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Resistance in Psychotherapy: Embracing the Teachable Moments

Kevin William Grant
June 08, 2024

Understanding and addressing resistance is crucial for therapists, as it can provide valuable insights into a client's internal conflicts and barriers to progress.

Psychological resistance in therapy is when clients either consciously or unconsciously oppose change, avoiding specific topics or exhibiting behaviors that hinder the therapeutic process. This resistance can manifest in various ways, such as missing appointments, becoming defensive, or rationalizing behavior. Resistance is a natural part of the therapeutic process and often stems from anxiety or fear related to confronting difficult emotions, traumatic events, or changes in self-perception.

Understanding and addressing resistance is crucial for therapists, as it can provide valuable insights into a client's internal conflicts and barriers to progress. Rather than seeing resistance as a negative or oppositional behavior, many therapists view it as an essential aspect of the therapeutic process that can guide treatment direction. By exploring and understanding the underlying causes of a client's resistance, therapists can adjust their approach, strengthen the therapeutic alliance, and facilitate deeper self-awareness and personal growth for the client.

There are multiple theories and approaches to understanding resistance in therapy. For instance, in psychodynamic therapy, resistance might be seen as a defense mechanism to avoid confronting uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. In cognitive-behavioral therapy, resistance might be viewed as an outcome of maladaptive thought patterns that maintain problematic behaviors.

Types of Resistance in Psychotherapy

Resistance in therapy manifests in diverse ways depending on the individual's internal processes, the therapeutic approach, and the context in which therapy occurs. Here are some common types of therapy resistance:

  • Overt Resistance: This is the most obvious form of resistance. Clients might miss or show up late to sessions, seem distracted, or refuse to participate in exercises or assignments. They may overtly challenge or argue with the therapist.
  • Covert Resistance: Unlike overt resistance, this type is more subtle. Clients might appear engaged and cooperative but give rehearsed responses, be overly compliant without fundamental change, or avoid discussing core issues.
  • Somatic Resistance: Here, resistance is manifested through bodily sensations or symptoms. A client may experience sudden headaches, fatigue, or other physical symptoms when approaching a sensitive topic, serving as a defense mechanism against emotional distress.
  • Intellectualization: Some clients might hide behind excessive logic, analysis, or academic language, avoiding emotional engagement. They might overanalyze situations, trying to understand their problems intellectually but avoiding the emotional experience.
  • Rationalization refers to clients who offer seemingly reasonable explanations for their behaviors or feelings, which can prevent them from seeing the actual issues or patterns at play.
  • Projective Resistance: Clients may project their feelings, motivations, or desires onto the therapist, which can serve as a way to deflect personal responsibility or avoid confronting their issues.
  • Transference Resistance: This is rooted in the psychodynamic tradition. Clients might treat the therapist as a significant historical figure, recreating old patterns and dynamics. While transference can be a therapeutic tool, it can also serve as a form of resistance if not addressed.

Therapists need to recognize these forms of resistance and address them with sensitivity and skill, viewing them as opportunities to deepen the therapeutic process rather than as roadblocks.

Managing Resistance in Psychotherapy

In psychotherapy, client resistance refers to a range of behaviors, thoughts, or feelings that hinder the therapeutic process, either by preventing the client from engaging deeply with their issues or disrupting the development of a productive therapeutic alliance. Resistance is an intricate phenomenon and can arise from various sources. It may be rooted in a client's fear of confronting painful emotions or memories, a defense against perceived threats to their self-concept, or a manifestation of ambivalence about change. Some clients may resist because they have yet to be ready or willing to make particular changes, or they might have concerns about how they will be perceived if they reveal certain parts of themselves.

Importantly, resistance is not inherently "bad" or something to be eliminated; many therapists view it as a vital clue to underlying conflicts and a guide to where therapeutic work is needed. Addressing resistance can often open doors to deeper understanding and growth. Therapists are trained to be attuned to signs of resistance and to approach them with curiosity and empathy rather than judgment, seeking to understand the underlying causes and collaborate with the client to navigate them.

