Resistance: Friend or Foe?

Learning to know what’s true when we’re stuck.


Wednesday Words, Week 2, Originally published January 18 2017.


I’ve had some really great conversations with friends this week about resistance. By resistance I mean a feeling, emotion or behaviour that prevents movement or progress. It’s been alive and well in this writing practice. I’ve also been noticing it in more consequential areas of my life, namely professional contexts: it crops up in meetings, conversations and, recently, that specific moment when it’s time to make a commitment to a project. It’s an old pattern I have that I am only beginning to understand.

As I unravel it, I realize it wears many masks.
By MsSaraKelly (Woman with a fox mask by Bon) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

For me, it has looked and felt like all of these things at different times:

Avoidance. (Of a task, situation or person.)

Procrastination. (A particular form of avoidance.)

Lacking motivation; being unwilling or unable to complete tasks. (Total resistance to just doing the thing.)

Perfectionism.

An inability to commit. (Usually to a project, task or specific time to meet or do something.)

Indecision; being in a holding pattern; ruminating in uncertainty.

Emotional distress; stress and anxiety. (The affect of resistance.)

Conflict. Picking a fight. Sulking. Sharp shifts in mood or demeanor (that I suspect are baffling for the person experiencing them.)

Discomfort, physically and emotionally.

A simultaneous push and pull.

A restless body and easily distractable mind; a critical mind; a blaming mind.

A tightness in my chest. A constriction in my throat.

A creeping anger that coils in pit of my stomach.


When I try to pin point what kinds of situations elicit these responses, I can find quite a few:

When I am afraid (Obvious. Self-explanatory. A great survival instinct, but possibly not useful in most contexts I find myself in.)

When I am doing something that violates my values.

When I haven’t held firm enough boundaries. When I say Yes when I really mean No, because, for some complex set of reasons, I don’t feel like No is an option. This is a tough one to catch in action. I am an optimistic people pleaser. I love saying yes. And, I am a woman who was raised in a culture that selects for agreeableness and receptivity in female-gendered individuals. My resistance takes the place of (what could have been) a firm, clear No.

Relatedly, (^) when I act according to someone else’s Shoulds.

When I ignore my intuition.

When I try to rush something that needs more time.

When my autonomy has been curtailed.


As is my way, I’ve been pretty self-critical about these patterns. That seems like a long list when I put it down like that. As I’ve started unpacking it, I yielded a few insights that have not only helped me re-frame these experiences, but I thought worth sharing. Afterall, I don’t think these patterns are particularly unique to my psyche or situation:

My resistance is always trying to tell me something. It’s like a little alarm bell going off whispering: there’s something here for you to investigate.
(Creative Commons Liscence) Photo by Timothy Kraus

My resistance is not always negative. In fact, it can be a pretty awesome source of wisdom. Sometimes I avoid something to create room to pursue the thing I actually want but haven’t yet moved toward. Sometimes it is pointing me in the direction of the desires I have yet to admit even to myself. (h/t to Rebecca Till for positing this one!)

Sometimes it is protecting me from something that I can feel is not quite right, maybe even not quite safe, but I can’t yet articulate why.

Sometimes it is a North Star. Every now and again there’s something I want that’s scary to reach for. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t take the risk and reach anyway.

Realizing all of this came with huge relief. And, it has pointed me to two key capacities to develop more deeply in myself: intuition and discernment.

Intuition is the capacity to know, nearly instantaneously, beyond words and logic. It is not a mysterious or spiritual process. It is an instinctual one. We all have intuitions. They are an evolutionary gift that allow us to act quickly and decisively in the face of thousands of micro, nearly imperceptible data points. Arguably, Malcolm Gladwell dedicated an entire book to unpacking this (and related) capacities. For me, I most often experience it as a feeling but I also hear it. That doesn’t mean I always listen though (^see above). In the context I am talking about it here, intuition is the ability to know what I most deeply want and then to make decisions in alignment with that knowing.

Discernment is intuition’s counterpart. Or perhaps more accurately, it is (at least partially), an intuitive process. In its most basic sense, it is the capacity to judge well. In the way I am using the term, it also requires a strong relationship with myself; with my internal landscape; with my intuition; with my shadowy bits and tendencies for self-deception; and, as Gladwell points out in Blink, with my biases. And then if I’ve got all that mapped out, it requires me to have the ability to take actions based on that knowledge. I am the Judge in any equation and the definition of Well is an amalgam of my values, priorities, truest desires, deepest knowings, lived experience and socio-cultural context. It demands a certain type of radical honesty with myself. If I eschew that honesty or am not in right relationship with myself, I will have a difficult time discerning and will find myself in more situations that illicit resistance with little capacity for understanding what’s driving it.

So then, the capacity to discern becomes both a preventative strategy (making better decisions off the get) and one that increases my self-awareness (understanding what is really going on under the surface when it does crop up). It is my primary tool for understanding what my resistance is telling me.

In a world that moves so damn fast, where we are steeped in complexity and the time to process decisions and reflect on our actions is often limited to minutes or seconds, where we have been provided almost no training or encouragement toward developing these kinds of capacities, this feels like important work. That is to say, unpacking these patterns and developing a refined ability to know in deeper, more aligned ways seem like very practical pursuits. It has to do with the kind of person I want to be and how I want to show up in the world. Most importantly, I think these are tools toward being more effective in my efforts both personal and professional. And, hopefully has given me — and you, Dear Reader — a perspective that will allow us to be a little more compassionate with ourselves and each other along the way.