You Get What You Resist

Milton Erickson was the premier hypnotherapist of the 20th century, if not of all time. He knew a thing or two about a lot of things, including resistance.

 He once told a teaching story involving his father on their farm in Wisconsin. Young Milton observed his father trying to pull a small steer by its horns into the barn. But the steer was much too strong and was pulling his father in the opposite direction. The young Erickson said that he fell about laughing at his father who, unsurprisingly, was unhappy with his smart alec son, and quipped ‘I suppose you could do better?!

The precocious Milton said he could, and proceeded to circle the steer until it faced precisely away from the barn doors, whereon he quickly grabbed its horns pretending to pull it away from the barn. As the story goes, the steer pulled him all the way backwards into the barn! Whether apocryphal or not, Erickson used the story to demonstrate what he called resistance and utilisation.

In this case resistance to the steer’s resistance, you guessed it, created more resistance. On the other hand, utilising that resistance gave the intended result. As in the Japanese martial art of Aikido, one can utilise the energy of the opponent to bring about one’s good without harming the other person.

As a broader psychological insight if we resist things in ourselves or in others, often what we get is more resistance and more of the very thing we are resisting! Let’s look at a few examples.

It has often been observed that a person’s stutter becomes more pronounced the more they try not to stutter. By contrast, for many people the stutter disappears when they cannot hear themselves speaking.

This has been demonstrated experimentally when you place headphones on the person with quite loud music and the stutter disappears. In the same vein, when the person forgets to self-monitor their speaking, when they are not self-conscious, they often speak without a stutter.

Or, on the golf course a player can get the ‘yips’ – the sudden and unexplained loss of ability to execute well-honed skills. This is a special type of performance anxiety, a negative visualization. As the person worries about messing up their performance, they are much more likely to mess it up… they get what they resist!

Jealousy can have a similar trajectory. One can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. If one suspects infidelity in one’s partner (where none exists) this promotes our negative behaviors towards them: our suspiciousness, our controlling actions, our endless questions about where they have been, with whom, for how long. 

All of which of course makes our partner’s life with us intolerable. And suddenly, voila, the possibility of a new relationship becomes much more attractive and the relationship heads into decline – and soon enough, our partner is off with someone far more congenial. So, according to our delusion of being cheated-on, we were right all along!

More generally, this is the way that insecurity in relationship reinforces itself: it generates negative behaviours that are uncomfortable for others. For example, being insecure we might find intimacy difficult because we don’t wish our flaws to be seen. We fear they will leave us if they saw what we were really like.

So, we won’t show the vulnerability and honesty so necessary for a loving relationship. And thus, the relationship becomes shallow and unsatisfying. We also may not show the requisite assertiveness, so we get walked over, and lose the respect of our partner. And once again, we get what we resist: we get to be alone.

I hasten to add this is definitely not the so-called ‘law of attraction’.  We are not ‘manifesting’ physical reality with our minds. That is a completely erroneous and dangerous notion: that thinking something fervently somehow intervenes in the laws of physics and makes it happen. No, understood pragmatically, this is the way our thinking changes our behavior and therefore has effects in the world.

The cure to resistance is acceptance. In an apparently paradoxical way, the more we accept ourselves, our abilities and the nature of the world, the more likely we are to navigate it with grace and effectiveness.

For example, we know that for chronic pain sufferers, mindfulness practices based on acceptance and close attention to the sensations of pain, dramatically reduce their subjective suffering from the pain.

Tinnitus sufferers often report a positive turning point when they come to accept the noise in their head. It doesn’t go away, but their suffering diminishes.

There is also something very attractive about a person who really accepts themselves as they are. They are comfortable people to be around and easy to relax with. Likewise, we love people who accept us the way we are. They also become more attractive.

At a broader psychological level, acceptance allows us to see reality objectively and thereby take more realistic steps to deal well with it.

On the other hand, resistance does the opposite as it has us turn our attention away from uncomfortable realities – and thereby takes with it our ability to respond well.

We should work with the realities that we are tempted to resist. As in Aikido, we align ourselves with the offensive reality and utilise it towards more useful ends. Don’t waste energy resisting. Find ways to go with the flow.