I promised in my last post to talk about the idea of “resistance” in more detail. We therapists often feel things like frustration, confusion and even helplessness when we run into it. We have been known to label resistance as bad. Worse, we have at times turned to criticizing and blaming “resistant” people. Not only is this shameful behaviour, it’s simply unnecessary. Resistance is a good thing.
What is this thing of which you speak?
There is some evidence to suggest that resistance is a natural part of our brain’s functioning. In this linked article, the author speculates that resistance is “a deeply ingrained wiring that we all have to move away from what the brain anticipates to be uncomfortable and stay with what’s comfortable.”
The thing is, psychotherapy is about changing some stuff which causes a bit of havoc in our lives. Change almost always means discomfort. Might just be some minor discomfort from doing some work (yuck) or just doing stuff we’re not used to. Then there’s really uncomfortable tasks like facing fears or stopping things we enjoy (like getting intoxicated).
Ain’t nobody like doin’ that.
So… therapy has a built-in dilemma. To succeed, you’re most likely going to feel uncomfortable. The resistance circuitry in your brain will kick-in, pushing against doing what is needed to succeed.
Just do what I say!
Out of this dilemma springs a bit of tension between therapist and person-in-therapy. Here’s a common exchange oft’ heard in my office:
Me: “I think doing such and such might help…”
Person I’m working with: “No, that won’t work.”
There multiple variations on this theme, repeated hundreds of times since I started this little adventure. Gotta say, I’m human. It’s mighty hard to always stay therapist-like every single time this happens. To remain zen-calm and totally non-judgemental. It’s rawther tempting to feel a wee bit of irritation and/or anxiety.
Part of the struggle stems from this reputation we have as therapists. We’re supposed to be kind and calm and unruffled and stuff. The reputation sags a bit if we burst out angrily with, “For goodness sake, just do what I say! I’m the therapist here!”
Mental note: the article referenced above says, “resistance is inevitable and relentless — it’s not personal.” Keep repeating that over-an-over in my mind…
I’m not the problem, you’re the problem!
I know, it’s shocking. Therapists make mistakes. Specifically, I’m referring to feeling frustrated and blaming the people we work with.
Therapists flock together for comfort around this problem. With good intentions, we offer soothing, supportive comments to stressed-out colleagues. Here’s a few classics:
“She has to want to change.”
“He’s just not ready.”
“You don’t have a customer.” (When did I start selling pickles?)
King of them all is that ridiculous old phrase, “You can lead a horse to water…” I think I’ll write my next post entirely about this statement.
It’s sugar coating. Sounds benevolent and sage, but there’s an underlying current of condescension. How could someone be so ungrateful? After all, the therapist is so nice and generous and wise… and smells good. Snubbing the nose at saintly advice bestowed most graciously is just… foolish.
OK, I’m exaggerating. I like to do that. I’m sure you get the picture.
Resistance is a good thing.
Why the heck would I say that something which leads to frustration and tension is a good thing? Well first of all, there are plenty of good things in life which are challenging, frustrating, uncomfortable and hard. Education. Life saving surgery. Physical fitness. Dating.
I could go on listing similar thing which people consider worth the hassle. It’s all a matter of perspective. Do you focus on the discomfort, or the benefits which follow?
Physician, heal thyself.
As a young therapist, I had the good fortune to come across an article in which the authors scoffed at the idea of resistance. They turned the tables and basically said that it’s not clients who are resistant; it’s therapists.
I’ve tried to find this article, in order to give it credit. So far, I’ve failed. If memory can be trusted, the author(s) said resistance is actually a person trying to help the therapist be more helpful. An indirect way of saying, “Listen buddy, you’re not paying attention. You’re missing important things here.” We therapists need to stop being resistant, and pay attention to this.
Here’s an article I did find, which is kind of along the same lines.
Both articles suggest resistance is a great opportunity for a course correction. Remember the brain’s natural defense-circuitry against uncomfortable things. Kind of like radar, pinging dots on a glowy screen to help show the way. If resistance is happening, this is a sign that therapy might be heading in a good direction.
Resistance… it’s not futile at all.
Finally, David Burns. Coming up fast on 80 years of age, Dr. Burns is still going strong. He has remarkable insights into resistance. In this clip Dr. Burns — sporting shaggy COVID hair and a beard longer than mine — explains that resistance is not about what’s wrong with a person but what is right about them. I’ve actually heard the good doctor say that resistance reveals beautiful things about a person.
That seems like a nice note to end on. Three cheers for resistance!