Resistance: The vaccine fight may be an example

My dear friends left their Florida vacation early. They were just in time! Now the Florida ICUs are packed to overflowing with people who refused to be vaccinated. In Philadelphia, where I live, my nurse friend claims the hospitals are not overwhelmed, but they are not sure how long that will last. Once the schools get going they might turn into daily superspreader events!

In the face of all this frightening news, one acquaintance is refusing the vaccine. They said, “I guess you think I am really dumb. But from what I have studied, I seriously think I might die if I let that needle get into my arm.” Thinking I might consider them “dumb” was not dumb. Many people in Philly base their faith on some semblance of science, so anyone who is skeptical of the vaccines automatically ends up in a persecuted minority group.

I am not going to go into the politics of how the vaccinated can turn into the Red Guard and the unvaccinated into the Rohingya, as interesting as that is. I am interested in why some people resist the vaccines. I am interested in the resistance we all feel to change, even positive change, like getting some assurance we won’t die if we are vaccinated.

invisible wall of resistance

Resistance is one of the mysteries psychotherapists (and pastors, social workers, parents) encounter all the time. Peter Michaelson writes

Psychological resistance is like an invisible wall that stands between aspiring individuals and the actualized self they desperately want to become. Bringing this resistance into view is vitally important to our personal development.

People continually bump up against this wall, get knocked back on their duff, get back up, and incomprehensibly repeat the procedure ad infinitum. We don’t even know we’re bumping into a wall. We’re just left feeling confused, dazed, and disoriented, unable to make any sense of recurring self-defeat or self-sabotage.

Why did you come to psychotherapy if you did not want to develop? Why did you get into this group if you did not want to participate? Why did you marry me if you did not want to be vulnerable? Why did you go to the amusement park if you did not want to ride roller coasters? The answer to those questions is probably, “Resistance.”

Relief of Adam and Eve from the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, dated to 359 CE

Resistance is about shame

The “discovery” of resistance was central to Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis. He was fascinated by everyone’s personal repression project. He, and everyone since, trace the foundation of resistance to shame. If the resistance is becoming visible, it will peek out from behind our various fig leaves:  perfectionism, criticizing, disrespect, self-criticism, preoccupation with appearance, social withdrawal, independence, invulnerability, and our inability to accept compliments or constructive criticism.

If you have been reading the Bible you can see most of these traits in the story of Adam and Eve. We could all tell our personal history and it would look like the Adam and Eve story. We don’t really need to study the Bible to find a story about resistance — we are all listening to the snake charm us into eating the fruit of it. We seem to choose freedom to be alone and against rather than the freedom to be together and moving with God —  even though we don’t really want to.

Then the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.” And He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me some of the fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” And the woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:9-13)

Until our eyes were opened to our own potential for evil, we were fine being naked. No one told us we were shameful. We were fine with our privates and had no need for privacy. But now we sure do!

Does shame make us immune to the vaccine?

Many people have written wonderful books on the subject of shame/repression/resistance. I was just trying to give you the gist of how I see it so I could talk to you about how to respond to people who refuse to get the vaccine.

I think my few clients who are resisting the vaccine may be finding a huge and convenient way to occupy their fear and shame in the cause of their autonomy, much like Adam and Eve arguing with God.  I heard of someone saying the vaccine was like the mark of the beast and they should be brave enough to be deprived of work if it was really the end times — I am so out of touch with Evangelicals I had not heard that connection yet. Another said even if the FDA approved the vaccine they would not allow anything to teach their cells to do things — they immediately referenced the Tuskegee experiments as a good reason to be skeptical. I thought that was at least a better argument.

But their arguments mostly seem based in resistance. We might make a good argument, but we might not recognize our feelings, fantasies, and motives underneath it. Pretty soon we are canceling or rescheduling appointments with our therapists because they might talk about things that don’t fit our narrative. We might forget the work we already did in therapy. We might not remember homework assignments. Those could all be signs of resistance to growth. Shame tends to lock us out of the territory where our feelings run free and we explore without judgment and it tends to lock us into the lame defense systems that delude us into thinking we can protect ourselves from what we fear without faith, hope and love.

