Resistance to change is one of the main causes of immobility. When we do not accept change but cling to old ways of thinking or doing things, we condemn ourselves to living in the terrain of frustration and dissatisfaction. In some cases, this resistance to change generates maladaptive responses that lead to psychological disorders.
“Change is the only immutable thing,” said Schopenhauer. Although we know it, we cannot always prevent an opposing force from being unleashed trying to keep the state of things unchanged. In fact, in our daily lives we tend to function by inertia. That inertia leads us to maintain the status quo and cling to what we know to maintain the balance that we struggled to achieve.
Just as our body tends towards homeostasis to maintain the balance of its functions, our brain prefers to work in “energy saving mode” avoiding shocks and large revolutions that force it to change its neural patterns, those that allow us to react automatically . However, this inertia is not always positive and many times it can turn against us because life changes and we must be able to adapt.
The causes of resistance to change
Some people are more resistant to change while others are more open. Different studies have shown that those with high Emotional Intelligence tend to accept changes better. It has also been found that those who react too emotionally, have more rigid thinking, are more attached to customs and develop a short-term approach are more likely to resist changes.
However, regardless of personality characteristics, there are other causes of resistance to change. These are common situations or fears that we can all experience and that lead us to cling uselessly to the past:
1. Fear of losing control. When we are faced with new situations for which we do not have cardinal points that allow us to orient ourselves, we can feel that the ground is shaking under our feet. Our sense of self-determination and the autonomy crumble and we are frightened by the prospect of losing control. That feeling is not pleasant, so our first impulse is to cling to the known to feel safe again. When this is the cause of resistance to change, it is important to remember that control is only an illusion.
2. Excess of uncertainty. Some changes can make us feel as if we are walking a tightrope blindfolded, so it is normal for them to generate strong resistance. When we do not know what is going to happen, it is understandable that we prefer to stay where we are, even if we do not feel completely well in that place. Sometimes we simply prefer a better known evil than good yet to know, as the popular saying goes. Overcoming inertia demands a minimum of security and trust. When we don’t have them, it’s easier to entrench ourselves in our comfort zone. In these cases, we must remind ourselves that uncertainty, although difficult to manage, is not our enemy.
3. Surprise! Situations that take us by surprise often generate a defensive reaction. We all need a little time to get used to some ideas or prepare to face certain circumstances, even the most positive ones. So when changes happen unexpectedly, our first reaction is to step back to protect ourselves from the unknown. However, in these cases, resistance to change tends to diminish as we process what happened.
4. Too radical. All changes bring something different, but how different? We are creatures of habit. Routines are automated and give us some security in our day to day, make our life more predictable, so too radical changes tend to destabilize us. In fact, it is easier to accept a great change when it occurs slowly step by step, than radical transformations that shake our beliefs and untie the knots that tie us to the dock. Big changes can simply confuse and scare us because they leave us without cardinal points. In this case, we must think that radical changes can represent a great opportunity to rethink many things in our lives, which otherwise would have continued on automatic pilot.
5. Lack of confidence. Can I do it? One of the causes of resistance to change is precisely the fear of not being able to cope with everything or not having the skills or strength necessary to face this new scenario. Sometimes, for example, we can feel too old to start from scratch. Or we can doubt our abilities to function in new environments for which we are not prepared. In those cases, a period of familiarization that allows us to gradually enter the change can be enough to gain confidence.
6. Fear of repercussions. Changes are usually like a stone falling into a pond. They start with a small wave, but these waves are replicated and enlarged until reaching unsuspected dimensions. For this reason, sometimes the cause of resistance to change lies in the fear of consequences that we cannot foresee, we do not know how to manage or simply are beyond our control. When we make drastic changes in our lives, for example, we can worry about the repercussions they will have on those close to us. Sometimes that fear keeps us tied, even though we know that change is the best solution. In these cases, we can try to minimize the impact of those repercussions.
7. Fear of rejection. Many changes bring the seed of novelty, not only for us but for those around us. Sometimes we do not dare to make a decision simply because we fear that the others will not accept it and end up rejecting us. The fear of separating from the group that we identify as a source of security and protection, is one of the causes of resistance to change that keeps us tied to circumstances that are not good for us. In these cases we need to overcome that fear of rejection through self-affirmation.
8. Past trauma. The ghosts of the past are always lurking. As long as everything remains stable, they remain calm, but when something different appears, they can jump into action. Change can reopen old wounds, activate historical resentments, or remind us of old failures. Finding a new partner, for example, can activate all the emotional hurts from the past, causing us to move away for fear of being hurt again. To overcome that fear we need to heal the past before navigating into the future. We must give ourselves time to heal, so that old wounds are not reopened and we can embrace change with serenity and joy.
9. Exhaustion. There are stages in life in which we are so saturated that any change, no matter how small, becomes the last straw that breaks the camel’s back. There are situations of great stress or uncertainty in which we simply cannot cope with more changes because our psychological resources are finished. These changes, whether positive or negative, add more work and tension for us, so it is understandable that we resist. In this case, the problem is not the change itself but our psychological state, that resistance to change is only showing that there are things that we have to solve to re-find serenity.
10. Real threat. Sometimes changes carry a real threat. In situations of great uncertainty or in those in which we must make important decisions, the possibility of making mistakes hangs over our heads like a threatening shadow. That creates an understandable fear that causes resistance to change. In other cases it is not an intrinsic threat but rather the pain that change can generate. In fact, most major changes in life involve a change of direction in which we must give up something or leave someone behind. That can hurt. Then the prospect of pain paralyzes us. However, we must remember that every decision always implies a renunciation, so it is only about being clear about our priorities and goals in life.
Understanding the causes of resistance to change will help us minimize the discomfort we experience when faced with new situations, whether positive or negative. When we accept change, everything flows better and we experience infinitely less pain.
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Forsell. L. & Åström, J. (2012) An Analysis of Resistance to Change Exposed in Individuals’ Thoughts and Behaviors. Comprehensive Psychology; 09.02.10.CP.1.17.
Oreg, S. (2003) Resistance to change: Developing an individual differences measure. Journal of Applied Psychology; 88(4): 680–693.