Resistance has got a bad name.
In the ‘be positive at all costs’ popular culture experiencing resistance or engaging in self-sabotage is seen as a ‘bad thing’, something to be overcome or eliminated.
If you experience resistance or self-sabotage you might feel lacking, defective or even morally defective and, if you are really unlucky, other people will agree with you.
I think the conventional ‘wisdom’ that resistance and self-sabotage are bad and should be treated like some kind of mental leprosy is wrong and may even make things worse.
I think there is a more useful explanation for resistance and self-sabotage.
If you are resisting something it is because you don’t feel safe
If someone comes to me as a therapist with self-sabotage issues this is the perspective I start with.
You might not know that you don’t feel safe or what it is that scares you, so you can end up with a strange tug of war that goes on when you want to do something and you resist doing it.
While the conscious part of your mind is saying “it will be fine, there is nothing to fear, just do it”, your unconscious mind is saying “it’s not fine, there is something to fear, don’t do it”. Most of the time your unconscious mind will win those fights and your conscious mind will be left wondering why you can’t do the (apparently) simple things that other people can do with ease.
If you recognise these kinds of struggles, relax: you are not alone, you are not being stupid, morally weak or pathetic. You learned how to hold back and self-sabotage because your survival depended on it at some time in the past.
The fact that you are reading this now is proof that what you did back then worked … you are still here. It may not work well for you now but that is something that can be changed.
When we are infants and children we are small, weak and vulnerable. Our life depends on other people looking after us and keeping us safe. At some instinctive level we know that we have to ‘keep’ our caregivers looking after us and we learn how to do that through trial and error.
If you grew up in a critical or abusive family then you will have learned at an early age what to do, and what not to do, to ensure your survival.
Let’s imagine someone called Suzie, a professional woman, who wants to do well in her career but for some reason keeps holding back.
When she was a girl, Suzie’s father regularly came home drunk and violent.
From a young age Suzie developed a very keen awareness of her father’s moods so she could predict danger. She also learned how to fade into the background or take evasive action to avoid his drunken fists.
These were important survival skills for her and she learned them well.
Millions of years of evolution favoured humans who took their safety seriously and learned how to protect it, so we all have these latent abilities.
At that time, being hyper-aware, ultra-cautious, hiding and avoiding served Suzie well.
Time passed, Suzie grew up and left the family home.
Thirty years after that scary childhood,her father is dead and the danger is gone, but Suzie still find herself being ultra-cautious, hiding and avoiding even when she ‘knows’ she is safe.
Somehow, even decades later, a very young part of Suzie’s mind is still on alert for her long dead father coming home.
Survival skills: once learned, never forgotten
Our brains seem to work on a very simple principle: if what we did before worked we will keep doing it. This simple approach works but it’s simplicity has a flaw, it doesn’t account for changing circumstances.
The watchful part of young Suzie’s mind, formed at a time of stress and distress, doggedly holds on to the strategies that helped keep her safe.
It’s as if her traumatic experiences have created a ‘danger meter’ that is very sensitive to possible threat. When the ‘danger meter’ is triggered, unconscious processes start applying the brakes to keep her out of the perceived danger even when now, there may be no real danger.
These danger meters and safety strategies were embedded at a very deep, unconscious level and Suzie finds them hard to change.
She’s read the self-help books, listens to motivational speakers and looks for comfort in the inspiring quotes and pictures that are posted on Facebook, but nothing she tries seems to help for long.
How can Suzie resolve her resistance?
Working With ‘The Resistance’
If the resistance is a learned response, that maybe out of conscious awareness, how can we deal with its effects in our adult lives?
There are two general approaches:
1. Resisting The Resistance
This is where we use willpower and determination to do what we need to do even when we don’t want to do it.
People talk about ‘overcoming’ or ‘pushing through’ the resistance.
This is, undoubtedly, a popular approach. There are hundreds of books, movies, TV shows about people who have overcome amazing odds to get what they want.
You can hire a coach, a trainer or a Sergeant-Major to help you push through those blocks to get what you want.
This is the ‘obvious’ way to deal with resistance, but there are downsides to this kind of approach:
- You need a lot of willpower and determination to override unconscious ‘safety procedures’. Keeping a continuous high level of willpower and determination takes a lot of energy and … er … willpower.
- It’s hard work. If you need a lot of willpower and determination getting what you want is that much harder because you have to invest the energy into whatever difficulties are involved in reaching your goal PLUS the energy required to overcome the resistance. This is like driving with one foot on the brake and one on the accelerator: you can make progress, but it’s hard work, slower and a more expensive way to get somewhere.
- It’s easy to fail. While your mind can work the conscious levers of intention and goal setting, you unconscious mind holds most of the levers of power. It doesn’t take much for your unconscious safety programming to derail your conscious mind’s efforts.
- If you fail it’s because there is something wrong with you. If you believe your resistance is against you and you fail in what you want to achieve, it’s easy to blame yourself for being defective or inadequate.
I think there is a better way.
2. Resolving The Resistance
Rather than trying to overcome the learned response what would happen if we unlearned the response by resetting the danger meters and safety strategies?
Fifty years ago there were very few reliable ways of undoing these mechanisms of resistance, pushing through the resistance was the only option.
With the advent of effective approaches such as EFT for undoing the effects of traumatic or distressing experiences. It’s possible to help someone undo old, out of date responses and reactions and reset their danger meters so they can more accurately assess what is going on and respond accordingly.
There are advantages to this kind of approach:
- You don’t need extra willpower to overcome something that isn’t there. You may need willpower and determination to reach your goals, but you don’t need any extra willpower to overcome non-existent resistance that used to go with them.
- There is less hard work. You don’t need to expend energy overcoming resistance you can use all of it for achieving your goals. If your goal is to climb Everest, the mountain will be just as high and as dangerous as before, but you wont need to carry your resistance up with you.
- Your conscious and unconscious minds can pull in the same direction. Failure is still possible, but at least all of you is working towards your goal.
- There are fewer reasons to blame yourself. If you see your resistance as a safety mechanism you can be curious about where your danger meter is out of alignment with the world and take steps to change it. No self-criticism is needed.
If you suffer from resistance and self-sabotage ease up on yourself.
The ‘resistance’ isn’t a moral failure it’s a tried and tested safety measure that we humans have, that has just passed its sell-by date.
Start to wonder about what might not be safe in what you want to do and address that.
One way of addressing those issues might be to learn something like EFT/Tapping which you can use to soften those old mechanisms.
Or you can approach a therapist or coach who understands the effects of trauma and distress and has effective tools to work with it.
If you are a therapist or coach working with people who are struggling with resistance and self-sabotage, you might like to view such issues as expressions of safety needs. (This explanation may not be true in every instance but it’s a good working hypothesis to start with.)
Personally, I find this a very helpful perspective. I find myself being more compassionate of my clients struggle and it gives me very useful avenues to explore.
If I let my clients know that it is my aim to make it safe for them to proceed rather than to force them to do something they are resisting they usually find this switch in perspective very helpful.
Note: Although I’ve used the example of ‘Suzie’s’ difficult childhood that’s not the only way to pick up the resistance. Experiencing trauma, criticism, humiliation, failure, danger at any time in our lives can affect our danger meters and cause us to be more cautious. Whatever the cause we can still reset our ‘danger meters’ and resolve our resistance.