We all experience a force that pushes us away from our creative endeavors. Whether it be a new diet or exercise regimen, a novel, a painting, a business venture, or a relationship, this force seems to appear every morning along with the sun. Call it what you will—the lizard brain, laziness, procrastination, writer’s block, instant gratification—if we want to become the person we are meant to be, we must engage with it, and somehow, do our work anyway.
Steven Pressfield, in his magnificent book, The War of Art, calls it Resistance.
What Is Resistance?
There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: it’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance…
Resistance cannot be seen, touched, heard, or smelled. But it can be felt. We experience it as an energy field radiating from a work-in-potential. It’s a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.
The way I choose to see Resistance is biological. Evolutionary.
My urge to create comes from the brain’s frontal lobe, that human concoction that enables reasoning and abstract thinking. But Resistance comes from the amygdala, which we share with the “lower” animals (hence the lizard brain). It’s the part of the brain that generates fear and the fight-or-flight reaction.
Thus Resistance is impersonal. It’s not intending to sabotage me and my work. In fact, it’s an essential part of me, whose purpose is to protect me from danger.
What kind of danger, though, is immaterial.
The problem is, we’re not lizards anymore. Danger isn’t always physical.
It’s dangerous to create art and show it to the world—dangerous to our ego and our self-esteem.
What if our art is rejected? Then we feel rejected. We feel rejection as a primordial risk—the risk of being cast out from the tribe, ostracized and exiled.
But what does that mean? In hunter-gatherer times, it meant you were now on your own, wandering the savanna at the complete mercy of predators. At the mercy of death. The lioness picks off the loner; she doesn’t mess with the herd.
There are no lions on the streets of New York. Standing out from the pack no longer means death. But Resistance doesn’t know that.
Dancing With Resistance
We can use this. The stronger Resistance we feel toward our work, the riskier it must be. The bolder it must be. The more ground-breaking. Not ground-breaking in a worldly sense, but breaking new ground in our lives, in our souls. We are pushing ourselves farther than we think we can go. We are reaching our potential, expanding our capabilities:
The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.
Pressfield sees our relationship with Resistance as a war. Each day is a battle.
I’ve got a different view, which I developed in therapy. I learned that I could not dismiss or wish away my anxiety and my fear. No more than I could remove my amygdala and continue walking.
Instead, I taught myself how to live with it and how to listen to it. Because how could I fight something that is part of me?
And if Resistance is fear, then its presence is a good thing:
The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.
So don’t knock yourself for being afraid. It’s normal. It would be weird if you didn’t feel it.
Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance…
The more Resistance you experience, the more important your unmanifested art/project/enterprise is to you — and the more gratification you will feel when you finally do it.
Gratification is what it’s all about. The feeling you get when you want to do something so badly that you can’t do anything else. Resistance sees this as a challenge. It uses fear to beat you back.
But when you push ahead, through the fear, and complete your quest? That’s the feeling that makes it all worth it.