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Demand-resistance: Further insights into squalor

Does this sound familiar?

  • You prepare a "To Do List" but start working on other projects instead.
  • You resent all criticism of your work-however fair, gentle, or helpful.
  • You unconsciously oppose having to do anything that is expected of you.

What is going on here? Welcome to the world of Demand-Resistance!

Demand-Resistance is defined as a chronic and automatic negative inner response to the perception of pressure, expectations, or demands (from within or without)(Mallinger and De Wyze, 1992). As a form of self-sabotage, this (usually unconscious) resistance takes a heavy toll on our homes, our lives, our work, our relationships. We frequently feel frustrated by and angry at ourselves and our situations. We're helpless, it's hopeless: and we don't know how to change.

What causes demand-resistance? Like many other personality disfunctions, its roots go back to childhood. Did you have an overly critical or controlling family? Perhaps your parents were overprotective: implying that you were too weak or too stupid to do things by and for yourself. The constant demands and rules of perfectionist parents can leave their offspring with a legacy of resentment towards any kind of authority, including their own inner wishes. Our angry two-year-old Inner Child prevents our Adult Self from taking control of our grown-up lives.

Wants become shoulds

Furthermore, because of early conditioning we may habitually confuse I want with I should. For example, I want to live a more healthy life. But the habits of a lifetime soon convert this simple desire for health into a powerful all-encompassing mandate: I should walk an hour a day, I must eat a perfect diet, I need to get rid of all my bad habits. Today. Right now. Forever. Perfectionism once again rears its ugly head. And since it is highly unlikely that I can follow these commandments of Good Health perfectly 100% of the time, I give up, and wallow in the self-pity of frustration and ultimately.resign myself to poor health.

Perfectionism and Demand-Resistance are closely linked to obsessive personality traits. Some obsessions go hand-in-hand with the squalorous lifestyle. When our homes are out of control we may hesitate to make decisions ("I never know where to begin.") We constantly second-guess ourselves ("I shouldn't have thrown that out!") We hide our dirty little secrets from outsiders ("I can't let anyone see this mess.") We worry too much ("What will happen if...?") We lose faith in our ability to survive ("This mess is going to destroy me.") We are reluctant to accept help from others ("I made the mess, I must clean it up myself.") We have a long list of shoulds and musts and have-to's, but the more we ruminate and obsess about our situation, the less we actually do!

Are you demand-resistant?

Those of us who suffer from Demand-Resistance are frequently unaware of this fact. Instead we feel suppressed anger, and may develop a reputation as stubborn and obstinate. We hear the advice from well-meaning friends ("just do it") and immediately we go on High Alert, finding every possible reason and excuse and justification to explain WHY we can't "just do it." Stonewalling? We barricade ourselves in a fortress of self-protective denial and avoidance. Procrastination is our middle name.

What can we do to change this unhealthy pattern of demand-resistance? As in so many other areas of mental health, the first—and most crucial—step is to recognize what is happening as it happens. Pay attention to self-talk. Notice how often you say I should, I must, I absolutely have to. Instead consciously re-train yourself to say I want this. Remember how you decided to get control of your finances. What originally motivated you to start decluttering that drawer? Ask yourself why you want a clean and orderly kitchen. Challenge your habitual thought-patterns: review the big picture of your life and acknowledge what you want to do. For yourself. For your self-esteem. For your inner peace. For your happiness. Reconnect with who you are: a person entitled to choose. Then choose to act!

Overcoming demand-resistance

Moreover, instead of making those endless and burdensome lists ("amorphous blobs of undoability"), focus instead on the 'baby steps' that will ultimately move you forward to your goal, whatever that happens to be. Make magic-moment by moment-through Microbursts -small flashes of energy directed at extremely tiny tasks. 5 minutes to unload the dishwasher. Two minutes to toss some junk mail. A few seconds to pick up a piece of trash. These small moments of progress and action are most effective when unplanned: less opportunity to feel the stress of demand and MUST-Do's. String together enough microbursts and soon we make that mega-shift in our stinkin' thinkin'-seeing time and projects in a whole new way. Continuous change in small incremental steps, one building upon another, each leading to a higher level: now that's progress!

So, if you want to feel in charge of your life (your home, your clutter), stop re-acting. Start responding instead. Focus on what YOU want for YOURSELF. Forget Mom's heavy-handed approach to cleaning ("do it my way or else."). Ignore the dire warnings from your most-feared teacher ("You will never do one thing right.") Stop letting the past shape your future!

Focus on what you want

Here are some steps guaranteed to move you forward:

  • Be specific about your goals. Don't lament, "Why can't I have a clean house?" Instead, focus clearly on one small task: "I want to clean this shelf today."
  • Listen to your heart. If you haven't used those craft supplies in 10 years, maybe you don't really enjoy this hobby anymore. Remember the 3 T's: Is it Time To Toss? You are allowed to change, and to change your mind.
  • You have every right to be afraid: so honour your doubts and resistances. It's hard to accept success; you have been burdened with failure for too long.
  • Start moving, then you will keep moving. Take baby steps. "Anyone can do anything for 15 minutes." Set your timer. Start somewhere, anywhere. "A body in motion tends to stay in motion." Sir Isaac Newton said so!
  • Reach out for help. Squalor Survivors is one oasis of inspiration. Join a challenge. Take part in the board. Read about others' accomplishments. Gain strength from our community.
  • Finally, reward yourself for the smallest triumphs. Celebrate every success. Share your story with others. Give yourself positive reinforcement!

Take ownership of your life

You are not an unwilling victim forced to work at loathsome tasks for little or no reward or appreciation. Keep saying, I WANT to do this. You may be surprised at the creativity and enthusiasm that will follow.

To change the patterns, you'll need to reconnect with the "I want" aspect of everything you do. Catch yourself thinking "I should" or "I have to," and challenge these thoughts. Stop telling yourself "I have to" unless you're certain that's the case. Don't let the ownership of your life slip away. Realize that even when you are pressured to do something, the decision to comply or not is entirely yours. Allan Mallinger and Jeanette De Wyze, Too Perfect