Are You Resistant in Therapy?
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
Resistance in therapy, despite often defined somewhat differently between different therapeutic approaches, generally means a client’s conscious or unconscious unwillingness to change and grow within therapy.
While some therapists may view resistance in a negative light, regarding it as THE one thing to be avoided or overcome, it shouldn’t actually be so.
People resist change or new insights. That is perfectly normal and completely human. Even if people want change (they wouldn’t be in treatment otherwise), there is often an inherent tendency to the person not to change. Sometimes despite high levels of suffering, the perspective of change may be so threatening, that one can resist change altogether.
After all, changing any aspect of our lives, especially when talking about dysfunctional habits or ways of behaving, constitutes getting out of our comfort zone. Therefore, it is by default uncomfortable, so our Self is bound to posit some sort of resistance to change sooner or later.
The whole process of therapy and introspection involves a great conflict within the Self; staying where you are or moving where you haven’t yet been before. Resisting change (and therapy) is therefore nothing to fret about; on the contrary it is something to be understood and hopefully communicated about. In fact, resistance is widely considered as a major tool to move forward in therapy.
But how to know if you’re resistant?
Resistance can take many different forms. Below some common expressions of resistance in therapy are discussed.
Silence and frequent pauses
While there is nothing wrong with silence in therapy or any other communication, if it becomes a pattern to go silent with your therapist, it could indicate that you are avoiding or resisting the process. Though silence is a means to give you the time to collect your thoughts or absorb potential insights you just gained, it can signify resistance when it is your default response to your therapist. In this case, it may indicate that you want to avoid going into “dangerous waters”; emotionally distressing topics that you may find difficult to talk about. The same applies to frequent pauses in your train of thought in the therapy room.
Being overly laconic
Minimal and laconic responses to your therapist may be another indicator of “response quantity resistance”. Everyone has their own style of speaking, but if you find yourself deliberately giving very short responses to your therapist, perhaps you’re conveying the message that you’re not really willing to talk about a specific topic; or that you require them to put additional effort and dig deeper in order to “fish” the information out of you.
Is this familiar? If so, perhaps it is good to ask yourself whether you feel you trust your therapist enough, in order to open up about this particular topic. Or maybe you feel that they have said something that made you blocked towards this topic.
If this is the case, the process would benefit greatly if you can openly tell your therapist what bothered you. After all, most therapy approaches regard the therapeutic relationship as a great tool towards change.
Transference (i.e. feelings you may have about your therapist or that have evoked about them as a result to something they said or did) may feel difficult to handle at first, but if you dare to bring forward an uncomfortable truth to your therapist, you are already one step further towards removing a block from your own process to self-awareness.
Wordiness or verbosity
Interestingly, the opposite of the above may also indicate resistance. If you tend to talk too much or too fast while at your session, there is a chance you may be avoiding to talk straight and to the point about what matters more. A skilled therapist will probably summarize and paraphrase the main points of what you said and reflect it back to you, to make sure they understood it right- and also help you realize that sometimes, less is more. Another example of this tendency is when you narrate a story with extended details, as if trying to replay the situation to your therapist exactly as it happened. This can often be the case when a client describes an argument with a loved one that obviously mattered to them. Perhaps it feels as if you’re lost in translation in moments like this. When I notice that a client usually talks with too many details, I may ask them if they really do need to mention all of these details, or if they are reducing something of the emotional meaning of the situation by doing so.
Some questions to consider if this applies to you:
What is the core message that you are trying to convey?
What was most important to you in this situation, even exceeding all those details?
What triggered you in this situation, and how exactly?
Humor is an amazing icebreaker. However, if you find yourself often engaging in humorous comments or inappropriate jokes while you’re in the middle of narrating a personal story to your therapist, you may be asked why do you need to use humor right now.
Humor is often a means of minimization or deactivation; a way to minimize the significance of a specific event or simply avoid accepting that it is painful or difficult to talk about. From this perspective, humor can be a way that resistance presents itself.
That is not to say that humor is overall inappropriate for therapy- it is actually very healing to be able to laugh together with your therapist from time to time! And yet, that’s definitely not what you’re there for.
