Staring down resistance
Updated: Dec 11, 2020
No one is forcing me to write this blog. No one even twisted my arm. It’s something I’ve chosen to do and something I want to do, at least in theory. So why am I sitting here staring at a blank computer screen (save the few sentences that I just typed above) rather than happily typing away, letting the words magically flow from my fingers?
Because I’ve got nothing.
Sound familiar? You want to write the introduction to that article or you need to plan that meeting or you’ve committed to spending 20 minutes on the elliptical trainer and no matter how hard you try, you just… can’t… do it.
Sigh. Resistance sucks.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from being in the grips of resistance many times before, it’s that trying to force myself to forge ahead rarely helps. Don’t get me wrong… Every once in a while it works, and I can successfully will myself back into the groove. But more often than not, I just end up wasting time surfing the internet mindlessly. Or I conclude that I can’t possibly do anything until my office is clean. Basically, I do everything in my power to distract myself from the matter at hand.
When this happens, I know that it’s futile to continue. I need to stop what I’m doing, take a breath, and look resistance straight in the eye.
“Why are you here?” I ask it.
“Because you’re afraid,” Resistance always responds.
“Of course I am,” I reply. “We both already know that. Why are you here right now?”
“I’m here ______________.”
This is where you get to fill in the blank. If your experience is anything like mine, you can probably select from one of the following usual suspects:
Because you don’t know where to start.
Because the results may not meet your standards and/or you could end up looking stupid.
Because there’s something else that needs your emotional attention.
Here’s a sense of how I tackle each one.
Resistance that stems from not knowing where to start is probably the best-case scenario. If we sit down and carefully break the bigger project down into smaller tasks, we can almost always get going on some part of it. Once we feel that initial sense of satisfaction, it’s easier to keep the momentum going. Before we know it, we’re off and running! Be aware though, that sometimes “I don’t know where to start” is code for “I’m afraid I won’t be good at this,” which leads us directly to the second source of resistance: standards and the fear of looking stupid.
Look, high standards are great. Who can argue against the pursuit of excellence? The problem is that if we’re bumping up against major resistance, it’s not likely the result of setting high, attainable standards for ourselves. More likely, we’re dealing with a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The wolf? Perfectionism.
Before we dig in here, let me say that I could devote every post from now until eternity to the topic of perfectionism and probably not completely tackle it, maybe because I find it so hard to combat in my own life. Although perfectionism sometimes masquerades as something positive, it is not our friend. It holds us back and reduces our quality of life in innumerable ways. We exhaust ourselves and others with our impossibly high standards. We get irritable because nothing is ever good enough. And most relevant to the current discussion, we can become totally paralyzed, unable to take any action at all.
These patterns are often incredibly well established, having been perfected (no pun intended) over many years as a way to manage feelings of fear, uncertainty, and inadequacy. According to Judson Brewer, perfectionism can resemble addiction. We crave the rewards that come from meeting our standard of perfection and downplay the very real costs. I’ve certainly experienced the rush that comes from performing to my own overly high expectations, and I know that this reinforces my perfectionistic tendencies. After the fact, it’s so easy to ignore the frustration, wasted hours, and hypercritical self-talk that accompanied the process and focus only on how good the achievement feels.
The grand irony is that perfectionism has been shown to hamper achievement rather than promote it. Brené Brown describes perfectionism as “a twenty-ton shield that we lug around, thinking it will protect us, when in fact it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from being seen… Perfectionism is a form of shame.” Relatedly, my perfectionism can show up as fear of looking stupid. If I don’t do it perfectly, or worse yet, if I fail publicly and end up looking like an idiot, then I’ll be revealed to be an imposter who isn’t actually qualified for my role and I’ll be ostracized for sure. This often kept me silent during research talks that weren’t solidly in my area (“What if I say something that makes no sense and then my colleagues realize that I have no idea what I’m doing?”). And I’ve heard from many assistant professors that they spend immense amounts of time preparing for class simply to ensure that their students won’t perceive them as incompetent. (Sadly, I can attest to the fact that no amount of preparation can guarantee that.)
So what might we do? Try reminding yourself of the downsides to setting ridiculously high standards… the lost time, the emotional toll, the damaged relationships. You may want to experiment with intentionally doing things imperfectly and sitting with the feelings that come up. It may also help to focus on learning and curiosity rather than on producing and the end result. And, as always, try going a little easier on yourself. I share some specific strategies for doing that here.
The final source of resistance I’d like to touch on is stuffed or blocked emotions. It’s easy to get out of balance with so many demands on our time. For me, the need to “keep going” often means that I refuse to take the time to feel and process negative emotions (typically sadness) because I have too many other things to attend to. The problem is that unfelt feelings and unaddressed conflict can wreak havoc on our lives. As they say, “what we resist persists” and on the flip side, “if you can feel it, you can heal it.” I’m not going to delve too deeply into this. I will simply say that being mindful of our internal experience, allowing feelings to come and go and even welcoming them if we can, can make a world of difference.
I’d like to close by sharing a short poem that I wrote last week, both because it relates to this general topic and because putting it out there means risking looking stupid, which we’ve already established is a good way to chip away at perfectionism.
Strength so often meant
Showing up prepared and polished no matter what.
Then came the terror
Of letting go
Of giving in
Of getting lost and falling through.
so much softer
And so much harder.
Okay, well I guess I had something to say after all. :) I’m glad that I faced my resistance, allowed this post to be imperfect (as if I had any shot at making it perfect anyway!), felt my feelings, and was able to get going.
Here’s to a resistance-free path for all of us. Thanks as always for making the time!