Counseling and coaching are mostly about change: coping with change, helping others change or changing ourselves. The same is true of leadership, education, ministry, political campaigns or selling. A major goal is to bring change in groups or in the behavior, thinking, perceptions and emotions of individuals. We all know that this is difficult and often resisted with many efforts to stop change or progress. Undoubtedly you’ve heard the cliché that many people want change but few are willing to make changes. The politicians in Washington are a prime example.
The January/February 2013 edition of Psychotherapy Networker focuses on anxiety, including an article sub-titled “We may be anxious but not anxious to change.” There are many causes for this but the article’s author, David Burns, elaborates one explanation: consciously or unconsciously we resist change because maintaining the status quo is easier and safer. Often it feels better to stay where we are rather than to courageously risk the consequences or discomfort of making changes. For members of Congress it is easiest to dig in their heels and resist changes or compromises that might alienate voters in the next election.
In his Networker article Burns describes the anxiety in a young man who was hurt in a robbery and fearful of a recurrence. When he learned that the process of anxiety reduction might be shorter and less complicated than he anticipated, the counselee resisted. Instead of viewing this resistance as something pathological Burns viewed it positively and urged his client to list the reasons for not changing. All seemed valid and gave evidence that the ongoing anxiety, though painful, was protecting the young man from something worse, like returning to work in a dangerous neighborhood.
It should not be assumed that all resistance indicates a fear of the consequences of changing. But Burns shows that anxiety reduction techniques are unlikely to work if we don’t recognize that resistance may be healthy, protecting us from potential harm and risk. It is better to face this up-front so people can decide to change or to stay with their symptoms and entrenched ways. When resistance is approached in this way, many choose to change.
Is this simplistic? Does it apply beyond therapy and to other areas of change? Please comment.