Our Fear of Change: Resistance Is Built into Our Evolutionary Wiring

By Rich Simon

Animals, including humans, are programmed by evolution to fear change—after all, in the distant past, change in the status quo usually signaled life-threatening danger. Even now, humans are instinctively afraid of change—even if it offers something better than our current condition. If you doubt it, look almost anywhere around the globe: The fiercest, most destructive struggles tend to revolve around the fearful possibility of change.

It used to be that psychodynamic therapists, as well as those trained in paradoxical methods, took it for granted that no matter how much clients suffered and yearned for relief, they often resisted mightily the very therapeutic help they sought. A major part of therapy was finding the hidden reasons for their resistance and motivating them to overcome their antipathy to change. The new high-tech, quickie methods of treatment—CBT and/or meds—too often rely on the assumption that the mind works in straightforward, sensible ways: If you’ve got a problem with anxiety or depression and you want to get rid of it, you do your homework, take your pills, and bingo! End of problem.

But what if in some fundamental way of which they themselves are not really aware, they don’t really want to get better—or at least not too much better? That’s the subject of David Burns’ featured luncheon address at this year’s Networker Symposium. Click the video below for a preview of what David has to say:

What makes David such an interesting spokesperson for the power of resistance to change is that for many years he was a leading advocate for high-tech treatment, first as a “biological psychiatrist,” and then—disenchanted with meds—as a practitioner of CBT. He found, however, that CBT by itself often fell short. His patients would improve to a point and then stall out just as they should have been making their victory laps. Setting aside his CBT agenda, he began exploring with his patients what it was in their lives that might prevent them from wanting to get better. Among other issues, he began to believe that all too often they were in fact afraid of relinquishing bad feelings or phobias, however much suffering they caused.

“I wonder,” he wrote in the January/February 2013 issue of the Networker, “whether anxiety might ultimately result from a kind of existential fear of the self—fear of who we are and how we really feel as human beings. Perhaps these phobias and fears serve the purpose of safely isolating us from uncontrollable urges, feelings, desires, and impulses that we dislike and that contradict our idealized notions of who we think we are or should be.”

Now a fervent advocate for what he calls the “motivation revolution,” Burns has developed a variety of motivational techniques for preparing patients to want to change and become full participants in the process of therapy (rather than “yes, but” resisters). He still is a fan of CBT, by the way—it’s just that he’s more likely to think in terms of the old saying, “drink no wine before it’s time”: The patients must whole-heartedly want to lift the glass before the therapist even uncorks the bottle!

Find out more about David’s latest work and that of other innovative leaders’ approaches to the dilemmas and paradoxes of change at this year’s Networker Symposium.

The Therapist’s Craft:
Healing Connection in a Digital World
March 21-24 · Washington DC
Learn more here

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3 Responses to Our Fear of Change: Resistance Is Built into Our Evolutionary Wiring

  1. June says:

    I am not a therapist but I am interested in the subject.

    I read somewhere that we desperately pray for change but then we say “Oh God, don’t change anything.”

    I also read that nothing ever changes for the better unless we take action. That gets more difficult as we get older and thinking of going into a senior’s residence with no one to help. Perhaps we are better off not having anyone “helping” – I’ve heard some sad tales from people whose children forced them into something they didn’t want

  2. Hi Rich,

    I so enjoy your emails and the short courses you offer. I feel so indebted to you for your continuing efforts to inform and enlighten practitioners of psychotherapy. However, I feel the need to comment on Dave Burns’ ‘discovery’ regarding the resistance to change. My very busy practice has been built upon the failures of CBT. While it is the flavour of the month, I see it (as an Integrative counsellor and later as an Integrative Psychotherapist part of my training involved CBT) as highly mechanistic, prescriptive and grossly over-simple. There are many, many reasons why patients remain stuck or attached to mal-adaptive belief systems or processes. One of my favourite explanations comes from Lorna Smith Benjamin in her book ‘Interpersonal Reconstructive Therapy.’ CBT, with its almost religious focus on techniques, seems to be quite difficult for ‘process’ orientated people or those whose difficulties are more interpersonal. It just so happens that of the people I see, a vast majority find that their struggles stem from interpersonal/emotional causes. As Dr. Seigel points out when he speaks of integrating domains, cognitive interventions are often useful and efficacious. However, the only time I have witnessed CBT in an effective light was when it was being used at ‘schema’ level and there existed a true, warm, meaningful relationship between patient and therapist.

    Again, I adore your work and eagerly look forward to your emails and links. But I felt the need to vent my spleen regarding the fact that most organisations seem to have drunk the cool-aid at the CBT convention these days. I’m sure that in another ten years, it will be another ‘school’ of therapy that grabs the headlines.

    Thanks again and very best wishes,


  3. Billie Forisha says:

    Notwithstanding the fact that nothing of substance was shared in this video (thus making it difficult to comment upon), I recommend NOT calling the use of paradoxical and/or interventions derived from existential perspectives as constituting a “motivation revolution” but rather a “motivation counterrevolution”. Although such a counterrevolution is welcomed, I would like to point out that many of us from David Burns generation–and our own students of y0unger generations–have never embraced CBT to the exclusion of paying homage first and foremost to the client’s own present-centered phenomenology.

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