Resistance

As you read the website you'll notice how often this word arises. Resistance is at the core of psychotherapy. It determines the course of treatment and is largely why psychotherapy can take so long. Understanding it, facing it, and working through it are so central that it has been said in my field that 'the analysis of the resistance is the treatment'.

So what is it? Simply put, resistance is what we do to protect ourselves from awareness of that which we fear will overwhelm us. It does not happen consciously. Have a look back at the pages on symptoms and personality (especially "What's a Personality") for discussion of how defenses, personality, and symptoms all develop at the unconscious level.

As an introduction to the topic, look at Greg. As you can see, Greg was most resistant to the very topic he was most interested in exploring, a topic that encompasses or will lead to exploration of the most central concerns of his life. This is true of all of us: We resist most the material we most need to address. Thus Harry in the page on symptoms pushed people away most strongly when he most needed them, resisting awareness of his needs when they were in fact most pressing. And again, we don't do this consciously; if we did, we could stop. But we all do it. Like Greg, we even rewrite history to accommodate it. (Keep an eye out on the blog for a funny example from my own life.)

This is similarly why psychotherapy can take a long time and why other measures may be doomed to fail. It's why self help books on age old subjects keep coming out. These books aren't necessarily bad – well, some are – but they can't adapt and accommodate to your particular style of resistance, to your personality. There are times in our lives when we are open to new ideas that run counter to the demands of our resistance, but when we are not open – when resistance is high – the best self-help book in the world won't reach us. And again, resistance is highest when the issue is most personal and central to us.

Resistance works like friction – in the exact opposite direction that you want to go. And because it is the product of our defenses which are at the core of our personalities, it is very difficult to break through. Everything in our psyches will seem to yank us the other way. A good analogy for this is the way one has to lean down the mountain when turning on a steep ski slope. Every cell in us screams to lean up the hill, away from the steep fall – but when you do, the skis go out from under you and you lose control. By contrast, if you manage to overcome all your instincts and lean down as you turn, it's hard to believe it even while it happens but the skis respond by moving more slowly, and you're in more control as you make the turn; for a while, even after you've experienced the turn, it's hard not to lean up again each time you turn.

Resistance can be very tricky and intricate. Sara resisted by means of the very same defensive style she had come to me to shed, and which she had partially done. She struggled to overcome feelings of intense self-consciousness, to cease the relentless pattern of feeling accused and responding defensively, to relax around people and have some trust in them and in herself. She made some progress in these areas. But she then used the same habits in service of resistance to our continuing. Despite all our work together could not perceive that she was doing so. Instead she sincerely felt – although she could not articulate why – that she could no longer trust me.

Why did Sara do this? Look back at the definition of resistance above – to protect herself from something more painful or frightening than her more familiar if uncomfortable state wherein she feels picked on, denigrated, condescended to, and/or accused. As you see from the link, Sara had made some progress and was feeling much better. Particularly gratifying and relieving to her was the easing of the self-consciousness and obsessing that used to poison most of her encounters with men. She was beginning to date again, and had met someone about whom she began to entertain hopes of building a relationship. This is not something she had done previously.

Although Sara was more comfortable with casual social encounters and dealing with people professionally, the idea of dating and relationships understandably stirred a lot of her old anxiety and habits of obsessing. Quite simply, she did not want to revisit that part of her. Resuming our exploration of her insecurities – how deep they ran and how they affected her perception of others – brought up too much anxiety; and it simply hurt too much. It was easier to revert back to her defensive posture of focusing on how untrustworthy everyone else is, including me and any romantic prospects, even though that posture still leaves her feeling victimized and inadequate. And don't forget, the process was unconscious. She was not aware of the dynamics I just described; from her point of view, she was simply responding to the facts of the world – I and the people she was thinking of dating are not to be trusted.

People resist without being in therapy. Again, it arises out of our defensive style, our personalities. Like any defense, it protects us from something that hurts. In childhood, of course, things hurt (and please) all the more intensely. Thus it is childhood – the memory of it – that tends to be most strongly resisted.

"But wait", I hear you say, "I remember my childhood". This is tricky. First, think of the blind spot all humans have in our visual fields. (Put two dots on a piece of paper, about 3 inches apart, along a straight horizontal line. Close one eye. Look at one dot and move the paper closer and farther from your eye. At some point the dot you are not directly looking at will disappear. This happens when the image of that second dot hits the part of the retina where the nerves bundle together and head off to the brain; there are no visual receptors there to pick up the image.) We never notice the blind spot because unless we go explicitly checking for it we don't perceive that we're not seeing something. Make sense? Sometimes a therapist or friend may alert you to gaps in your memory but otherwise you may never notice them.

Second, and more to the point in treatment, people resist memory by recalling the facts but not the impact. This is quite common. Gene recounted to me an event from when he was about seven years old in which his father greatly frightened and humiliated him. He began the story almost cheerfully. As he spoke, he became hesitant and then tearful. This is a story, Gene later told me, that he had entertained friends with in bars and other places for years. Clearly he remembered the facts of the event. But the experience – the range of feelings and perceptions surrounding the event – had long ago been shunted out of consciousness. Reconnecting with the totality of what happened when he was seven years old – and other times – eventually freed him from one of the symptoms that brought him into treatment: Prior to therapy, he moved through his life with a great deal of anxiety, particularly focused on anticipated humiliation; he found it very difficult to relax even around close friends, and he was especially guarded and uncomfortable with women.

In treatment, resistance takes many forms. Some become distrusting as Sara did, some become angry, discouraged, supercilious, bored, boring, confused, confusing, dependent,... In future blog entries, I will discuss all these types of resistance with case examples and examples from daily life. In any event, patients are sometimes discouraged, sometimes very disappointed in themselves when they break through and realize what they have been doing. This is a completely unwarranted feeling. Resistance is very normal. It is an element of our basic defenses which are so central to our functioning and necessary for our survival. So don't beat yourself up when you catch yourself doing it.

I'm sure you've noticed that this page is much longer than any other in the website. It was also the hardest for me to write. As a colleague pointed out to me, this is because the topic is one of the more difficult to explain. Bowing finally to that fact, I have decided to give resistance its due. I have extended this discussion into a roughly 30 page chapter of my book . The chapter, and the book, include much more explanation and many case examples from treatment and from daily life. You can purchase a copy by clicking on the link at the bottom of the index. Also, in the blog I have posted such material on resistance.

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