The Vault

Fixation And The Fear Of Change:

Parallels Between Personal And Organisational Growth

By Mary Cox, M.Ed


I feel very honoured to be invited to come and talk to you (and very excited and very scared!) and in some ways I feel a bit of a fraud. I have spent more than a quarter of century working with people of all ages and backgrounds with the goal of helping them to change-one way or another- and throughout those years I have constantly worked on my own use of self in personal therapy, and-I am pleased to say-through having had some Alexander lessons too. I would like to acknowledge here the good work of my Alexander teacher, Wendy Bonington of Cumbria, England. 

So why do I say I feel a bit of a fraud? Because what I have learned most through all these experiences is how people do not change! Like F. M. Alexander, I have a very simple idea of 'the self,' and what I have come to understand best is not how to be one's self, but how a person stops being his or her self, defends or hides the self, out of fear of rejection or abandonment. And I have come to see how those defences become fixated patterns. I believe Alexander called them 'habits.' 

I keep on my therapy room wall a beautiful quote from F.M- "You are not here to learn to do it right, but to learn to meet a stimulus that always puts you wrong, and deal with it." That phrase "always puts you wrong" is what I understand fixation to be about. That is, an automatic and archaic reaction from the past being brought into the present. 

Over the last two weeks Ron (that's my husband, who is here in the audience somewhere cheering me on and supporting me) and I have been walking and climbing in these beautiful Swiss Alps-and now I confess my fraudulent part! When the sun is shining, the sky endlessly blue, and the path before me is familiar, then I go full of energy and determination. But the minute the cloud comes down and the way forward is unforeseen, or worse still, the minute Ron wants to explore a new and uncertain route, my immediate response is anxiety and fear, and my immediate impulse is to stay safely in my hotel, or at least in the valley, preferably on a well signed, well surfaced tarmac road! I am probably one of the most fearful and most fixated walkers ever to set foot in Switzerland! I, who encourage, support, and facilitate change and growth in others, am the most reluctant adventurer-fearful, resistant, and conservative! 

However, it is from this personal position that I have come to understand so thoroughly, and, I believe, understand with compassion, why people do not change, how come they get stuck and stay stuck. So it is from this empathic position that I work as a therapist and offer my service-as one weak and fallible human being offering to be with and to lend a helping hand to other fellow travellers. 

I started my professional working life as an educator, first with little children, and then, via teaching university students, I came into training managers in organisations in interpersonal and group skills. Later I trained and qualified as a psychotherapist, working with individuals and groups. 

I see organisations as having personalities, like individuals, and usually the organisations' personality reflects a good deal of the founding pioneer-or his/her key descendants-the people you refer to here as 'the senior teachers.' But aside from characteristic 'traits,' organisations and individuals go through normal and predictable developmental stages in developing their 'self' and their personality, and each developmental stage is accompanied by normal characteristic defences. So, for example and put very simplistically, in infancy the defence is clinging in order to avoid abandonment, in babyhood the defence is holding-holding still or holding back, for example-in order to avoid rejection. I would say that this is very typically for most of us the defensive pattern, in terms of holding back the real self in order to be what someone else wants of us. Thirdly, in toddlerhood one of the commonest defences is splitting, keeping the bad separate from the good in order to preserve the emerging and still fragile sense of self and in order to preserve the image of the key caretaking people, i.e. this person who I need is good, and I cannot afford to acknowledge that they are also sometimes bad. 

When an individual is under real or perceived threat they resort to these basic defence mechanisms. I see in organisations similar defences come into operation when there is real or perceived threat, for example in times of economic recession or of political oppression. I offer the following rather simplified framework, given the time we have here today. We can think of two basic defensive dimensions-clinging versus separating and freezing versus moving (and these might be equated to symbiotic dependency versus autonomy). We can look at the inter-relation of these two dimensions in the following way:


Clinging and Moving 

Under threat people move together and move to solve problems using constructive cooperation. 

Clinging and Freezing 

Under threat people move together and freeze which leads to the generation of traditions, 'custom and practice,' and rituals. This position is characterised by 'united we stand, divided we fall' and 'don't move or you'll rock the boat.' This is the position of conservatism. 

Separating and Freezing 

Under threat people move apart, groups split, and form 'camps.' The philosophy of this position is 'each man for himself' and 'you are either for us or against us' leading to fragmentation and isolation. This is the position of splitting or partition.

Separating and Moving

Under threat people move apart and move individually in order to solve the problem. This is the 'loner' or pioneering position. 

