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The Affirmation of Life

Body and Mind

Confronting Resistances *

by John Lawson 1991, 2006

    As human beings, we are all faced with the necessity of learning and growing.  The reason that growth and learning are a necessity for human beings, and not a luxury, is that the instincts of Homo sapiens are few in comparison to the instinctual endowments of other animals.  The paucity of inborn, unconditioned responses creates both advantages and problems for our species.  What is beyond question is that the comparative lack of instinctually determined behavior patterns in humans is correlated with a significant increase in the role of learning in the life of each person.  In order to survive, individuals must adjust themselves to the demands of their environment.  Especially during the formative years of childhood, such adjustments help to shape the personality of the growing boy or girl.  If the early environment - including the parents - is excessively frustrating, unresponsive, and distressing, the child will reach adulthood with habitual ways of acting and being that are essentially self-restricting.  Indeed, such a person may at some level feel himself or herself to be trapped in a virtual prison of "obsolete responses."  This prison, or trap, is the character structure of the individual.  Ironically, the very character structure that has been formed as an optimal response to less than satisfactory circumstances comes to represent the most significant obstacle to positive growth and personal development.

    The word "character" is derived from Greek and Latin terms meaning "engraving tool" or the mark made by such a tool.  The personal development of each individual is engraved in that person's character.  To recognize that this is the case is to appreciate the challenging nature of attempting to make significant changes in personal experience and behavior.  The individual who has been forced to adjust to distressing circumstances during the early childhood period of dependency will come to view himself or herself  - as well as the world at large - through the distorting lens of a restrictive characterological attitude.  Since the attitude in such a case becomes second nature, any suggestion that an habitual pattern of responses ought to be surrendered will be perceived as threatening.  This will be true even if the attitude in question is obviously self-defeating.  Perhaps the most striking example of such a dilemma is represented by the individual who is terrified at the prospect of success or pleasure in life.  How can such an attitude arise, we may ask, since it seems so contrary to what is natural?  The answer is that when faced with a choice between a painful, chronic restriction of oneself and a loss of oneself altogether - as in the case of an overwhelming punishment - children will naturally opt for the former.  What appears in the adult to be a fear of pleasure is, in truth, a fear of the pain and anxiety that have come to be associated, through early conditioning, with behavior considered to be unacceptable and dangerous.  The most widespread instance of such anxiety-producing behavior in our culture may simply consist of taking the risk associated with "being oneself."

    Under the circumstances, any attempt to re-educate ourselves with respect to a more meaningful and fulfilling way of being must take into consideration certain inner obstacles that impede the establishment of improved functioning.  This raises the issue of an inevitable resistance to personal growth and change when such growth and change pose the possibility of genuine characterological transformation.

    The word "resistance" may be understood in a variety of ways.  In medicine, resistance denotes a positive condition in which the organism has the strength to ward off disease.  In the politics of war, resistance refers to the struggle of an indigenous population against an invading army, such as in the case of the French resistance to the Nazi occupation.  In the psychoanalytic terminology of Sigmund Freud, resistance signifies a struggle on the part of an individual against allowing painful memories and realizations into consciousness.  Interestingly, there are elements of all of these meanings that can be discerned in the resistance to personal growth and change that is rooted in a restrictive character structure.  Every individual will resist the anxiety that is associated with effecting a true change of character.  This is so because the existing characterological attitude, however restrictive, has provided a genuine resistance to dangers in the past. Carrying on such a resistance to significant change, the individual adopts a posture analogous to the stance taken by resistance fighters attempting to sabotage a hostile force.  The rationale for such resistance is to be found in the pain which an individual fears may occur if he or she should act "out of character."

    From a functional vantage point, we may say that the character of significant growth and change requires that we recognize and overcome self-defeating resistances.  Such a task involves gaining an understanding of the habitual manner in which we organize our self-perception.  This is an enterprise involving more than just a change of mind.  Soma as well as psyche is at issue.  Layers of resistance are engraved in characteristic ways in the body of the individual.  Patterns of chronic muscular tension, deficiencies in energy level, and constrictions in the range and quality of movement are all evident in somatic functioning and must be addressed, either directly or indirectly, if real personal growth and transformation are to be promoted.

    It is one of the ironies of life that in pursuing serious, constructive alternatives to the limited patterns of action and experience that we have adopted in the interest of self-preservation, we must come face to face with that which we most wish to avoid.  In a sense, we must experience the original state of conflict that caused us to limit our functioning so that we can resolve the conflict in a satisfactory manner.  The conflict between our human need for genuine self-expression and our fear of punishment, for example, must be settled in a mature fashion.  Doing so involves dismantling the archaic defenses against rejection and despair that were erected during the helplessness of a childhood endured under adverse circumstances.  Indeed, this is the very process which allows us to regain our courage as adults.  Paradoxically, it is only by confronting our resistance to change that we can allow change to happen; for in our very resistance is embodied, literally, the energy that must be made available for a more directed, vital, and integrated approach to life.

* This selection is excerpted, with very minor changes, from The Affirmation of Life: A Reichian Energetic Perspective (Portland, Oregon: Ardengrove Press, 1991), pp. 86-89.
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