Psychologically speaking, resistance and resolution are at opposite poles. For resistance has fundamentally to do with not being able, or willing, to deal with the negative experiences in your life. And ultimately your happiness depends a lot more on handling—then letting go of—such adversities than it does, self-protectively, denying them, or fighting against them. In addition, so does (unwittingly) holding onto their associated feelings of hurt, sorrow, anxiety, or anger.
Without consciously deciding to, you can even get “attached” to feelings you haven’t resolved. But if you become aware of the exorbitantly high costs of not acknowledging, and working through, these feelings, you’ll realize that heedlessly clinging to them hasn’t at all contributed to your welfare. Quite the opposite.
Long ago, the depth psychologist Carl Jung contended that “what you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.” And today this viewpoint is generally abbreviated to “What you resist persists,” with many kindred paradoxical variants—such as, “You always get what you resist.”
The complementary opposite of these similar expressions is another equally counter-intuitive one, which hints at the most viable solution to such a quandary. It goes: “To get what you want, want what you get.” What links these two on-the-surface almost mystifying expressions is the underlying notion that it’s wise to accept what is, if only to put yourself in the best possible position to change it—or to achieve the freedom to move past it, and on to something else. And I should stress that I'm in no way intimating that you adopt a defeatist attitude in the face of what you deem inequitable or unjust, just that your resistance doesn't end up taking the form of resisting yourself.
In any case, this post will elaborate on what’s become a prominent topic in popular psychology, frequently identified with the title, “The Law of Attraction.” And while I regard this supposed “universal law” as somewhat overstated (and, in its suggestions of passivity and intentionality, at times even dangerous), it nonetheless represents an essential truth that demands to be taken seriously.
So What’s Resistance All About?—and Why Is It So Problematic?
Typically, when you’re resisting what constitutes your reality—or rather, your subjective (and possibly faulty) sense of that reality—you’re shying away from it, complaining about it, resenting it, protesting against it, or doing battle with it. Without much self-realization, your energy, your focus, is concentrated on not moving beyond what opposes you, not coming to terms with it. And unconsciously, your impulse toward resistance tends to be about avoiding the more hurtful, or disturbing, aspects of the experience. These adverse feeling states generally involve fear, shame, pain, or feelings of being hopelessly out of control.
Not only can resistance take many forms, it can also apply to many situations. For example, it might have to do with revisiting a past trauma, which has never, or could ever, resolve on its own. To bring it back into focus would, at least initially, seem to risk revivifying old, profoundly distressful emotions—and, too, all the unpleasant physical sensations that accompany them. It’s therefore only human to want to distance yourself from such a memory. For you’d naturally assume that re-introducing it into full consciousness could drum up old pain—and maybe even engender more of it. To actually “welcome” such affliction back into your life—to dare to open yourself up to it all over again—might seem almost perverted, or masochistic.
Nonetheless, this understandably defensive posture only serves to perpetuate old, out-of-date thoughts and feelings about yourself, which are usually exaggerated and negatively distorted. And such instances of resistance keep you stuck in life, compromising your present-day ability to perform positive, problem-rectifying actions. Or, on the other hand, they prevent you from accepting, and reconciling yourself to, what perhaps can’t be changed—at least not now.
So not only do you squander precious energy in seeking to bypass what’s still lurking inside you, but the effort itself is futile. Things that haven’t been emotionally resolved don’t simply evaporate because you’ve paid them no heed. Locked up within, they still continue to circulate, unawares, in your organism, periodically knocking on a door you refuse to open.
But (to change the metaphor) if these still negatively charged memories are ever to exit your self-constructed cage and leave you alone—if you’re ever, that is, to be free of them and to heal those parts of yourself damaged by them—you need to let them out. Even though their “rattling” their bars inside you may over time have become less audible, the sub-conscious energy devoted to keeping them locked up has only sapped you of the vitality required to live fully (which is to say, unguardedly) in the present.
Investing energy in keeping from conscious awareness what has yet to be dealt with may help block the pain still inside you. But though you may not actually feel it very much, as many mind/body theorists have pointed out (e.g., see Candace Pert, Ph.D., Molecules of Emotion), various diseases and deteriorative physical conditions have been linked to what, emotionally, has never been released or discharged. The pain you may have worked so hard to stifle—but which nonetheless has “prevailed” within you—will eventually make itself known physically, in the form of symptoms you can no longer avoid.
Not always, but frequently enough, this is the fine you pay for trying to escape what I term “necessary pain.” And it can be exorbitant. For your resistance to opening up what feels like a noxious can of worms can’t address, and excise, your original suffering—only postpone it. But, like ignoring a mortgage payment and then being slapped with a stiff penalty, what you fail to confront (and possibly for the simple, “innocent” reason that you don’t know how to) leads to a much larger “bill” that has to be paid later on.
So far I’ve been discussing the long-term costs of resistance as it relates to not confronting issues from the past. But being “afflicted” with an avoidant or resistant attitude toward current frustrations or grievances isn’t really that different. So if someone or something leaves you feeling sad, mad, or anxious, and you try to avert this emotional distress rather than getting up the nerve to productively deal with it—or, if there really isn’t anything you can do about it, adopting an attitude toward it of genuine acceptance—you’ll feel all the more beleaguered. Here again, your bad feelings are knocking at your door, asking that they be attended to. And if you refuse to respond to them, they’ll continue to look for ways of “elbowing” you for your attention.
