The Value of Resistance
Del Hunter Morrill, M.S., N.B.C.C.H.
How does one compare the resistance of a client who has been persuaded to seek counseling against his or her will, with the resistance of a client who volunteers for and comes regularly for counseling or hypnosis? Do you handle them differently? (The inaccurate plural “they” will be used in place of her/his, etc.)
Most counseling theorists, regardless of their “school of thought,” tend to agree that the following characteristics need to be present for favorable counseling results.
1. Clients must be willing to admit problems;
2. Clients must be motivated to discover why their problems exist; and
3. Clients must assume responsibility for their problems.
It is helpful to have some intelligence, flexibility, trustfulness, verbal ability, and motivation to change, but not all counselors necessarily feel that all these are required.
The Client Required to Be There
In the light of this, a client who comes to a counselor or hypnotherapist as a result of court action or a relative’s insistence is quite likely to be unsuccessful in dealing with his or her problems. If a client is motivated by someone else, rather than oneself, then they will not take responsibility for the change. They may not even admit there is a problem--for what is perceived as a problem to the society or to the relative, may not necessarily be the client's perception.
In other words, there is no real “working alliance” between the therapist and the client: that is, establishment of an emotional bond, mutual agreement about goals and mutual agreement about tasks.
An emotional bond cannot get created between someone who does not want to be there in the first place. Even if a “yes” is said to the therapist, goals may be set, but they will tend to be the therapist’s, and tasks will not be carried out, since there is no motivation to change. The only hope is that, by coming to sessions, there may be some type of awakening of the client by the patience and persistence of the therapist.
The Client Who Wants to Be There
In contrast, persons who come to counseling by their own free will be willing to establish working alliances with the therapist or counseling group, in which they are free to explore or analyze painful and fearful feelings, deal with their problems and take responsibility for changing.
Resistance, in this type of situation, is not that of unwillingness to take any responsibility. It is an expected part of counseling whenever the therapist and client begin to delve deeply into the source of the issues.
Resistance, then, may be a sign that important feelings are being tapped. The Fearful part of the client, or the Rebel, may “come out” as “resistance” because of entering a place of great discomfort or shame. The client may be afraid to face whatever is there. Or, the client may feel suddenly thrown out of his or her “comfort zone”; and, despite the great discomfort they are experiencing, “better the devil you know than the one you don’t”.
Signs of resistance can be anything from overt to covert hostility, passiveness, lateness or skipped appointments, agreeing too much with the therapist, or misinterpreting the words of the therapist. I have clients who reach this point and have found quite creative ways of assuring they will not be at the next appointment--car breaking down, suddenly needing a babysitter, spouse or some other close person putting up a fuss, sudden concern about money, or even becoming ill.
How I Handle Resistance
With clients who have chosen to come and have a difficult problem to solve, I warn them ahead of the possibility of hitting a time of resistance after they have had the biggest “break-through”. When it happens, I remind them, again, that when they walk through the door of opportunity, “resistance” walks through as well. I tell them that they will find it easier to handle and to move ahead if they tell themselves, “This is simply Resistance, I can change.” I remind them “just get to the sessions, and you will be surprised by how well you do.”
Then, I wait for the client to return. I believe they will get to my office when ready to resume, because I believe change doesn’t always have to take place with the therapist. Once something is catalyzed, clients are open to enlightenment in a new way. They simply need to be reminded that they have the courage to launch out into “new territories.” Because of this, it is important for the therapist to listen carefully to new awarenesses that emerge from the subconscious mind to the conscious level. Hypnosis, for instance, isn’t just about making changes; it can reveal the “heart” of a problem, or why the resistance to change. This can be revelatory concerning hidden agendas of clients. Examples of this, in my own practice, are of two clients – one dealing with weight control and the other with agoraphobia. The first client came for several sessions, got rid of a few pounds, and then stopped. Nothing happened week after week. Finally, the truth came forth from that deeper mind: “I want to lose weight, but I don’t want to change my habits.” This brought an end to the sessions, because the hidden agenda had been revealed. This is as important a process as change itself. The other client’s grandfather had to bring her to sessions due to her tremendous fear of going out. We made some headway for about three sessions, in which she finally was able to leave the house; but, then, she returned to staying within, except for getting to her appointments. Finally, the truth came forth, when she commented, “I hate going back to work!” There it was – the hidden agenda! Can you think of any better way to not return to work than to create the fear of going outside of your house? This is not a conscious decision of the client, but a deep, unconscious protective device. It will last until the client finally makes a new decision.
Early in the counseling experience, I give my clients an image of a playpen, which they have outgrown. The toys are broken, the playpen isn’t clean, it is way too small and very uncomfortable. Suddenly, the sides fall down, and they are faced with the great unknown. Because “change” is not comfortable, the instinct is to pull the sides of the playpen back up. Even if it is a horrible situation, it seems better to stay there than to go into what may seem an unknown abyss. Their other choice, and the one which will make all the difference to their lives, is to leave the sides of the playpen down, and walk out into that unknown, as an adventure.
Along the way of our journey together, I encourage my clients with images of how healing of mind-body-spirit takes place; and that they are in exactly the right time, and in an exciting phase of their life. I try to encourage them to see that what they might consider are bad feelings, habits or frustrating character “flaws” were developed to help them in some way, and are not to be condemned. That aspect of their personality is simply overworking in some way, or is outdated. Our task together is to help bring balance into their lives by embracing those aspects of one’s personality, love them for trying to help in some way; and yet have some power to encourage more appropriate times for their “work”.
I help them understand that when they fight their feelings and issues, they actually create a battleground within themselves for a full-scale war, in which both sides try to arm themselves better than the other. Noone wins in that kind of war – there’s just a battlefield of broken equipment and dead bodies. If, however, you have no enemy, what, or who, is there to fight?
When clients are willing to persist in working through their feelings with the therapist, resistance can be transformed into a new counseling situation and relationship in which feelings can be more authentic, and long-term change more possible.
Usually, I do not take clients who don’t really want to be in my office. Therefore, I am less certain of how I would handle them. I suppose I would lift up many of the same images in our first meetings as I do with clients who want to be there. I would ask such clients what others feel they should be coming to me for, and what they themselves think about that. I would then ask them what they think they need at this stage of their life, regardless of what others think. I would then begin from their own starting point, rather than the expectations of anyone else, including myself.
G. J. Blackham, Counseling Theory, Process and Practice, published in 1977 by Wadsworth, Belmont, California
L. M. Brammer & E. L. Shostrom, Therapeutic Psychology: Fundamentals of Counseling and Psychotherapy, 4th ed., published in 1981 by Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ
C. J. Gelso & J. A. Carter, “The Relationship in Counseling and Psychotherapy: Components, Consequences and Theoretical Antecedents,” in The Counseling Psychologist, #13, pp. 155-243P
--Copyright (c) by Del Hunter Morrill, 2012
Transitions, a Center for Personal Guidance
3217 North Mason Avenue, Tacoma, Washington 98407 USA
Del Hunter Morrill, M.S., N.B.C.C.H.