Resistance in Psychotherapy: Definition & Concept

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  • 0:01 Definition of…
  • 1:13 Resistance in Psychoanalysis
  • 1:56 Examples in Resistance
  • 2:39 Dealing with Resistance
  • 4:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Lavoie

Sarah has taught Psychology at the college level and has a master's degree in Counseling Psychology.

Although the concept of resistance originated in psychoanalysis, all psychotherapists have to deal with resistant clients. In this lesson you will learn about how resistance works in psychotherapy and take a quiz to test your understanding.

Definition of Psychotherapy Resistance

The word resistance is most commonly recognized when talking about the flow of electrical current or a military or political movement. In psychology, specifically in psychotherapy, resistance has a very similar meaning. Resistance in psychotherapy is often defined differently by different counseling and therapeutic psychologists, but ultimately involves a client's unwillingness to change and grow within therapy.

There are countless reasons why clients can be resistant within a therapeutic relationship. People of all cultures, natures, and personalities visit psychologists, each with their own reasons for entering therapy. Some people may be ordered or referred by a third party to enter therapy. Since they are not there of their own will, these clients are often reluctant to be there and can show very obvious resistance to the process. Most clients begin therapy on their own, for physical health reasons, mental health reasons, and general wellness. Regardless, many clients show some sort of resistance to the emotional pain that change demands. Clients can be unwilling and opposed to change even if it is what they desire, as change can be difficult, emotionally painful, or scary.

Resistance in Psychoanalysis

Psychoanalysis is a style of psychotherapy originally developed by Sigmund Freud. Resistance was originally defined within the context of psychoanalysis. In psychoanalysis, resistance is loosely defined as a client's unwillingness to discuss a particular topic in therapy. For example, if a client in psychotherapy is uncomfortable talking about his or her father, they may show resistance around this topic. While the client may be comfortable talking about other family members, they might change the subject every time their father comes into the conversation. If the therapist continues to probe this topic, the client may even show resistance by missing therapy appointments or discontinuing therapy.

Examples of Resistance

Resistance can take many forms in psychotherapy and affect a client's behavior in many ways. The following is a list of some forms of resistance which a client may use to keep from dealing with certain topics with their therapist.

  • Silence or minimal discussion with the therapist
  • Wordiness or verbosity
  • Preoccupation with symptoms
  • Irrelevant small talk
  • Preoccupation with the past or future
  • Focusing on the therapist or asking the therapist personal questions
  • Discounting or second-guessing the therapist
  • Seductiveness
  • False promises or forgetting to do what is agreed upon
  • Not keeping appointments
  • Failing to pay for appointments

Dealing with Resistance

In psychotherapy, resistance is considered a normal, and sometimes helpful, process. All psychologists and licensed therapists are trained to deal with the different forms of resistance in their clients. Therapists consider it important to detect resistance to psychotherapy and interpret why it is occurring. If the therapist can detect and deal with resistance, they can use it to diffuse the resistance.

Here are a number of ways that therapists can deal with resistance in the psychotherapy setting.

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