More often than I want to admit, I’ve found myself in the awkward position of having someone ask me for advice, when they obviously are in no space to even consider change. The friend who knows she needs to leave her abusive boyfriend, the one who sees the writing on the wall at her job but is too paralyzed to start putting her resume together, even the person who is too afraid to go to the doctor to find out what that odd growth on her elbow might be…. One time or another, they’ve all wound up on my doorstep, terrified, begging for guidance, but stubbornly resisting any suggestion I give them to help improve their situation.
We’ve all been in this place before. I spent my entire 20s in this space—land-locked in a pit of indecision, doubt, and utter terror at even the smallest amount of change. Intellectually, people living a “Resistance Existence” know they need to make a change. Some can even get plans together, knock out a course of action, and even buy a pair of awesome sneakers to make the distance they’ve got to travel more comfortable and stylish.
But that’s as far as it goes.
When the gun fires, they’re left standing at the gate in their expensive Nikes, unable to even take the first step to improve their life.
What is it about change that is so terrifying to some of us we would rather stay in a bad situation than take that risk, even when it’s obviously a positive change?
Warning: Danger, Will Robinson!
- Fear of Failure: This is pretty obvious. Nobody wants to try and fail. But when you are caught in resistance, this fear can keep you from trying even the simplest or most positive changes.
- Fear of Pain, Discomfort, and Effort: Making changes such as starting a new career or getting into shape can be intimidating. Your fear of future physical, emotional, or psychological pain and discomfort may be such that the known discomfort of your current situation seems mild in comparison.
- Fear of Success: This is a big one for me, and a particularly insidious demon to face when manifesting change. In the dark world of resistance, success makes you a target. Expectations loom larger than life, and the fall back to failure seems much less deadly if you fall from your boring present rather than from a grand and glorious future.
- Fear of Criticism: The truth is, except in the rarest of cases, most of us are much more harshly critical of ourselves than we are of others. So naturally, we think that others will be equally critical of us if we risk putting ourselves out there. Fear of criticism and low self-esteem are a crushing combo when it comes to new ventures.
- Fear of the New: “Better the devil I know than the devil I don’t know.” It’s a stupid saying, but so many of us live our lives in this space. Yeah, we know our job sucks, but what if I try and get myself into an even worse situation? Sure, I’m bored in this curriculum, but if I change majors I might really hate what I have to do. And let’s not even talk about the new computer system—why can’t we go back to the old system?
Are You a Closeted (or Not-So-Closeted) Resister?
It’s easy to look at the list above and see these traits in others. But it’s harder to see them in yourself. Most of us who are in a situation we want to (but can’t) change tend to believe we are doing everything we can to improve our lives. But maybe we’re not doing as much as we think. If you are looking for change, but aren’t making any headway, ask yourself these questions.
Am I embracing my excuses?
When I was still living back home, I knew that my life would never get better if I stayed in Louisiana. Not that I have anything against my home state, but it was too conservative and too comfortable there for me to ever fully explore my true experience of life. But whenever anyone would suggest I’d move out of state to a new atmosphere, I always had an excuse. I don’t have enough job experience to compete in a big city. I have never lived on my own. My finances are a wreck—how would I stay afloat, even if I could find a job?
But the biggest excuse I made for staying in a place that was slowly killing my spirit came in the form of two adorable little boys. My nephews, Paxton and Cameron, were about three and one when I finally made the decision to leave Louisiana. Now, being the bon vivant auntie I was, the thought of leaving those two little monsters just broke my heart. I adored them, and I knew that my siblings were going to continue to have children. I wanted to be in their lives, and for about three years, they were the only things keeping me tied to home.
But at some point, I looked at myself in the mirror and realized that even this was only an excuse I was using to avoid facing my fear. As much as I loved my nephews, and as much as I wanted to be a part of their lives, the deeper part of me knew that I’d be no role model for them unless I lived my life authentically.
What excuses are you clinging to in order to justify avoiding change? A relative, a paycheck, a childhood disappointment? If this excuse wasn’t there—if no one depended on you, if money was no object, if your childhood angst was a mere figment–would you still be making the choices you’re making now?
Am I ignoring the facts?
One of the easiest ways to resist change is to accept the past (or your perception of the past) as unchangeable truth. A great example of this from my life was taxes. Because of an odd quirk of my childhood, I had to start filing tax returns quite early (I was still in high school). My mother, bless her, was responsible for getting all of this done.
