Counselling: From Resistance to Acceptance
Your 39-year-old female client seats herself and looks at you with frustration. It’s been many months now since she was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative condition, but she just can’t accept it; life is becoming impossible.
Your 20-something male client suffered a relational breakup seven months ago; this was his “love of my life” and he can’t get over it. He feels completely stuck and keeps coming to session with different plans for contacting his former girlfriend, who has persistently declined to meet up. He just doesn’t get that it’s over.
Your late 50s former colleague recently called you, too. He was fired from your workplace because of “performance issues”: something he is sure was motivated by a conflict he had with a third colleague. He feels aggrieved, and wants help hatching a plan to sue your employer, even though the employer gave him many chances to improve before finally letting him go.
What do all of these cases have in common? They — like all of us at times — are resisting accepting a change that has happened. To resist is natural. As change management consultants are fond of saying, we are hardwired to resist change; our brain’s amygdala interprets change as a threat to the body and releases hormones for fear, fight, or flight (Pennington, 2019). It’s how our body protects us from change. There’s a problem, though. Sometimes the change forced upon us is permanent, and our continued resistance to it keeps us miserable, without having any effect on the situation. Recognising that and embarking on the journey to acceptance may be the only way we can reclaim our inherent birthright of joy. We look into how we may do that.
Some simple definitions will be helpful as we explore this topic.
Resistance is “the act or power of resisting, opposing, or withstanding”, or in psychiatry: “Opposition to attempt to bring repressed thoughts or feelings into consciousness” (Dictionary. com, 2019a)
Acceptance, meanwhile, is “the act of taking or receiving something offered” (Dictionary.com, 2019b)
Stages on the road to acceptance
Imagine this scenario for a moment. Let’s say you come to live in a community which places top priority on being hospitable, so there is a law that citizens must accept into their homes all guests who present themselves at the door. One day you answer a knock only to find there your new guest. Dirty, ugly, unkempt, scowling and mean, yet powerful, the guest comes in, despite your misgivings. Now life gets really interesting. How do you respond?
In the context of mindfulness leading to self-compassion, Christopher Germer (2009) outlines five stages of acceptance, although acknowledging that the process of moving through them from resistance is an iterative, back-and-forth affair, rather than proceeding neatly from the first to the last. Let’s see how these resonate with you — or your anguished, change-resisting clients.
Stage 1: Aversion
At the beginning of the journey to acceptance, we are presented with the change: the unwelcome guest in our analogy. It is at this stage that our resistance is strongest. It’s the, “Oh, no — anything but that!” factor. Some of us go into denial, like the client above who continues to contact the girlfriend as if the relationship were still intact. For others, it may mean a second, or even third expert opinion, or more medical tests, before the terrible diagnosis is acknowledged. Resistance has been likened to “arguing with reality”. As one author noted, however, when she does that, she loses: “but only 100% of the time” (Farmer, 2016).
Mental health experts generally agree that resistance doesn’t change things. Carl Jung observed the paradox of it: “We cannot change anything until we accept it” (Bode, 2007). Yet at this stage, our stuckness is unyielding, our defences against change fully mobilised. Sally Kempton, writing in the Yoga Journal, names a few of them (Kempton, 2017).
Emotional armour. Resistance does have a helpful function (more on that in a moment), but carried too far, it stops being a useful filtering device for us and becomes a wall, a kind of armour. If we have been resisting for a significant period, we may have ingrained the habit so deeply that we are unable to tell if our inner “no” is valid and helpful or just obstructive. An example here could be the couple who knows on one level that their relationship is in jeopardy; genuine intimacy has been slipping away for years. Yet night after night, they flop onto the couch for more television watching, rejecting vehemently the suggestions of intuitive others that they need to talk.
Avoidance. What about the person who loses his job, but then finds myriad excuses for not spending time in the job search effort to get a new one? Or the person who knows she needs to re-organise her finances to accommodate a changed life situation? Perhaps she keeps putting it off because, secretly, she doesn’t understand how money works and really hates facing that she is now forced to live in straitened circumstances.
Distraction. Some of us “do” resistance in a covert way. On the surface we seem to be going along with the change, but on the inside our minds are worlds away, completely absent from the activity we overtly agreed we needed/wanted to engage. A case in point here is the person who does actually arrive at the meditation mat for the mindfulness practice they acknowledge they need, but once they begin the practice, they are thinking about anything but the breath they are supposed to be watching.
The Aversion stage is painful, yet that very pain — when it reaches an unbearable intensity — comes to be the ticket out of resistance. At some point, we are just so fed up with all the life energy that is being lost in resisting that we begin to look around for another way.
Stage 2: Curiosity
Germer’s second stage is marked by a subtle softening toward the unwanted guest. Perhaps we realise that loathing and avoiding him is getting us nowhere, except to bed in a cloud of fatigue and dread. We see that he is not going away, and we can’t avoid him forever; after all, he lives in the same “house” (our life) as we do. So . . . how else could we regard him? Is there any other way we can find to be with him without being so enraged/disgusted/despairing? Carl Jung is also reputed to have said that we don’t solve our problems as much as outgrow them. Thus at Stage 2, we begin to move toward exploring our reluctance to deal with our uninvited guest. What, we ask, is our denial/avoidance/stuckness all about? What is the fear that lurks behind our strong emotion?
