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Coping With Countermoves

When you challenge the old rules, anxiety rises like steam.

What happens when you do something different that threatens the status quo in an important relationship? The other person will make a "countermove" or "Change back!" maneuver to try to re-instate the old pattern and the old you.

As I explain in The Dance of Anger, the process of change goes like this: One person begins to define a stronger, more independent self, or does something that violates the roles and rules of the system. Anxiety rises like steam. The opposition invariably goes like this:

1. "You are wrong," with volumes of evidence to support this.
2. "Change back and we will accept you again."
3. "If you don't change back, these are the consequences," which are then listed.

Countermoves can take any number of forms. You may be accused of disloyalty ("Do you know how much you hurt your father by visiting Uncle Charlie?") or selfish disregard for others. (You can't say that to Mom. It will kill her to know the truth!") You may be accused of being misguided, crazy, or just plain wrong. ("I know you can't really mean that.") The other person may threaten to withdraw or even terminate the relationship ("We can't be close if you feel that way"). Or they may sulk, argue, fight, gossip about you, or do whatever they do when they get anxious and threatened. Your kids will test you over and over to see if you "really meant it" when you tighten the structure.

A countermove can also take the form of other family members' refusal to recognize that you have, indeed, changed. Anxious systems are characterized by rigid rules, roles and party lines ("Uncle Joe is a saint," "Aunt Mary is selfish") that may be written in stone. So if saintly Uncle Joe behaves unethically, that information will just be ignored, excused, rationalized, or disqualified. If selfish Aunt Mary acts with generosity, she may merely be seen as "manipulative." The failure to register and validate change is also a "Change back!" maneuver.

In whatever form they take, countermoves are simply the measure of the amount of anxiety in a system. It's not that the other person doesn't love you or want the best for you. Rather, the people who most depend on you to be a certain way may equate change with a potential threat or loss.

Your job is not to prevent the countermove from happening, which is impossible. Nor is it to advise the other person not to react that way. Real courage requires you to sit with the anxiety that change evokes and stay on course when the countermoves start rolling in.

Put simply, the challenge of change requires us to anticipate resistance from within and without-and to manage our own anxiety so that we can be our best self when the other person, out of their anxiety, acts like a big jerk.

When we gather our courage to move in the direction of greater authenticity and assertiveness, it would be nice if the other person would offer us their enthusiastic approval and applause. But it rarely works that way.

More from Harriet Lerner Ph.D.
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