When I was 18, I decided I wanted to write a novel. I had an idea for a plot, I was studying English Literature and I was blessed with that kind of gung-ho ‘how hard can it be?’ self-assurance of (very) early adulthood.
It wasn’t the right time. I had absolutely no idea who I was. My life experience was minimal and my writing experience was largely based on A-Level Shakespeare essays. But fast forward 20+ years to where I have a marginally better idea of who I am, a lot more life experience and can safely say I’ve forgotten everything I learnt about Shakespeare—and I STILL haven’t got round to writing that book. It’s not that I don’t want to. In fact, it’s been bugging me pretty much every day since then. I’ve talked about it a lot, I’ve planned to make a start many times, but I’ve resisted doing anything about it.
The concept of ‘resistance’ doesn’t just apply to writing or creative pursuits. It applies to anything that we want to do that we know will improve our lives. That may be a yoga practice, career change, business venture, healthy diet, or learning a new language (living in Amsterdam with a Japanese husband and soon-to-be trilingual baby daughter means I can add this last one to my own resistance list!) Steven Pressfield, who wrote the brilliant book ‘The War of Art’ sums it up like this:
‘[Resistance is..] the little voice in your head that says you aren’t good enough, strong enough, or motivated enough to start your creative journey. It is a faceless, formless, and heartless energy with the sole purpose of ensuring you never start the work that will lead to your true nature. Whether you’re an artist, inventor, or scientist, resistance flares up each time you start or think about starting the work you were born to do.’
Resistance seems to be a universal phenomenon—so much has been written about it and so much can be said about it. But the two key questions I’m asking here are WHY do we so fiercely resist the things that we so fiercely want to do? —and WHAT can we do about it? (with some yoga and meditation suggestions to support the process).
WHY do we resist?
There’s more at stake with the things we love
With the things we really love, there’s more to lose. I don’t mind (at least, not too much) if I make a bad cake or can’t run a marathon. But if one of my poems gets rejected by a magazine? It feels like a brutal rejection of me as a person, because I’ve linked my whole identity and long-term desires with this ambition to write. We put the things we love up on a pedestal and raise the stakes so high that just taking the tiniest bit of action towards our goals suddenly becomes terrifying.
The potential for failure is scary and we’d rather stay safe
Essentially our ego wants to keep us ‘safe’ at all costs. And that’s not always a bad thing—sometimes we need its cautious warnings. And when you put yourself ‘out there’ in the world, you’re essentially opening up to the possibility of failure, which the ego sees as about the most unsafe place you can be. Isn’t it easier and safer simply not to try? Yes, says the ego (as you scroll through your phone one more time).
It’s been said that roughly 95% of what we do is controlled by our subconscious mind—and it’s a good job that we don’t have to think about how to breathe or how to walk or how to pump blood around our veins. The more primitive amygdala and limbic part of the brain doesn’t care if we are creatively fulfilled or thriving, it just cares that we get through each day alive. If you’re familiar with Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’, this means we get stuck in the physical and security-based elements without ever giving ourselves a chance for self-actualization. And if you have survived so far in life by doing what you’re doing, then your subconscious mind is probably telling you that it’s safer just to keep doing it (even if the conscious part of your brain is crying out for change).
The potential for success is scary and we’d rather stay safe
And what if you go after your goals and it all goes wonderfully—what then!? Yikes, that’s scary too. What if people want more of what you’re offering and you don’t have more to give? Or what if you launch your creations out into the world to be seen by millions, only to get a hurtful response from the small percentage of people who will criticise what you’re doing? There will always be a few! – and you will invariably fixate on their snide comments while ignoring all the positive feedback. Let’s face it, sometimes wanting something can be easier and less stressful than having it. Because when we have what we want, we’re more vulnerable, we’re more visible, and we have to work to maintain it. In ‘The Molecule of More’, Daniel Z. Lieberman describes an experiment showing that when an individual was introduced to something they highly desired, the dopamine surge would diminish once they actually got it. In other words, dopamine is not the pleasure itself, but the pleasure of wanting more. This can be one reason why we sabotage what we truly want—because we know that achieving it will only make us hungry for more, and then more again after that. Sometimes it feels easier (and less exhausting) simply not to try.
So the next question about our stubborn resistance is:
WHAT can we do about it?
Be HONEST with yourself
Is this really the life you want to live? Be aware that resistance can manifest itself in the careers we choose. In ‘The Artist’s Way’, Julia Cameron talks about ‘shadow’ careers’: ‘shadow artists often choose shadow careers – those close to the desired art, even parallel to it, but not the art itself.’ For me, this is manifested in the choice to make my living writing for companies as a copywriter; I enjoy it and it’s close to what I want to do, but I also know that long-term it’s not what I really want to do. Maybe you want to be a yoga teacher but are working on the reception desk at a yoga studio instead, or you want to compose your own music but find yourself as the PA of a successful musician, or you’re working in fashion marketing when you really want to design your own clothes. We get as close to our desired life as is safely possible, but fail to follow through or to make the crucial switch that will allow us to focus on our true gifts. Instead we find ourselves feeling frustrated, envious, bored, depressed or trying to numb ourselves with other distractions and addictions.