Stage 3: Tolerance — safely enduring
Coming into this midpoint on the road to acceptance, we notice that — even though we still strongly protest that we don’t like him and that it isn’t really “fair” that we have to shelter him — we are somehow finding a way to tolerate our terrible guest. Perhaps we have learned how to modify our daily life routines to accommodate a reduced capacity due to illness. Perhaps we have, albeit reluctantly, begun to engage socially again after the agonising breakup. The important point is that, even if we still fail to admit it to ourselves, we have begun to change ourselves in order to accommodate the change. Our nightmare guest is definitely still with us, but we see that we are surviving despite that. For the record, we may still say we can’t stand him, but we are learning to cope with him. In short, we acknowledge him and his presence, and the psychological pain of resistance is reduced accordingly. If we likened the changed situation to a hostile country on our borders, we would say that a truce is being observed. There is no true peace just yet.
Stage 4: Allowing
This stage is subtly different from mere tolerance. Here we are conscious of thoughts that still come to us about how great things were before The Unwanted Guest arrived, but now we allow them to come, knowing that the thoughts will leave, too. For example, we may see our late friend’s picture and wistfully recall all the marvellous conversations over endless cups of tea; for a few minutes, we ardently wish he hadn’t died. We may see a jogger in fine form and notice strenuous thoughts of frustration that we had to hang up our jogging shoes when our knees got really bad. But after those resistant thoughts, which we can now afford to openly acknowledge, we go back to living in the present moment, uninvited guest (of change) and all. We may still not like to admit it, but life is more or less ok again. We have given the guest the key to the house, so he can come and go as he pleases. Little by little, probably without noticing how it happened, we came to this place of being “sort of” ok with the change, of moving over psychologically to make room for it, even though we still look back in the rearview mirror on occasion, reflecting that “those were the days”.
Stage 5: Friendship
Germer’s last stage — arrival at acceptance and friendship — heralds an exciting development. We said at the outset that resistance has a useful filtering function, because sometimes we are better off when we do resist. If our boundaries are violated, we should resist. If we are disrespected or treated in a degrading manner, resistance serves to let the other party know that they have crossed a red line — and had better cross back over it again to the other side! At this stage of coming to be with an unwelcome and possibly permanent change, however, we are in a different relationship with resistance. At Friendship, we finally come to comprehend the value of the experience we have just been through. Our uninvited guest no longer looks so ugly or so threatening. In fact, to our great surprise, we see cause for friendship with him. That is, we are able to disidentify enough from our initial resistance that we can see the silver lining in the change. We appreciate the insights and lessons gleaned and know that we are somehow larger, more powerful, more deeply connected to ourselves and all of life than we were before the change.
We may note, for example, that after a period of unemployment, we are able to embrace our new work with more profound gratitude — and we learned how to live more simply in the bargain. Dealing with a chronic illness may have taught us to joyously welcome the good days, and learn to be more even-minded with the not-so-good ones. And a newfound self-confidence in relating to people after the breakup may make us seriously attractive to the kind of partner we always wanted. (Stages adapted from Germer, 2009).
Powerful questions to help clients journey to acceptance
As mental health professionals or coaches, we are in the business of reframing, and the journey from resistance to acceptance demands nothing less. Here are some reframing questions that you can use to help clients along the road:
- What is the current impact of this resistance in your life?
- How do you envision the situation in three months if there is no change?
- Was there a time in the past when you experienced something similar? How did you handle it? How did that approach work?
- Are you willing to see this situation differently?
- Do you believe that you had a role in creating this? If so, what was it?
- What fears, concerns, or obstacles come up as you think about letting go of the resistance?
- How do you envision the situation in three months if you accept the situation?
- How does this align with your values and beliefs? (Bode, 2007)
Acceptance is probably in that category of thing that is “simple, but it isn’t easy”. Moving past our resistance may be tough, but accepting reality allows us to make needed changes. It doesn’t mean we failed! It does mean we are freer: to be our more authentic selves, to respond to what our life needs, and to engage with meaning and purpose at ever more profound levels. At the beginning of the journey, it seemed that to accept the change meant the end of things: far from it. Acceptance is not the end. It is the beginning.
- Bode, C. (2007). Power tool: Acceptance vs. resistance. Coachcampus.com. Retrieved on 25 June, 2019, from: Website.
- Dictionary.com. (2019a). Resistance. Dictionary.com. Retrieved on 27 June, 2019, from: Website.
- Dictionary.com. (2019b). Acceptance. Dictionary.com. Retrieved on 27 June, 2019, from: Website.
- Farmer, J. (2016). The battle of acceptance versus resistance. Attorney with a life. Retrieved on 27 June, 2019, from: Website.
- Germer, C. (2009). The mindful path to self-compassion: Freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotions. New York: Guilford Press.
- Kempton, S. (2017). Free yourself. Yoga journal. Retrieved on 25 June, 2019, from: Website.
- Pennington, C. (2019). People are hardwired to resist change. Emerson Human Capital. Retrieved on 27 June, 2019, from: Website.