Why do people avoid the very things that can help them the most? You've probably observed this phenomenon. A teen's parents offer to get him tutoring to help with his studies. He knows he needs the help, but he resists the idea. 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 also occur in therapy. Because this response is common, it is helpful to understand resistance psychology.
Resistance is both a trait that some people possess in higher degrees and an emotional state that can be observed during therapy. Resistance in psychology refers to any opposition to the therapeutic process. Resistance is a way of pushing back against suggestions, even those that could help you solve mental or emotional health concerns. Sometimes a person tells themselves that they aren't ready. Maybe they say advice is unfair. Perhaps they explain that the therapist doesn't understand the whole story. Whatever the form, resistance is a defense of ego 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 dismissed any topic that came too close to memories or emotions that were too uncomfortable. Freud theorized that resistance was a sign of some past trauma hidden in the subconscious that needed to be revealed and dealt with in the present. In Freud's view, this catharsis would allow the person to experience emotional healing and find greater control over their behavior.
Resistance In Modern Psychology
Resistance in psychology today often refers specifically to resistance while in therapy. When the therapist offers solutions, the client resists considering them. Resistance in talk therapy keeps someone from tackling their issues directly, as they use their therapy sessions to talk only or primarily 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.
When someone resists 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. These are not signs of dishonesty, but subconscious avoidance of unwanted information.
Sometimes, when the therapist gets too close to any subjects the client doesn't want to talk about, the client 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; a person may get angry if a specific subject is mentioned or if someone offers them help or advice with a touchy subject.
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 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 in the present. 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.
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, but your therapist probably isn't saying anything negative at all. It's your ego's defenses, trying to keep you from feeling unworthy.
Distrusting The Therapist
Some individuals 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.
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 you aren't thinking clearly. The best thing to do is to stick with therapy, so your therapist can guide you through it.
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.
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 are difficult 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, clients often transfer their feelings about a person who hurt them in the past to their therapist. This type of transference happens because trust 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 client transfers romantic sexual feelings about someone else onto their therapist. This damages the therapeutic process. If the client can't put these feelings aside, they may need to switch to a different therapist. However, 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 clients 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.
Unchecked resistance, however, 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. Angry behavior can create a safety issue for your therapist, in which case your regular sessions may have to end. Unhealthy transference can also create a rift in the therapeutic relationship that can't be healed. If you resist therapy in extreme ways, you may have 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 something that occurs in your subconscious. However, you can work to overcome it—at least, during therapy sessions—to help you make progress.
Self-awareness is the key to avoiding unhealthy resistance. It isn't easy to identify your resistant behaviors. 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 taking steps that would improve your life, you still may need help overcoming that resistance. Talking to a counselor is a good first step to combating counterproductive resistance and helping you deal with your problems more directly. Talk therapy has never been more available or mentionable; especially with societal challenges like public health crises and economic uncertainty, more people than ever are taking advantage of mental healthcare support. If you would like to pursue therapy but don’t know how to start or how to fit it into your life, BetterHelp may be the right fit for you.
BetterHelp's network of licensed counselors can be accessed from the comfort and privacy of your own home. You'll be matched with a therapist who is best suited to your needs, and you can make appointments for your counseling that fit your schedule, through the medium that is most comfortable for you: video chats, phone calls, emails, or text messages. Here are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people who have worked through resistance issues in therapy.
Kathleen has been the most receptive and genuinely caring therapist I’ve met with. She is attentive to everything I say and provides amazing tools, that are unique to me, that help me through the current situations I am struggling with. She is able to be supportive yet stern when I become resistant to certain assignments, which I desperately need, in order for me to do the difficult work but in a loving and accepting environment. 10/10 would recommend this wonderful human being as a therapist! https://www.betterhelp.com/kathleen-whipple/
" Dr Nawaz is very receptive understanding her patients’ problems / concerns. I was very resistant wanting to see a therapist, but when my life seemed to have turned upside down d/t my own personal struggles Dr Nawaz has proven to me that getting professional help and finding someone you can connect with to help you sort your thoughts and feelings has & continues to be very helpful . Dr Nawaz seems to understand my situation and shows compassion and empathy when conveying her assessment and problem-solving solution and ideas."
Resistance is a common, identifiable, and treatable problem. There's no shame in showing resistance. The important thing is that you take steps to overcome it, so you can move forward as the best version of yourself. With the right tools and guidance, you can move on from the past in healthy ways. Take the first step today.