Anxiety and resistance to change?

I want to change… as long as I don’t have to.’ This is a contradiction in terms. Clients come to counselling seeking change but then resist it, putting all their energy into not changing. Their surface belief is that they want to change, but below the surface, often hidden from their view, is a resistance to the change they claim to desire. This tension between change and resistance can be emotionally challenging and draining. Staying still can be utterly exhausting; it is an internal battle between change and stasis. Often this battle can be heard in their use of language, usually around two words, ‘yes’ and ‘but’.

Do you want to change your job and escape your bullying boss?

Yes I do, I really do… but…

Then come the excuses, a wall of resistance hidden in these two three-letter words.

What are the hidden reasons that lead people to invest a not-insignificant portion of their time and money in order to achieve nothing? What are the expectations, hidden and in plain sight, that lead to this contradictory state of affairs?

Often clients come to counselling expecting a magic wand. Everything around them will magically change, with no effort on their part, yet somehow they will manage to remain the same. The issue is seen as external to them, and if the problem would only disappear then everything would be all right. This would leave their world at once different and comfortably familiar. Let us say that drinking is the issue. One wave of the therapist’s wand and the client will stop drinking, all will be okay and they will continue as before, just without the drink.

But life is not that simple. A lot of work and effort will have to be put into giving up. Setbacks and failures will occur and personal change will have to be dealt with.

There are always consequences to any action taken and often these are not considered. If they are considered and seen as unpleasant or uncomfortable, then these actions could be pushed back into the deeper recesses of the mind. If I stop drinking I will definitely have to change my social life, break long-term habits, avoid pubs and clubs, drop long-time friends and drinking partners. I might have to question relationships that sustained my drinking and could pull me back into my old habits. I would no longer be me, but another person I don’t know, having lost not only the bad parts of my life, but the good parts as well.

These are large sacrifices that challenge who the person is and where they stand in the world. Is the pain of losing these things worth the effort of not drinking, or is it better to avoid change and keep the world you are comfortable with? The immensity of adjusting to change can be overwhelming, devastating to your self-image, so it might be safer to stay where you are.

Change can generate a sense of loss: loss of the old ways of doing things, maybe a loss of identity. All change involves loss, as a new way of being means losing the old way. For many people, having a problem means having an intimate knowledge of that problem. They might hate what the problem represents and how it could be stunting their life, but have learned how to live with it, no matter how painful that might be. The situation might be unbearable, but it is a situation they know intimately. 

The unknown is challenging and change means stepping into the unknown. Possible futures can be planned for, but until they are experienced they cannot be fully understood or appreciated. This fear of the unknown can be very daunting, especially as there is no foolproof guarantee of success. This new future could be extraordinary; on the other hand, it could be catastrophic. The psychologist Richard Simon stated, ‘For me, change is not an adventure. It’s a scary ordeal to be endured if necessary, but avoided if at all possible.

Change is stepping outside of the comfort zone, pushing boundaries. Outside of the comfort zone is an uncomfortable place to be, it is the space between now and the future. As the psychotherapist Rokelle Lerner stated, ‘Truly, the most intimate relationship we form is not with another human being; it’s with our comfort zone.’ Stress and anxiety during times of change are normal reactions. The uncertainty of change can lead to nostalgia for the past. But if experienced long enough, discomfort can become the new normality. Pushing boundaries means dealing with the unknown and testing one’s tolerance of discomfort. If it cannot be tolerated, there can be a retreat into the false safety of the past. The unknown can be an intolerable place, but if the discomfort of the unfamiliar can be bravely tolerated and boundaries adjusted, then progress can be made and a new comfort zone formed.

Pushing boundaries can challenge fundamental beliefs. These can be both personal and cultural. Let us say a fundamental belief might be held about marriage, that a married couple will always have to stay together. This belief might be deeply held by the individuals and the culture that surrounds them. So what happens when the marriage fails? Does the couple stay together or separate? If making the marriage work could mean challenging established male-female roles, this too could be breaking cultural, religious or person taboos. Separating could be equally taboo. Any change in the relationship becomes a challenge to how the two people see themselves and their place in society. These beliefs are old and run deep. Personal ones might be inherited from families and implanted during childhood; social ones might have existed for millennia. Often this is an extremely uncomfortable position, as change involves not only a personal battle with themselves, but also with the society around them.

This battle is one they might not want to fight. They challenge themselves with the word ‘should’: ‘I should not be thinking this’ or ‘I should not be feeling this’. Often they are thinking and feeling what they feel they should not, but saying ‘I should not be thinking these things’ does not make those thoughts and feelings magically disappear. How much can these contradictory thoughts be tolerated, pulling painfully in different directions? Would it not be safer to do nothing, suppress the opposition inside? Yet repressing such thoughts can be intolerable, freezing the client into inaction.

Sometimes people just want to wait, in the hope that the world will transform around them. If a situation or significant other in their life will change, then it will be easier for them to embark on this difficult journey of transformation. The unpleasant truth is that the world does not change to order and if it does, it is not always in the desired way. Waiting for things to be just right is avoiding change, but it is also a frustrating process as part of the person yearns for change, but another part keeps procrastinating, holding them back. The dilemma they face is: do I take responsibility for my situation or hand it to outside forces and wait?

Ultimately, it is a question of what meaning is given to the counselling and the change it could bring about. If there is a meaning, a reason that compels action, that will sustain the client through the difficult times ahead. Meaning is what matters. For example, an alcoholic might give up drinking for many reasons: the fear of losing their family, gaining a higher spiritual awareness, or just noticing that they are getting a beer belly and its impact their self-image. The meaning may be obscure, but it is theirs and ownership of it motivates them.

Being in therapy can help find that meaning, but it could take time. If there is no compelling meaning for change, there is no change. If the only meaning is to hold on to the status quo, then the situation becomes inert and the clients can start sabotaging their own attempts to change. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, a perverse pleasure in being proved right: ‘I can’t change – look, I’ve tried and failed.’ Developing a new meaning can be a hard sell that has to be constantly sold to yourself.

Working with a counsellor means that you will have to acknowledge the need for change. You come with an issue and that issue is to be resolved in some way. Becoming a client means you have to desire change and believe that the change is worth the effort. You then need to find that spark that enables you to embark on that journey. You have to sell yourself the ‘why?’ Once you have that ‘why?’ for change, then you can seek out the ‘how?’ Is it worth the pain to step away from your issues, or better to remain static within them? Only when you embrace change can you answer that.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

Share this article with a friend

Written by Kevin Ryan MBACP (Accredited)

Do you ever have the feeling that you are incomplete, that some aspect of you is missing or has become misdirected? Has tragedy changed the meaning of your life, and now you’re looking for a way to navigate through this new world? Do you have a desire to reach some form of normality again?Counselling is a process that can be profoundly transformative, helping to build a more meaningful, crea… Read more

Written by Kevin Ryan MBACP (Accredited)

Show comments

Find a counsellor or psychotherapist dealing with anxiety

All therapists are verified professionals.

Real Stories

More stories

Related Articles

More articles