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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Carchrae

Change and Pushback Reactions

Updated: Jan 13

We all know that it can be hard to change, even when you really want to. So when we actually begin to achieve the changes we have been wanting to make and then our relationships blow up - what the heck is going on here?

A neon sign that says "change" in red script.

Pushback reactions are one of the more confusing things that can happen when we start moving towards our goals. Sometimes they can even cause us to give up when we don't recognize what's happening. This is particularly true when we get pushback reactions from the people who are closest to us. 

What is a pushback reaction to change? 

Pushback is a concept that comes from systemic family therapy, which says that all systems want to stay at homeostasis because it is stable and takes less energy to navigate. When one element of that system begins to change, other elements will react in ways that make it more likely that the changing element will stop changing and come back to its original position. 

You can see this in the ways our bodies maintain a consistent temperature, or in ecological systems where there is a balance between predators and prey. We also see it in families, workplaces and other groups of people. 

You might have been in a situation where pushback looked like this - you get a new boss who has a bunch of ideas about the way things need to start going. From the employees’ perspective, these ideas are just going to make things more complicated than they need to be. The employees resist the changes by undermining the new boss or subtly engaging in some kind of passive-aggressive behaviour. 

But I’m making changes that are really healthy! Why would anyone pushback against that? 

Our healthy changes can generate pushback because when we stop doing whatever we were doing before we started to change, this means that the people around us will start to feel or experience things that they didn't have to feel or experience when we were in our old pattern.

For example, when a people-pleaser starts to do things that meet their own needs, they will have to stop filling their time doing things for other people. Those other people now have to either find someone else to do that stuff or do it themselves. Or if one member of a partner starts eating healthy dinners at home instead of going for fast-food, their partner may still be eating that fast food but now they feel uncomfortable, guilty, ashamed or angry about eating that way by themselves.

Everything in a system is connected

Does this mean that we’re surrounded by toxic people and the only solution is to cut ties and walk away? Sometimes, but not necessarily. Pushback reactions are normal and often unconscious. Relationships are like a dance, and when we change, we are starting to dance in new ways. Now it’s uncomfortable with one person doing something different, and of course our partner would want us to do the old dance so that it's comfortable for them again.

Our change will bring up unfamiliar feelings and experiences for the people around us. They need to learn to manage their feelings without us doing our usual part of the dance, and this takes time even in the best of relationships. In some relationships, abuse will intensify and could be dangerous. 

Change takes time for everyone to adjust

If you’re making changes and starting to feel some pushback from others, that’s normal. If they are adults, they are responsible for their own feelings. You don’t necessarily need to change back in order to soothe their difficult feelings. If they're children, they would probably benefit from some extra connection and reassurance. If you are in an abusive situation and in danger, there are local supports that can help you get to a safer place.

Want to learn more about change and pushback reactions? 

Harriet Lerner’s books (The Dance of Anger, and others) are classics and do a great job of explaining some of the dynamics that can occur in relationships and families, including change and pushback reactions. If you need more personalised support, feel free to book a consultation and we can see if therapy might be a good fit for you.  

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