Resistance To Change—Nothing Has Gone Wrong Here

by Heather Bell, MPH, RD,LDN

Wow—this topic has been coming up a LOT lately; so many folks frustrated because they’re finding themselves struggling to follow through on the goals they’re setting in sessions.  

They know that certain choices aren’t working well for them—they’ve seen the results over and over again.  So they set a clear goal in the session to experiment with a change, something they feel confident will give them a better result.  But when the moment arrives to implement the change—they don’t. In that moment, what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling swamps their new agenda.  They end up making the same choices they’ve struggled with in the past, and they end up with the same frustrating result. What’s going on?

Typical human brain activity is what’s going on.  Let me explain:

Human brains evolved to help us survive threats.  As a result, we have brains that are biased towards 1) negative thinking and, 2) doing what is familiar (because familiarity = safety).  Given this evolutionary bias, it isn’t surprising at all that we experience resistance when we try to change our behavior, even if that change is in our best interest.

Here are some typical thoughts that come up when we experiment with change:

–“I haven’t been successful with this in the past.  Why should this time be any different?

–“This is overwhelming.”

–“I’m never going to get the result that I want anyway.  Might as well give up right now.” Or: “I messed up. Might as well just keep restricting/eating compulsively/etc.”

–“I’m too tired to deal with this today.  I’ll start doing it tomorrow.”

Sounds familiar, right?  And none of these thoughts are problems in and of themselves.  It’s only when we BELIEVE what our brains are telling us that we start to struggle.  Because when we accept these thoughts as truth, they create feelings like:






None of which are hugely motivating!  And again, the more that we believe and lean into our feelings, the worse we feel and the less likely we are to take effective action.  

This doesn’t seem like a great evolutionary “win,” but look at it from the brain’s perspective: when we play out this cycle, we stop engaging with experiences that are uncomfortable and unfamiliar.  The fact that we may suffer pain as a result of not growing and changing doesn’t matter to the brain because the pain of being stuck is familiar pain.  It doesn’t feel nearly as threatening as the prospect of unknown discomfort.

Now is resistance making sense?  It doesn’t come up for us because there’s something WRONG with us (too lazy, too flaky, too weak-willed, etc.).  Resistance comes up because of our typical human brains.

So if we want to keep moving towards change and growth, here are some things that are helpful:

  1. Anticipate resistance.  When you set a goal or make a plan, ask yourself: “What is my brain probably going to say to me when the time comes to take action?  What am I probably going to be feeling?” (Seriously, write it down. Make a list. Heck, turn it into a bingo card and reward yourself every time all 5 of your most familiar thoughts show up!)
  2. Try to stay curious and compassionate about what’s happening, rather than judgmental.  Many people’s brains are EXCELLENT at distracting them from their resistance with a deluge of harsh, self-critical thoughts, but these judgments leave us feeling demoralized rather than enlightened.  Curiosity helps us understand what kind of discomfort our personal brains are trying to protect us from, and compassion helps to be able to stay present—rather than escaping into the behaviors we’re trying to avoid.
  3. Practice being willing to experience some totally normal discomfort.  Our brains believe that we shouldn’t be uncomfortable—ever.  But most of us can name experiences that we’ve had that were painful/scary/awkward/frustrating—and ultimately, totally worth it.  The truth of the matter is that change and growth ARE uncomfortable sometimes, not because anything has gone wrong, but because it’s part of the experience.  Remember–we are going to be uncomfortable whether we choose to grow or not, so why not choose the discomfort that bring us the life that we want with it?

Getting good at working with resistance is a freaking super-power.  It’s the key to being able to stay in action around what’s important to us.  See what happens when you accept it as a normal part of the journey towards your goal, rather than as proof that you’ll never succeed.  I think you’ll be amazed at what you learn!