The first step might be to take proper stock of where you are and ask yourself some honest questions—will you be happy to be in this career / relationship / life in five or ten years time? If not, what are you going to do about it today?
On that note, you’ve got to convince that subconscious part of yourself that it’s safe to make changes and take baby steps towards what you really want—and yes, today! For example, you don’t have to say ‘I’m going to write a book’ but you could say ‘I’m going to write for 15 minutes today’. You don’t have to say ‘I’m going to become a yoga teacher’ but you could spend an hour researching schools that offer teacher-training programs. Break down your bigger (often overwhelming) goal into manageable and actionable items, and notice the small shifts to your perspective as you do so.
There is energy in motion—sometimes you’ve just got to get moving. And change is uncomfortable until it is familiar, so if it feels sticky to begin with, don’t worry! You’re teaching your brain new ways of showing up in the world and developing new neural pathways as you do so. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.
Watch out for DISTRACTION
I can find so many ways to distract myself from writing (as well as from the whole host of other things I know are good for me). Doing another load of laundry or ordering some new winter socks, deciding it’s absolutely imperative to clean out my inbox or to make a spreadsheet of poetry contests I’d like to enter ‘one day’, meeting a friend for lunch rather than finishing an article, and the ever-present temptation of ‘just having a little look’ at Instagram…there’s always going to be something more immediately appealing that I can distract myself with.
And when I think about my writing goals after a day spent distracting myself with distraction*, I console myself with platitudes such as ‘there’s always tomorrow’ or ‘I’ll work on my book after the next baby’ or ‘I can start when this crazy work project is finished’. There’s always a better time to get going—but that better time just never seems to come around. And meanwhile, that gnawing feeling that I’m not living the fullest or most authentic expression of my life continues to grow.
(The poet T. S. Eliot wrote in 1936 that modern society was “distracted from distraction by distraction.” Imagine what he’d think of the world today!)
Do it for YOU
My raging perfectionist tends to sabotage my attempts at creativity by asking ‘but who’s going to want to read / see / hear this?!’ I’m looking at what I want through the lens of other people. What if I just sit down and write, not because I think it’s going to be read, but simply because I love to do it? With no major end-point in sight, no pressure and no expectation, but just because it’s in me and I have to find a way to let it out in order to let myself be me. What other people ‘might think’ is a sure-fire way to thwart all our dreams. It can be liberating to remind ourselves of the quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt: ‘You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realised how seldom they do.’
There’s no way I can cover all the whys and whats of resistance in one short article. It’s an unwieldy phenomenon that overlaps into many other areas of the human condition, from procrastination to perfectionism, self-sabotage to shadow-work, neuroplasticity to neuroticism and everything in between. But perhaps simply by recognising our resistance for what it is, and understanding where it comes from, we can begin to defy its grip on us. We can encourage ourselves to start taking small but real steps towards the life that we secretly dream of. And by allowing ourselves to imagine that life for ourselves—and believing that we deserve it—we are taking the first step.
Yoga and meditation classes to support you through resistance
Centering before doing Meditation with Esther Ekhart
A wonderful way to prepare yourself for something so you feel present and aware while doing it.
Unshakable trust with Anna Sugarman
During rocky times, yoga has the capacity to stabilise our mind, body and soul. This practice begins in Hero’s pose, with the unshakable trust mudra – a circuit that keeps your beautiful energy flowing and helps to establish unshakable trust in yourself, emotionally and spiritually.
Follow your heart with José de Groot
The heart is where thoughts and emotions arise; if you are true to your heart you are authentic and speak your truth clearly and honestly. To connect with your heart’s wishes, you have to turn in and become aware and conscious of your own unique mission in life. In this Yin Yoga class you’ll orbit the energy from your heart around the body and back, and practice Yin poses that will open up the chest, shoulders and upper back.
Inner communication with Laia Bové
What is your inner dialogue like? Do you notice how you speak to yourself when things go your way? How about when things fall apart? This class explores the correlation of the sensations in the body with the way in which we communicate with ourselves. Take this time to flow and find kindness from yourself, to yourself, as you are in this moment.
Remember your source with Sandra Carson
Certain events, situations, other people or even from something inside ourselves, can flood our mind with overly critical, self-sabotaging or self-diminishing thoughts. In this class you will use mantra or affirmation to override negative thoughts.