Tatiana Yevtushok

Business psychologist. Gestalt psychotherapist. Coach. Trainer

Resistance to change

‘Give me a place to stand, and a lever long enough, and I will move the world’, said Archimedes, emphasizing the value of supports in the process of change. Psychological supports are essential components in the process of creating change. They are resources that create the foundation from which forces for action emerge. It is through actions that changes occur. Actions are a result of decisions we make in the “here and now.” They are influenced by both the past and the future but always take place in the present moment. Therefore, future changes are created in the “here and now,” and supports also exist in the present moment. So, what can we consider as these supports in the “here and now” that empower us to make decisions leading to change? We will discuss this later because first, we need to understand what hinders our presence in the present moment to the extent that we can feel supports for change, as it is always associated with resistance to change. Therefore, the topic of resistance is important in therapy, and different therapeutic approaches have their own theories and methods of working with resistance.

Based on the concept of change in the above-mentioned paradigm of time, it can be concluded that resistance manifests as escape into the past or anxieties/dreams about the future. Fritz Perls refers to this as historical and contemplative or wishful thinking. When we reach a point in our lives where we want to change something, resistance can manifest as searching for causes of the impossibility to change in the past (our past experiences, psychological traumas, etc.), or excessively focusing on goal setting for the future, hoping it will lead us in the direction of those goals.

The classical psychoanalytic approach deals with the causes of resistance:

“I know what I would do, but I can’t do it.”

The psychoanalyst searches for causes why the client cannot do what they consider to be meaningful. Thus, an interest in resistance is interpreted as a defensive reaction of the psyche, as protection.

But we cannot change the past in the past or the future in the future because we are in the present, which connects both of them. It is precisely what happens to us in the present moment—our sensations, emotions, intentions, needs, desires, experiences, awareness, the ability to feel and reflect on them, become aware of what they mean and where they guide us—that can become those supports in which all experiences are transformed into energy that motivates spontaneous expression of will and decision-making, which will then lead us to change. However, resistance to experiencing them often prevails because they are not very pleasant to live through and create discomfort. In this case, we block their energy, and anxiety appears as evidence of interrupted and blocked arousal.

Perls distinguishes the following types of resistance experiences:

Oral resistance. We feel disgust, as if the food is already in the stomach, for example, when we hear bad news. Often, there is an esophageal spasm when we cannot digest mental food. Unconscious resistance can manifest as a loss of appetite.

Dental resistance. This is resistance to resistance, like swallowing unwanted food. When children are forced to eat when they do not want to, it leads to neurosis and a paranoid character. Refusing to bite and chew provokes a parasitic lifestyle. A parasite does not have teeth; it attaches itself to people with resources and sucks their blood like a leech. Such individuals refuse to engage in their destructive functions (chewing) for their own benefit (teeth have destructive functions as they destroy food). It is important to learn to use our teeth—to connect with our own aggressive force and use it to satisfy our needs.

Anal resistance. This is resistance to elimination. It occurs when there is a sense of disgust, shame, fear, or guilt. Muscular resistance creates anxiety, causing us to stop breathing freely (which leads to numerous cardiovascular diseases). There is a fear of exhaling, for example, during moments of anxiety, there are always difficulties with exhaling rather than inhaling (even though people often think they lack air, it is an illusion because a fresh breath simply doesn’t fit). We can also include breathing problems during panic symptoms in this category.

Genital resistance. This is an avoidance of sensations of arousal in the genital area.

In general, people use a rational approach to change (as Keppner calls it) – a common-sense approach – which involves seeking advice from relatives and friends on what needs to be done to bring desired changes into our lives. The logic of this common-sense approach is as follows:

“Either I know what needs to be changed, and I do it. Or I simply don’t know what to do, and that’s why it’s difficult for me.”

The problem with this approach is that it leads to a critical attitude towards oneself:

“I understand and know what needs to be done, but I can’t. This automatically means that I’m weak, that something is wrong with me.”

In this case, we attack our own resistance and try to cultivate new habits or motivate ourselves to take specific actions through sheer willpower.

But it can be tricky – if there is resistance, it means that there are hidden and important needs within us that it signifies, but we haven’t been able to become aware of them yet. These needs may, in some way, oppose the already conscious needs that push us to change something. Therefore, attacking our own resistance with willpower is equivalent to violence against ourselves. It is important to realize what needs are concealed behind this resistance.

The Paradoxical Theory of Change by Arnold Beisser (I recommend reading his article and biography, which serve as a vivid illustration of his theory) provides a natural way for this process to introduce changes by finding support in resistance, accepting both the resistance itself and what lies behind it, and seeking to be conscious, accepted, and assimilated into our experience “here and now.” After all, resistance is a life-giving part of our “self,” not just an instrument of the “self.”

Beisser writes:

“Change happens when a person becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not at the moment.”

A Gestalt therapist rejects the role of being a “changer.” A therapist insists that a person should be who he/she is, not who he/she wants to become. We believe that change does not occur through efforts, deliberate striving, or persuasion. Instead, a person finds support in the present, in reality, in the “here and now,” in a precisely specified place, in order to naturally move toward change. Although it is not always easy to be completely honest with oneself, acknowledging one’s shadow sides, as Marcel Proust wrote, “To heal suffering, it is necessary to fully experience it.” Gestalt therapy supports what is present, helping people embrace sometimes painful truths and accept themselves as they are, with all their limitations. This creates an opportunity to feel one’s own vulnerability, from which we grow and develop, and it provides us with that needed support for change.

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