What Is Resistance In Psychology?

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams, LPC, CCTP
Updated March 21, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

You may have noticed in yourself or others that people sometimes avoid what is best for them or what they're asked to do. For example, a teen's parents may offer to get them tutoring for their studies. They may know that tutoring would help them but resist the idea due to being asked. Resistance can also occur in therapy. Because this response is common, it may be helpful to understand resistance psychology to recognize it when it happens to you. 

Learn about resistance in psychology

Resistance psychology

The higher your emotional intelligence, the more likely you might be to experience awareness of resistance. Resistance in psychology refers to any opposition to the therapeutic process or mental healing.

Resistance is a way of pushing back against suggestions, including those that could help you solve mental or emotional health concerns. A person facing resistance may tell themselves they aren't ready. They might also believe the advice is unfair or explain that the therapist doesn't understand the whole story. Whatever the form, resistance is considered a defense of the ego on a subconscious level.

Freud's view of resistance

While working with his clients, Sigmund Freud developed the theory of resistance. He saw that people in psychoanalysis often avoided the essential subjects for their healing. They dismissed any topic that came too close to memories or uncomfortable emotions. 

Freud theorized that resistance was a sign of some past trauma hidden in the subconscious that needed to be revealed and addressed in the present. In Freud's view, this catharsis would allow the person to experience emotional healing and find more significant control over their behavior.

Resistance in modern psychology

In some cases, resistance in psychology refers to resistance while in therapy. When the therapist offers solutions, the client may resist considering them. Resistance to talk therapy can keep someone from tackling their challenges directly, as they use their therapy sessions to talk only or primarily about what is comfortable for them.

Types of resistance

Resistance often appears as oppositional behavior that keeps you from reaching your highest potential. Resistance can take many forms in therapy or everyday life, including the following. 

Having memory lapses 

When someone resists addressing their challenges, they may feel or feign forgetfulness. If they're in therapy, they may forget about appointments intentionally or unintentionally. If they begin talking about a complex subject, they may stop when they get to the most challenging aspect, stating they can't remember what happened next. These are often not deliberate attempts at dishonesty but subconscious avoidance. 

Experiencing anger 

At times, if a therapist gets too close to any subject a client doesn't want to discuss, the client may feel angry and lash out at the therapist. Their anger can sidetrack the conversation, making it difficult to return to a crucial point in the therapeutic process. If the resistance is strong, this anger may appear whenever the subject comes up. This response could also occur in everyday life. For instance, an individual may get angry if a specific subject is mentioned or a loved one offers to support them. 

Rewriting history

People may feel distressed when thinking of their past. They often know that a part of their therapy is dealing with old memories. Without realizing it, they may change the facts to present a more acceptable picture of past events, trying to convince themselves more than the therapist. 

Recalling facts without the impact

In some cases, people do remember the facts of past trauma. They may be able to recall some essential events from their past. However, they may not recall the way an event impacted them. Instead, they may remain stoic, not displaying any behavior showing that the event was challenging for them. Even though the event may have been so traumatic that it changed their life, they may tell the story as if it were a news report about something that happened to a stranger.

Being defensive

If your therapist asks you a question and you feel under attack, you might be experiencing resistance. You may argue your case, citing reasons or excuses for your behavior. However, your therapist might not have accused you of anything or meant harm in their question. Defensiveness can indicate past patterns of others labeling you or forcing you to be accountable for something you didn't do. It can also signal the ego subconsciously trying to safeguard itself. 

Distrusting the therapist

Some individuals may distrust their therapists after the therapy reaches a critical point. They may have initially felt comfortable with their therapist but began to resist the process when it became difficult. 

Feeling confused 

Confusion is another way to resist therapy. Resistance often happens unconsciously. As such, when the process becomes too difficult, your mind may become cloudy and confused. This confusion can be difficult to overcome. In these cases, it may be beneficial to stick with therapy and ask your therapist to guide you as you continue. 

Learn about resistance in psychology

Being dependent

Some people resist therapy by becoming dependent on their therapist. Instead of facing their problems directly, they may leave all the decisions to the therapist. They may have difficulty waiting for their next appointment, contacting their therapist between appointments, and getting instructions on how to live their daily lives.

As their dependence grows, it can become challenging to have self-control. The uncomfortable feelings are set aside while the therapy focuses first on breaking the dependent behaviors. 

Acting bored 

Some people behave as if they're bored in therapy, so they look for excitement in their daily lives to relieve their boredom. They may tell their therapist dramatic or exciting stories to see their reaction. They may yawn or stare blankly during sessions, not engaging in therapy at all. This feeling of boredom can be a cover for intense feelings that are difficult to accept or deal with.


Resistance and transference in psychology may co-occur. The transference definition is "the transfer of uncomfortable feelings from one person to another." In therapy, clients often transfer their feelings about a person who hurt them in the past to their therapist. This type of transference can happen when they trust their therapist. 

You can also experience transference when you put your positive feelings about a loved one onto your therapist. For example, someone who has lost a beloved sister may transfer their feelings of trust to the therapist. This process can be helpful because the person feels comfortable discussing their feelings. However, it may be unhealthy if they believe their therapist is a replacement for their sister or must offer the same type of closeness as a family member or friend. 

Transference can be unhealthy when a client takes anger toward someone else or a situation in their life and takes it out on their therapist. In addition, if a client starts to form romantic feelings for a therapist due to their similarity to someone they love or the professional connection they've formed, the therapist may have to end the therapeutic relationship to avoid an ethical impasse

Drawbacks of resistance during therapy 

Resistance is natural. Many people experience resistance in everyday life. However, when resistance happens in therapy, it can have some negative consequences, including the following. 

A lengthened process 

Resistance can cause therapy to last longer if progress is not being made. Therapy may still be successful. However, if you're resistant in therapy, ask your therapist if they can guide you toward understanding your resistance so you can move forward productively. 

The potential ending of therapy 

Extreme resistance may result at the end of therapy or back-and-forth usage of therapeutic services. You may drop out due to discomfort or tell yourself you're not ready. In addition, your therapist might end services if they feel unsafe or an ethical concern arises. Unhealthy transference can also create a rift in the therapeutic relationship that is difficult to heal. If you strongly resist therapy, you might look for a new therapist or take a break to examine your behavior. 

Is it possible to avoid resistance?

Many people experience resistance, so you may wonder if you can resist it. If resistance occurs subconsciously, it can be essential to notice it after the fact and note why it occurred. You can also address it in therapy with your therapist. 

Self-awareness may be one of the keys to avoiding unhealthy resistance. If you're diligent in discovering your resistant behaviors, write them down and list a few behaviors you can start partaking in to reduce the chances of this behavior. 

Counseling options 

If you recognize you resist receiving help, consider taking control of this feeling and reaching out to a therapist. Letting yourself know that resistance doesn't control you may reduce its strength. In addition, talking to a counselor may be the first step to combating counterproductive behavior in relationships. 

If you would like to pursue therapy but don't know how to fit it into your life due to barriers like finances or location, platforms like BetterHelp are also available. Studies have found that online therapy can be as effective as in-person therapy. One study found that 71% of participants found it as effective or more effective than face-to-face options and that 100% found it more convenient. 

Through an online platform, you can be matched with a therapist best suited to your needs and make appointments via video, phone, or live chat sessions. Some platforms also offer around-the-clock messaging with your therapist so you can reach out when needed to ask for advice based on resistance. 


Resistance is a common, identifiable, and treatable challenge and behavior. There's no shame in showing resistance. With guidance, you may find you can recognize this behavior when it occurs and start to focus on your treatment. Consider reaching out to a therapist to get started.
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