Some call it change, some progress, and there are also some who call it adaptation. Some people develop virtually a fear of change while others are almost addicted at the novelty it implies. The former prefer regularity, predictability and ancient things. Addicted love the novelty, difference and uncertainty.
In any case, life itself is change. Schopenhauer said, “Change is the only thing that can’t be changed”. That is why it is crucial to develop a level of tolerance to change that will allow us to deal with transformations without compromising too much our psychological balance.
What is resistance to individual change?
The concept of resistance to change in organizations is well-known, but resistance to personal change is a less popular idea, though it is equally important.
In psychology, the concept of resistance to change refers to people experiencing an emotional anxiety caused by the prospect of a transformation or change that is taking place.
During the early years of psychology, resistance to individual change was simply analyzed as a motivational problem. Therefore, it was thought that to eliminate this resistance was enough to persuade the persons to motivate themselves.
We now know that when someone resists to change, there are several problematic areas, relating to personality traits, life stories, or the current situation. From this perspective, resistance to personal change is an amazing opportunity to look inside of us.
In fact, we can feel motivated to change, but if something keeps us, like fear, motivation will not be enough to overcome the resistance. That is why a change is always an opportunity to discover oneself.
The cycle of resistance to personal change
Kubler-Ross has proposed an emotional cycle that people follow in mourning cases, but that applies perfectly to any other type of change in life we refuse to accept.
1. Shock phase. It is the state of paralysis or initial block when we first expose ourselves to the perspective of change. In this state we usually do not react, so that other people may think that we have willingly accepted the transformation, but in reality what is happening is that our emotional system has “frozen.” Our rational mind has not yet processed the change and what it means. To the extent that we take it, we can experience an anxiety crisis or other physical reactions.
2. Negative phase. At this stage we deny the change, this implies closing our eyes in front of reality and any evidence that transformation is necessary or is occurring. Normally we continue with our lives, as if nothing had happened, with the naive claim that the need to change disappears. This is because, by grasping to our everyday routines, we recover the feeling of control.
3. Phase of wrath. When we can no longer deny change, the most common thing is to react with anger, frustration, and rage. In this phase, all the feelings repressed during the previous phases emerge. At this stage we also usually ask ourselves “why should this just happen to me?”
4. Phase of negotiation. It is a phase in which we will try to find a way out, although it is usually useless because we are still struggling to change. At this stage we have not yet accepted the change, but we try to find the “way” to avoid it.
5. Phase of depression. At this point we finally accept that change is inevitable. But we do not accept it, and we can react getting depressed or irritatated.
6. Phase of the test. It is a phase where resistance to change is finally disappearing because we realize that we have to react. Then we start looking for realistic solutions and new coping models that fit the reality. At this stage, we begin small experiments that bring us closer to change and allow us to observe it in a new perspective.
7. Phase of acceptance. It is the last stage in which we return to find the balance that was lost with the change. We find and implement new models of adaptive behavior that help us to rebuild our identity in new circumstances.
The 10 resistance-changing factors that keep you trapped in the past
We are aware that change is the only constant in life. However, we want to change and at the same time remain the same, or do the same things. This dichotomy generates resistance, often at an unconscious level.
1. Do not understand that you need to change. In some circumstances we may not have very clear that it is necessary to change, especially if we feel relatively safe and comfortable in our comfort zone. If we think that the things we have done for so many years will continue to work and there are no reasons to change, we oppose to any transformation.
2. Fear of the unknown. Fear of what we do not know and uncertainty is one of the main reasons for resistance to change. As a general rule, we jump into the unknown only if we believe that what awaits us is worth it, but if we are not sure of what we will find, it will be very difficult for us to give up our position where we feel safe and all is relatively under control.
3. Lack of expertise and fear of failure. It is a factor of resistance to change that few people admit but which is the basis of this fear. When we believe we do not have the skills, abilities, or strengths needed to cope with transformation, we often do not recognize it, but we react by resisting to transformation.
4. Attachment to habits. If we have done things in a way for a long time, it will be very difficult to change these models. They are not just habits of behavior, but also ways to relate, think, or feel. This is due, inter alia, to the fact that in our brain there are already “neural motorways” through which these habits run fast, so change requires that we build new ways, and our brain usually tends to apply the law of minimal effort.
5. Imposition. When we perceive that change is imposed by someone and that we have no right to speak, the first reaction is usually the rejection. Most people do not like the imposed changes, so if they are not consulted, the will to change will be minimal.
6. Exhaustion and saturation. In many cases resistance to change is due to the fact that the tolerance level for change has been exceeded; that is, the person has undergone so many transformations that have developed a refusal to them because of exhaustion and saturation.
7. Cognitive dissonance. In some cases, change is a breaking point with some of our beliefs or opinions, which creates a cognitive dissonance that we are unwilling to assume.
8. Poor motivation. Every change always requires the mobilization of certain resources, so if we do not have enough motivation, or if this is not an intrinsic motivation, we will resist that transformation.
9. The wrong time. In many cases, resistance to change is caused by the fact that change comes at a negative moment in life. It may be that the person is going through a difficult situation or has other projects and is not prepared to face another change.
10. Personal predisposition to change. There are personalities more willing to change while others are tied to what they know. Neurotic personalities, with an internal locus of control and low tolerance to ambiguity, are more resistant to change.
Oreg, S. (2003). Resistance to change: Developing an individual differences measure. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88(4), 680-693.
Dent, E. B. & Galloway, S. (1999) Challenging “Resistance to Change”. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 35 (1), 25-41.