Last minute disclosure
I have seen it happen way too often in therapy: a client discloses something substantial in the last few minutes of the session, or mentions something that is a big deal in a rather casual way, just before the time is up. That is a very clear sign that they most likely want to avoid delving deeper into this matter, yet they did want to bring it up. As if barely scratching the surface, but not being certain if they are ready to move further.
Usually if you engage in such behavior, this can elicit a question from your therapist: “Why did you chose to mention this right now, when you know we won’t have time to process it further?”
Even if you are asked about this, try not to get defensive; your therapist is only trying to bring your resistance into light, so that you can further process it together next time- or whenever you are ready.
Tardiness and last-minute cancellations
If you are often late for your session or you cancel last moment, it can indicate that you are resistant. “But the train was late/ I was tired/ I did not leave on time- that has nothing to do with therapy!”, you may state. Yet anything can be meaningful.
For example, although public transport can often be delayed, the responsibility of arranging your travel time so that you will not be late for your counselling appointment (or any other appointment) lies solely on You. Exceptions and emergencies can of course occur to anyone, but right here we are talking about regular tardiness and delays.
If that’s the case for you, it is likely that there are Parts of your Self that are avoidant and resistant to the process. It’s fine that they are there, as long as you recognize it.
On the other hand, a series of cancelled therapy appointments will logically elicit the question of what you are really avoiding by not coming to therapy.
For example, perhaps you are in the midst of a very difficult period in your life, and therapy only brings this fact more and more to the foreground of your consciousness- in which case it is absolutely understandable if you resist, because therapy in situations like this can be quite painful; yet liberating as well.
Even if it feels challenging, it is more beneficial to process the pain with the support of your therapist, rather than keeping “safely” away.
The chaos is not going anywhere if you avoid it- in fact, it may even get worse. It is safer to admit this difficulty to your therapist, and explore ways to deal with it together.
Small talk / Intellectual and abstract talk
So you come to your therapy and start talking about the weather, or just very intellectual and abstract topics. Yet you’re not here to talk about philosophy, but about Yourself.
Although the intellectual and theoretical talks are often very stimulating and interesting, and of course may mask deeper meanings for you, they are not the focus of a typical therapy session.
If that’s the case for you, you can expect a question from your therapist:
How is this relevant to You?
What triggered you to bring this topic up?
After all, what’s most important is to attribute personal meanings and significance to any abstract topic. If you find it hard to do so, so it is preferable to talk around important things instead of talking about them, maybe you’re reluctant and resistant to confront it as a matter with personal significance to you.
“I have nothing to talk about today!”
This cheerful and matter-of-fact declaration usually comes with a smile or laughter. Often clients come to a session and proclaim that they don’t really know why they’re here today, that there is absolutely nothing significant to talk about. Paradoxically though, every single time I have heard this declaration at the beginning of a therapy session, it turns out that there is always something significant to discuss after all.
A relevant article beautifully states, that therapy is done in layers. Once we are done peeling the top layers, then attention can flow beyond the surface as well- even at things we hadn’t considered we would discuss when we first started therapy, that seem irrelevant to our “main complaint” that urged us to seek therapy now.
“Unlike an onion, we don’t simply peel off and discard layers once we look at them. We take a layer, examine it, put it back, take another layer, leave it for later, skip a layer to see something else, then go back to the second layer and reexamine it with what we know now. Maybe along the way you fall back into an old habit (remember, the layers don’t disappear) and we spend some time just holding all the layers without processing or questioning them.”
Sometimes one can feel that they have nothing to talk about, when the pressuring presenting problems that initially brought them to therapy (the first few layers) have already been mentioned. However that is only a sign that there may be time to look a bit below the surface just now, and that is great news.
It is not always necessary to come to the session prepared or with a script, although being structured may be helpful, especially at the beginning stages of therapy.
Speaking without a script is actually a beautiful challenge and opportunity for growth. It can shed some light into who you really are, if you talk free and spontaneously about whathever comes to mind, rather than following up on something that was said in the previous session or what you may think you should talk about, to have your therapist’s approval.
