In the website I explain resistance in some detail and I encourage you to read that before the rest of this entry. Resistance is the hardest topic to compress into digestible web pages and thus the one I will probably talk most about in this blog. Here are two quick examples.
The first comes from everyday life. When I was 20, I was visibly balding. By the time I was 30 I looked like Patrick Stewart. I joked about it, frequently performed as an actor and cheerfully donned whatever wigs were requested by the director, and otherwise gave the impression – to myself and to others – that I had long accepted this this development in my development. About 10 years later, I shaved the remaining hair off. Now remember that for the previous decade I’d had only the smallest fringe around the back of my head, reaching around just over my ears; otherwise I was a cue ball (in fact I think Patrick Stewart has more hair than I do). Yet for well over a month after I did the deed I would find myself physically startled by my reflection in the mirror. Each time I looked at myself I was genuinely astonished to realize “wow! I’m bald!” And don’t forget most of what I shaved can’t even be seen when looking in the mirror anyway, as it’s in back of me.
The first thing to understand about resistance is that it happens at the unconscious level. My experience after shaving my head is a perfect example. Although I firmly believed that I knew I was bald – had gone through my self-conscious phase and had accepted the loss – you cannot deny my physical reaction. And that reaction can’t be explained by anything other than my less than conscious denial that I’m bald. At some level, despite a decade of all evidence to the contrary, I held onto some belief that I had hair like Mel Gibson in the “Lethal Weapon” movies.
In a more serious vein, as is so for all patients Amy’s resistance was at the core of her therapy. She came to me in her early 30s complaining of emotional constriction – she could scarcely remember having cried in her life – an obsession with getting attention from strange men, a series of failed relationships, chronic distrust, and other unhappiness. She grew up very poor, with a chaotic and cruel family. Her mother and stepfather routinely humiliated or neglected her; her life history is peppered with one horrible story after another of raised and then violently dashed hopes. As she tells it, Amy learned by the time she was about eight years old to take care of herself. She found ways to comfort and even entertain herself; at the conscious level she understood that her parents were alternately unreliable and cruel, and she managed successfully to seek out emotional and practical support from others. When she was 17 she left home. She has become a successful businesswoman, is now in a fairly stable relationship despite her anxieties about it, and on the surface she seems to understand her past and to some degree what it has done to her.
But as I like to remind patients, you can’t argue with data. My reaction to my shaved head must be accounted for, regardless of what I think I already know (i.e. that I’d been bald half my life by then, long gotten used to it). And the data with Amy include that she was continuing to devote a great deal of thought and effort to trying to communicate with her mother and stepfather, constantly astounded by their lack of response – just as I was repeatedly astounded by the sight of my bald head, 15 years after it got that way. She would obsess during our sessions, for example, about a phone message from her mother, wondering why she had called, whether she should call back, recounting stories about her mother illustrating the latter’s neglect and lack of interest in her (past and present), resentful of it and yet dwelling on the possibility of finally getting this woman to finally acknowledged and appreciate her, and so on. She spent much energy and money on long distance holidays with the family, seeking the perfect gifts and activities they might appreciate, yet for her entire life was never rewarded with an ounce of recognition for all this, and she was never given anything remotely similar in return; meanwhile she failed to appreciate and build upon the relationships with available people in her own life, some of who loved her and had much to offer. She claimed never to think about her biological father, yet found herself experiencing the kind of physical surprise that I did over my shaved head when she managed to make contact with paternal relatives and had to face – again – the reality that this man had no interest in her overtures. Despite what she thought she knew about herself, Amy found that she was depressed, enraged, and otherwise astonished that her father and his family were so unresponsive to her.
In short, Amy thought she knew where she had come from, and what she felt about it. But her unrelenting efforts to build her relationship with these unavailable people, and her repeated shock at finding them so unresponsive and uninterested in her – despite a lifetime of experiences with them – show that she did not know, that she was in fact resisting awareness of exactly that which she claimed to know.
It was only when she began to really face – remember, feel, relive – the reality of her family and their past and present behavior towards her, that two important things happened to her. First she gradually abandoned the draining, repetitive, endlessly frustrating efforts to make them appreciate her. Second, her other symptoms started to abate: She lost her obsession with getting attention from men and her panic when such attention wasn’t constant, she cried and physically loosened up, she began to enjoy herself and her talents instead of living in tense hope that the next accomplishment would finally make her feel better, and she relaxed with her boyfriend instead of constantly worrying that he was cheating on her. But all along – like me with the hair – Amy thought she knew herself.
Some branches of psychoanalysis are fond of saying “analysis of the resistance is the treatment”. There is a lot of truth to this, and you can see how this worked with Amy. More examples to come, and again be sure to read the “Resistance” page of the main website (“AboutPsychotherapy.com“) for a more complete description of the phenomenon. And watch for examples in your own life! They happen frequently, and I’ll have examples in future entries.