Resistance in therapy

Resistance in therapy

What you resist, not only persists but will grow in size.
– Carl Jung

We are likely all familiar with the idea that what we resist persists, yet many of us struggle with actualizing this concept in our lives. Even if we objectively want change, we may fear letting go of what we know. There’s risk involved. People often enter therapy hoping for guidance and collaboration in navigating change. Despite their commitment, resistance commonly enters into the therapeutic process as well. We may come into therapy feeling ready and perhaps even excited to move toward change, but when we face the prospect of letting go of old coping habits and patterns, we (consciously or unconsciously) retreat. Why do we begin to move away?

The answer to this question isn’t necessarily a straightforward one, as the reasons are unique as the individual. Generally speaking, however, there is an underlying component of fear. We can typically identify what is not working in our lives, yet it is what we know and there is comfort in familiarity. We may also not be totally clear on what it is we do want. Moreover, getting there can be challenging. Many coping skills develop to help us avoid scary emotions. The work toward change involves looking at these very parts of ourselves. This is often the point in which resistance enters into the therapeutic relationship.

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, famously developed a theory on resistance based on his in-session work with clients. He discovered that his patients eschewed certain topics that evoked painful emotions, memories and unwanted desires. He ultimately organized the types of avoidance he encountered into five categories: repression, transference, ego-resistance, working-through, and self-sabotage. If you’re interested in learning more about psychoanalysis and resistance, click here: Freud and Psychoanalysis. The gist of what Freud got to was that his patients used this range defensive efforts to protect themselves from certain self-awareness (in his language, to keep things repressed in the unconscious rather than bring them into consciousness). Our present day understanding of resistance spans well beyond strict Freudian theory and psychoanalytic language, but he paved the way for acknowledging this dynamic in the therapeutic setting.

Resistance can present in a range of ways in therapy, including the following:

Resistance and resolution are on opposite sides of the spectrum, so what do we do when we recognize that our resistance is getting in the way of moving forward? The interesting and somewhat paradoxical thing about resistance is that it can be an incredible catalyst toward resolution when acknowledged and addressed in the therapeutic relationship. When we explore the resistance itself in a safe space, we can tap into our scary and most vulnerable parts. We begin to understand more about ourselves and what keeps us chained to unwanted means of coping. We can better assess the risks involved in staying where we are and in moving toward where we want to be. In sum, resistance – the very thing that keeps us stuck – can be utilized to get us un-stuck!

If you are in therapy or considering starting therapy, take heart in knowing that resistance is a well-known and expected component of the therapeutic process (and in life!). If you are seeking therapy, it is important to find a therapist whom you trust and feel safe with in order to cultivate fertile ground for vulnerable exploration. If you find yourself in therapy now and are wondering if resistance is playing a role in your therapeutic process, consider talking to your therapist about it. You might be surprised to find the ways that addressing resistance can help you to open up space in your relationship and move forward.

Christine Menna

Christine Menna

Christine specializes in working with motivated clients who feel disconnected from themselves, desire more fulfilling relationships, and seek to live their most authentic and value-driven lives. Christine takes a compassionate and direct approach that focuses on clients’ goals. She incorporates mindfulness-based techniques and somatic exercises to deepen the therapeutic experience and help clients achieve their desired results.

Schedule a Consultation