Therapists employ various techniques to help clients work through resistance in psychotherapy. These techniques are often tailored to the individual's needs and the therapeutic approach. Some standard techniques include:

  • Building a Strong Therapeutic Alliance: A solid therapeutic relationship, characterized by trust, empathy, and mutual respect, often helps clients feel safe enough to confront and work through resistance (Horvath & Greenberg, 1989).
  • Exploring the Resistance Directly: Therapists might gently bring attention to observed resistance, asking clients how they feel about specific topics or why they might be avoiding them. This can help clients gain awareness of their opposition (Gelso & Carter, 1985).
  • Reflective Listening: Reflecting on clients’ feelings, thoughts, or behaviors can increase awareness and understanding of their resistance. This approach helps clients feel understood and can lead to deeper exploration (Rogers, 1951).
  • Using Metaphors and Analogies: Sometimes, abstract concepts or illustrative stories can help clients view their resistance differently, making it easier to understand and address (Yalom, 1980).
  • Reframing: By offering a different interpretation or perspective on a client's thoughts, feelings, or behaviors, therapists can help clients see things in a new light, potentially reducing resistance (Beck et al., 1979).
  • Motivational Interviewing: This technique is particularly effective for ambivalent clients. Therapists help clients explore and resolve their ambivalence by highlighting the discrepancy between their current behavior and their broader life goals (Miller & Rollnick, 2013).
  • Exploring Fears and Concerns: By discussing potential fears or concerns underlying resistance, therapists can help clients confront and process those emotions, making it easier to move forward (Beutler et al., 2002).
  • Using Socratic Questioning: This technique involves asking open-ended questions that help clients explore their beliefs and assumptions, potentially leading to new insights and understanding (Overholser, 1993).
  • Revisiting Goals: Periodically reviewing and clarifying the goals of therapy can ensure that both the therapist and client remain aligned and focused, potentially reducing resistance that arises from unclear or shifting objectives (Goldfried & Davison, 1976).
  • Processing the Therapeutic Relationship: Transference and countertransference issues, where clients project feelings from past relationships onto the therapist (and vice versa), can sometimes contribute to resistance. Processing these dynamics in session can be illuminating (Gelso & Hayes, 2007).

Handling clients who frequently miss sessions or cancel at the last minute is a common challenge in psychotherapy. The way psychotherapists address this issue often depends on their therapeutic orientation, the specific setting in which they work, and the individual needs and circumstances of the client.

  • Setting Clear Boundaries and Expectations: At the onset of therapy, many therapists outline a clear cancellation policy, which may include fees for late cancellations or no-shows. This is often detailed in the informed consent process so clients know the expectations and potential consequences from the outset (Barnett, 2008).
  • Exploring Underlying Reasons: Instead of solely relying on punitive measures like fees, therapists often use missed sessions as therapeutic material. During subsequent sessions, the therapist might explore the reasons behind the absence, understanding that missed appointments might manifest resistance, ambivalence, fear, or external life stressors (Beutler, Moleiro, & Talebi, 2002).
  • Flexibility and Understanding: It is essential to balance holding clients accountable with understanding and compassion. For some clients, especially those with specific life circumstances (e.g., unstable housing and demanding jobs), flexibility in scheduling and policies may be necessary (Zur, 2015).
  • Reminders: Many practices now use automated systems to send appointment reminders via phone, text, or email. These reminders can significantly reduce no-show rates (Boswell et al., 2015).
  • Reevaluation of Therapy Goals: If a client repeatedly misses sessions, it may be a sign that they are not fully invested in the therapy process or that the therapeutic approach needs to align with their needs. This could warrant discussing therapy goals and any potential modifications to the therapeutic policy (Beutler et al., 2002).

Missing or frequently rescheduling appointments in therapy can have various implications for clients. Clients need to be aware of the following aspects:

  • Therapeutic Momentum: Regular attendance helps maintain the therapeutic momentum. Continuity allows for more in-depth exploration of issues and can increase the chances of positive outcomes. Inconsistent attendance might disrupt the therapy flow and prolong the time needed to address and resolve issues.
  • Therapeutic Relationship: Consistency in attendance helps strengthen the therapeutic alliance, a vital component of effective therapy. Frequently missed appointments might hinder the development of a trusting and collaborative relationship between the therapist and the client.
  • Financial Implications: Many therapists charge for missed sessions or those canceled without sufficient notice, typically 24 to 48 hours in advance. This means clients could incur charges even if they do not attend.
  • Availability and Scheduling: Frequently rescheduling might limit the availability of preferred time slots. Therapists have other clients to consider, and last-minute changes can make it challenging to accommodate everyone's needs.
  • Underlying Reasons: Clients need to reflect on the reasons for their frequent cancellations. It might indicate ambivalence about therapy, resistance to addressing specific issues, logistical challenges, or other personal matters. Discussing these reasons in treatment can be a valuable intervention in itself.
  • Potential Treatment Delays: In some therapy forms, especially those that are more structured, like CBT, missing sessions can delay the treatment plan's progression.
  • Ethical and Professional Considerations: Therapists are responsible for providing effective treatment, and if a client frequently misses appointments, the therapist might need to discuss the appropriateness of continuing therapy or consider referring the client to another service or provider.
  • Consideration for Others: When a client misses an appointment or cancels at the last minute, the time slot cannot be offered to another client who might be on a waiting list or need an appointment.
  • Feelings and Reactions: Clients might experience feelings related to missing appointments, such as guilt, anxiety, or relief. Exploring these feelings in the therapy session is helpful, as they can offer insights into the client's inner world and therapeutic process.

