by Jennifer Newton Martin, LPC
One day I was walking out of my daughter’s school, after dropping her at preschool, when I noticed a teacher standing in another classroom door. I glanced around to see what she was looking at after noticing her frustrated tone of voice. Down the hall about ten feet from her was a little girl refusing to come into her classroom. She stood next to the wall looking at her shoes, clearly determined not to be ordered around. I wanted to help the teacher, but mostly I wanted to diffuse the tension that was mounting in the hall. The more the teacher demanded that the girl come in, the more the girl seemed to dig in her heels and refuse.
I started thinking about the best way to help, since clearly inviting the girl into the classroom, or ordering her to go there, both weren’t going to help. I tried to put myself in her shoes. She was clearly very uncomfortable with being told what to do in that moment. I thought to myself, “perhaps if I show some interest in her position.” I wondered if the discomfort of a stranger questioning her just might make her classroom suddenly seem more inviting. I walked over beside her and stood there for a minute while she continued looking at her feet. I could tell she noticed me, though she wasn’t prepared to let on. “What is so interesting that you have found here on the floor?” I asked. She shuffled a little. “It must be really interesting, you’ve been standing here looking at it for awhile. Can you tell me about it?” Just like that, she looked up at me and darted into her classroom.
That story has stuck with me. The thing that I learned from that encounter is that we all feel resistant from time to time. Maybe we don’t want to attend a gathering, or go to our parent’s house for dinner, or talk to someone on the phone. Whatever it is that we are resisting, there is likely a perfectly logical reason for it if we take some time to unbury it. I guarantee that if I had asked that three or four year old little girl why she was so bent on not going into her classroom that day she couldn’t have told me why. Four year olds aren’t cognitively mature enough to be very self-reflective. But knowing a little about Human Growth and Development, it becomes a little less of a mystery. According to Erik Erikson, a renowned American-German Psychologist, the preschool aged child is typically in Stage 3 of Human Development. During this stage, the child is tasked with taking initiative and asserting control over their environment and their body. Preschoolers do this by attempting to direct play or social interactions. If they master this stage of development they experience a sense of purpose. It can be a delicate dance to learn to control ourselves while also working well with others. Even adults can struggle with this.
“Whatever it is that we are resisting, there is likely a perfectly logical reason for it if we take the time to unbury it.”
A common theme that occurs in counseling, particularly with couples, is the theme of control and power. The desire to experience power in relationships and in life doesn’t stop when a four year old completes Stage 3 of Erikson’s Human Growth Stages. In fact, research from the Gottman Institute, one of the primary modern day relationship researchers, now notes that a fairly equal power differential in a romantic relationship is one of the key indicators that a relationship will be a successful one. In order to have intimacy, individuals must feel that they are on somewhat equal ground with their mate when it comes to power.
A few things to keep in mind when you (or someone else) experience(s) resistance:
Can you identify what it is that you need to feel more comfortable accepting what it is that you are resisting?
Can you think of a time in your past that you felt similarly, and can you make sense of what you needed then?
Have you had prior experiences in relationships where you were controlled? If so, can you recognize whether you are experiencing the same treatment currently or are you being triggered by past events? If you are in a controlling relationship, then it might be time to address this. If you are triggered by events that occurred in previous relationships, then individual counseling might be useful to help you explore ways to identify and handle triggers so they don’t impact your ability to have a new and better experience.
Is another person attempting to control you or are you willingly handing over control out of deference for others or to gain approval? Remember that sometimes we are so used to behaving in this way that we may not even recognize that we are.
If you feel that another person is resisting your invitation, or you in general, can you start a conversation with them about what they might be feeling and/or ask if there is something they are remembering from their past?
Remember, all behavior serves a purpose. Find out what the purpose is and you are halfway to the solution. It may seem like you are more in control when you resist others. However, when we refuse to do something just because someone else wants us to, then we are essentially handing over our power to someone else. If all of our decisions are simply responses of opposition to others, then we aren’t making decisions for ourselves at all.
“If all of our decisions are simply responses of opposition to others, then we aren’t making decisions for ourselves at all.”
Practice making decisions to do things because you desire to do them, whether that is to serve or love someone else or to meet your own needs. If you can do this, you will be asserting yourself and impacting your environment in a way that will bring you a sense of purpose and empowerment.
To read more about Human Growth and Development, see Milestones after Midlife: Experience and Generativity.
For more useful information on managing your thoughts, see my post on fighting negative thoughts.
To read more about overarching thought patterns, schemas, see my previous post on schema and cognitive consistency.