Is there a way to change a vaccine-resistor’s mind?

Quite a few of my young, “blue” friends have had a hard 2021 with relatives (often older) who are sure not wearing a mask and refusing to bend the knee to liberal scientists is the cornerstone of their God-given freedom. If one is not up on all the conspiracy theories and misinformation on social media, arguing with them may be even more futile than it usually seems. For example, one of my clients told me about the mysterious deaths their friends reported (third-hand sometimes) about people who had received the AstraZeneca/ Johnson and Johnson vaccine and died of blood clots so thick the usual procedure to remove them was clogged up! That’s a lot of detail! Many people are become experts, they think, on the virus and the defensive cloud of the evidence they collect makes them dig in their heels when it comes to the vaccines.

I think their process has a lot to do with the invisible wall of resistance.  Jennifer Delgado gave some helpful summaries of what it takes to change one’s mind and heart. She says, “We can feel motivated to change, but if something keeps us” from acting, “like fear, motivation will not be enough to overcome the resistance.” Right now, I think many people are facing the most fearsome time of their lives. Many are applying defensive skills they have been developing since childhood harder than ever to resist the threatening change that is upon them.

In the midst, Jesus says:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. – John 14:27

The cycle of resistance to personal change

As they watch people face their fears when they need to change, Delgado and others have referred us to the well-known stages Elizabeth Kubler-Ross noted in the emotional cycle following a death. A pandemic is fear coming at us, but it meets fear coming from us, the fear stored up in us. The false autonomy we protect masks the shame that motivates it. The thought of losing our defense against feeling our fear and shame is terrifying. It takes a lot for us to accept we need to do anything but protect ourselves from it. Making a good decision about vaccines would better come from the fearlessness we gain when we trust Jesus and receive His peace. But trust may not be our knee-jerk reaction.

Regardless of whether we trust Jesus or not, we will likely go through some version of Kubler-Ross’s stages when it comes to the little death we experience when we change.

  • We probably feel paralyzed or blocked when we first confront change. We hit the wall.
  • We may close our eyes to reality and to the need for transformation. We carry on as if nothing is happening.
  • When we can no longer deny the change, we probably react with frustration or rage. At this point the feelings we repressed earlier usually emerge.
  • We try to find a way out of what is already happening. We are moved to avoid it. We don’t fully accept what is evident.
  • We finally accept that change is inevitable. But we do not accept it, which usually leads to irritation or depression.
  • We realize we must react. We look for realistic solutions and new ways to cope which adapt to the new reality.
  • We come to a new homeostasis. We move forward into a new stage of development.

When it comes to arguments about whether to get vaccinated, we might be talking to someone stuck at that second bullet point, someone in denial. They have their reasons for resistance, some of which they might not know about yet. I don’t think people should be bludgeoned because of their lack of development. Jesus is patient with each of us.

As you look at the stages above, you can see that people might get stuck at any one of the further steps toward new awareness or new behavior. How many divorced people are still angry? How many abused people are still depressed? How many perfectionistic people are still dithering about how to let go of their control?

10 challenges for the vaccine resistors

We want to change. At the same time we want to remain the same, or do the same things. We want to return to the garden, but we also just redecorated the psyche we formed outside its walls. For instance, I just finished grandchild “camp” and they thought this year would be the same as the last. Stable grandparents are comforting. The changes disappointed them before they tried the new events.  Change unleashes resistance. The more we face up to it, the greater our transformation might be. In the case of the vaccine, we have heard many people recently hospitalized begging people to get the shot, now that they have been hurled into acceptance by the disease.

I have been trying to get my mind and heart around this invisible wall into which I and many of my clients and fellow church members are colliding. I want to be generous with people who are not “dumb” but are facing tremendous fears in the face of decisions about how to live through the hardest era of their lives. Here are ten things vaccine resistors might need to face, in my opinion, before they can make the choice to get the shot. One or more may reflect the resistance you feel as you are facing any change that pushes your shame button. Be generous with yourself and others.