When individuals or groups face fearful and threatening stimuli they can respond with what Alexander referred to as 'conscious use and control,' and when a choice is made in that way then all forms of defence may be seen as a rational choice and a relevant response to the 'here and now' reality. Very often, however, when presented with threatening stimuli people react in a fixated and habitual way, and most frequently they cling and freeze, that is become inappropriately conservative, or they separate and freeze, that is they isolate to protect, leading to partition. There may be in our audience today those of you who are only too painfully aware that on this day, August 14th, thirty years ago, the people of Berlin awoke to find themselves divided by a wall-perhaps one of the more dramatic and terrible examples of partition in the community of mankind.

So, what about change? As a result of more than twenty-five years of working with people I see that change is not something to be worked for, struggled for, striven for. Change is natural-natural and continuous. In effect we cause our own problems by trying not to change, trying not to grow, or not to grow too much, by trying to 'get it right' (even though we don't know what is right), and by trying not to decay and die. And we are motivated in this resistance by fear-the fear of rejection, fear of abandonment, or even fear of annihilation. 

I see my own job, both as a therapist and as an organisational consultant, not so much as helping people to change but as one of helping them, both individuals and organisations, to overcome their fear enough to begin to move again-to become part of the life process again. Ironically in some cases this has meant supporting a person or a group through the process of decaying and dying. The acceptance of decay and death is also the acceptance of change. Dying is a different kind of moving and the one we understand the least so we resist the hardest. For me, both personally and in my professional work with others, change is accomplished by dissolving, lifting off, clearing away, the fixated defensive reactions which have become habits, and the way forward with this is through calming fear, supporting exploration, encouraging adventure, and affirming new accomplishments. 

I do not wish to deny the value of tradition, customs, routines, and rituals. These all have their place in providing a structure from which movement can be encouraged and supported. Structure provides a base, a foundation, a place to return to when pioneering adventures temporarily fail, and a place to rest in until energy and resources are sufficiently restored to support new explorations and new constructions. But the structure must never be mistaken for the real world, for the life process itself. That would be to create an illusion and a world apart. A puddle will support life (and death) but only for a limited period as compared with a pool which has an inlet bringing in fresh water and an outlet to allow flow and exchange, which in turn brings in new resources. I suppose we might ask, rather unglamorously, is my life, my organisation, a pool or a puddle?! 

The basic structure that provides that place of calm, of support, of encouragement and affirmation, is the structure of human relationship. We can see this throughout the history of mankind, in social relations and groups- marriage, the family, the community, and in political, commercial, and religious groupings in which people come together to support and further develop their creative endeavours. Unfortunately these same groupings that were designed to nourish and support growth sometimes become structures that impose upon and limit personal identity and creative expression. Ritual and routine become revered and forbid re-organisation. Effort, both conscious and unconscious, becomes targeted on maintaining and preserving the existing structure at the expense of the well-being and growth of the individuals for whom the structure was created in the first place. 

The creative challenge is to manage the inevitable tension between conservatism and change, between preservation and pioneering. To accomplish this requires, among other things, trust, in self, in others, and in the life process. This trust is born out of experiencing the overall holding capacity of a human relationship that is grounded but not fixed, is supportive but not possessive, is protective but not imprisoning. 

I see organisations very similarly to how I see individuals. They are conceived, they get born, they go through infancy, through toddlerhood, childhood, even adolescence, and with all the attendant teething troubles: rebellions, and regressions to dependency, and the heroic struggles for autonomy. Sometimes they even accomplish maturity! And they grow old and die, to be replaced with new organisations, that have new ways, new structures, new values, that are born of their own time. Some of us don't like the supermarket replacing the village grocer, or the European Economic Community replacing the national powers, but to hold on to the past is no way to shape the future. 

There is no right way to be, or right way to do it, either for an individual or for an organisation. Fixations are protective but primitive defenses that people regress to under real or apparent threat, including the threat of uncertainty. The goal is to help a person or a group feel safe enough. That is, help them to feel that their essential self, their identity and integrity, is sufficiently respected and cherished that they do not need to return again and again to those early basic defenses. Instead they can feel prized and free-free to be what they are, and in being what they are they become free to grow and change.



I would like to give recognition to the many teachers and therapists who have contributed support to my own growth; to all the clients who have given me their trust and allowed me to be their fellow traveller; to my family who have tolerated my mistakes, and to Don Burton, Director of the Fellside Alexander School, England, for the gift of the opportunity to learn something of the Alexander Technique and for our creative collaboration in understanding the potential of integrating Alexander's teaching with the concepts of Transactional Analysis.



Mary Cox is a Certified Clinical Transactional Analyst and a Provisional Teaching and Supervising Transactional Analyst. She has a private psychotherapy and training practice in West Cumbria, where she lives, works, and plays, with her husband Ron Thompson, and their grown-up children. Mary is Vice-President of the British Institute of Transactional Analysis. She is currently Chairperson of the Commission of Certification of the European Association for Transactional Analysis, and is the EATA English Language Examinations Coordinator.

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