Clients should maintain open communication with their therapists regarding scheduling issues. If they foresee challenges in keeping regular appointments, discussing this upfront allows both parties to strategize and work around potential obstacles.

How Therapists Handle Insecurities Caused by Client Resistance

Managing the insecurities and emotional reactions elicited by client resistance is fundamental to a therapist's professional development and ongoing self-care. Here are some strategies therapists employ to handle such insecurities:

  • Self-awareness and Reflection: Continuous self-reflection allows therapists to identify and understand their insecurities and emotional reactions. Through introspection, therapists can explore the roots of these feelings and differentiate between personal vulnerabilities and client-specific dynamics (Hayes, Gelso, & Hummel, 2011).
  • Supervision and Consultation: Regular maintenance or consultation provides therapists with an external perspective. An experienced supervisor or peer can offer insights, validate the therapist's experiences, and guide on handling challenging dynamics (Bernard & Goodyear, 2014).
  • Recognizing Transference and Countertransference: Therapists must be attuned to the possibility that their insecurities may be amplified by countertransference (their reactions to a client's transference). Understanding these processes can prevent personal feelings from interfering with therapeutic work (Gelso & Hayes, 2007).
  • Continued Training and Education: Ongoing professional development can bolster therapists' confidence and equip them with new strategies to handle resistance. This can reduce helplessness or insecurity when confronted with challenging therapeutic dynamics (Norcross & Goldfried, 2018).
  • Self-care: Regular self-care practices, including mindfulness, meditation, exercise, hobbies, and work-life balance, can help therapists manage stress and maintain emotional well-being (Barnett, Baker, Elman, & Schoener, 2007).
  • Peer Support: Connecting with colleagues can allow therapists to share experiences, gain reassurance, and receive guidance. Recognizing that resistance is a common challenge can normalize the experience and reduce feelings of isolation (Dearing, Maddux, & Tangney, 2005).
  • Reframing Resistance: Instead of viewing resistance as a personal failure or an indictment of their therapeutic skills, therapists can reframe it as a natural part of the change process and an opportunity for more profound therapeutic work. This perspective shifts the focus from personal insecurity to professional curiosity (Beutler, Moleiro, & Talebi, 2002).
  • Seeking Personal Therapy: Many therapists benefit from undergoing their therapy. This allows them to address personal insecurities and deepens their understanding of the therapeutic process from a client's perspective (Norcross & Guy, 2007).

In summary, therapists are not immune to insecurities and emotional reactions, especially in the face of client resistance. However, they can navigate these challenges effectively through self-awareness, ongoing training, and seeking support.

Resistance and Psychodynamic Therapy

The psychodynamic perspective views resistance as a natural and expected part of the therapeutic journey. Instead of being a hindrance, resistance offers a rich terrain for exploration, providing both therapist and client with pathways to deep, unconscious material that, once addressed, can facilitate profound personal growth.

Resistance in psychodynamic therapy holds a prominent place, given that understanding and interpreting resistance is a fundamental part of the therapeutic process in this modality. Psychodynamic therapy, rooted in Freudian psychoanalysis, views resistance as an obstacle and an opportunity for insight and therapeutic progress.

Definition and Significance: In the psychodynamic framework, resistance refers to the unconscious avoidance tactics clients use to protect themselves from confronting painful or threatening thoughts, feelings, and memories (Freud, 1912/1958). It's seen as a defense mechanism, operating outside the client's conscious awareness to shield them from anxiety-provoking insights.

