What Is Resistance In Psychology?

Updated February 23, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Do you ever wonder why people avoid the very things that can help them the most? You've probably observed this phenomenon. A teen's parents offer to get them tutoring to help with their studies. This person probably knows they need help, yet they resist the idea. Resistance can also occur in therapy. Because this response is common, it may be helpful to understand resistance psychology in order to recognize and address signs of it in your life.

Learn About Resistance In Psychology

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, or they explain that the therapist doesn't understand the whole story. Whatever the form, resistance is considered a defense of ego on a subconscious level.

Freud's View Of 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 addressed 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 may resist considering them. Resistance in talk therapy can keep someone from tackling their challenges directly, as they use their therapy sessions to talk only or primarily about the things that are comfortable for them.

Types Of Resistance

Resistance often 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 resists addressing their challenges, 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 usually not signs of dishonesty, but subconscious avoidance of unwanted information.


Sometimes, when a therapist gets too close to any subjects a client doesn't want to talk about, the client becomes angry. Their anger can sidetrack 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.

Rewriting History

People may feel distressed when thinking of their past. They often 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 may not recall the way an event impacted them. Instead, they may 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.

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, but your therapist probably isn't saying anything negative at all. These may be 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 then began to resist the process when it became too difficult.

Being Confused

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

Learn About Resistance In Psychology

Being Dependent

It may sound counterintuitive, but people often 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 trouble waiting for their next appointment and contact their therapist between appointments, trying to get instructions on how to live their daily lives.

As their dependence grows, it can become a different problem to handle. 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 are difficult to accept or deal with.


Resistance and transference in psychology often go together. 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 because you 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 may be 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 their feelings of trust to the therapist. This can be helpful because the person feels very comfortable facing difficult concerns.

There's another type of transference that can be harmful. Sometimes, a client transfers romantic feelings about someone else onto their therapist. This can damage the therapeutic process. If the client can't put these feelings aside, they may need to switch to a different therapist. However, therapists are often 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 therapy to last much longer than it would have lasted without it. That's not to say that the therapy can't still be successful. Even if you're resistant in therapy, the right therapist may be able to guide you to a better understanding of your resistance so that you can handle your problems in a more direct manner.

Unchecked resistance, however, can keep you from ever facing the concerns that are affecting your mental and emotional health. If you don't overcome your resistance, you may end up in a pattern that keeps you from reaching your goals.

May Result In 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. Also, 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 is difficult to heal. If you resist therapy in extreme ways, you may have to find another therapist.

Is It Possible To Avoid Resistance?

Since everyone experiences resistance, you may wonder if it’s even reasonable to think you can avoid it. You may not be able to avoid something that occurs in your subconscious. However, you can work to overcome it during therapy sessions. 

Self-awareness may be one of the keys to avoiding unhealthy resistance. It may not be easy to identify your resistant behaviors. However, you can request that your therapist point them out. If you're diligent in discovering your resistant behaviors, you may be able to consciously set them aside so that you can work on any challenges 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 may be a good first step to combating counterproductive resistance and helping you address your problems more directly. 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. Online therapy has been shown to be just as effective as traditional in-person therapy, and with BetterHelp, you can talk to a licensed therapist from the comfort of your own home.

You can 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 in-app messaging. Here are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people who have worked through resistance issues in therapy.

Counselor Reviews

“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 and 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. With the right tools and guidance, you can move on from the past in healthy ways. Take the first step today.

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