Research Paper By Kylie McDonnell
(Life Transition Coach, UNITED KINGDOM)
Your resistance is a sign that your system is reconfiguring itself toward success ~ Todd Herman
Resistance’s Greatest Hits
The following is a list, in no particular order, of those activities that most commonly elicit Resistance:
- The pursuit of any calling in writing, painting, music, film, dance, or any creative art, however marginal or unconventional.
- The launching of any entrepreneurial venture or enterprise, for profit or otherwise.
- A diet or health regime.
- Any program of spiritual advancement.
- Any activity whose aim is tighter abdominals.
- Any course or program designed to overcome an unwholesome habit or addiction.
- Education of every kind.
- Any act of political, moral, or ethical courage, including the decision to change for the better some unworthy pattern of thought or conduct in ourselves.
- The undertaking of any enterprise or endeavour whose aim is to help others.
- Any act that entails commitment of the heart. The decision to get married, to have a child, to weather a rocky patch in a relationship.
- The taking of any principled stand in the face of adversity.
In other words…any act that derives from our higher nature instead of our lower.[Excerpt from The War of Art, Steven Pressfield]
Can you recognise yourself in the list above? The reason I’ve chosen this topic to explore for my research article is because I do, and at times have read the feeling of resistance as procrastination, a sign that I fear failure (or success), have not being specific enough about the action I want to take, or my intuition is letting me know I have chosen the wrong goal… because if it was right, wouldn’t there be more ease? Perhaps sometimes there are elements of truth here, however I’ve come across some ideas that offer a different perspective and for me, a more helpful one: that resistance is the label we give to the feeling we experience as we go through change. It’s our natural response to creating something new like a habit, lifestyle, business or piece of art; it’s our body reconfiguring itself at a cellular level. This change takes time and has a name – The Biology of Change. Habits, regardless of whether they are helpful or not feel easy, so changing habits can feel uncomfortable and it’s our relationship with this discomfort that is key to successful change. I wanted to understand this better to manage my own resistance and in the words of Richard Bach,
we teach best what we most need to learn.
The purpose of this paper is to share the Biology of Change, the physical process that happens in our bodies when we initiate change in our lives; how understanding this can support patience and persistence during change; and also to share some strategies to help stay committed to our goals when resistance surfaces.
Why? Because coaches support people who are ready and willing to embody their best selves and pursue a path of growth, which means that at some point our clients are likely to meet resistance. As coaches, we need not have overcome resistance (nor can we) in order to support others through it; in fact, if we are committed to a life of learning and growth we will regularly meet resistance in our lives. Our willingness to acknowledge our own resistance at times will support the depth of our ability to hold space for our clients as they navigate resistance in pursuit of their goals. Coach Danielle Marchant calls this the “Twin Journey”, the belief that the client’s work is our work and “the deeper you go within yourself the more able you are to hold a space of transformation for your clients.”
What is Resistance?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, resistance is the:
- refusal to accept something new or different
- effort made to stop or to fight against someone or something
- ability to prevent something from having an effect
It is the last point of this definition that is relevant to a goal or change we have chosen for ourselves – our ability to prevent something from having effect. And how do we do that? By being invested in two opposite outcomes at the same time: wanting change AND wanting that feeling of ease that comes with familiar habits.
Why would we do that? Why would we not act upon or follow through with our greatest desires? We might default to self-sabotage as the answer, fear of success or failure or even feelings of “not worthy” but what if we’re not sabotaging ourselves, we are just misunderstanding our physical response to change? Expecting ease instead of embracing discomfort…
The resistance of creating new habits
You know the saying “old habits die hard” – we all know that habits are difficult to break but why? Victoria Lorient-Faibish, a Holistic Psychotherapist, likens the neural pathways of deeply ingrained beliefs and habits to super highways in our brain. Metaphorically, they have lots of lanes, a fast speed limit and very clear, often electronic signage so we find that we can get to a destination effortlessly, sometimes on autopilot. Creating new habits and beliefs is like walking along a narrow footpath covered in brambles, with no signage. You know where you want to go but you don’t have a map so you’ve got to be prepared for the likelihood that navigating this path will take time and your brain might hurt from concentrating all day. If you’re pressed for time and resources or feeling tired you’re likely to take the highway – it costs less. This is a simplistic explanation of neural pathways but highlights how without awareness we can default back into our existing ways of doing things. Rather than berate ourselves for not having more willpower Lorient-Faibish invites us to be gentle with ourselves as we slowly retrain our “autopilot”, expecting an unconscious backwards step from time to time. It takes time and repetition to create new habits.
The Biology of Change
Todd Herman, a sports performance coach, shares a scientifically based insight called The Biology of Change, a biological process that happens in our bodies when we embark on change, literally changing our bodies on a cellular level. The growth we experience internally when we make changes to our habits and lifestyle can feel uncomfortable and hence, easily interpreted as resistance to that change. Just like the growing pains teenagers experiences as their bodies reconfigure themselves for adulthood, our bodies experience a milder discomfort internally when we embark on changing our habits and lifestyle.
