Working with Resistance
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Perhaps the title of this post on a fitness and wellness website might lead you to believe it is about resistance training i.e., strength training in all of its variations. However, I would like to consider another type of resistance that we frequently encounter on our health and wellness journey. This is the resistance we experience to the prospect of making a change of any sort, be it starting or resuming exercise, getting to bed earlier, or shifting an old, self-defeating mindset.
How Do You Know Resistance is Present?
Let’s suppose that you think you might need to make a change in a health habit, or a health professional has suggested it. You can be reasonably sure resistance is present when you experience any of the following reactions to this notion or suggestion:
- Inner recoil
- An increase in behaviors that are the exact opposite of the desired change e.g., bingeing on sugar when you know you need to eat more healthfully
- Increase in productivity in smaller, unrelated areas e.g., organizing and reorganizing belongings
- Obsessive or extensive preparation for change without taking any action
- Dismissing the idea
- Explaining to someone else why you cannot do this
Internal Vs External Resistance
Resistance to change can emerge from within or outside of you.
Internal resistance shows up as thoughts, feelings, and/or defense mechanisms. Any of the above-named reactions are examples of internal resistance. As you do the work necessary to create and sustain a change over time, you will see that much resistance is internally generated because it is our reaction to what needs to happen that is at its very essence.
Internal resistance is often present if you hear yourself making any of these statements:
- I will do this on my own (especially in the presence of a complex, chronic health condition and/or years of deconditioning).
- I’m too tired to exercise.
- It costs too much to get the help I need.
- I just need to find the motivation to [insert health habit].
- I need to get in shape before seeking out a personal trainer.
- There is no point in starting now because I’m in the middle of a big project.
- Things are crazy right now and I will get on that when things settle down.
- I will turn over a new leaf and start on Monday or next week/month/year.
- I don’t have time because of my family/workplace/church responsibilities – I am the only one who really knows how to do this (big red flag!).
External resistance comes from other people or outside circumstances. This is the very real backlash we may experience from others in our circle as we make efforts to change. These can be referred to as change back reactions or counter-moves from family members, close friends, colleagues, or others. Imagine a drinking buddy’s reaction, for instance, upon learning that you are trying to quit drinking alcohol. This person can unconsciously up the ante in an effort to get you to change back to the way you were previously by teasing, criticizing, sulking, or guilt-tripping you and/or talking behind your back. When this occurs, it is usually because your change causes the other person in the situation to have a look at their own health habits and issues, which can be very uncomfortable.
External resistance also includes the challenging, tangible aspects of our lives that need to be addressed and shifted in order for us to make the change we desire. Lack of childcare, too many responsibilities at home or work, or a living beyond our means financially are examples of this. There are also very real institutional barriers in which access to resources is limited for certain nominalized groups.
These statements are most likely indicative of real, tangible considerations and thus represent external resistance:
- This type is diet is unrealistic for me especially in the context of my family and/or culture.
- Running is too hard on my body for now; I would need to find a gentler form of exercise which is better aligned to my present state.
- I cannot devote an hour a day to exercise.
- Going to 3 grocery stores and a farmers’ market is unsustainable in terms of time and effort.
- Getting to bed by 9 won’t work in my household.
- My work as a real estate agent requires that I be available at all hours in the interest of my clients who are buying or selling properties.
- Honestly, caring for my aging parent in my home leaves me little time or energy to do anything for myself.
Deciphering What is Going On
Internal resistance can be sneaky. Sometimes it is hard to recognize it and identify why it is there. Indeed, we may not even be aware of what lies underneath our consciously expressed reasons for forestalling changes.
Some examples of the difficult truths often underlying internal resistance are the following:
- I cannot exercise at a previous level, and I feel unable to accept this.
- I’m scared to see where I really am.
- I’m too proud to admit that I need help.
- I believe I really should be able to do this myself.
- I will have to let go of an old identity to work on this issue (e.g., athlete, supermom, top performer at work, etc.) and I am scared to do that. Who am I without this role?
- The grief and loss involved in recognizing where I really am is too painful to face.
- Moving my body feels too painful and awkward.
- I’m afraid that that things are too far gone for me and there is no hope for improvement.
- It will be too hard to change.
- Anytime I try to make "healthful" changes, it triggers my perfectionism and turns into an obsession i.e., orthorexia, and I don't know how to prevent this.
- I have been conditioned to believe that with aging comes infirmity.
- I don’t value myself and my health enough to invest in the right support; other expenses are more important and therefore take precedence.
- I’m worried about losing certain relationships if I change and this feels lonely.
- I feel overwhelmed by life already and don’t need yet something else to worry about.
- I actually don’t want to stop overeating/ staying up late/ watching TV all day/ overworking (insert any self-sabotaging behavior).
- I am afraid I won't be able to cope with life without the soothing and distracting effects of emotional eating/drinking/scrolling on my phone/ overworking, etc.
Anxiety vs Dread
Anxiety that shows up as thoughts, emotions, and/or physical symptoms can be seen as a normal reaction to the prospect of change or uncertainty. In this case, not only is anxiety indicative that the change is necessary, but should be an expected element of the change process.
