What is Resistance in Therapy?

 a woman putting her hand out and resisting an offer

What is 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 is.  There’s risk involved.  People often enter into therapy hoping for guidance and collaboration in navigating change.  Despite this commitment, resistance commonly enters into the therapeutic process as well.  We 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, when we have made the choice to face these parts of ourselves, do we begin to move away?

The answer to this question isn’t necessarily a straightforward one, as the reasons are unique as the person themself.  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.  Moreover, the coping skills that we’ve developed over time cause us to seek an escape from negative experiences and feelings (for more on avoidance, check out my blog post here: ACT: A Primer).  It can be a scary proposition to consider facing our fears head on.  In peeling back our internal layers, we might begin to battle the discomfort and pain it brings.  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 and memories or 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 utilized this range defensive efforts to protect themselves from certain self-knowledge (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:

  • Cancelling sessions (especially if a prior session touched on a vulnerable topic)
  • Coming late to sessions
  • Avoiding particular topics
  • Creating small talk as a distraction; verbosity
  • Denying difficulties or pain verbally, even when body language and circumstances indicate otherwise
  • Withdrawing or distancing; silence
  • Consistently discounting or second-guessing the therapist or therapeutic process
  • Asking therapist personal questions as a deflection
  • Agreeing to “do homework” but not following through on it
  • Preoccupation with symptoms

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 perhaps somewhat paradoxical thing about resistance is that it can be an incredible catalyst in the therapeutic relationship when acknowledged and addressed in a meaningful way.  When there is space to explore the resistance itself – before getting to topics being avoided – we begin to understand much more about ourselves and what keeps us chained to unwanted ways of coping.  We can better assess the risks involved in staying where we are as well as moving toward where we want to be.  In making more sense of this, in simply naming it in the room, it often opens up space for even more exploration.  Moreover, and very significantly, a gentle in-vivo approach engenders trust in the therapeutic relationship and greater safety and rapport in exploring the scary and most vulnerable parts of ourselves.  In sum, resistance – the very thing that keeps us stuck – can be utilized and reframed 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 a safe connection within order to cultivate fertile ground for vulnerable discussions.  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.


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