It can allow topics that are awkward or uncomfortable to arise, or also issues that have been previously considered but not discussed back then, because it was not yet appropriate or possible.
There are numerous quiet parts that you may have held back so far, out of shame, uncertainty, fear of judgement or for whichever other reason. Indeed , it can be frightening to just say whatever comes to your mind in the Present, but deciding to do so may lead to breakthroughs and transformative insights.
“I don’t know”- One simple sentence, many different underlying meanings
Your therapist asks you something with regards to your internal state, your thoughts and feelings about a situation, and you reply “I don’t know”.
It sounds harmless and definitely human, but this small phrase can have many different meanings, some of which may indicate the presence of resistance.
That’s why this simple sentence can cause feelings of confusion, helplessness and uncertainty to the beginner psychologist, as we may not know exactly how to interpret it and what meaning to give it.
Let’s explore the different meanings of “I don’t know”, as this can provide you with food for thought when you reflect on your own tendencies while in therapy.
"I don’t know" as a conscious boundary setting
Perhaps your statement conveys the message that you actually don’t want to talk about it now, or that you don’t want to share it with your therapist. This way you may be setting a conscious boundary to your therapist.
Maybe they will inquire further into this:
You don’t know or you don’t want to say?
It could be that you’re still building trust in the therapeutic relationship and you’re not ready to talk about it yet, or that your therapist has said something to make you guarded, ashamed, defensive, so you don’t feel you want to go to this topic.
Think about what might be preventing disclosure right now
What would you need in order to feel ready?
Communicating about your boundary and your unwillingness to discuss it will help both of you move the process further. After all, you proceed at your own pace in therapy.
"I don’t know" as a sign that you really do not know, or that you haven’t reached a conclusion quite yet
Sometimes a pipe is just a pipe, like Freud said. Maybe you really do not know about the topic your therapist asked you, and you will need to give it some thought first.
Or maybe you have been thinking about it but you haven’t reached a conclusion; perhaps you’re indecisive, ambivalent or unsure about your course of action.
What is keeping you from knowing?
Let’s assume you knew; what would your answer be then?
Difficulty fulfilling therapeutic assignments
Many therapists will occasionally suggest “homework” exercises to you, or may simply challenge you to observe a particular behavior of yours and see if you can change it slightly till your next session.
Mental experiments and goal setting are cornerstones of many types of psychotherapy, as they are practical ways to promote and monitor change. Yet when the next session comes, clients often guiltily admit that they did not complete the arranged agreement or exercise. We are not pupils at school anymore, therefore the therapist is not some strict teacher that causes you to feel guilty or ashamed at not completing homework. In fact, who you’re really guilty towards is most likely Yourself- and this guilt is a sign of resistance being at work. A Part of Yourself “sabotaged” therapy work, and another Part, probably the one that does want change to happen, feels guilty about this.
Your therapist will probably explore this further with you; they will want to know what kept you from doing the assignment. Maybe the goal was too hard to achieve, or something in the specifics of the assignment should have been arranged differently. Maybe you secretly found it all to be in vain or silly, or didn’t believe you could achieve it anyway. Maybe you were too tired or bored to even try, or you’re just not ready.
Whatever the case, it is ok. No-one is judging you, you’re not at school anymore. However it does make sense to figure out together with the therapist what would work out better, and how to go about achieving your goals and having more possibilities of succeeding.
There are many more ways that resistance is expressed, but the aim of this article is not to extensively explore all of them. Instead, hopefully you are now just a little bit more informed about this concept, as well as aware when it appears in therapy.
As a conclusion, even if you are resistant to therapy and change, there is nothing wrong with that. Every individual moves forward at their own pace and rhythm. What is substantial though is recognizing resistance and realizing it is there.
This will help you further investigate about the reasons that keep you from changing and you can therefore understand yourself better.
Like Carl Jung says, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate”.
Therapy is about bringing new understandings about Yourself into your awareness; every little thing you realize matters.
References and Inspiration:
Watson, J. C. (2006). Addressing Client Resistance: Recognizing and Processing In-Session Occurrences. In Ideas and research you can use: VISTAS Online 2006. Retrieved from http://www.counseling.org/knowledge-center/vistas.