What Is Resistance Psychology And Can I Benefit from It?

By William Drake

Updated November 20, 2019

Reviewer Lauren Guilbeault

Why is it that people avoid the very things that can help them the most? You've seen it. A teen's parents offer to get him tutoring to help with his studies. He knows he needs the help, but he resists going along. Adults do it, too. Someone signs up for dance classes, thinking it will be a fun way to spend Friday evenings, but when the time comes to leave for the class, they come up with a million excuses for not going. Resistance can happen in therapy, as well. Whenever resistance occurs, it is helpful to understand resistance psychology.

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Resistance Psychology

Resistance is both a trait that some people have more than others and an emotional state that can happen during therapy. Resistance in psychology refers to any opposition to the therapeutic process. Resistance is a way of pushing back from the suggestions, which could help you solve your mental or emotional health problems. You may resist the solutions your therapist offers for a variety of superficial reasons. Maybe you tell yourself that you aren't ready. Maybe you say they're unfair. Perhaps you explain that they don't understand the whole story. But on a deeper level, your resistance is a defense of your ego. Resistance isn't just a way of thinking, either. It happens on a subconscious level.

Freud's View On Resistance

While working with his patients, Sigmund Freud developed the theory of resistance. He saw that people in psychoanalysis often avoided the subjects they most needed to face. They quickly dismissed any topic that came too close to memories or emotions that were too uncomfortable. Freud thought that resistance was a sign that some past trauma was hidden in the subconscious , which needed to be revealed and dealt with in the present. In Freud's view, if the hidden distress could be uncovered, catharsis could happen; this in turn would allow the person to experience emotional healing and more control over their present behavior.

Resistance In Modern Psychology

Resistance in psychology today usually refers specifically to resistance in therapy. When the therapist offers solutions, the patient resists considering those suggestions. Resistance in talk therapy keeps someone from tackling their issues directly, as they use their therapy sessions to talk about the things that are comfortable for them.

Types Of Resistance

Resistance shows up as oppositional behavior that keeps you from reaching your highest potential. Whether in therapy or everyday life, resistance can take many forms.

Memory Lapses

When someone is resisting dealing with their issues, they may suddenly seem very forgetful. If they're in therapy, they may forget about appointments. If they begin talking about a difficult subject, they may stop when they get to the hardest part, saying that they can't remember what happened next.


Sometimes, when the therapist gets too close to any subjects the patient doesn't want to talk about, the patient becomes angry. Their anger sidetracks the conversation. After that, it can be very hard to get back to that crucial point in the therapeutic process. If the resistance is strong enough, this anger may appear every time the subject comes up. This can even occur in everyday life, when a person gets angry if a specific subject is mentioned or if someone offers them help or advice with an issue they are struggling with.

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Rewriting History

People may feel distressed when thinking of their past. They know that a part of their therapy is dealing with those old memories. Without even realizing that they're doing it, they may change the facts to present a more acceptable picture of what happened long ago.

Recalling Facts Without The Impact

In some cases, people do remember the facts of past trauma quite well. They can tell all the important details of what happened in their past. However, they don't recall the way the event impacted them- then or now. Instead; they remain stoic, not displaying any behavior that would show that the event was difficult for them. Even though the event may have been so traumatic that it changed the course of their life, they may tell the story as if it were a news report about something that happened to a stranger.


People often resist what's best for them through self-sabotage. When they have an opportunity to have a better life, they set themselves up for failure or chose to go against helpful advice..

Being Defensive

If your therapist asks you a question and you suddenly feel under attack, the truth may be that you're feeling resistance. You may argue your case, citing reasons or excuses for your behavior. The therapist probably isn't saying anything bad about you at all. It's your ego's defenses, trying to keep you from feeling unworthy.

Distrusting The Therapist

Some patients come to distrust their therapists after the therapy reaches a critical point. They may have felt perfectly comfortable with their therapist at first, but they began to resist the process when it became too difficult. Their therapist didn't change, but now the patient finds reasons to distrust them.

Being Confused

Confusion is another way to resist therapy. Remember that resistance happens unconsciously. As such, when the process becomes too difficult, your mind may become cloudy and confused. This is very hard to overcome because now you aren't thinking clearly. The best thing to do is to stick with therapy, so your therapist can guide you through it.

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Being Dependent

It may sound counterintuitive, but people often resist therapy by becoming dependent on their therapist. Instead of facing their problems directly, they leave all the decisions to the therapist. They have trouble waiting for their next appointment, and they may contact their therapist between appointments- trying to get instructions on how to live their daily lives.

