Parents, teachers, therapists, and employers are often frustrated by the tendency of individuals with whom they must interact to resist doing what is being asked of them, especially when it is clear that being compliant is in their best interest. On the surface, resistances do not seem to make sense. What is the benefit of students not doing their homework or not studying for exams? Why do employees choose to deflect work assignments or fail to follow procedures or rules? The consequences for being non-compliant can be great. It just doesn’t make any sense.
Understanding the survival and communication functions of resistances helps to decipher these seemingly annoying resistances. In fact, for some individuals, not being resistant holds greater personal consequences. Here is what you need to know about resistances.
First of all, resistances are a natural part of human behavior. They have a survival function-i.e. they preserve the ego of the individual by deflecting that which is threatening-which supersedes the more apparent consequences of not doing something. For example, students who find the academic challenges daunting and feel a lack of mastery will find ways to deflect assigned tasks not because they are being oppositional, but, instead, to preserve themselves from the narcissistic assault of not being able to perform as expected. While not trying or not doing holds its own consequences, choosing not to perform with the purpose of shielding one’s ego from the terrifying prospect of failure may be a better alternative or a lesser evil.
Second, resistances have a communication function. The manner in which individuals resist doing something communicates how best to approach them. (Yelling and screaming do little other than getting temporary compliance). Deciphering the function of resistances may require reinforcing the resistance rather than trying to break through them. While reinforcing a resistance may sound “crazy,” it is important to remember that resolving resistances first requires the willingness to consider the following: (1) individuals choose behaviors, even when they seem unreasonable and illogical, for good reasons; (2) understanding the reasons for resistance communicates a readiness to see the others’ perspective; and (3) an unwillingness to consider another’s perspective makes that person unavailable to hear what you have to say.
Here is an example of a common resistance and how tolerating the induced emotions emanating from the resistance and taking the time to understand the functions of the resistance evolve into a strategy for resolving the resistance. Children and adolescents who are coerced by their parents to seeing a therapist may harbor a deep resentment that is expressed by behaviors rather than words that reflect their unwillingness to cooperate with their parents’ plans. That is, they may attend visits, but not speak or engage in repetitive behaviors or oppose in any way possible the efforts of therapists who are viewed as parental surrogates. The power of the resistance may be experienced by parents and therapists alike as frustration and anger-the same feelings the child is experiencing as a result of being forced to do something he or she does not want to do. When the adults allow themselves to tolerate and experience these unpleasant emotions, they can examine and realize they have a communication function. They scream out, “I am not going to cooperate with you!” Recognizing this, therapists can put these unspoken emotions into words, giving the child the experience of being understood. The therapist then becomes someone of value because he/she has deciphered the behavioral resistance. Taking it further, verbalizing this question-“Don’t your parents realize you have no intention of cooperating with them?”-opens up the opportunity for a dialogue about all of the unfairness the child has felt in relation to the parent. Putting the resentment into words starts to melt the resistance as words become the medium of communication instead of behaviors. The therapy can then begin.
To put this another way, resistances are needed to understand the obstacles to individuals’ willingness to perform or behave in ways that express cooperation rather than opposition. What is also needed is a patient interpreter of resistances to do the deciphering and translate what is learned into an emotional communication that helps the resistant individual to move progressively forward rather than stay trapped in an endless repetitive behavioral cycle.