Newsletter #519 – Resisting Change

StopsignsCounseling 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.

    • Dave
    • February 21st, 2013

    Thank you for sharing the perspective that resistance to change may in some situations be healthy. In my decades of followership and leadership, I’ve observed that those who see themselves as change agents rarely admit that there may be good reasons for resistance.

    Can resistance to change be unhealthy and dysfunctional? Yes, of course it can. But just because resistance can be counterproductive, doesn’t mean that it is always counterproductive.

    Our conversations about change need to be more nuanced. You are pointing us in the right direction.

  1. In the little book, “Children’s Letters to God,” one letter is among my favorites: ‘Dear God, What’s it like to die? (I don’t want to do it. I just want to know what it’s like.)”

    In many ways, I think the consideration of ‘change’ is similar. I find in my own life that much of my focus on change revolves more around the ‘what’s it like’ question, and not the ‘I want to do it’ question. The more the change I am considering involves ‘death’ or ‘dying’ to my self or something I insist on maintaining, the less likely I am to actually change. I don’t necessarily want to change. (I just want to know what it’s like.

    Thanx, Gary, for causing me to think. You always do.
    Kj

  2. Thank you for this perspective, I think this principle of looking at resistance to change as something positive in certain cases can be applied to different situations, not only to clinical work. Even though I am a clinician, I find I can apply this to my oldest son, who was hit by a car a few years ago. That resistance to cross the streets freely is still there and I do not think we have looked at it as something positive. As always, your newsletter has great insights.

    • Bob
    • February 21st, 2013

    Very good! Also very “common sense”! In times like ours where core values are being challenged to change, it is good to sometimes recognize that all resistance to change is not always bad. Both progress and decay are processes involving “change” but with crucially different results.

    • Brian Hogan
    • February 22nd, 2013

    After a disastrous holiday in Victoria Australia my wife and I said that we would never for any reason go there again. In truth when we started looking for a pastorate, Victoria never entered our thinking. Anywhere else but there. Following Christ means that He takes first place. So no guessing where we have pastored a rural church for 20 year and have not regretted the move, and the friends we have made over the years. Christ continues to challenge our resistance to try new ventures.
    Blessing to all of you .

    • Thanks to everybody. I appreciate all of your comments. And Sergio, remind Derrick that his reluctance is normal and protective. The comments from all of you are stimulating. I don’t like change either unless I am in control of it. That’s why going on a trip I have planned is no problem with the change. Going to the dentist or waiting for a plane with mechanical problems is change that I don’t like!

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