One of the most frustrating challenges to healing are the “internal obstacles” that keep you from following through on your intentions. For example, you may have a desire to eat less sugar or to soften a habit of binge eating. But when you take that desire and move into action – for example, you skip your usual afternoon sugar treat – you may notice that all sorts of uncomfortable feelings arise.
This includes feelings like doubt, hopelessness, and resistance (feelings of “I don’t want to,” “you can’t make me,” and “I don’t feel like it!”) You may even feel like these feelings get in the way of change.
Resistance can feel so sticky and frustrating that we may resort to painful ways of moving through it. This can include tactics like over-control, suppression, “white-knuckling” it, anxiety, fear, punishment (“If you don’t do this, then this bad XYZ thing will happen”), bargaining (“If you do XYZ I’ll give you ABC”), over-striving and more.
I’ve certainly used all of these tactics. They never feel good to the heart – even if they get us to “obey” temporarily. That’s because we’re steam rolling over our tender feelings, a part of our experience. We’re also making the resistance wrong, and fighting against it.
In this article I’m going to talk a bit about how you can approach feelings of resistance with warmth, compassion, and acceptance rather than fear or judgment. Making space for these emotions paradoxically creates a space where growth and healing occur.
So let’s dive in!
Healing is an emotional practice, and resistance plays an important role
Resistance arises in all of us – it truly isn’t personal and is part of the human condition. Likewise, it isn’t bad or wrong, or proof that you’re doing something bad or wrong if you feel it! (If you’re spiritually open minded and oriented, you may enjoy reading Cynthia Bourgeault‘s book, The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three, as she explains in her book why resistance is a necessary and essential part of growth.)
The reason I put “internal obstacles” in quotation marks is that these uncomfortable emotions aren’t obstacles at all. In fact, they are meant to arise and are arising to be seen, witnessed, embraced, and healed. They are the path to transformation, not an obstacle to it. On a neurological level, growth occurs in the emotional brain. In other words, we heal through feeling, not thinking or knowing.
Your relationship with sugar and food – like all relationships – is an emotional practice. It is through this emotional practice that healing, growth and transformation occur. When we embrace this perspective, we move from a place of suppressing, controlling or cutting out pesky emotions like resistance to developing a relationship with them.
To change how we respond to resistance, we change how we relate.
Fortunately, there are ways we can care for resistance without making ourselves wrong, our resistance wrong, or life wrong. And there are ways we can honor our feelings of resistance and move through them. In other words, honoring our feelings of resistance doesn’t mean we have to do what our resistance says.
Softening resistance with safekeeping
One of the most powerful ways I’ve found to soften resistance is the practice of safekeeping (safekeeping is a beautiful practice that was taught to me by one of my teachers, developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld.) To describe safekeeping, I’d like to tell you a story from my own life.
I’m a mom of four kiddos. Needless to say, life is full in my house, there are lots of needs to fill, and daily life is often a comedy of errors. At the time of this story, my husband was out of town on a business trip, I was heading out of town for a family funeral, my 11-year-old daughter was heading to a state soccer tournament several hours away, and we were moving out of our temporary rental in a few days.
This is all to say that I was feeling a wee bit stressed (okay, a lot!) as I packed up our house, cared for my grief and prepared to send my family in 3 different directions with several children under foot.
From tears to willingness
On this particular morning, I was trying to get my 5 and 9-year-old boys to help me with the packing and was feeling frustrated by their whining and resistance. I coerced, bribed, threatened, cajoled, and talked in that tight, tense, “do you not hear my voice rising?” voice. None of it worked. None of it felt good.
The catalyst was my son breaking down in tears of overwhelm. Finally, his tears made me pause. I held him in the rocking chair and listened to him, creating a space for his feelings.
Afterwards, instead of ordering my boys around, we worked together on packing up the house. Several hours later, I was surprised when my son – the same son who’d been crying in frustration – said, “Packing is actually fun.”
Is your heart in safekeeping?
It’s the same process with ourselves. You may feel a lot of resistance about changing some of the habits in your life – understandably so. Change is uncomfortable and takes effort. We often feel like fumbling beginners, back at kindergarten. Growth means being vulnerable and asking for support and yes, feeling all those uncomfortable feelings.
When your resistance arises, do you find yourself reverting to what I did with my boys – cajoling, demanding, coercing, bribing? I’m guessing it works as well with your own heart as it worked with my boys!
Instead, what would be the equivalent of holding your resistance in your lap, listening to its cries?
Dr. Gordon Neufeld says getting children to behave isn’t about powering over them. Children want to obey when they trust that “we have their hearts in safekeeping.” That phrase brings tears to my eyes with its love and mercy. When I first heard it, I immediately thought about my relationship with myself – Is my heart in safekeeping?
Why your heart needs safety
Our hearts need the safety of loving connection, of loving relationship. When our hearts don’t feel safe, we don’t feel safe to feel those uncomfortable feelings. We don’t feel safe to be vulnerable. We don’t feel safe to expose all of ourselves.
If the heart isn’t safe, we feel ashamed. We run and hide. We soothe ourselves with “shadow comforts,” as my friend and colleague Jen Louden calls them – things like food, sugar, shopping, internet surfing, and more.
If the heart isn’t safe, we feel anxious. Every step feels very life or death – tight, tense, stressful – and the messy path of growth is hiccuped by the need to, above all else, not mess up.
But most of all, when the heart isn’t safe, we feel disconnected from our very selves.
Collect before you direct
Rumi says it this way – “Do you visit with yourself?” Meditation teacher Tara Brach says that when we give someone our presence – a kind, nonjudgmental, totally accepting attention – we’re offering love. That’s what Dr. Neufeld is saying, too.
That’s what I paused and offered my son, what shifted our relationship and fostered a willingness to help pack.
It’s particularly important to nourish the relationship when we’re asking something challenging of ourselves. In Neufeld circles, this is called “collect before you direct.” So you would collect your child – connect with your child with touch, your eyes, your voice, your love – before you direct them and ask them to do something.
This is because a child will automatically, forcefully say, “No,” to a parent that they don’t feel attached to. And we automatically say “no” to our requests – no matter how “good” they are for us! – when we’re feeling disconnected from our own hearts.
So when you feel resistant to change, healing and growth, perhaps what you’re really feeling is loneliness, a thirst of the heart.
Resting in presence
Do you feel how your heart cries out to be collected? You may find a correlation between the quality of your relationship with yourself and your willingness to follow through on your desires for growth and change.
Here’s how you can put this into practice: before you ask yourself to stop eating sugar or to stop bingeing, take time to be. Nurture your relationship with yourself.
You can take 10 minutes and visit with yourself in the morning. You can take 5 minutes and visit with yourself before a meal. You can take 10 minutes and visit with yourself before the end of the day.
Check in – how are you feeling? Are there parts of you that are asking for your attention? Let yourself be seen.
If you check in and you feel chaos or discomfort – an overwhelm, a sadness, anger, envy – offer it kindness. Imagine a troubled 5-year-old needing a mother’s soothing, and give yourself this same soothing – “There, there, now. I’m right here. You’re okay. I’ve got you.”
Sometimes it’s helpful to offer up to those feelings, “I agree!”
For some people, checking in may entail a spiritual practice. In my own life, I practice Remembrance, a Sufi practice of connecting with the Divine.
Then notice those feelings of resistance – are they different? Have they shifted? Is there more space to face and follow through on those changes that you’d like to make in your life?