Five tax returns + one single parent = TAX TRAUMA!
I have very clear memories of tax time, spending hours helping get check stubs in order, dealing with tempers and missing documents, the haste and stress and tempers. It all seemed pretty awful to me at the time.
When I finally got out on my own, I brought that experience of tax preparation with me. For years after my eighteenth birthday, I mimicked the patterns of my childhood, turning the first two weeks of April into a merry fortnight of stress and angst.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized my situation had changed. I had changed. When I got past the story I was telling myself and let go of the outdated “facts” that no longer served me, I was able to look realistically at my situation. I was able to see the tools at my disposal, the relative simplicity of my return, even my ability to remain calm in the face of the deadline.
Today, tax time is nothing for me. I go online, use Turbo Tax, file, and move on with life. I barely even think about it. That would never have been possible had I clung to my old image of tax time and ignored the evolving factual evidence.
So what outdated information are you clinging to? A time when someone treated you well, although they are no longer doing so? An investment that once performed well, but now is costing you time and money? Can you break out of nostalgia and entropy long enough to look at things with fresh eyes?
Am I propping up the villain?
A friend of mine is convinced everyone hates her. She is too poor, too fat, too unattractive, and the world hates people like her. Another friend of mine hates every supervisor that comes her way—no matter what their management style, they are always corrupt, incompetent, and untrustworthy. For a long time, when I was younger, I believed that every popular person I knew wanted nothing more than my complete social destruction. Regardless of the actual facts, we build these people into monsters before our eyes, removing any subtlety and substance until they are human Godzillas, smashing our dreams like Tokyo under their feet.
It’s easy to look at these attitudes from the outside and see them for the absurdity they are, but there are so many subtle ways we use vilification of “The Other” to justify remaining at a standstill. Do any of these statements sound familiar?
- Oh, please, why bother even applying? They never hire supervisors from the floor. Besides, they’ve already got the job filled before it’s even posted. You need to be part of the clique to get promoted around here.
- There is no way I’ll ever get that part. He’s trying out for it, and he’s the director’s favorite.
- It’s just not fair—the little guy can never get ahead. Even if I did get that extra training, Management just looks down on us guys on the line.
- My vote doesn’t count. The (fill in the blank with whatever political party you think is destroying democracy) are in control; you know they’re going to block anything that would give (fill in with opposing political party) a victory.
- College is a rich man’s game. Even if I did get that scholarship, they’d all look down on me. I’d have to work twice as hard for half as much, and they’d never respect me.
One of the best ways to keep yourself down is to give power to those villains (real or imaginary) you feel are intent on “keeping you down.” Whether it’s a church, your family, the wealthy, the poor, the government, popular people—whoever you’ve decided has more power than you—it’s easy to use them as excuses for not taking action when it’s called for. But they’re not the problem; we’re just giving them that power.
So what can we do to break through the resistance to change that keeps us from even imagining an improved circumstance? I know I’ve sung the praises of positivity here before, but it is one of the single best ways to give yourself the courage and inspiration to move forward. The next time you feel yourself resisting a positive change in your life, try one of these tricks.
- Let go of forever. Agree to make a change for a short period of time. Nothing is permanent anyway, so why stress about change being forever? If, for instance, you want to try exercising more, make a deal with yourself that for one month you will exercise regularly. Commit to that one month, with an option for renegotiation at the end of that period. By doing so, you take some of the pressure of “forever” off you so that you can concentrate on the benefits of your actions.
- Tell a better story. Scientists insist that most of what we experience is simply our brains interpreting the stimuli we receive through our senses. What is an interpretation other than a story? Everything you do, everything you see, is your brain’s story of reality. If you want a better life, tell a better story. Tell a story where you manage to ignore the snide remark and continue with your studies. Tell a story where you prepare mightily and sail through the interview like a pro. Tell yourself this story, believe it, and act in accordance. Be the story you’re telling by acting the part, doing the work, and taking the risks. You might be amazed at how differently things turn out.
- Laugh. When the world seems so serious and everything is just too hard to handle, watch a funny movie. Hang out with friends who improve your mood. Play with your dog or cat or the neighbor’s ferret, and enjoy their spontaneity. Taking life too seriously makes everything harder. It’s easy to become mired in the mud if you keep the weight of the world on your shoulders.
If we want to take control of our lives and shape our own destiny, we have to get past the victim mentality and give ourselves permission to change. Once you free your mind, you’ll be able to go within and discover who you truly are and what you truly want.