Overcoming Resistance

Blocks of stone

Any real change will meet resistance

In which Mike finds the going tough

Mike climbed the stairs of the Festival Hall. He’d called John for some help and they’d agreed to meet in London. John was sitting at a table in one of the upper galleries with a stunning view of the Thames. He looked up “Black isn’t it?” pushing a coffee across to him. “How are you?”

“I’m good. I’m asking what I want, I’m using the scales,” he waved his hand in the air “Work is going well but as I said on the phone I seem to have run into a brick wall and I don’t seem to be able to do anything about it.”

“Oh,” said John, “tell me more about this wall.”

“Well, it’s very odd but I started this process all enthusiastic and for the last three months I’ve done lots of things, made lots of changes, even taken action on a few of those wishes we talked about.” He paused.

“Go on.”

“I don’t know, just lately it’s become harder and harder to get myself to move forward. It’s not that I don’t know what I want anymore, I do know, it’s just that I find it much harder to actually do anything and its puzzling me.”

“Let me guess” said John “It’s like there is some part of you that doesn’t want you to do it even though you want to?”

“Yes” said Mike “that’s it exactly, although I wouldn’t have put it like that. Some part of me? I was almost afraid to admit it to you.”

John took a sip of his coffee and looked at Mike over the rim. “Actually, I’ve been waiting for you to mention it as I knew it would come up eventually. What you’re experiencing is Resistance.”


“Yep, Resistance with a capital R. Let me try another guess; sometimes, when you get near taking action, it feels like there is a force field repelling you, like the way a magnet pushes another magnet out of the way?”

“Yes” said Mike slightly shamefaced

“First, you have to understand that this is totally normal and then you have to understand what to do about it. Let’s see if I can give you a bit of background on what has happened.”

“When you first started this process you had loads of enthusiasm. Getting clarity on small things felt really good. As you began to think about more ambitious goals, that felt even better and to your surprise you took some immediate actions, probably more than you originally thought was possible in such a short time?”

Mike nodded.

“So you have done the easy stuff, you’ve enjoyed the process of seeing a new vision for yourself and are now venturing out of what’s comfortable towards making bigger changes and taking more meaningful action. What’s happening to you now is mostly a result of biology.”

As usual Mike had no idea where John was going with this “Biology?”

“Yes, biology. Your brain has a simple safety system built with a single purpose – to keep you alive and away from danger. Although it’s a simple system, it is very powerful because it can override all the other systems when it sees a threat to your safety. It can do things like flood your muscles with adrenaline, it can divert blood from nonessential functions (like thinking) and cause your heart to speed up so that you take in more oxygen. This safety system is permanently on duty and anything perceived as a threat will trigger this freeze or flee response. So even though you might want to start a business, lose weight, volunteer your time, speak in public or work hard on something new, your biology interprets these as threats and marshals every possible stop signal to keep you safe. They are threatening because they are different from what is known and comfortable. Anything that takes you to the unknown and a possible risk will trigger a ‘stop’ signal from this safety system.”

“It’s very similar to stage fright and at it’s core is fear. Fear of the new, of danger, of standing out, of possible unseen threats, even fear of ridicule or judgement by others. The more meaningful the action, the bigger the likely change it means for you, the higher the fear and the stronger the stop signal”

Mike thought for a moment. “So, although my mind wants these things, my body is trying to stop me?”

“That’s right”

“So what do I do about it? The truth is it’s horrible” said Mike “It’s so horrible that I was seriously thinking I’d got the wrong goals. Maybe I’ve misinterpreted what I really want? It shouldn’t be this hard, should it?”

“I’m afraid that’s a myth” said John “in reality, the opposite is true. It might even be like a compass – the more something you want repels you the more meaningful it is going to be for you in the long run. In many ways your unconscious safety system is way ahead of you, it can already see change coming, long before the extent of the change has really dawned on you.”

“That’s all very well” said Mike “but what do I do about it? And why didn’t you tell me about this before?”

