If you are tempted to demonize yourself for being “in resistance” to something, remember this key fact: your resistance is not your enemy. On the contrary.
Have you ever planned to do something, then not done it? Who hasn’t? We make plans, then life happens. Most of the time, we shrug or squawk, protesting the inconvenience, then set about getting the thing done.
But what if you really want to or need to do something, but chronically don’t do it? Now you’ve entered trickier territory. Being stuck between the cracks of intention and action is unpleasant. You may feel scared, or defiant; guilty, or avoidant. You wish the whole thing would go away, but it nags at you…because after all, you are the one who wants to do this thing you aren’t doing.
We all end up at this intersection sooner or later. What matters is how you treat yourself when you are stuck. You may be tempted to start slapping labels on yourself. Lazy. Stubborn. Or the catch-all label, “resistant.”
The idea of resisting what is good for us is so common that it has made it into the dictionary. Here’s one of Merriam-Webster’s definitions of resistance:
…a psychological defense mechanism wherein a patient rejects, denies, or otherwise opposes the therapeutic efforts of a psychotherapist.”
The therapeutic attitude implied here sets me on edge. I hear judgment in it: “Why are you resisting my efforts to help you? Be reasonable. Don’t be resistant.” Then I get visions of the Borg, the disembodied intelligence collective in Star Trek: The Next Generation that chants (in a creepy alien monotone), “Resistance is futile. We are the Borg.”
I much prefer one of the other definitions of resistance:
…an underground organization of a conquered or nearly conquered country engaging in sabotage and secret operations against occupation forces and collaborators.
An underground organization—that’s a perfect description of what’s going on here. The conscious “me” wants one thing, but some part of me I’m less conscious of evidently doesn’t want that thing.
I like this definition because it inspires me to imagine the good reasons I might have for resisting doing something. However, while this is a step in the right direction, I’m still labeling myself. I’ve just changed the label to “self-sabotaging.”
Why we’ve got to let go of labels
When I label myself, I seal myself into a box that has “problem to be gotten rid of” on the label. Then I mail myself to the land of “should:”
“I should be doing this. I’m not. Therefore I’m ______ (fill in the blank with your favorite self-critical adjective.)”
If you are in the habit of labeling yourself, I invite you to stop. Self-labeling plunges you into a vicious cycle of feeling bad, then wanting to avoid that bad feeling. When you tell yourself what (or who) you are, you enter what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset:
- “I am stupid.”
- “I am clumsy and uncoordinated.”
- “I am oversensitive.”
These are fixed mindset statements because they fix you in place. If you are something, how can you change that thing? Instead, try making observations without judgment:
- “I am stupid” becomes, “I didn’t know the answers to four of the ten questions on my history test.”
- “I am clumsy and uncoordinated” becomes, “I find it challenging to learn a physical skill in a class setting where others are watching.”
- “I am oversensitive” becomes, “I noticed I cried during that scene in the movie, when no one else around me did.”
Do you see, and feel, the difference? When I say ,“I’m stupid,” I feel hopeless. When I say instead, “I didn’t know the answers to four of the ten questions on my history test,” I feel worried and disappointed, certainly. But I also feel curious: “Which four questions did I miss? Why did I miss them? How might I need to study differently next time to do better?”
In that spirit, “I’m resistant to losing weight” might become, “I know I would feel better if I lost 30 pounds, and I notice I snack continually all evening.” Notice the use of the word “and.” When you insert this seemingly insignificant three-letter word, “and,” you open up a world of possibility. You want to do it…and you aren’t doing it. How interesting.
Making space for the one that isn’t doing it
Things get even more interesting if you go a step further and separate the bigger “you” from one that “doesn’t want to.” Ann Weiser Cornell and Barbara McGavin call this a “not-wanting.” Here’s how you do name a not-wanting part of you:
“I want to lose weight. And I’m sensing something in me that doesn’t want to.”