As their dependence grows, it becomes a different problem to deal with. The uncomfortable feelings are set aside while the therapy focuses first on breaking the dependent behaviors.

Being Bored

Some people find themselves behaving 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 stories just 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 you know you need to accept or deal with.


Resistance and transference in psychology often go together. Transference means that you transfer uncomfortable feelings from one person to another. In therapy, patients often transfer their feelings about a person who hurt them in the past to their therapist. Why does this type of transference happen? The reason is that you realize that your therapist won't hurt you. You can say the things you've wanted to say for years, knowing that you're safe. In this case, transference is positive and can bring about catharsis and relief.

You can also experience transference when you put the positive feelings you have about a loved one onto your therapist. For example, someone who has lost a beloved sister may transfer the feelings of trust to the therapist. This can be helpful because the person feels very comfortable facing difficult issues.

There's another type of transference that isn't so helpful. Sometimes, a patient transfers their sexual feelings about someone else onto their therapist. This damages the therapeutic process. If the patient can't put these feelings aside, they may need to switch to a different therapist. You don't have to worry about accidentally transferring inappropriate feelings to your therapist, as long as you respect boundaries when your therapist points them out. Therapists are well aware of the need for appropriate boundaries with their patients and can guide you in this matter.

Drawbacks Of Resistance Psychology

Resistance is natural; everyone behaves in resistant ways. However, when resistance happens in therapy, it can have some negative consequences.

Lengthens The Process

Resistance can cause the therapy to last much longer than it would have lasted. That's not to say that the therapy can't still be successful. Even if you're resistant in therapy, the right therapist can guide you to a better understanding of your resistance. Then, you can deal with your problems in a more direct manner.

Avoids Dealing With Important Issues

There's no legal requirement to face your important issues in therapy. You can attend sessions for years, even if you don't get anything accomplished. This doesn't happen much these days because most insurance companies prefer short-term therapy. However, it's still possible.

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Resistance can keep you from ever facing the issues that are affecting your mental and emotional health and holding you back from reaching your highest potential. If you don't work to overcome your resistance, you may be in a holding pattern that never ends and never gives you any positive results.

May Result To An End To Therapy

Extreme resistance can put a halt to therapy. You may drop out, telling yourself it's because you don't trust your therapist or your therapist is a bad person. Angry behavior can create a safety issue for your therapist; in which case, your regular sessions may have to end. Unhealthy transference can create a rift in the therapeutic relationship that can't be healed. When you resist therapy in extreme ways, you may have no choice but to find another therapist.

Is It Possible To Avoid Resistance?

Since everyone experiences resistance, is it even reasonable to think you can avoid it? You probably can't avoid it all the time. However, you can work to overcome it- at least during your therapy sessions-, so you can make progress.

Self-awareness is one key to avoiding the disruption of unhealthy resistance. It isn't easy to identify your resistant behavior. However, you can request that your therapist point them out; you need to be open to the possibility that their observations might be more accurate than your own. If you're diligent in discovering your resistant behaviors, you can consciously set them aside, so you can work on the issues that are holding you back from mental and emotional health.

Consider Online Therapy

Even if you recognize that you're resistant to doing the things that would improve your life, you still may need help overcoming that resistance. Talking to a counselor is a good first step to combating your unproductive resistance and helping you reach a point where you can deal with your problems more directly. BetterHelp's network of licensed counselors can be accessed from the comfort and privacy of your own home - no need to deal with the hassle of sitting in traffic and taking time out of your day to drive to an office. You'll be matched with a therapist best suited to your needs, and you can make appointments for your counseling that fit you schedule. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

"Marcella has been such a blessing to me. I couldn't have been matched with a more compatible therapist. I've gotten more work done with her in a short time than any other therapist in my lifetime."

"Elaine is very understanding and I think the most helpful thing about her that differs from other therapists I've had in the past is that she is very relatable. She's not afraid to mention similar experiences in her life, and even laugh about them, which make it much easier to open up and discover those hard to deal with emotions/feelings/triggers. She's very down to earth, and talking to her becomes like talking to your wisest and nonjudgmental friend. It's clear she takes her job as a counselor seriously and she has always been readily available to chat or text message when needed."


Resistance is a common, identifiable, and treatable problem. There's no shame in showing resistance. Everyone does it. The important thing is that you overcome it, so you can work on the problems that keep you from being your best self. With the right tools, you can move forward in healthy ways.Take the first step today.

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