On the contrary, if you allow such feelings to downright obsess you, if you focus on them to the exclusion of everything else (and thereby feel victimized by them), that form of resistance, too, will sap your energy and be immobilizing. In his many self-help books, Albert Ellis talks about the tendency to “awfulize” or “catastrophize” the unwanted things that happen to you, and how this melodramatic reaction only serves to worsen your state of mind and feeling. Rather than concentrating on taking corrective action, or making a pact with yourself to accept what you can’t change, you allow your self-defeating ruminations to paralyze you.
Moreover, it’s worth noting that unless you interfere with them, emotions come and go. The illusion of their permanence is mostly something fabricated by your mind. Still, if from deep within you’re driven to focus vigilantly on them, you’ll thereby intensify them and (however inadvertently) be “inviting” them to hang around indefinitely. We may all be subject to adverse circumstances, but finally it’s in our understandable but wrong-headed resistance to them that causes our disquietude—not the events themselves.
So What’s the Solution to This Self-Imposed Dilemma?
I’ve hinted from the outset how you can get beyond the natural tendency to resist what you don’t want. Now I’d like to go into more detail. If not accepting what is, is the source of your misery, then it makes sense to reverse your approach. As Werner Erhard proclaimed in his est trainings: “Happiness is a function of acceptance.” Or, as I like to put it, anything you can manage to accept, you can be happy with.
Such a pronouncement may well seem glib, or exaggerated. But it’s definitely an ideal worth pursuing. As is also the sentiment in another expression employed in that popular self-growth training of the 70s: namely, “To get what you choose, choose what you get.” And while doing this may seem untenable or far-fetched, in essence it’s precisely what the Buddha counseled over 2000 years ago, as a way of getting off the “wheel” of human suffering. It may sound utterly illogical to believe that you can end your suffering by embracing it. But over the centuries many wise thinkers and teachers have espoused basically this same viewpoint.
One route that many of us take to avoid suffering is by blaming others for our misery. But allowing your resentments and animosities to linger indefinitely only perpetuates your gloom . And this is why there are reams of literature on the practical value of forgiving those who have wronged you (or at least so you think). As long as you hold onto your hostility or hatred, you’ll never be able to rid yourself of the bad feelings still residing within you. The only way to free yourself from such toxic emotions is to accept that what happened happened, and that it’s now time to let go—so you can move on and put your energy into something that would be more fulfilling to you.
It’s similar to grieving a loved one, especially your life partner—one of the most painful emotions you’ll ever experience. If, mindfully, you dive into these feelings (without actually becoming attached to them) and permit yourself to fully “engage” with them, at some point they’ll begin to fade and you can put your life back together again.
Contrast this with “wallowing” in an almost indulgent self-pity over your loss, which can then make your suffering last considerably longer. Besides (as postulated in Mitch Albon’s memoir, Tuesdays with Morrie), “Death ends a life, not a relationship.” For the deceased can continue to live vibrantly—and supportively—inside you (and do so until you yourself pass on).
As regards the energy that’s available to you when you let go, it might be useful to add a few more words about the so-called “Law of Attraction.” Based on the homeopathic notion that “like attracts like,” this not really scientifically validated precept centers on the principle that you’re “blessed—or “cursed”—with whatever you focus on. So if your attention revolves around what you don’t want, you’ll just attract more of it to you. By devoting all your energy to what you’re convinced is so important to avoid, you paradoxically further “energize” it, and so permit it to have even more power over you. Through your misdirected attention, you actually strengthen exactly what you’d hope to weaken.
And just as your resistance to it lets it “take you over,” abandoning this self-protective, defensive stance paves the way for positive change. For this negativity, no longer “fed” by your attention to it, will in the natural course of things wither and die. And even if it doesn’t, accepting what has felt so un-acceptable reduces the stress it’s been causing you. Or rather, you’ve been causing yourself.
As I mentioned earlier, you’re much better off focusing not on what’s blocking you from realizing your desires, but on the desires themselves—and how best to reach them nonetheless . . . or (if need be) simply to relinquish them. And there are countless examples I could use to illustrate the pointlessness of simply “going to war” with what is—examples that might relate to your work situation, personal health, relationship challenges, financial difficulties, and, of course, unresolved emotional disturbances (or traumas) from your past.
To sum up, it can hardly be overemphasized that to maximize your chances of getting what you want, it’s foolish, and futile, to dedicate your time and attention to resisting what you don’t want. On the contrary, what’s needed is to reapply your energy toward what you do—and plan a prudent course of action to get there.
. . . Otherwise, however regrettably, you’ll have made yourself part of the problem, rather than the so-longed-after solution.
NOTE 1: Earlier posts of mine complement this one include:
NOTE 2: If you could relate to this post and think others you know might also, kindly consider forwarding them its link.
NOTE 3: To check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a broad variety of psychological topics—click here.
© 2016 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
---To be notified whenever I post something new, I invite readers to join me on Facebook—as well as on Twitter where, additionally, you can follow my frequently unorthodox psychological and philosophical musings.