Do you see how putting it this way makes you more compassionate? “Something in me” feels like a thing I could put my arms around and be with. In addition, when I translate the label “resistance” into “something in me that’s not wanting to lose weight,” I find myself feeling genuinely curious. “How interesting. Why on earth would something in me not want to lose weight?”
Typically, we attempt to answer this kind of question by thinking about it. If you’ve tried this, though, you’ve likely discovered that change doesn’t often result from reviewing what you already know. Instead, I suggest you ask your whole body and mind. To do this, get quiet and say,
“I’m inviting what wants to come here now, about_____ [insert your topic here.]”
Then pay attention to whatever comes: a vague sense in the body, a memory, a thought, a posture, an emotion, a sensation. Describe what you sense. Then sense if the description fits.
Your body—by which I mean not merely your physical body, but your whole sense of yourself in the world—will let you know if you are on the right track. In Focusing, we assume the body knows the right next step: it has its own carrying forward. Each time you quiet yourself in order to sense that right next step, you create an opportunity to move towards more wholeness, health, and integrity.
Radical acceptance creates space
There is a catch here, though. The “right next step” can only unfold in an environment of radical acceptance. To put this another way, if you want to facilitate change, you have to let go of your judgments about the way things actually are. But how can you let things be as they are, when how they are is not OK with you?
To fully accept your current condition, you will need to let go of the belief that acceptance equals agreement. Many people mistakenly believe that accepting something is the same as agreeing with it. In fact, this false belief is a major block to resolving all kinds of conflict.
In reality, you can acknowledge and accept how things are at this moment, without in any way saying you agree with them, or like them, or would be OK if they stayed that way forever.
To pull this off, you need to check if there are any parts of you that don’t want to accept the way things are. Try using Ann Weiser Cornell and Barbara McGavin’s wonderful phrase:
“I’m sensing if it’s OK to let all this be as it is, for as long as it needs to be.”
If any of your inner parts are not OK accepting how things are at this moment, they will protest immediately. It may even feel like all of you is protesting, not just part of you. Either way, listen to these objections. Cultivate a relationship to any objecting parts by listening, reflecting, and sensing if you are hearing them accurately.
Why listening is more effective than reassurance
Why is this kind of meticulous, attentive listening so important where a “resistant,” not-wanting part is concerned? Why not save time by simply reassuring this part, or persuading it to step down by telling it that you, a reliable adult, are now here to take over?
If you put yourself in the “resistant” part’s shoes for a moment, you’ll immediately see why it won’t appreciate reassurance and persuasion. These will feel fake to it, because the only you it has known is a “you” that criticizes it, hates it, and tries to get rid of it. No wonder it feels wary of you.
Listening attentively, on the other hand, allows you to sense the way this part needs or wants to be approached, rather than imposing on it your ideas of what it might need or want. After all, this part has been doing an important job for you all this time, with no help from you. Why would any dedicated part worth its salt let you take over unless it is sure that is a good idea?
“Resistant” parts need to feel heard by you and to be thoroughly convinced you respect them and will listen to their concerns. The more “resistant” a part of you is, the higher the stakes, from its point of view. Intense “resistance” means that a part is trying, from its point of view, to protect you from some kind of life-or-death consequence.
When life and death are at stake, however, words alone will not be enough to show a “resistant” part of you that it can trust you. Accordingly, rather than merely telling such a part that you are trustworthy, you must be trustworthy. Begin by remembering that your “resistance” is not your enemy. Remove the “resistant” label.
Then listen attentively. Attend to the quality of the relationship between you and this part of you. Be infinitely patient, giving this faithful part all the time it needs to experience you as worthy of taking over its job.
Your time will be well spent, because “resistant” parts hold a great deal of life energy. When you are stuck not wanting to do something and judging yourself for it, you have one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake. But once you learn to respect your not-wanting parts, you can earn their trust. Then all their energy will be yours to use in service of moving forward.