Common Therapist Mistakes - Part 11: Resisting Resistance
Updated: Nov 22
Last year, I wrote a 10 part series on common therapist mistakes where I poked a little fun at the mistakes that well-meaning therapists, including myself, make with our clients. From time to time I will add to this series.
Steven Pressfield, internationally bestselling author of Last of the Amazons and Gates of Fire, states in his latest book The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battle says
"Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no resistance
Hmm, then why as therapists do we resist our clients' resistance. If Pressfield is correct, our clients resist because of the importance of what we're doing together. This implies that if there's no resistance, we might not even be focusing on the most important things! Let that sink in.
But it is only natural as a therapist to become frustrated when we meet resistance in our clients. It seems crazy that people would show up week after week and pay good money just to resist doing what we know would help them. Therefore sometimes
we resist our clients' resistance.
That sounds like it could get pretty confusing and it is. Resisting our clients' resistance can slow down the therapeutic process since when we resist, our clients often pull back even more forcefully ~like in a game of tug of war. And just like in tug of war, one side will eventually win but it certainly isn't pleasant for the other side. All that gets resolved in a game of tug of war is which side is stronger at the moment. If we win, the client might reluctantly follow our advice, but that doesn't sound like the best way to help our clients bring about change. Conversely, it can be very unpleasant when we're the one overpowered. This often leads to us feeling ineffective.
What if resistance is the very thing that we need to pay the most attention to?
If the patient weren’t resistant or ambivalent, they probably wouldn’t need you. One of many self-help books would do the trick.
The very thing that brings the client to therapy is the thing that they are most afraid to change.
Resistance exists on a physiological level due to neurological development. What fires together wires together, neronal strength and all that stuff.
Resistance shows us where the pain and fear is. We need to fully understand this before pulling against it.
Resistance may be indicative of the interpersonal developmental level of the patient. For instance if a child is 4 when their parents divorce, they are likely to believe that they are unlovable (inaccurate but age appropriate interpretation due to the egocentricity of that age) whereas if a child is 12 when parents divorce and dad leaves, the child might develop a belief that all men leave (still inaccurate but less egocentric).
Resistance may be a reaction to a therapist who is trying too hard to help (or not doing enough).
How To Know When You're Resisting Resistance
Ignoring the Resistance
When we ignore the resistance, we often end up pushing harder for change which then can create a power struggle in which you are trying to convince the client to change. A resistant client may feel that you're taking something from them that they need in some way. This might come even in very subtle and gentle forms such as a client stating that they aren't worthy of love and you telling them that they are. If they entertain your view, they may be met with the fear related to why they don't believe so (don't hope, you'll get disappointed or she's just saying that because you pay her). The fear will then produce resistance to what you are saying. Whenever I realize that I've gotten into a power struggle, I imagine the tug of war metaphor and put the rope down. This enables me to get on the side of the client to better understand their fear of change. I might ask "what makes it hard for you to believe that you're worthy?"
Denying the Resistance
It is easy at times, to deny that the resistance even exists. I mean the person is asking for help, right, and often says things that indicate a desire for change so why don't we just go with that. That would be fine if things are progressing appropriately, but a lot of valuable therapy time can be wasted by waiting and denying that resistance is operating. An example might be accepting the surface level explanation for why the client didn't accomplish a goal. The client may tell you (and may even believe) they just forgot. Well then it's simple enough just to attempt it again. A better strategy is to be fascinated with all the reasons they might have forgotten. You could ask "is it possible that a part of you didn't want to do it for some reason?"
Procrastinating About the Resistance
Sometimes, we recognize that that there is resistance but we hope that if we are patient that it will just go away. It can feel awkward or critical to point out a client's resistance. But again, if the client weren't resistant, they probably wouldn't need us. The resistant client needs their therapist to help them understand and resolve the resistance. Therefore, it is necessary to be comfortable addressing resistance as soon as possible.
Even the most seasoned therapists find themselves doing these things from time to time. There's nothing more natural than wanting our clients to see themselves the way we see them and to want to instill hope. But the thing that separates the savvy therapist from others is how quickly we catch ourselves resisting resistance and then change direction.
When a client is resistant, we often feel like it's focused on us as the therapist or what we are suggesting. It is important to recognize that when a client is resistant to change, it's because they are opposing themselves; one part of them is asking for change and another part is resisting. Therefore, we need to help them recognize their own battle rather than taking it on.
The first objective when encountering resistance is to be fascinated by it. Follow the resistance since it is likely telling you what is most important to your client. My favorite responses when I encounter resistance are:
Tell me about the part of you that doesn't yet want to do what we talked about last session.
Is there another part of you that is afraid to change?
Where does that fear come from?
When I say you're worthy, where does your mind go?
Is there another part of you that wishes you could believe _____?
Tell me about the part of you that believes you can't _____.
If client states a negative belief such as "I'm not lovable," Is there any small part of you that feels differently?
With a client that feels that they have to be perfect to earn love; "Is there a part of you that wishes you could have more freedom? What does that part need from you?"
Finally, my favorite strategy for dealing with resistance is to relabel and conceptualize resistance as ambivalence. If you'd like to learn more, I have written a book called A Clinician's Guide to Pathological Ambivalence: How to be on Your Client's Side without Taking a Side and a companion workbook for the client called Understanding and Resolving Ambivalence. I'd love to hear from you. If you found this helpful please click on the heart below or leave a comment.