status quo?
Well, is there any area of your life where making change feels riskier but you can sense that sticking with your status quo may actually hurt you more in the long run?
Or do you have a niggling gut instinct that you might miss out on some amazing possibilities if you don’t find the courage for change soon and just keep sticking with your status quo?
If so, here is my quick tool summary that you can add to your tool kit to help you move forward with greater clarity and confidence.
Hold your heartfelt vision in mind and:
Ask yourself (and write out your responses) “What could go WRONG?”
Consider how you could prevent and handle if your worst-case scenarios came to pass
Ask yourself (and write out your responses) “What could go RIGHT?” (please let loose!)
Dream up your desired future in detail and articulate about it in present tense
Finally, you could deliberately flesh out the potential risks and benefits of each of your possible paths. This sounds a lot like a traditional “pro’s and con’s” list and I’m not suggesting you fully make your decisions from that place (unless you want to, but I personally vote for greater gut/body wisdom influence also having a ‘voice’, not a purely rationalist approach).
However, if you’ve got a skewed perception of the level of risk affiliated with change and a distorted sense of benefit affiliated with your status quo, you may balance out your perspective by deliberately looking at the benefits of change and the risks of sticking with your status quo.
Oh my goodness, that is a LOT.
I hope this read is evocative and most helpful!
As always, I welcome your questions and feedback in the comments below.
Here’s to your courage and growth, friend!
P.S. In upcoming weeks, you can expect Part II & III on the risks of sticking with our status quo. I’ll take some twists on this theme and go in some new directions with it! :)
P.P.S. If this post lights you up or speaks to you and you want even more support, tools, and some community to nurture desired change in your life, please check out my upcoming (brand new!) offer: Level Up: A 6-Week Online Course to Get You Moving on Your BIG Dreams. It’s a beta price, we start November 4th, and I’d love to see you there! Let’s get you wrapping up this decade with a bang! XO Nicola
Nicola Holmes is a Life Coach who helps women and non-binary folks step into their joyful power and realize their boldest dreams. She works with individuals, facilitates a group coaching program called The Expansion Circle, and is currently creating her first online program, Level Up: A 6-Week Online Course to Get You Moving on Your BIG Dreams. Nicola’s academic background includes human development and adult learning and she spent two decades working in the non-profit sector. Along with coaching for the past twelve years, she’s mama to two spirited young kids, community-minded, and a voracious reader. Check out Nicola’s Facebook community or join the email party to access inspiration and resources to fuel the changes you yearn for.