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Have you ever tried to make a change in your life — one that is positive, enriching, and constructive — but come up against your own self-defeating behaviors?
Maybe you decided to start exercising, eating well, or sleeping better, yet you felt compelled to act in ways that sabotaged those goals. Or you delayed, procrastinated, and avoided doing things you knew would make your life better, until you got stuck, gave up, or felt the need to take a break.
In behavioral psychology, we call this phenomenon “resistance.”
Resistance is an inherent characteristic of change. It’s an obstacle we’re likely to face whether our desired change is small (like drinking an extra glass of water in the morning) or large (like quitting smoking or starting a new job).
Despite its commonality, resistance continues to surprise, frustrate, and confound many of our best efforts to change. If left unchecked, not only can resistance make the change process harder than it needs to be, it can also sabotage your well-meaning efforts and leave you feeling like a failure.
So, what exactly is resistance? And what can we do to overcome resistance?
What Is “Resistance” Anyway?
First and foremost, resistance is a psychological reaction to change. It’s like a self-protection mechanism where we oppose the change or struggle against our desired behavior modification. Resistance means that, despite being highly motivated with the best intentions, we fight that change at a psychological level.
To make the process more difficult, we may not be aware of our resistance because it occurs at a subconscious level. For many people, resistance can feel like an internal struggle between two parts of ourselves — one that overtly wants to change and one that covertly fights it. This covert resistance can feel like an inner rebel (or an annoying toddler who continually says, “no”).
In addition to the psychological response, resistance can also be a physiological reaction. Since the change process requires extra effort, energy, and brain power, resistance can provoke physical feelings of discomfort like tiredness, lethargy, and slowed movement patterns.
When we add the psychological and physiological components of resistance together, we often see behavioral and emotional states such as:
- Wasting time
- Making excuses
- Inertia and feeling stuck
- Overthinking or paralysis-by-analysis
- Low motivation and mood
- Taking a break from change (despite only just starting)
- Giving up or falling off the wagon
At some point, we’ve all experienced resistance to change. I’ve felt it hundreds — if not thousands — of times and recognize many of the above behaviors in myself.
So, if resistance to change is a common experience, why does it happen and why does it feel uncomfortable? Let’s explore the neuroscience for some answers.
3 Important Bits of Neuroscience if You Want to Overcome Resistance
1. The Prefrontal Cortex
When we experience something new, different, or unusual, the prefrontal cortex area of our brain lights up. This part of the brain processes ideas, perceptions, and logistics and is highly energy-intensive — it can only process a certain amount of data at a time and tends to fatigue quickly. So, when we encounter change, regardless of whether the change is good or bad, our brain needs to work harder.
2. The Amygdala
The extra effort and processing power required by our prefrontal cortex to navigate change can also stimulate psychological and physical discomfort. This discomfort can then activate a part of our brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for our “fight, flight, freeze” response to stress, danger, and the unknown. When activated, this part of our brain can stimulate feelings of fear and anger and cause us to act emotionally and impulsively. It can also provoke psychological states such as denial, confusion, depression, and crisis.
3. The Basal Ganglia
In contrast, our existing routines and everyday habits are stored in our basal ganglia. Our behaviors are deeply embedded in this part of our brain. The basal ganglia automates our thoughts, behaviors, and actions at an unconscious level, so these things are highly efficient and require little effort and energy to process.
All this explains why we naturally tend to resist change — not only does change require the prefrontal cortex part of our brain to work harder, it also causes psychological and emotional discomfort courtesy of the amygdala. It’s no surprise then that our body’s natural response is to resist change and return to the safety of the status quo, safely stored in the energy-efficient basal ganglia.
Other Factors That Contribute to Resistance
Beyond the neuroscience, other factors can contribute to heightened levels of resistance. These center around the process of change and the change environment — in other words, how the change was introduced and what else was happening at the time.
For example, below are some contributing factors I’ve experienced which increased my resistance levels:
- Introducing change too quickly, so I felt overwhelmed and my brain said “no.”
- Not fully committing to the change, i.e. doing it to please others instead of doing it for myself.
- Underestimating how hard change was and overestimating my ability to handle it.
