The Truth About Resistance

The concept of resistance in therapy has many definitions. The idea that I choose to believe is that resistance occurs when the therapist and the client have different goals, usually unaware to either person. This concept has served me quite well over the years whenever there has been “resistance” in the therapy sessions. Looking at it in this light seems to make it less about “resistance” and more about realigning your goals to reach a mutual understanding. What if we applied this concept to more than just therapy? What if you used this concept with your partner/spouse, children, family, boss, supervisor, friends, etc…

As a parent, it is very frustrating when my child is being “resistant.” So many examples to list, eating dinner, cleaning up toys, washing hands, brushing teeth, not doing something that will hurt them. Rather than thinking they are being resistant, which causes increased frustration and aggravation, let’s apply this new concept. Your goal as a parent is to love them, keep them safe, healthy and secure but their goal seems to simply be to play and have fun. The only thing children seem to want is to feel loved first and play 24/7.

We can see the goals are not aligning. Possibly explaining how the child’s behavior is going to affect the child, such as if you don’t wash your hand you might get sick, or brush your teeth to avoid them turning black. This helps the child understand your goal to keep them safe and that you are asking them to do something out of love and not just to be mean. If their goal is to keep playing, then you can align with them by explaining how if they do whichever behavior you are asking it will lead to allowing them to play longer or another time. This seems like bargaining on the face of it, which it is, but it also shows that you are listening to what they want as well. “If you wash your hands now then you can play for 5 more minutes.”

The workplace is another area where we encounter resistance. A common situation for those in a middle manager position is when an employee that you supervise is not performing, but not because of lack of ability. After many attempts to counsel the staff, it appears they just seem resistant to doing their job, but not enough to consider termination. The other possibility is the manager’s goal and the employees goal are different. The manager’s goal is obvious, get the employee to improve their performance to help the overall company. Perhaps the goal of the employee to not perform is a misguided attempt to conserve energy and reduce frustration at work.

If the employee felt undervalued when they were performing, then maybe they decided it was better for them to under perform in order to last longer in the job while they look for another job. Knowing this is a possibility, the manager can direct the next supervision meeting toward understanding the employees frustration and working to find a solution, which could include changing job duties, responsibilities, or just showing an understanding of their perspective. It’s also possible the job is just not a good fit and explaining that you cannot provide a letter or recommendation when they find another job with their current performance, could be enough to improve performance.

Obviously, these two examples are not guaranteed at all and may not work at all. The child may still ignore your request and the employee may still be under perform. Changing your perspective from the person is being “resistant” to your goals are just misaligned, may just improve the odds to your favor or, at least, improve your tolerance of the behavior. Keep in mind, continuing to think of others as being resistant, might result in you being perceived as resistant by the other person as well. Considering your perspective and the other’s perspective could lead to an unexpected, pleasant result.


Dr. Greg Schwarz, Psy.D is a licensed psychologist and Co-owner of Burbank Therapeutic Centers, A psychological corporation in Burbank, CA. Dr. Schwarz has been working in the mental health field for more than 20 years. Currently providing individual therapy in Burbank, CA, he specializes in severe anxiety, panic attacks, OCD, with a sub-specialty working with older adults. BTC was founded on the principles that therapy should be specifically designed for the person seeking help and the therapist and client should have similar styles in order for therapy to work. Each client who contacts BTC is thoroughly screened to ensure we are able to effectively treat them, This avoids unnecessary sessions and allows us to individualize the therapy to each person due to the advanced knowledge we have in their particular problem area.

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