From an evolutionary standpoint, our brains have an instinctive negativity bias that is meant to protect us in uncertain circumstances. An example of this would be seeing something in the grass that is actually a stick and thinking it is a snake. Misinterpreting a stick in the grass as a snake insures our survival according to the logic of our primitive brains. In this way, any potential change may represent a threat because it is a change in the status quo. Our brains will even go so far as to pick a familiar pattern even when that does not serve us just to avoid uncertainty. We often joke in my family that my dog will bark at a leaf blowing in the wind outside the window. In his brain, he is protecting himself and his family from a potential, unidentified threat.
Dread, on the other hand, can be seen as a particular type or magnitude of anxiety, and can be an indication that what we are doing or aspiring to do is not right for us. This might show up, for example, on Sunday with the work week looming ahead as our subconscious mind considers the excessive stress, unpleasant work tasks, or a toxic workplace culture that our week inevitably holds. There is even a term for this phenomenon, the “Sunday scaries”.
In the fitness and wellness realm, this could be a sense of dread associated with exercise because one feels pressure to do a type of physical activity that is incompatible with the person or this season of life. Maybe, for instance, you hate running or high-intensity interval training in its various iterations but believe you “should” do these to “get in shape”. Why? Find something else that is a better fit!
Thus, anxiety borne out of challenging our comfort zone in the name of health improvements can be a sign we are actually on the right track. Dread, on the other hand, may mean that a certain situation, activity, or goal is out of alignment with our current needs or unsustainable.
Our Parts and Our Wise Adult Self
Internal Family Systems gives us a framework for understanding ourselves better in terms of our own resistance to change. We each have our own collection of younger, wounded parts of ourselves that formed at the time in which developmental needs were not met and/or various large or small traumas occurred in our lives. These unhealed parts, whether they are from young childhood, adolescence, or younger adulthood, can often be left “running the show” in the absence of a wise, loving adult Self.
My own rebellious and self-sabotaging health behaviors, for instance, often occur when my adolescent part (who I’ve named Claire after a name I had in a middle school French class) has found herself in charge for various reasons. Claire might become furious and engage in destructive behavior in order for me to get my needs for time, space, and care met using her limited strategies. One example of this is "revenge [bedtime] procrastination" in reaction to a lack of personal time during the day. Her intention is good, but the resulting next-day fatigue and mental cloudiness are decidedly not!
We can be empowered to identify what parts are present, get a rough idea of why they are here, and find our own wise, kind adult voice to take back executive command of our life while incorporating the wisdom of the part(s). What parts of yourself can you identify, and how might they be unwittingly sabotaging your efforts to care for yourself properly?
Working through Resistance
The information conveyed thus far in this post can inform our approach to working with and through resistance. Here are a few thoughts for you to consider, depending upon the type of resistance at play.
Addressing internal resistance, above all, requires stark and courageous self-honesty. This is honesty with yourself about your true readiness to make a change and honesty about what you are telling yourself. When you hear yourself thinking or uttering a given statement, you can examine that. Does what you are telling yourself ring true, or is there something deeper going on that you are reluctant to acknowledge? When I see my own “excuses” as just that, I am farther down the road in terms of making a healthful change than I was previously when rationalizing or justifying my less-than-helpful behavior choices.
Internal Family Systems, otherwise known as parts work, can give you clues as to what is holding old, unskillful habits or behaviors in place. You can learn to parent your unhealed parts with your wise and compassionate adult Self and take back the reins from the “children” trying to run the show. Working with a psychotherapist trained in this framework can be especially helpful.
There are many ways you might work with external resistance. All require you to identify the barriers to your ability to effect change in a health habit or take better care of yourself.
You can use concrete strategies to circumvent the existing obstacles, for instance, finding creative ways to secure the childcare you need; consolidating grocery shopping to 1-2 stores once a week; implementing a family wind-down time, or incorporating 10-15 minutes of exercise into your day rather than the hour you think you need to find.
Setting boundaries can be a very effective way to work with external resistance. This includes things like limiting work email to certain hours of the day; kindly telling that talkative neighbor that you need to excuse yourself; keeping your known trigger foods out of the house; or limiting your exposure to negative people in your life.
Manage your expectations for other people as you embark upon a new, skillful health habit. Of course there are others who may not respond well to your change - you can count on it! See this and remember why it is so. Often, our negative health behaviors have somehow made it easier for someone else. It takes strength and wherewithal to stay the course and not let yourself be guilt-tripped into changing back. If you are consistent, kind, and non-reactive, it will ultimately pay off.
Turning Your Awareness into Action
Hopefully you can recognize resistance within or outside of yourself and thus are in a better position to work with this resistance more effectively. Meditation, writing in a journal, or for some, using prayer all have the power to raise your awareness and keep you strong in your efforts to help yourself. Seek out support from the right group, coach, personal trainer, therapist, clergy person, 12-step program, or friend(s) to help identify any blind spots and keep you accountable. How is that for “resistance training”?!