One of the most difficult aspects of a blog about the wisdom of psychoanalysis is that it stimulates my readers’ awareness of their struggles in life and quickly leads to the understandable and inevitable response: “Ok, I understand that I have these struggles. But what do I do about it?
In a way, this is one of the most frustrating parts about the process of psychoanalysis itself. My patients have this very same response when I offer them some understanding about what makes them tick, why they do the things they do. “Alright, already,” they say. “But tell me what to do!”
This is a difficult position for me (I do not ask for sympathy, just understanding!), because I am a rather compassionate person who hates to see people in pain and wants very much to help a brother or sister out. And sometimes I have very clear ideas about what a person could do to bring about changes in his or her life. And ultimately I do share these ideas with my patients, as I will with my readers. But the real gift that I have to offer is not suggestions or advice, but understanding about how your mind works.
That is why this blog is more about thinking than about doing.
Why do I think that helping you understand your mind is more beneficial than giving you guidance about what to do? Because one of the most important discoveries of psychoanalysis is that we have trouble in life not because we don’t know what to do but because we can’t bring ourselves to do it.
This is a most puzzling reality of psychological life. We say that we want to change and yet, despite excellent advice, suggestions, and guidance, we do not tend to change. Some of us even take it a step further and get ourselves some quality help—we spend time and energy and money in all sorts of helpful treatments to get ourselves from here to there and yet, more often than not, we wind up no better off than when we started.
This is a puzzle indeed.
This puzzle captured Freud’s attention at the very beginning of his psychoanalytic project, back in the late 19th century. He noticed that people initially responded to the helpful, kindly, intelligent suggestions of a trusted physician but that they tended to fall back to their old habits, patterns, and symptoms.
He even discovered that when patients were in a highly receptive mental state—under hypnosis, no less—that suggestions that were planted tended not to take root. The changes did not last.
Freud put together this puzzling set of factors and concluded that people are highly invested in their current psychological state. We maintain the status quo despite great efforts to change. He called this resistance. And ultimately he determined that this force was so strong and influential in the psyche that psychoanalysis should be more specifically called the analysis of resistances.
Intuitively, we know this is true. We lose the first 5 lbs but then gain 10 back. We want to be kinder to our partner or our parents or our children but find ourselves gravitating to the same old neglectful or insensitive rut. We want to take the next step in our careers but find that we don’t put in the effort it takes to get there. We say we are sorry but commit the same offense again and again. We make our New Year’s resolutions but, by February, we fall off the wagon.
Now, if we or our therapists or doctors or counselors or coaches do not understand the powerful force of resistance to change, we will think that we just haven’t found the right advice or plan or diet or doctor, and so we will try to find another. But if we understand that we are fighting the change process itself, we address the problem at its core. We must come to understand what is in the way of our making changes and why it is there. Only then do we have a real chance of making changes that last.
I’m going to talk a lot more about this process in upcoming posts, but for now let me give it to you straight and simple. One of the important insights of psychoanalysis is that we resist change because it feels dangerous. We fear the unknown. The unknown brings anxiety, loss of control, loss of our sense of identity, loss of our connection to our past. Letting go of the familiar can feel like falling forever into an endless abyss. It feels unconsciously safe to stay the same.
I mean it. Don’t gloss over those words too quickly. It’s difficult to get in touch with these primal feelings and even more difficult to stay in touch with them. But think about the anxieties of your first overnight away from your parents, your first day of school, your first date, the night before your wedding, starting a new job, graduating from school, the birth of a child, getting your first apartment, buying your first home. Think about all of these wonderful changes—these marvelous firsts. With all the excitement comes the panic that the rug has been pulled out from underneath us and we are about to fall apart.
Given these fears, it makes sense that we would cling to the known for a sense of safety and security. The familiar, even if it is problematic, offers us some promise that, at the very least, we will survive. After all, it hasn’t killed us yet. At some very basic level in our psyches, this seems like a better idea than risking change.
So we adapt to our troubles. We try to work around them. We convince ourselves that we are not capable of change. We think it’s not really that big a problem. Or that it’s not our problem, it’s somebody else’s problem. Or we tell ourselves that the problem is not on the inside but on the outside—a problem of circumstance or geography. Maybe if we move to another city or change our job or our spouse or our financial situation, things will get better. And, more and more, we come to believe these rationalizations so we feel less compelled to change. But underneath it all, buried under all of these adaptations, we have a catastrophic fear of change. We believe it will only make things worse.
I’m going to leave you to sit with that for awhile. Then next week, I’m going to come around again and delve a little deeper.
For those of you who might be interested in a little more technical discussion of the dynamic of resistance to change, I pass along some of my favorite lines from Ella Freeman Sharpe, a psychoanalyst who wrote a beautiful paper in 1930 called The Technique of Psychoanalysis. She wrote:
Once we have seen below the surface of consciousness with any degree of insight, we become aware that normal equilibrium in the midst of stresses and strains within and without is maintained by the individual crystallizing out what Mrs. Klein calls ‘a system’, which works more or less satisfactorily in a reality-world. It is intricate and complex in each one of us, but if it works in a reality-world and is stabilized, we present a normal front to the world, and re-act according to our set pattern in minor and major occurrences. Our personalities take on, so to speak, because of this, definite shape and features. In the animal world certain defences evolved for self-preservation in dangerous environments, as, for example, great size, thickened hides, shells, wings, scent, fins, claws, horns. The cruder conflict for self-preservation in the midst of external dangers such as presented themselves to our uncivilized ancestors has largely passed away. An immense internalization of dangers has taken place since then, and our psychical struggle for self-preservation depends upon the issue of an intra-psychical conflict, upon the emergence of some stabilized character that can live and work in the world around us. We call it adaptation, but for each one of us it is an adaptation strictly conditioned and limited by the limits of our own psyche; in other words, by an orientation of our impulses in such a way that we do, and think, and behave, as unconsciously it seems safe to us.