Resistance to Change: The “Not Me” Defense

I promised that I would talk some more about the problem of resistance to change, so here I go…

The reality that we resist change is actually quite shocking to those of us who are dedicated to growing psychologically.  We see ourselves as interested in self-improvement—and, at some level, we are interested in self-improvement.  We want to have more satisfying lives.  We want to enjoy our relationships more, have more security in our outside lives as well as on the inside.  We want to be healthy in our bodies and minds.  We want to have fewer headaches, less depression and worry, more rest, more positive feelings about ourselves and the world.  Maybe we read books, meditate, or go to therapy or church or yoga.  We watch the Discovery Channel, attend seminars, or listen to quality podcasts.  We even read the blog of a wise woman!

But above all, because we really want to change and grow, we try to have relationships with quality people whom we trust—people with whom we can share our struggles and talk about life, who will try to understand us and give us some straight feedback.

So, for people like this, resistance to change often is not easy to see at first.  It does seem like we want to change.  But if we listen to ourselves at a deeper level, we will hear the unconscious part of ourselves that does not want to change.  One of the ways resistance shows itself is in the propaganda of the inner voice that says that we are the innocent victims of other people’s problems.

It is the “not me” defense.

The propaganda goes something like this: “ I work so hard, try so hard.  I’m always the one making compromises, sacrifices.  If only my partner was more supportive.  If only my children were more appreciative.  If only I lived in a city where the weather was nicer and the people were friendlier.  If only my parents had been more involved (or maybe less involved!).  If only I had more love or money or sex or time for myself.  If only people would do it my way.”

This internal propaganda reveals one of the hidden realities of psychological life: what we really want, deep down inside, is for other people and other things to change.  We have the unconscious conviction that our troubles do not come from inside ourselves but from the outside.  We are innocent bystanders in a driveby shooting.  We are collateral damage in someone else’s war.  We are helpless victims in someone else’s drama.  We just don’t understand why the smoking gun is in our own hands.

To put it in the jargon of psychoanalysis, we project both our troubles and our responsibility for them into other people.  As I was writing this, my mind revived the memory of the “not me” ghost of the Family Circus cartoon of my childhood.  I know no better way of capturing this incredible dynamic!

This state of mind is one which most stubbornly resists change.  We do not want to feel all of the humiliation, guilt, responsibility, shame, and helplessness that come with taking responsibility for our problems ourselves.  But here is the deal.  If we do not face our responsibility in creating our problems, we cannot claim the power we actually have to change them.

We know the adages that capture this truth.  “You can’t change anyone but yourself.”  “When you point your finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at you.”  And my personal favorite, “No matter where you go, there you are.”

Taking responsibility for one’s own problems—for one’s contribution to their very existence as well as for one’s responsibility to deal with them—is absolutely key for making changes that last.  In fact, Roy Schafer, an American psychoanalyst who has been an evangelist of the British Kleinian model of psychoanalysis in the United States, says that a measure of a successful analysis is a person’s ability to understand their role in creating, maintaining, and dealing with their difficulties.  A goal of psychoanalysis—as any good method of self-development—is to understand that we are each at the center of our own troubles.

This is not about placing blame.  We must do our very best to set moral judgment aside and look at our troubles from the perspective of curiosity, love, and a desire to be helpful to ourselves.

Instead it is about taking responsibility.  We did not cause our problems single-handedly.  We are influenced greatly by our environments—both when we were children and now.  But we do have some responsibility in how we respond to challenges—whether we avoid them, give in to them, or face them.   If we can change the inner monologue, we have a chance to move ourselves forward.  It makes a big difference if we can learn to say, “It is me.  My life is mine to face.  What I do with my life is essentially up to me.”   If we can recognize this crucial factor, we have a much better chance of making changes that last.

The good news is that by reclaiming our responsibility for our troubles, we reclaim the power to influence our lives for the better.   It takes a lot of time, courage, and humility to get to this place.  But—and I tell you this with utter seriousness—it makes all the difference between someone who is stuck in their troubles and someone who is on the path of recovering from them.

There is an old American spiritual that captures the essence of this post so well.  I grew up singing it in church during this season of the year, but even Elvis recorded it!

You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley
Well you gotta go by yourself
Well there ain’t nobody else gonna go there for you
You gotta go there by yourself

Click below to hear Elvis:


2 responses to “Resistance to Change: The “Not Me” Defense

  1. I read your blogs to date earlier this morning and find so much food for thought! The ideas stay with me and I find myself wondering and considering them over and over. I thought I’d enter the conversation here because I find the other challenge to change is when we say “It’s all me” rather than “It’s not me.” Or when both of those thoughts strive for dominance in our minds and emotions, and then we’re (I’m) paralyzed by the ambivalence. I suppose both thoughts come from a “baby” place, and don’t reflect adult wisdom…but maybe you’d like to comment?

    • Cindy, your comments are such a good digestion of these ideas. What you’re getting at is the idea that projections can go either way–either all good or all bad, and either it’s not me or it’s all me. It’s the hot potato game of projective identification! And you’re right; this way of operating paralyzes because there is no balance, no shared sense of responsibility. I’m going to give this some more thought and explore further in an upcoming post. Well done!

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