Manifestations: Resistance can manifest in various ways in therapy, such as forgetting sessions, repeatedly arriving late, avoiding specific topics, intellectualizing, or focusing on external events to exclude internal experiences (Gabbard, 2014).

Transference and Countertransference: Resistance is closely intertwined with the concepts of transference (the client's unconscious redirection of feelings from significant past relationships onto the therapist) and countertransference (the therapist's emotional reaction to the client). Recognizing and interpreting resistance is essential to understanding these dynamics and advancing the therapeutic process (Greenson, 1967).

Fundamental Concept: At its core, psychodynamic theory posits that much of our mental life, including thoughts, feelings, and motivations, exists outside our conscious awareness, in the unconscious. Resistance emerges when unconscious materials, particularly anxiety-provoking or painful, threaten to enter conscious awareness.

Protective Mechanism: From a psychodynamic viewpoint, resistance is a protective defense mechanism. It shields the individual from confronting distressing memories, desires, conflicts, or feelings. It is not deliberately oppositional but an automatic and unconscious effort to maintain psychological equilibrium and avoid pain.

Manifestations in Therapy: Resistance can appear in various forms:

  • Avoidance: A client might veer away from discussing specific topics.
  • Rationalization: Intellectualizing or providing logical explanations to avoid emotional depth.
  • Acting Out: Engaging in behaviors outside of therapy that counter therapeutic progress.
  • Forgetting: Such as missing sessions or "forgetting" to discuss significant events.
  • Silence: While silence can be therapeutic, it can also be a form of resistance if used to avoid specific topics.

Transference: Transference is a critical concept in psychodynamic therapy, referring to when a client unconsciously redirects feelings and fantasies from previous significant relationships onto the therapist. Resistance often emerges in the context of transference, as clients might resist acknowledging or exploring feelings they've transferred onto the therapist.

Therapist's Role: In the psychodynamic approach, the therapist is trained to recognize and gently confront resistance, helping the client become aware of it. By exploring resistance, therapists aim to uncover underlying conflicts and anxieties. The aim isn't to "break" resistance but to understand and work through it.

Opportunity for Insight: While resistance can be an obstacle, it's also seen as an opportunity in psychodynamic therapy. By examining the nature and themes of resistance, the therapist and the client can gain profound insights into underlying issues and conflicts.

Therapeutic Use of Resistance: In psychodynamic therapy, resistance isn't merely an obstacle but also an avenue for exploration. By examining and interpreting resistance, therapists can help clients gain insight into their unconscious conflicts, defense mechanisms, and unmet needs (McWilliams, 2004).

Working Through Resistance: A significant aspect of psychodynamic therapy is the "working through" process. Here, resistance and other defensive operations are repeatedly addressed and revisited. This repetitive, deep exploration ensures that insights gained aren't merely intellectual but emotionally integrated, leading to lasting change. "Working through" involves confronting and understanding resistance patterns repeatedly, allowing clients to achieve deeper insight and change. This repetitive exploration distinguishes psychodynamic therapy from other therapeutic modalities and is vital for lasting change (Loewald, 1988).

Embracing Teachable Moments

Creating teachable moments when clients exhibit resistance in therapy involves a combination of therapeutic skills, techniques, and attitudes. Here is how therapists capitalize on resistance to foster understanding and growth:

  • Embrace Curiosity: Instead of viewing resistance as a roadblock, therapists approach it with genuine curiosity. They ask questions to explore the nature of the resistance, aiming to uncover the underlying fears, concerns, or beliefs that may be fueling it. Therapists can help clients feel safe enough to explore their resistance more deeply by showing genuine interest and understanding.
  • Reflective Listening: Therapists use reflective listening to mirror the client's feelings and thoughts, making the unspoken more explicit. By reflecting on the resistance and its associated emotions, therapists can help clients recognize and understand their own defensive mechanisms (Rogers, 1957).
  • Highlight the Discrepancy: Therapists might gently point out the discrepancies between the client's goals for therapy and their resistant behaviors. This can help clients recognize how their resistance might prevent them from achieving their therapeutic objectives (Miller & Rollnick, 2012).
  • Normalization: Letting clients know that resistance is a common part of the therapeutic process can help them feel less isolated or defensive. By normalizing resistance, therapists can reduce feelings of shame or guilt that might be associated with it.
  • Metacommunication: This involves talking about the therapeutic process itself. Therapists can engage clients in a conversation about how they feel in the session, their reactions to the therapist, or their thoughts about therapy. Discussing the therapeutic relationship can shed light on the underlying causes of resistance (Safran & Muran, 2000).
  • Explore Past Patterns: Resistance in therapy can often mirror past patterns of behavior or coping strategies. By drawing connections between current resistance and past behaviors, therapists can provide clients with insights into their long-standing patterns and their potential origins.
  • Empathic Confrontation: While empathy is crucial, sometimes gentle confrontation can be therapeutic. This is not about challenging the client aggressively but about gently and empathetically pointing out instances of resistance to foster awareness (Kohut, 1984).
  • Use of Imagery or Metaphors: Sometimes, abstract concepts can be conveyed more effectively through imagery or metaphors. For instance, comparing resistance to a wall or barrier can help clients better visualize and understand their defenses.
  • Feedback: Regular feedback on the therapeutic process can be invaluable. By discussing what is working and what is not, therapists and clients can collaboratively address resistance and recalibrate their approach as needed.

