Safety or Resistance?

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” – 12th century English proverb

Safety netFor nearly a millennium, people have understood there is only so much you can tell a person to do and the rest is up to them. Coaches know part of the challenge in coaching is helping people discover their path while giving them the space to find their way at their own pace, in their own time. You can lay things out, whether it is coaching people on food or exercise or diet or life, and you can make suggestions, but people have to be thirsty before they will drink the water before them.

Psychologists call it resistance, although I have always felt the term is negative and implies unwillingness, if on an unconscious level, to change. It also fails to capture the human tendency to seek and maintain safety. People prefer to stick with the status quo than to make a change, because even a dysfunctional status quo is better than the unknown. Many of us are comfortable in our ways and reluctant to change. Why is it we prefer a bad situation we know than the chance at a better situation we don’t know? It is because change feels less safe than the status quo. Even when our current situation is untenable, we are wired to stay with it. Stockholm Syndrome is an extreme example of people sticking with an abusive situation for years, just because they don’t know how to break free from it.

People continue with jobs or careers they dislike, because doing the familiar feels safer, and the comfort and predictability of a paycheck is safe, even if they are miserable doing what they do each day. They avoid going to the hospital with chest pain, because being home feels safer, even when it isn’t. They are reluctant to give up foods that don’t nourish or relationships that don’t elevate, and they hold onto useless things, because it is easier to hold on than to let go. 

Humans tend to be risk averse, although most of us have ancestors who were risk takers, ancestors who left their homelands and forged new lives. Even when we have taken risks at various points in our lives, once we are settled we somehow we lose the adventurous spirit, the curiosity, and the willingness to relax into uncertainty. But life is ever-changing, and periodically we find ourselves mired in a struggle between staying safe and moving beyond our comfort zone to embrace the unknown. As individuals we need to tap into the traits of our ancestors who were willing to put their old lives behind them, and as coaches we need to coax our clients to let go of “safe” as they travel their paths and connect with their thirst to be the best they can be.