The Wisdom of Resistance

Howard Gardiner, the cognitive psychologist, who claims we possess several different kinds of intelligence (a claim that I have a different opinion about, as I believe he confuses knowledge with intelligence), has also developed a seven-step approach to changing people’s mind-sets.  The final step of his hypothetical 7 step approach is when he encounters what he calls resistance from the person whose mind-set he wishes to change.  Gardiner is not alone in his notion regarding people being resistant to change. In the psychoanalytic-psychotherapeutic literature there is frequent reference to clients being resistant to therapy.  The assumption is that certain individuals are not willing to change and that the agent of change – be it the changing-mind-set-mentor or therapist –is now going to have an uphill battle to overcome this resistance.  The notion of resistance is also common in families, schools, churches and workplaces.

I have a number of responses to the above concept of resistance.  One, what a person says is about self and, therefore, if the mentor or therapist perceives the person as being resistant to\his genuine efforts to effect change, this perception reveals something about the mentor or therapist himself.  It follows that he would need to examine what his projection is mirroring about some repression within himself that is attempting to come to light.  A possibility – it is likely to be different for each professional helper – is that failure to effect change is an unconscious threat and the wisdom is to rationalise and be insistent that it is the client who is being resistant, not open or willing to change.  If the mentor or therapist does not become conscious of his defensive response, then he certainly will not make progress with his client.  It is in the foregoing sense that helping another is always a co-creational space – opportunities for change not only occur for the client, but also for the professional care worker. 

My second response to the idea of resistance is that it suggests that the client does not want to change and, furthermore, that what is being labelled resistant responses have no meaning, other than being a stumbling block to change.  My own experience is that no person wants to stay in darkness and that when it is emotionally and socially safe, a person who\is troubled or ‘fundamentalist’ automatically will go towards the light.  What is most pertinent to this discussion is that the so-called resistant responses have a deep meaning and intention – and that is to protect from\a deeper threat and hurt that are not obvious to the mentor or therapist.

I was in Turkey recently at an International Conference on effective third-level teaching and one teacher spoke of an in-class situation where a first year university student became very distressed and aggressive when the topic of sexuality was broached by the teacher.  The student declared hostilely that the subject was taboo and that he could not allow the class to continue.  The teacher perceived the student’s behaviour as rigid, unacceptable and disrespectful. In her own state of anxiety and defensiveness she creatively failed to see that the student was protecting himself from dangers beyond the classroom and university – his family.  Coincidentally and poignantly, prior to the conference session where this matter arose for discussion, I

had been reading about a fifteen year old Turkish female teenager who had gone against the family rules and had been stoned to death – not unlike the emotional and social stoning of teenage girls who got pregnant in fundamentalist Catholic Ireland – not that long ago.  The Turkish student, rather than being resistant was actually being realistic and his actions had the powerful intentions of protecting him from major familial dangers.

What then could the teacher have done in the face of what she perceived as the student’s resistance to reason?  Similarly, what can the mentor who wants to change the mind-set of a person or the therapist who wishes to effect change in his client do in the face of what they view as resistance?  What is urgent is that they first examine their own responses and discover something about themselves.  In relation to the student, the teacher needed to accept, respect and understand the student’s highly protective responses and give him the option to leave the class when the taboo subject was being discussed.  In this way she does not yield to his point of view and she manages to maintain her relationship with him and at the same time establishes equality between them.  Whenever or if ever this student manages to escape his repressive family regime, he will remember the maturity of the teacher and may even seek her support.

When we consider the dilemma of the mentor or therapist when he encounters what he perceives as resistance, he needs to examine his own interiority, to explore more deeply the inner and outer world of his client and to hold to the belief that his client is being wise in his responses and when it is safe he will tentatively and definitely seek the light – in the same way that flowers in shadow turn their heads towards the sunlight.  Indeed, in the situation of perceived resistance, the mentor or therapist or teacher and the client and the student are provided with opportunities to uncover what lies hidden and wants to be found.

Dr. Tony Humphreys, Clinical psychologist, author and National and International Speaker.  His book with co-author Dr. Helen Ruddle, Relationship, Relationship, Relationship is relevant to this week’s column.