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The difference between fear and resistance. 

 June 11, 2021

By  Donna Woodrow

Have you ever felt 'stuck' and unable to move forward? Perhaps you had people in your life telling you - just feel the fear and do it anyway, or on the other side of fear is where you realise your dreams. These quotes might be valuable advice and inspirational for those who really are caught in fear, but what if it isn't fear holding you back? What if on the other side of fear is resistance, and what you really need in order to move forward is to recognise the resistance in you?

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In this article we explore the difference between fear and resistance and how they both impact our decisions and our ability to take action, and how they are not two independent forces, but indeed work together to hold you in place. Knowing how you are stuck in place can make a world of difference in getting unstuck. 

Fear invites action.

Firstly, a word or two on Fear. There are at least two different categories of things or events that cause us to respond with fear. One of them actually is life-threatening, and the other one just feels like it is. There are events based in reality, such as a tiger is hunting me, and then there's conceptualised events, which don't exist in grounded reality, but are imagined thoughts about a possible future, such as the all-too popular I'm afraid that I will fail

Actually life threatening.

  • Being chased by a tiger.
  • A motor-vehicle accident.
  • A terminal illness.

Feels life threatening.

  • Failing in business, or failing an exam.
  • Being humiliated in public.
  • The uncertainty of the future.

I've had life threatening events in my life, such as an experience of domestic violence, yet even after finding safety from that relationship, what followed for the next several years was an overactive sympathetic nervous system that gave me sweaty palms, and panic attacks for all kinds of delightful reasons. The fear of a new relationship ending, the fear of losing my job, the fear of becoming ill. 

Fear is an emotion, one that arises when we perceive danger or a threat, and because of this, we can begin with an seemingly innocuous thought such as 'What if I lose my job?' and before we know it, we have layered thought upon thought leading to our demise. But whether this threat is real or not, our whole biological system responds, and we experience psychological and behavioural changes. 

Being caught in the depths of fear is an energetic vibration of powerlessness and helplessness, we feel small and frantic. Our thinking becomes erratic and unfocused, and as our bodies are flooded with epinephrine, we may starts to sweat and our limbs might even start to shake. Fear asks us to act, and so often without thinking we step into all kinds of action - both helpful and unhelpful.

There is no illusion greater than fear.

- LAO TZU

So whether that thing you're afraid of is a tiger, or a metaphorical tiger that only exists in your mind, your Autonomic Nervous System is not convinced there is a difference. Fear engages us to act, granted, sometimes that action is to run away and avoid the perceived danger, but this in itself is still decisive action. Fear ceases the process of clear thinking. Fear acts.

Resistance begets idleness.

In contrast, resistance is in the space of thinking, not acting. Resistance creates a kind of thinking that stops us dead in our tracks because resistance spends time trying to 'figure things out' and seeks to understand the problem ahead of us. Where fear calls us into action to avoid danger quickly, resistance invites us to stay a while, pause and think about the way forward.

Here, action ceases, and we get caught in a loop in our minds, asking ourselves endless questions about how we will do something, why we should do it and what will it mean if we do it.

In electrical terms, resistance is a measure of the opposition to current flow in an electrical circuit. Meaning, how much does the electrical circuit oppose the flow of electrical energy. In the material world we have conductors - materials that offer very little resistance, like copper. And we have insulators, materials that present high level of resistance, like rubber.

In human terms, resistance is not really any different. Asking ourselves how resistant we are is simply asking;

  • When there is energy outside us inviting us to change, do we allow the flow of energy and become the conductor, creating effective change?
  • Or do we attempt to insulate ourselves like rubber and resist being affected or changed by the energetic force outside ourselves?

Your answer may change depending on context. Sometimes we go with the flow, and sometimes we resist, but simply notice what happens within us when we resist. We don't step into action, we think and contemplate.

The rock and the hard place.

I'd like to share a real world example of how fear and resistance work together to keep us stuck. Terry* wanted to start a new business but was feeling stuck and didn't know how to move forward, so he came into coaching to overcome what he thought was a fear of stepping into the unknown. Throughout the coaching process, we did indeed identify several fears that contributed to Terry feeling stuck and unable to move forward in his new venture, and naturally, he was procrastinating in taking steps towards building his business, in order to avoid feeling the fear of failure.

Terry was able to see that this fear of failure was like butting up against a rock wall, a barrier. Yet when he started to overcome the rock and break through that barrier, what he was faced with was another rock, let's call this the hard place. In the hard place, he uncovered resistances he had to stepping into a new way of being and even a resistance to updating his own identity to acknowledge his own skills and talents as valuable in his industry. Terry was caught between a rock (fear) and a hard place (resistance). Together the rock and the hard place was the structure that was holding him in place and keeping him stuck. 

The fear of failure moved Terry into avoidant action - procrastination. But the resistance to acknowledging his own talents and skills created a typhoon of mental energy and chatter that wouldn't quiet down and kept him occupied, and at a standstill. 

conversations terry had with himself in resistance:

  • How will I message my brand? What will I charge?
  • What would my branding and pricing say about me as a person? 
  • What is my target market?
  • What about my 1 year, 5 year 10 year vision?
  • What kind of people do I want to work with?
  • What colour should my logo be.
  • What about my elevator pitch 
  • And on and on ... 

Whilst these may be valuable questions to be asking as you begin a new business - for Terry they became a traveling circus of questions. His travelling circus of questions wandered village to village without ever stopping to perform an answer and suddenly Terry is in overwhelm central and feeling completely immobilised by resistance.

And it's not that Terry didn't have any answers, in fact he discovered many of them in his coaching sessions. But what allowed these answers to arise was for terry to find acceptance. Acceptance that stepping into this new life meant owning his gifts and talents and being willing to showcase them to others - all the details about the business would be easily resolved as he moved into action without resistance.

It meant allowing the energy outside of himself into his circuitry and becoming the conductor of his own life, transforming that energy into productive action where he acknowledged and owned his value in the business world. 

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

Moving through resistance.

Ignoring our resistance only makes things worse. The more energy we put into resisting something the more the thing we're resisting grows. Perhaps you've heard of the simple psychology experiment where I say to you. Whatever you do, do not think about a pink elephant. 

My guess is that, even if only for a second, you saw a pink Elephant and the more you try not to think about it right now, the clearer the pink Elephant becomes. I especially want you not to think about all of the yellow stars painted on the Elephant's trunk.

When you experience resistance, you find the lessons you are meant to learn.

- JON GORDON

The thing about resistance is that it requires our participation. It is an active process of holding aversion to something and a refusal to accept. And here-in lies one of the keys to moving through resistance… Acceptance. (Click here to read our latest article on acceptance)

When we bring acceptance to what it is that we resist, it can no longer survive. It is important to note that our participation in resistance is not always conscious participation. In order for us to bring acceptance to our resistance, we must first bring that which we resist into conscious awareness. 

So, if you would like to bring conscious awareness to any resistances you might be experiencing, and that might be holding you back in reaching your goals, contact Modo to schedule your next coaching session with one of our accredited meta-coaches.

Donna Woodrow


Donna takes a genuine interest in the collective and personal growth of the human race and its individuals. Donna is a seeker who loves to travel and invests considerable time in her own personal growth. Donna is a professional coach and trainer, experienced Enneagram facilitator and the Managing Director and Partner of Modo Coaching & Training.

Donna Woodrow

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