Tips for Working with Resistance to Change

Vicki Enns

resistance to change, helping, helper, resolution, anxiety, depression, mental health, counselling, counsellor, therapy, therapist

If you work in the helping field, you likely encounter the struggle and fear people often have toward change. It’s ironic, isn’t it? People seek support when there is something they need to change or others want changed, then they put great energy into avoiding, fighting, or putting off making any steps toward change.

Why do people struggle with change?

It seems to be human nature. We’re wired to scan for anything that might threaten our security – our survival – and then to try to ward it off. Change often triggers this response for several reasons:

  • Change represents the unknown. We can’t know how it will turn out – will it be better or not? And there is the possibility it could be worse.
  • In order to change, we have to give up something familiar, whether it’s a habit, a belief, a relationship, or a favorite pair of socks. Loss is loss.
  • Change takes energy. If our energy is taken up with the stresses of life already, adding another task can be overwhelming.

As helpers, how do we work with this in an effective way?

Several steps can help us avoid the wrangle with others’ resistance to change. We need to pay attention both to ourselves and how we interact with those we are trying to help.

  • Recognize your own approach to change. Take stock of your own life right now – do some areas cry for attention? Are there New Year’s resolutions you keep making and breaking? What form does your own wrestle with change take? What helps you move forward?
  • Get comfortable with all kinds of emotions. If we hope to help others deal with their barriers to change, we need to stay steady and open in the face of fear, anxiety, or pushback.
  • Let go of your own agenda for others’ change. If we push too hard or try to tell others what they should do, it may add fuel to the fire of fear or resistance. Stay curious and patient.
  • Get savvy to recognize openings for change. Amidst all the protest, defense, or avoidance of change, there may be whispers of motivation, moments of curiosity, a willingness to try a small step.
  • Support the small steps. Change happens in small, stumbling moments. Rome was built one rock at a time. Here we need to dig deep to hold onto patience and encouragement, and not be rocked by steps backward or resistance showing up again. This is normal.

One thing we can predict about the future for anyone is that change will come. Getting comfortable with it and understanding people’s natural resistance will help us be much more effective helpers.


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Author: Vicki Enns (MMFT, RMFT)
Clinical Director, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

Vicki is the editor and co-author of CTRI’s book, Counselling Insights: Practical Strategies for Helping Others with Anxiety, Trauma, Grief, and More. The book is available on our website.

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