My friend and colleague, Carrie, and I were talking one morning about how one of the most challenging – and often more rewarding – aspects of our work is helping clients break through the wall of resistance that prevents them from taking full responsibility for their well-being. On the surface, it looks like all of these clients want to feel better – otherwise why would they be in therapy? – but resistance works undercover and often comes out through the backdoor. While they want to feel better, they don’t always want to do the inner work that will allow them to feel better. And it’s even deeper than that: they may want to want to do the work, but when their resistance is iron-clad, as thick as the Great Wall of China, it wields all of the power. They are powerless. Until they’re not.
Here are clues that you’re avoiding responsibility and stuck behind a wall of resistance:
1. Your focus is almost exclusively on something external. This can take the form of being single and tortured by the question of whether or not you made the right decision to leave your partner, or being with a partner and ruminating on one aspect of the relationship that isn’t filling you up. For sufferers of relationship anxiety, this resistance takes the form of perseverating on the question of whether or not you’re with the “right” partner.
2. You’re obsessed with a single question that occupies a significant amount of your time and energy. This is usually an intrusive thought, but can appear as an obsessive question like, “Should I have another baby?” or “Did I make a mistake?”
3. When you’re honest with yourself, you realize that you want someone else to fix your life (your mother, father, partner, friend, or therapist).
Let me say a few words about this last point. I work with many people in their 20s and 30s who struggle with the transition of becoming an adult. They kick and scream and fight against not only the aging process but, more importantly, the growing up process. For me, a simple definition of adulthood is the willingness to take responsibility for all aspects of our lives that create well-being: financial, emotional, physical, spiritual, relationships, caring for a house, etc. This resistance to growing up shows up enough, regardless of whether or not the person comes from a loving family or is carrying mother and father wounds, that I’ve come to see that it’s speaking to a bigger, cultural failure. Because we don’t guide our adolescents through this most crucial rite of passage, giving them the initiatory experiences, rituals, and ceremonies that will grow them into adults, they arrive at age 18 or 25 or 33 clinging to the vestiges of their adolescent identity. This isn’t their fault. It’s difficult to fully become adults – or any next identity – if we’re not shown how to do it. For this I don’t have a solution as it points to a culture-wide and tragic gap in providing the time-honored rituals that are necessary for mature movement through each life stage. But I say it here to relieve some self-blame that inevitably arises when the topic of resistance comes up.
Regardless of the specifics of the resistance story or the underlying reasons why it has a stronghold, it’s entirely possible to break through it and begin the work of reclaiming your life, and I have worked with many clients who have been able to do just that. Clara, who commented on this post and spoke of her breakthrough moment, was one of them. (Her one-hour interview can be found in the Break Free From Relationship Anxiety E-Course). As she wrote:
I know that after 18 months of wading through deep, thick, desperate despair, it was when your message (that healing begins when we become willing to take 100% responsibility for our own recovery) finally landed in my soul, and I finally became 100% willing, that I turned the vital corner in my journey, and with unbelievable momentum I became well – almost as if propelled up out of my thick fog of depression and anxiety by a holy jet stream. It seems a remarkable paradox: that when we accept complete responsibility for our healing – without even demanding God’s help – it seems a great universal healing force rises to meet us, revealing that while we must be responsible for ourselves, we are actually not alone in this after all.
What allows clients to break free from the grip of resistance?
1. Name it.
We can’t change something that we’re not aware of, and for many people simply realizing that they’re in resistance helps them to shift out of it.
Even if you can’t seem to stay with the inner work but you want to, you can prayer for help: “Please help me commit to my own growth. Please help me take responsibility.” And by the way, religion doesn’t own the copyright on prayer. If you have post-traumatic God syndrome, pray to your own higher self. Pray to the Universe. Pray to the ocean, to life force, to healing. You don’t even have to believe in the power of prayer. Do it anyway.
3. Harness Your Inner Loving Father.
This is the part of you that says, “I know you don’t want to do it, but we’re doing it anyway.” The healthy inner Father is decisive, clear-thinking, firm with love, and doesn’t indulge in resistant voices that say, “I don’t feel like it.” It’s the parent who says to the child, “I know you don’t want to go to [piano, martial arts, acting] class, but every time you go you’re happy you went, so we’re going anyway.” This is not the part that forces someone to do something that is truly not in their best interest, but rather the part that is connected to highest good and pushes through the resistance in service of that aim. It seems that we all have a fundamental laziness that is part of being human. The ego never wants to change. The ego clings to what’s easy and familiar. The ego loves to sit in front of the television for a Netflix binge-fest instead of getting up and going for a brisk walk. We must act against fundamental laziness until the new, loving habit takes hold.
Working with resistance is, perhaps, one of the hardest elements of healing. And while it’s important to recognize that sometimes there’s wisdom in resistance, it’s equally important to keep working with it, patiently and with commitment, until a window of light opens inside. Because the bottom-line, tough-love truth is that nobody is going to save you: not your relationship, not changing partner, not a different job or house or city, not your parents, not your therapist. As I wrote about last week, there’s no escape hatch for life. So we must bring awareness to all of the tricky ways that resistance takes hold – the thoughts, the propensity toward laziness, allowing ourselves to become swallowed up in intrusive pain – and then find and grow those stronger, inner parts that are working in service of our wholeness and healing.