When Women Resist Change

Engaged listener, or just be present for your moments instead of letting your mind constantly rush ahead, you know what it’s like to battle the demon of resistance.

And make no mistake, resistance is a demon. It keeps you from having the life you want and imagine for yourself—at work, with your family, with friends, in regard to your health. That’s why learning to recognize and work through your own resistance is one of the greatest favors you can do yourself.

Two factors are at play when you resist making changes you know could make a positive difference in your life.

First, there’s the simple physiological fact that your entire neural system is designed to favor the path of least resistance, the path you’ve created by your prior thoughts and actions. When you repeat behaviors, you establish neural pathways, as if you’re wearing grooves in your brain. This practically guarantees that you’ll think or act in a similar way next time.

Those established pathways are the reason that changing familiar behaviors is an uncomfortable experience: basically, your brain tries to fight back. It sends urgent signals that you’re missing familiar cues. Hey, it’s 3 p.m., why aren’t you eating something sweet? Hey, that fragment running through your mind right now is more important than what the person you are talking with is saying. Hey, aren’t you supposed to be feeling like a victim?

Ignoring these signals requires neural energy and constant focus, which is especially hard when you’re dealing with a lot of demands or trying to accomplish something. So you give in to the familiar signals (okay, I’ll just have half that doughnut), even though doing so only strengthens the neural pathways that keep you bound to the habit you are trying to break.

That said, women often have very different experiences at work and may evoke different responses from those they work with. What they say is often heard differently, or not at all—a phenomenon popularly known as “speaking while female.” They may carry more responsibilities, especially at home. They may define success differently, as we have seen.

So it’s hardly surprising that women’s resistance can surface in distinctive ways. Ways that can keep them stuck but that also give them a springboard for moving forward.

You’ll note that, although she had enjoyed quite a bit of success in her short career, Ellen did not defensively focus on that in responding to her boss’s critique evaluation. The stuckness she experienced did not come from any kind of success delusion, but rather from the inhibiting pain and sense of failure she felt upon hearing what he had to say.

Like Marshall’s examples, her first response was resistance, but it was the resistance of hurt. Once she got past this feeling, she was able to move ahead rather than rationalizing, becoming defensive, blaming her boss, or concluding that she just couldn’t cut it.

Both of us frequently see women who react to difficult feedback like Ellen did. So we’ve come up with three alternate stages of resistance to describe how women often respond to unwelcome feedback.

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