It works like this: when we commit to break an old habit, learn a new skill or make a positive change in our lives the feel good hormones of dopamine and serotonin are released into our body which is why at the beginning of a change (I.e. new exercise program, the decision to quit smoking, relocate countries, start a business or a creative project, etc) we can feel really enthusiastic about the change. The author Danielle Laporte describes it as the body’s way of giving us a high five for our good intentions and giving us a nudge in the right direction. But this dopamine and serotonin rush into our bodies isn’t sustainable, it’s only a kick start and an invitation to our cells to start replicating these feel-good hormones itself so that after a while when the dopamine and serotonin drop back to normal levels we can sustain the healthy new habit by ourselves. The way this happens is by vibration. The cell receives new feel-good hormones as we practice this new habit and it vibrates to replicate them. Our cells (in well established but maybe unhelpful habits) were already used to receiving hormones, cortisol (the stress hormone) was being fed to cells and they were in turn requesting more (because the cells don’t really care what hormones we send it, it just wants something and will request what it’s used to receiving) but with a positive change in lifestyle we are now sending the cells feel good hormones and in order to receive and replicate this new information the cells need to vibrate, essentially altering their shape to accommodate the new hormones. It is this vibration, the cells process of change that feels uncomfortable. It is when we start to say things like “I’m just not feeling it”, “it doesn’t feel good”, “this doesn’t feel right to me”… and sometimes, as a result of this we don’t finish doing what we intended to do, even if we know it’s in our best interest to do so. Unfortunately, the body doesn’t instantly take to completely receiving the feel good hormones because it’s used to receiving cortisol. It will eventually but the change takes time and so we are asked to repeat and stick at the new habits we want to create until a new habit is formed.
How we interpret this physical process of change matters. Somewhere along the line I picked up a belief about what I thought the concept of flow was about: “if it’s right, it will feel easy”. I can see how, as a result of this belief, I’ve let resistance lead me to distraction. In fact, as I write these words I am having a compulsive desire to check Instagram and leave my computer to find biscuits. I now know that this isn’t because I’ve chosen the wrong topic, or fear the uncertainty of what’s next after I complete this paper and graduate, it’s because I haven’t written this paper before. I’m in a creative space, it’s a little uncomfortable and rather than lean into it and continue writing I’m open for distraction…my brain is looking for ease.
Todd Herman offers an insight about how humans interpret the feeling of change in two distinct ways: OWW brain v WOW brain. The OWW brain interprets the feeling of change as discomfort, feeling stuck, getting bored and looking for comfort and safety (an example is the one I describe above, looking for biscuits as a default response to the discomfort of finishing this paper). The WOW brain interprets this same feeling as the opposite: momentum, excitement and transformation (like going on an adventure). It’s important to note that we are not all one or the other. How we respond on one day in one situation could be OWW brain, the next day it’s WOW brain.
So really, this resistance, or discomfort, is an invitation to expand and grow. It’s the flipside of the “comfort zone” which is comfortable because it is familiar, discomfort is the indication that we’re in an unfamiliar place, that we’re learning something new. We need to find a way to be comfortable with discomfort. Perhaps treating it like an adventure, in the same way we would approach navigating a new place when we go on travelling: with curiosity, an open mind and a willingness to explore.
How might this understanding of the body and mind during change help you embrace challenges in your daily life? Next time you are knee deep in a challenge what if you tuned into your WOW brain by asking:
- What am I learning here?
- How can I see this as an adventure?
Strategies for working with resistance:
Below is a list of techniques that you can use (or ideas that might inform questions to ask clients) when you notice “OWW” brain:
- Notice resistance and breathe through it when you feel it rise. Being still and breathing is a conscious way to acknowledge it, rather than unconsciously reaching for a distraction (i.e emails, food, facebook, re-arranging your wardrobe etc)
- Be clear on what you want to achieve and why. Resistance loves ambiguity so be specific – what is the next micro action you need to take and when? When you are clear on the next micro step (what and when) you will naturally be able to focus your energy and attention.
- Set trigger goals. For example, rather than saying to yourself that you want to go for a run, simply commit to putting on your sports clothes and running shoes. When you’re dressed for it there’s a greater chance that running will be the next step. Likewise with finishing this assignment today. The goal was to sit at my computer at 9am and open up this word document. These are trigger goals and are a way of breaking down actions into smaller steps that are easier to take.
- Remind yourself of a thought that can keep you grounded and committed. Saying “I’m changing” can serve as a reminder that change is a process, resistance is part of it and if you keep putting one foot in front of the other it will eventually feel easier. I like to remind myself that “life’s an adventure” – and in doing so being open to expecting challenges and setbacks as part of the process, trusting my resilience and resourcefulness and allowing the natural timing of things. Choosing adventure. It’s a way of being more gentle and patient with change.
- Create your tribe. Whether it’s an online community, a coach, a friend or a partner, recognise what support you need in order to stay committed to your goal – you don’t have to do it alone.
- Visualise success and script your setbacks: Once you have committed to the action you need to take and when you are going to take it not only imagine yourself doing it, imagine what you’ll do when distractions or setbacks arise. E.g when you’ve committed to finishing a piece of work today, what will you do if the weather’s nice and you get an invitation to go to the beach? How will you feel when you finish it? How will you celebrate completion? How will you deal with the setback if, after submitting the work, it isn’t received favourably. This is an invitation to be intentional about what matters and why and creates a little bit of space in the heat of the moment when there are other requests of our time or things don’t go to plan.
Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it. ~ Steven Pressfield
Danielle LaPorte (2014) The Desire Map: A guide to creating goals with soul
Danielle Marchant (2016)
Todd Herman (2014) Interview with Marie Forleo https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CKLK04IU4Do
Steven Pressfield (2002) The War of Art
Victoria Lorient-Faibish (2009) Neural Pathways: The Biology of Change https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ri-tLFR7BUU