  • Need to get out of the zone of control. Most of us feel relatively safe in our “comfort zone.” I’ve started calling it the “zone of control” since a lot of people are not comfortable in their status quo even if they are committed to protecting it. If we think what we have done for years will keep working, many times delusionally, there is no reason to change. If the disease has not struck close to home or has been survived, people feel justified in their zone.
  • Need to face fear. Fear is the basis for resistance to change. Usually, we jump into the unknown only if we believe what awaits us is worth it. Fearful, often disinformed people are frantically making a deal, under pressure from untrusted authorities, to risk their lives by accepting the vaccine.
  • Need to learn new things. When we believe we do not have the skills, abilities, or strengths needed to cope with transformation, we often do not recognize it, but resist it. This includes learning about ourselves (and that dreaded shame!). The massive amount of information and disinformation about the vaccines shuts some people down.
  • Need to challenge habits. If we have done things in the same way for a long time, it will be very difficult to change. We rarely just do something new because it would also impact how we relate, think, and feel. We already have ruts in our brain where our habits run free. Our relationships have habits. Our brains and our schedules supply physical resistance to our psychological resistance.
  • Need to be humble. When we perceive change is imposed on us, our first reaction is usually rejection. If we are not consulted, we will likely participate minimally, if at all. Americans might be the least humble people on the planet, so it is no surprise our virus incidence is high, even though we can effectively fight it.
  • Need to go beyond the overwhelm. The Covid years have pushed us over the edge. So many people are anxious and depressed. Our tolerance level for change has been exceeded. We have been overwhelmed so much by events and the media amplification of them, more resistance has developed to stave off further exhaustion and saturation. I think I noted this at the Phillies game last week when almost no one would get ramped up when the screen shouted “Make some noise!” We screened out the noisy demand to make noise. We’re tired.
  • Need to get beyond the either/or. Sometimes change presents a breaking point with some of our beliefs or opinions. Our brain might be fritzed with internal disagreement. “If this is the mark of the beast, I’d better not take it” meets “I am going to be so embarrassed if God does not protect me and the vaccine was a gift I refused.”
  • Need to act. Change usually requires the best we’ve got. Like we say, “Dig deep.” If we can’t marshal the motivation, we might give up on the transformation we desire. A client’s spouse finally agreed to get vaccinated like her mate, but she hasn’t gotten around to it for several months. It must be resistance.
  • Need to broaden one’s capacity. We are often capable of more than we think. Shame diminishes us. Our resistance to change may be due to it occurring when we already feel like we are in a tough spot. “I can’t face one more thing. I am going to wait it out and see what happens.”
  • Need to develop new traits. Some of us are naturally or developmentally more willing to change while others are tied to what they know. If you are suffering from certain mental illnesses you may think you have control over everything that happens to you or you have a low tolerance for ambiguity, you will be more resistant to change. Psychotherapists often diagnose and label people with “illnesses” and those labels end up as identities and those identities end up as strait jackets. You may think you are condemned to not cooperating with your salvation, but Jesus still holds out his hand to you.

I needed to write this for myself, so I hope it helped you, too. We all wake up every day to a world that seems to be hurtling toward disaster: conflict all around, disease, climate change. It is no wonder people resist the vaccine! We were fearful before we had all these good reasons to be fearful!

I found myself resisting my natural empathy as I became frustrated with resistant clients and heard stories from others relating a similar way. But I choose to spread peace with Jesus today. I will not let my heart mimic the trouble I find in people and respond to their fear with fear. I want to learn more about speaking peace to them as they struggle through their difficult process: bumping into the wall of their innate resistance and bending under weight of fear that falls on them no matter how hard they try to avoid it. I certainly do not need to threaten or shame anyone who is already fighting a losing battle not to feel their fear and shame!

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