“I didn’t tell you because you wouldn’t have believed me. There’s another widespread myth that achieving something new is heroic and joyful. Nobody wants to hear about hard slog and they especially don’t want to hear that your biggest opponent might be your own fear. When you do hit resistance though, there are several things you can do…”

Break the new thing into very small steps that are non threatening

“Whilst it may be very scary to pick up the phone to new clients, getting together a list of people to call is not scary. Often if you can start a small part of a new task, one thing leads to another.”

“Remember your internal threat system is simple, almost childlike. You can reassure it by taking small unthreatening steps that build confidence.”

Understand that it takes time to build new habits

“Any new habit, from deciding to polish your shoes every week or cleaning out the car regularly or learning to drive or taking up jogging are all hard at first and then get easier. Sometimes all your safety system needs is to be shown that it is OK after all. Then, as you get comfortable with the new thing you become more accepting of it.”

Anticipate Resistance

“Bigger changes, especially those that involve doing something different or possibly exposing yourself to the scrutiny and judgement of others like, starting a business, public speaking or putting your creative work on sale, are always going to meet a blizzard of resistance from inside you. It’s inevitable, and, you should plan for it. What’s also true is that it’s only a signal, a warning flag and no matter how strong the repelling force is once you push on through it you will find that it backs down.”

“This particularly affects people who constantly do new creative work. If you are going to set out to do something new and different every day then you’ll just have to get used to being warned off it every day and get used to pushing past that initial warning signal.”

Follow Your Resistance

“One experiment you might like to try is to start each day by working out what you are avoiding or resisting and doing that thing first. It might be an awkward conversation or a piece of routine work or picking up the phone to a new customer or thinking about a new project. Whatever it is, experiment with doing it first.”

“In this way, you learn to use Resistance as a guide to what to do next. Remember, your unconscious safety system is ahead of you. It has often foreseen a change that will stretch you or put you in a situation where you have to perform at a higher level. By deliberately choosing those things you might be choosing to do the things that are going to help you grow the most.”

“In a perverse and ironic way, Resistance might be a signal that what you are thinking about is exactly what you should do. After all if you decided to veg in front of the TV eating junk food and drinking beer you are unlikely to feel any Resistance at all. Decide to start Yoga lessons though and you will feel the Resistance multiply.”

Grind It Out

“Remember all those heroic stories where someone invents a new product or makes a change and their life is wonderful ever after? Nobody tells about the dead ends, the frustrations, the prototypes that did not work, the relationships that got lost on the way. No one talks about the grind.”

“If you know you want something, sometimes the only way is to grit your teeth and grind it out.”

Learn To Spot Resistance Coming From Others

“Do you remember when we spoke earlier about the reaction from other people once you started showing signs of being more directed and focused in deciding what you want and getting it?”

Mike nodded

“Well, I’m afraid to tell you that was only the beginning. Once you get clear about what you want and start going after the really big things, not only will you have to cope with your own resistance, in all probability the amount of flack you get from others will probably increase as well.”

“You mean like crabs in a barrel?” Asked Mike

“Yes. The worst thing a crab can do is make a break for freedom and sometimes even the people you love will attempt to sabotage your attempts to change. People going on a diet get offered cakes, smokers struggling to give up will be handed cigarettes, guitarists who start to practice more frequently will be accused of selfishness. Remember that we place far too much emphasis on comfort, safety and security and when those around you see you changing they may reach out to stop it because they, in turn, are scared of what it might mean.”

“Again, the solution is to push on and show them that the consequences are not as scary as they thought.”

“So let me see if I’ve got this” said Mike. “The easy stuff, which my body does not see as threatening, I can just carry on getting if I choose?” John nodded “But those bigger things that I want, I’m going to have to fight my way through to them pushing past the danger signals from my own nervous system and possibly the well meaning attempts of others to keep me where I am?”

“Sound’s like you’ve got it” said John handing him a book from his case. Take this. “The War of Art, possibly the best book on dealing with Resistance that I have ever found.”

“So in the end it’s down to you. There are some things where you will eventually have to choose between mood and desire. If you want it but your moods and feelings resist madly then you have to choose. Back down or push through. Treat your resisting feelings as a warning and back away or treat them as a symptom of an oversensitive safety system and push past them. In the end it is up to you. Just imagine for a moment if your life was a bus…”

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