Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

The Line of Least Resistance--Is It Really the Line of Most Resistance?

Why we need to learn how to resist our resistances.

Perhaps more than anything else, our mental and emotional well-being depends on our willingness to confront obstacles in life. The all-too-common alternative, of course, is simply to retreat from them. If, however, we're genuinely to progress and feel good about ourselves, we need to resist the ever-present temptation to withdraw from whatever we'd prefer not having to deal with.

The main problem is that, as humans, we all come "pre-wired" with all kinds of unconscious, but quite potent, defense mechanisms. These defenses--or better, resistances--although benignly contrived to safeguard us from intolerable feelings of anxiety, do absolutely nothing to help us develop the resources we need to cope effectively with life's many challenges. Despite their fulfilling a protective purpose, they nonetheless represent our greatest hindrance to productive change, for they keep us from tackling directly whatever, deep inside, feels scary to us. And it must be noted that most of these fears, originating in childhood, are clearly irrational for us as adults. Still, their irrationality can only be recognized as such--and overcome--if we're willing to move beyond our resistances and face them.

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Admittedly, it's all too easy to be swayed by our defenses. With so many of them available for not handling situations that feel threatening to us, making use of them can be well-nigh irresistible--even addictive. Whenever we do employ them, however, we're taking the line of least resistance--at the same time that, on another level, we're choosing the line of most resistance. That is, whenever we alleviate our anxiety by passively allowing our inborn psychological defenses to "take over" for us, we're obviously taking the line of least resistance. At the same time, the moment we abdicate to these defenses we're really at our most resistant, for all our energy is focused on opposing what's making us emotionally uncomfortable.

These defenses against dealing truthfully with our feelings actually handcuff us (and more tightly than we might imagine). Certainly, in the moment they may protect our somewhat fragile ego. In fact, if we're able to rationalize the situation in a way that enables us to feel self-righteous anger toward the person who intimidated, provoked or offended us, we may even experience soothing feelings of superiority. But the momentary empowerment that comes from such defensive self-comforting--or "posturing"--actually prevents us from developing the clear-headedness and discernment we need to overcome life's challenges. We're merely "defaulting" to our resistance. Unable to transcend our inborn predilection to evade whatever makes us anxious, we're simply taking the easy way out.

As a result, we don't really resolve anything. Nor do we accomplish anything that might help us further develop our resources. On the contrary, invoking our defenses (or engaging our resistances) simply enables us to reduce feelings of risk, to deflect from whatever is making us uneasy. And so--again--whether we avoid the conflict or exit the situation altogether, our defenses have led us simultaneously to take the line of least resistance . . . and the line of most resistance. If we've succeeded in lessening our anxiety, we've done so only through using defenses that in fact deny, distort, or falsify both ourselves and reality.

Let me provide an example of how such "anxiety management" can play out in reality. I worked professionally with a woman who had enormous difficulties in accepting--let alone expressing--her sexuality. Because she had been seriously molested as a child, she suffered from residual feelings of shame, guilt and anxiety. Never having come to terms with her past trauma, she was largely asexual--denying any sexual interest and having virtually no sexual thoughts or feelings. In her marriage the only way she could perform in bed was to dissociate from her body--in a sense, "cope" with the anxiety-laden experience by going numb to it. In "servicing" her partner, which she saw as her obligation, she actually felt no emotion at all (which is exactly what defense mechanisms are so good at enabling). On the other hand, she was completely unable to feel any kind of satisfaction in the encounter. Her defenses may have protected her from her emotional vulnerabilities, but only at an excessively high cost. That cost was her receptivity to new experience, capacity for intimacy--and, in fact, her very aliveness.

And so it can hardly be over-emphasized that defaulting to our defenses in order to escape the anxiety linked to confronting underlying issues in our life only keeps us stuck and frustrated. Whenever we capitulate to our self-protective defense mechanisms, we're essentially surrendering to our fears and being defeated by old, no-longer-appropriate "survival" programs. In the end, it hardly matters whether what we're attempting specifically to avoid is the pain and anxiety related to disapproval, rejection or abandonment, abuse or neglect, guilt or shame. Regardless of the particular fear, our efforts to avoid it are what lead to our inevitable defeat. That, unfortunately, is the ultimate price of our reactivity, of our permitting our words and actions to be dictated by our vulnerable feelings. Consequently, if we routinely let our feelings govern us, our task is clear. We must dedicate ourselves--whether through professional intervention, or on our own--to learning how to successfully cope with all that provokes our insecurities.

Our mechanisms of defense (or resistance) may involve denial, projection, rationalization, regression, dissociation, or any of the other unconscious stratagems that Freud delineated a century ago. All that matters is that in our struggle to gain greater control over our lives, the "line of our resistance" no longer be in fleeing from our feelings of anxiety but--ironically--resisting all the forms of resistance that camouflage this anxiety. Finally, it's only in our accepting the uncomfortable reality of the moment and standing firm in the face of it that leads to personal empowerment. On the contrary, continuing to rely on habitual defenses to circumvent emotional distress virtually guarantees that our anxieties will increasingly--and dysfunctionally--control our lives.

As another brief example, when we become addicted to something--whether it's to a substance, activity or relationship--then, unless we've simply gotten into the habit of using our addiction to reduce everyday stress, we're probably employing it to mitigate some deeper emotional affliction. As such, addictions represent our "least resistance" in that they serve, each in their own way, to help anesthetize us against old fears and hurts that may still be plaguing us. What is hard (and that which typically we most resist) is summoning up the courage to "brace" ourselves, so that we can confront the pain--grapple with it, and get through it. For, finally, that is the only way we can ever get to the other side. But unless we're able to believe in ourselves, and in our potential to feel good independent of our "addictive crutch," it's extremely difficult to let go of a dependency that may for so long have safeguarded our vulnerability.

In conclusion, when a situation engenders pain or fear in us, we need to open ourselves up to these feelings and thoroughly "engage" with them, undertaking the arduous process of working through them. As the old adage goes: "The only way out is through." Issues in our life can only be resolved when we develop the courage to face them head-on. Otherwise, they're doomed to become chronic. If we experience life as passing us by, it may be because our anxieties compel us to back down or flee from exactly what we most need to address. Ultimately, it is our ability to adopt such a risk-accepting orientation that enables us not simply to survive but--by helping us mature and develop our self-confidence--evolve to our fullest and become the empowered human beings we were meant to be.

Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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