- Not realizing how sticky the habit was that I wanted to change.
- The cascade effect, i.e. the unanticipated impact change had on other parts of my life.
- Unexpected external factors, like the reaction of other people, the influence of other life events, work issues, or social dynamics.
- Feeling emotionally connected to my “old” behavior and not understanding why that connection was so strong.
- Lack of support mechanisms and feeling like I should be able to change without help.
- Fear of the unknown and fear of repeating a negative experience, which increased feelings of stress and overwhelm.
You might recognize yourself in some of the above. If so, I have good news — while we can’t alter our brain’s biology (at least, not in the short term), we can modify other factors that impact our resistance levels.
With that in mind, I’m sharing my five-step process to recognize, manage, and overcome resistance.
My 5-Step Process to Overcome Resistance
Step 1: Expect Resistance
Resistance is sure to occur at some point in the change process, so accepting that likelihood and being aware of the signs is a big first step.
Try making a list of the types of resistance you’ve experienced in the past, like procrastination, self-sabotage, overwhelm, tiredness, or wanting to give up. Keep that list handy and visible, so when you start to feel resistance creeping in, you can notice and recognize it for what it is.
Step 2: Prepare for Obstacles
Resistance will increase dramatically in the face of unexpected obstacles. Therefore, plan and prepare for things that could get in the way of your desired change.
For example, if I wanted to start walking first thing in the morning, a few obstacles could potentially derail that change, e.g. the weather, late nights, early work meetings, illnesses, and other people’s actions. Planning for those obstacles — and having strategies in place to deal with them — will greatly reduce my levels of resistance.
Step 3: Remember Your “Why”
It can be easy, in the process of change, to get lost in the details or caught up in the flow of life’s busy-ness. We sometimes forget why we want to change, why it’s important to us, and how it benefits us.
To counter this, write down the benefits of change and the disadvantages of not changing. This becomes your “why” and is a compelling reason to steer you through the highest levels of resistance. Place that compelling reason somewhere visible and remind yourself of it often. For example, stick a note on the fridge, pantry door, or bathroom mirror, or make it the screensaver on your smartphone.
To create your “why,” try answering the below prompts:
- What will happen if I do change?
- What will happen if I don’t change?
- What won’t happen if I change?
- What won’t happen if I don’t change?
Step 4: Build Your Support Team
As we know by now, change can feel hard. And when resistance strikes, it can be tempting to try to deal with it by ourselves. However, utilizing other people’s experience of change can be invaluable.
So, before you start, establish who your support network will be — it could be a trusted friend, colleague, online group, or in-person team. Use this support network to share your struggles, brainstorm, and learn from their experience.
Note: If you’ve participated in the Whole Life Challenge, you’ll know how invaluable support can be on the change journey. Whether it’s via a team, the WLC Facebook group, or the worldwide reflections of thousands of players, the knowledge, experience, and support within the Challenge community is vast. My advice is to utilize that structure and share your experience — you can be sure others have faced your obstacle before or are going through a similar experience now.
Step 5: Learn and Adjust
Each time we encounter resistance, we have the opportunity to learn from it. Rather than being frustrated with our resisting ways or judgmental about our abilities, we can use the change process as a learning experience.
Reflect and assess often — not only will this build self-awareness of resisting behaviors, it will allow for better planning, reduce overwhelm, and increase your sense of optimism for the future. (Happily, one of the 7 Daily Habits of the Whole Life Challenge is Reflection — so this vital step is already built into your Challenge experience).
Are You Ready to Overcome Resistance?
Change can feel complicated. But my key takeaway is this — expect resistance and plan for it.
Resistance to change is normal. You’re likely to experience it at some level when trying to change, regardless of how positive your intended change is. Try not to fight resistance. Instead, accept it will happen. By recognizing resistance and understanding why it happens, you can focus your energy on making positive changes stick long term.
And, by spending a little time thinking about the potential obstacles, roadblocks, and impediments you may encounter during the change process, you can reduce your levels of resistance, increase your chances of success — and actually overcome resistance.
Resistance is not futile — it’s a valuable learning tool. Use it to your advantage.