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15 Ways You Are Resisting Therapy or Recovery

Photo Credit: Jem Yoshioka

Do you (or someone you know) resist therapy? Is the resistance almost toward anything a therapist may be saying or doing? Have you questioned this resistance? Resistant clients are complicated. As a therapist, I have seen resistance in children, adolescents, parents, caregivers, and adults. It is a very draining reality for most therapists. In fact, some mental health, behavioral health, or personality disorders cause clients to be more resistant than others.

For example, individuals with borderline personality disorder, delusional disorder, or depressive disorders may exhibit more resistance to change, therapeutic ideas, techniques, or suggestions made by the therapist more than individuals with another type of disorder.

This article will discuss resistance and some of the ways you (or someone you know) may be resisting change, progress, or healing.

9 Comments to
15 Ways You Are Resisting Therapy or Recovery

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  1. Hi Tamara,
    Occasionally, when I read one of your articles I have an immediate discomfort reaction. That usually means something hit close to home so to speak and I am reluctant to look at it — or, even questioning/doubting my reaction. For instance, the thought came to mind, “Maybe you just don’t feel like reading about that because it doesn’t apply.”
    Given that I really do want to grow and make some significant changes in my life, I kept reading. I know that according to your list, I do “resist” in areas I never thought of as resistance.
    I am doing pretty well in some of these areas but when my therapist suggest changes that would push me out of my comfort zone, I often have a reason why it won’t work! I need to make clear though, sometimes, the reasoning is valid — and when that is the case, once I explain why it likely won’t be helpful, my therapist will agree. But in one situation that has come up several times, I resist because of fear mostly.
    That is, several times my therapist has suggested having my mom join us for a session so that I can “speak my truth” and also “confront” her regarding her not protecting me once she was told about the abuse and also the fact that she and the rest of the family think nothing of asking and expecting me to attend family gatherings where my abuser will be present.
    I tell my therapist the truth — that it scares me, that she may not change, that she will not handle it well (tears, feeling attacked etc) and also, she is now 76 years old, a cancer survivor and facing a lot of family turmoil lately. A part of me thinks “Why now? What is the point if it changes nothing?” But another factor is that from a very young age, I was the one taught to be protective of HER, not make waves etc. I was the parent and to this day, seeing her cry is VERY uncomfortable and anxiety provoking for me!

    • Hi Lori,
      Thank you for commenting and being honest about your reaction(s). I’m sorry I triggered you in some ways. I have been on the receiving end of “constructive criticism” in many ways and it wasn’t a great feeling. But I realized, once I let some of my defenses down, the person who had given me the constructive criticism was very right. I recognized I didn’t like it because it was close to home, as you put it. A lot of my clients struggle with this and it isn’t as easy as we may think to overcome it.

      I think ALL resistance has a purpose. For many clients in therapy, they have really good reasons for why they are resistant. I’m resistant when it comes to my Christian faith when someone is trying to get me to believe in Buddhism, for example. My resistance isn’t close-mindedness. In fact, it is a decision I arrived at after years of studying philosophy/religion and having personal experiences. For you, or other clients, the resistance may be there because you know yourself better than your therapist most times. You are the “expert” on your life in most ways. Like me, you arrived at many of your decisions because you saw purpose in them. So I totally get why resistance happens. On the flip side, most clients do resist because of fear. Fear holds us captive and it can take every ounce of strength we have to push that fear away.

      With your mom, I would also not rush to do anything you feel uncomfortable doing. This may be difficult for your therapist. A skilled therapist will know how to help you work through this in your own way, on your own time. Sometimes skilled therapists must “push” clients who are stuck. This is okay too. But if you truly believe you would cause more damage than not, don’t do it. I’m with you on that. Explaining this to your therapist is a good way to keep things moving forward.
      Take care

      • Thank you, Tee. That helps a lot. I DO feel at this point that insisting my mother participate in my session would be more harmful than helpful — for both of us! Mostly because I have tried several times (once when in the hospital due to suicidal ideation) to talk to her about my feelings of hurt and betrayal when she first learned of my abuse but chose to stay with him because I’d stopped talking (due to being threatened by a relative with a gun among other reasons) but also because she said she had two younger kids to support and had “nowhere to go.”
        At that time I also tried to talk to her about how she expects the entire family (including me) to be okay being around him at family gatherings and holidays–even though they are no longer married!
        I know now that she DOES believe me –that is what she says anyway — but she just doesn’t get the impact on me or how certain things she did/didn’t do caused me additional pain and abuse.
        I see no sense in putting myself through that only to have a poor outcome and then have to help her deal with her emotions and potential health complications!
        Have a good weekend Tamara!

  2. Tamara – In regards to couples therapy, a few of the items almost touched on a resistance my spouse puts up with any mention of therapy for us. She pre’builds a defensive wall because she believes the therapist will place all the blame on her… Even if I admit something is not her fault. Her and I can rarely discuss anything meaningful without her becoming defensive, even when I try actively to let her know I am not blaming her for the issue. So, I suggest an impartial person \ therapist to help us have a dialogue, but she immediately believes she’ll then have two hanging up on her and judging.
    Any additional thoughts on couples therapy resistance?

    • Hi Jonesy,
      Thanks for your comment.
      Couples therapy resistance can occur for many reasons. Because I don’t know the situation other than from what you have told me, I cannot offer suggestions on how to deal with couples therapy resistance. However, I have a client in this same situation and I suggested she and her husband both see a therapist, together and at the same time, so neither of them will feel the therapist is on the other’s side. In other words, both of you can meet the therapist together at ALL times to reduce the chance of the other spouse believing they are already demonized by the therapist.

      One of the biggest triggers for resistance is one spouse feeling the therapist will favor the other spouse and pre-judge them based on what the other spouse has told the therapist. It might also be helpful to consider seeing separate therapists and working on your own challenges, separately, before coming together in therapy to work on couples-related challenges.
      I wish you well

  3. Resistance is co-created by the client and therapist. It is not one-sided.

  4. I never did any of those things. I was proactive, doing their homework and more. I followed, but they had nothing of value. The last one even admitted she failed me. First one to have the balls to say that!

  5. Thanks for an interesting perspective. I wonder if you could also look at this as a co-production. I feel uncomfortable with your post because it somehow suggests that all the reasons (useful though they could be for Clients) are the “fault” of the Client:
    If I intellectualise it is because I don’t feel safe in the session. Why might that be?
    It everything “goes out of the window”, it’s because whatever “it” was clearly isn’t right for the time being.
    If I joke it’s my defence mechanism– and again the defence is there because I don’t feel safe

    I like to believe that people do the best they can under the circumstances. And that a good therapist will see that and run with it. Every bit of so called Resistance is data.

    I also have another expression that I find useful: “If it hasn’t been done, it hasn’t been said”. This means that I can discuss something with someone and make agreement after agreement for changed behaviour. And if that agreed change doesn’t happen, then I consider that we’ve actually not had the conversation that I imagined.

    Having said all of the above your points are still valuable.

    • Hi Serena,
      Thanks for your perspective.
      I can certainly see how many of my points can come across as if I am making the resistance the fault of the client. That is not my intent, however. My intent was to highlight the resistance of the client and some of the challenges the client encounters in therapy based on their own responses to therapy. Resistance most often occurs with the client first and not the therapist. But there are therapists who create resistance as well, primarily if the therapist is experiencing counter-transference, does not particularly like the client, or is experiencing some other emotional or psychological battle within the therapeutic relationship.

      Resistance can be complicated. It can also be impossible, depending on how severe, to overcome in the therapeutic relationship.
      Take care


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