One of the most misunderstood and underappreciated psychological symptoms is referred to as “resistance.”
Resistance is the process in which you prevent yourself from taking an action, changing an attitude, or making a meaningful personal transformation that will enable you to have a better quality of life. It can manifest as a limiting belief (i.e. “I’m not smart enough”) or an emotional state (anxiety) or a habitual behavior (overworking).
Resistance is the proverbial “finger in the dam” holding back an immense life force known as “resilience.” These two emotional conditions – resistance and resilience – are best friends. You will never encounter one without the other close by. Using them as a compass to map your journey through personal growth makes them your best friends.
In high school psychology class, most of us learned about Sigmund Freud’s defense mechanisms, which are all forms of resistance:
- Repression – when you push unwanted thoughts or memories into the unconscious because you don’t want to deal with them
- Denial – when you minimize, ignore, or refuse to acknowledge information because it is too painful
- Projection – when you attribute your own unacceptable thoughts feelings or behaviors to another person
- Displacement – satisfying an impulse like smoking with a substitute like eating
- Regression – a tendency to revert to less mature behavior when stressed
What purpose does resistance serve?
Resistance serves as a great protector. It acts like a psychological fence that keeps you in and others out. By doing so, it becomes the ultimate strategy of defense against changing the definition of who you think you are. You don’t have to suffer a painful death to your ego and the anxiety of re-inventing yourself and your sense of the world. In this way, it keeps you small and safe and known to yourself. Better to be small and found than bigger and lost, right?
Most significantly, resistance represents your fear of death. It is your biological tendency to fight or take flight in response to real or imagined threat. Instinctually, you will defend your emotional position even if it’s wrong, because to change it means something within you must die, like an old attitude or habit.
As your best friend, resistance tells you that you are on the right path to unleashing some untapped potential inside yourself that is necessary for your wholeness. It flashes like a red light telling you where your untapped resilience lives. From this perspective, resistance then is welcomed, and sparks deep curiosity within you because it promises that a new and better life is just around the corner.
How do you break through resistance?
Get clear with yourself. What are my “go to” behaviors when I am resisting essential change? Re-read Freud’s five defense mechanisms – do any of them fit you? Moreover, ask yourself: what limiting belief, emotional state, or habit keeps me from living fully? Make a list.
Adopt an attitude of gratitude for your resistance. Instead of hating it, see its perfection. Make a list of at least ten ways this limiting belief, or attitude, or behavior serves you. Really let yourself see and feel the payoffs. Then generate a list of healthier ways to recieve those same payoffs. Start to do them on a daily basis.
Give yourself permission to take one step forward and two steps back. Remember, you are changing a hard-wired behavior. It takes time and awareness to replace it with a new behavior. Consider these well-known stages for how to master new skills created by psychologist Noel Burch.
Stage One: Unconscious Incompetence
In this stage, you don’t know that you don’t know something. You are really operating in your blind spot.
Stage Two: Conscious Incompetence
Now you know that you don’t know something. You might even feel a bit overwhelmed that there is a knowledge area or new behavior that you can’t quite grasp.
Stage Three: Conscious Competence
Through a diligent and conscious effort, you practice new behavior. Learning is occurring and the new behavior is being integrated, but you must move slowly and it takes a lot of effort.
Stage Four: Unconscious Competence
The new behavior becomes second nature; it’s who you are. It comes easily to you without much effort.
Finally, don’t go it alone! Our resistances live in the shadow. That means we are the last people to really understand and see them. Talk with a trusted friend, coach, or counselor about your discoveries. The view from the outside in can be invaluable!
In psyche and spirit,