Essentially, the goal is not to "overcome" resistance but to understand and learn from it. By leveraging these techniques, therapists transform instances of resistance into teachable moments, facilitating deeper insights and promoting therapeutic growth.

Recent Psychological Research

Research has underscored the multifaceted nature of client resistance in psychotherapy. Client resistance is no longer a hindrance; it's often conceptualized as communicating unmet needs, fears, or ambivalence about change (Moyers & Miller, 2013). Recent studies have aimed to operationalize resistance, focusing on its observable behaviors and associated verbal cues, which can assist therapists in early identification and intervention (Karno & Longabaugh, 2005).

There's also growing interest in the relationship between therapeutic alliance and resistance. Some studies suggest that a solid therapeutic partnership can act as a buffer against opposition, emphasizing the importance of a collaborative and trusting therapist-client relationship (Zilcha-Mano, 2017).

Furthermore, research has explored resistance in different therapeutic modalities. For instance, in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), resistance can manifest as reluctance to complete assignments or engage in exposure exercises. Understanding the unique forms of resistance within each modality can inform tailored interventions (Westra, 2012).

Recent studies have also shown the importance of cultural competence in addressing resistance. Cultural misunderstandings can sometimes be misinterpreted as resistance. As a result, therapists are encouraged to understand the cultural, social, and personal contexts in which resistance emerges to avoid pathologizing normative reactions from clients of diverse backgrounds (Chen, 2016).

In summary, recent psychological research highlights the nuanced understanding of resistance in psychotherapy, emphasizing its communicative function and the role of the therapeutic alliance, modality-specific manifestations, and cultural competence in addressing it.


Resistance, in the context of psychotherapy, is often regarded not as an impediment but as a rich source of information about the client's internal conflicts and fears (Freud, 1958). This natural defense mechanism emerges when individuals unconsciously seek to protect themselves from confronting uncomfortable or painful memories, emotions, or thoughts. Understanding this, therapists can see resistance as an integral part of the therapeutic process rather than a roadblock.

Embracing Resistance: By embracing resistance, therapists recognize it as an expression of the client's internal struggle (Gabbard, 2014). It signifies areas of vulnerability, past trauma, or unresolved conflicts. Far from being an obstacle, resistance can illuminate the very issues that the client needs to address, making it invaluable in the therapeutic process.

Teachable Moments: Resistance offers "teachable moments," opportunities for introspection and education. When therapists encounter resistance, it provides a moment to explore and understand the client's fears and hesitations (McWilliams, 2004). It allows therapists to delve deeper into the client's psyche, uncovering root causes and facilitating more profound insights.

Navigating Resistance: Graciously navigating resistance means approaching it with empathy, respect, and curiosity rather than frustration or judgment. The therapeutic alliance, a foundation of effective therapy, is paramount in this process (Zilcha-Mano, 2017). Therapists can gently challenge resistance by maintaining a solid and trusting relationship, helping clients confront their anxieties and fears.

Moving Forward: When understood and addressed, resistance can catalyze significant therapeutic breakthroughs. By working collaboratively with the client, therapists can transform resistance from a defense mechanism into a tool for growth, guiding clients towards deeper self-awareness and resolution of their issues (Moyers & Miller, 2013).

In conclusion, therapists who embrace resistance, use it as a teachable moment and navigate it graciously with clients are better equipped to facilitate meaningful and lasting change. Resistance, far from being a hurdle, becomes a stepping stone toward therapeutic growth and personal transformation.





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