Resistance – what a mess! (And why psychotherapy is fun)

One of the thorny things about identifying and helping a person with their resistance is that it can present as almost any behavior, thought, or feeling; thus, one man’s resistance is another man’s honesty.  I remember a good example of this with Emily, a patient who came to see me complaining of depression and a pattern of avoidance that she feared was interfering with her career as a self-employed business consultant.  She also described frequently racing thoughts, rumination over any perceived slight, and nightmares that awakened her in a panic.  Her marriage was fairly stable, by all accounts her husband was a reasonable and supportive guy, but she struggled with frequent irritability which we quickly identified as mostly defensive – i.e. she would snap at him, or want to, because she felt challenged, backed into a corner, criticized, or “manipulated”, and didn’t feel able to speak up directly about it.

In one session Emily described her frustration with her 5 year old daughter who came home from her first day at school and announced emphatically that she would not be returning.  She repeated this declaration rather melodramatically several times when Emily tried to inquire about the reasons for the little girl’s decision.  In the same session, Emily reported a dream in which she was running some sort of microwave emitter over the skin of a small, albino man with a shaved head, charring him as she did so.  She awoke in a panic.  She went back to sleep, had a less frightening dream (see below) but again awoke in panic.

Sounding like a shrink, I asked Emily about her feelings while talking to her daughter.  Referencing a previous session in which we had seen how her and most people’s rage usually covers feelings of helplessness, humiliation, insecurity, or similar shakiness, Emily dutifully responded that she felt helpless.  I didn’t believe her.  I asked for the details of her inquiry into her daughter’s reasons for refusing school.  Emily reluctantly realized that her response to her daughter was one of marked impatience and irritation.  She demonstrated a gesture she made at the time which would clearly be very unsettling to a five-year-old girl.  At that point Emily volunteered similar moments of difficulty with her daughter, e.g. the child’s habit of asking her mother or father repeatedly some question like “can you help me with this”.   Emily complained that her daughter hardly allow time for an answer such as “in just a moment, sweetie” before repeating her request.  Again, suspecting there was more to this story, I asked for details.  Emily responded “I try to tell her to give me a minute”, to which I inquired “you ‘try’?”

Even without knowing Emily as I did by this session, you may suspect that there is something missing here because surely there is no particular effort required in giving such an answer, and Emily had already told me that her daughter was not a particularly loud, insistent, tantruming child.  Sure enough, as Emily described her behavior it was clear that she was struggling with considerable frustration which she expressed to her daughter, although she did not mean to do so – just as Emily had already told me in previous sessions she at times lashes out unreasonably with others (her husband, colleagues, even clients on occasion).  And if the child was indeed interrupting with a repeated question so quickly that Emily could not get her answer out, what about using a gesture that communicates “just a moment” nonverbally and immediately, e.g. holding up a finger?  Emily demonstrated such a gesture in response to my inquiry, and said she employs it, but in her demonstration clearly looked away from her daughter in irritation, even disgust.  (I double checked how Emily performed the gesture.)  It is no wonder that the little girl repeats her questions, anxious and frustrated, even panicked by her mother’s bewildering dismissal – abandonment – just when she needs her.

Before acknowledging all of this, however, Emily was at first insisting, in her typically rather dry and lifeless tone, that she felt “helpless” when her daughter announced that she did not want to attend school or when the girl asked a question repeatedly.  Somewhere in our exchange, I don’t recall exactly where, I smiled and said simply “Shaddup” several times; Emily tried to ignore this and talk over me.  My admittedly outrageous bit of behavior appears in few if any standard texts on psychotherapy, however it was just right for Emily and I.  I asked her about this odd effort to ignore my rude interruption, and she showed for her a rare bit of emotionality in the session; she angrily said “you were just telling me that I should be careful about expressing frustration or becoming insistent about Jackie [the daughter] going to school because as you say the poor, helpless child has no real power except to refuse, and she is too young to express or even identify just what was upsetting her at school”.  Now, that’s all true – I did say all that earlier in the session – but it was not what I had just asked Emily.

I said as much and Emily acknowledged that what I’d just asked was her feelings while talking to Emily, not what she actually did.  At that point, perhaps because she was already incensed by my teasing, Emily acknowledged how angry she was at her daughter, and also how much hostility she was actually communicating – as well as feeling – in her nonverbal behavior toward the child, e.g. the looking away in disgust while holding up the finger.  Of course, such behavior has the opposite effect on Jackie from what Emily wants.  It makes a child more frightened, frustrated, insistent on and demanding of a response.  What is needed is the same gesture but with clear attention and eye contact from Emily, without the disgust, which would say to the child “yes, I hear you, and I’ll answer, but you gotta wait a moment ‘til mommy finishes her sip of coffee”. Such a gesture is usually very well received, comforts and reassures a child while at the same time requiring that she learn to tolerate delay, a moment of frustration, and all the other necessities of dealing with other people; teachers and peers, and later employers and lovers, are not going to answer just when and how you want.

So here is a case where irritation and rage are not the standard defense they usually are against the acknowledgment of such unwieldy feelings as helplessness, uncertainty, humiliation, and so on.  Rather, Emily was using a superficial acknowledgment of feeling helpless as a way of hiding from just how angry and hostile she not only felt but actually acted.

And why is any of this important?  Not because shrinks like to get in touch with feelings.  Rather, because Emily felt and did better as result of our discussion (combined with other sessions, of course).  Her anxiety lessened, she felt clearer and stronger, she looked and sounded more alive, and she was much clearer on how she was perpetuating her daughter’s less adaptive behavior – the badgering people with repeated questions – by her own inadvertently hostile and rejecting responses.  Finally, relieved of the burden of hiding from – resisting – her feelings of irritation, hostility, frustration, she was more relaxed and less unnecessarily combative in her dealings with everyone – husband, daughter, colleagues, etc.

But things don’t end here.  To further complicate matters, do not doubt that Emily’s hostility and combativeness towards her daughter and others is itself another layer of resistance!  Although at first she resisted acknowledging such unflatteringly aggressive feelings, they are themselves a cover for more unwieldy, uncomfortable feelings of insecurity, helplessness, self-doubt, being judged, and so on.  We discovered all this in much later sessions.  Thus 1) she hid from her feelings of aggression and rage with a more socially acceptable (especially in our culture for women) admission of feeling helpless; 2) those aggressive/hostile feelings themselves at least in part serve to resist more substantial feelings of humiliation, helplessness, etc. that at this point she was touching superficially.

This brief sketch and especially the last paragraph you just read demonstrate a reason I don’t talk about resistance in too much detail on my website:  It’s too damned complicated! it doesn’t lend itself to easy description.  I have a full book chapter on the topic available for those who are interested.

This vignette demonstrates a couple of other points.  First, remember that dream at the top of the entry?  And her panic as the dream awoke her at 4 a.m.?  Remember also that this was not the first such dream and panicked awakening.  As Emily and I discussed the dream, it became clear that the figure in the dream was me.  Then in her second dream that night, she was being chased by robbers, was gathering weapons to fight them off, and then found a tiny box of gold which she was able to give to the villains saying “I have what you want”.  Although this dream ended calmly, she again awoke in a panic.  Emily’s own association to this dream was to the “little bits of gold that I get from some of our sessions”.  She described leaving my office sometimes very excited by the “little epiphanies” that she would have as we talked or which occurred as she later thought about our discussions.

What emerges as lurking under Emily’s at times quite listless presentation is the passion seen in her dreams, in her rather constant feeling of irritability and frustration, in her moments of panic and anxiety, and in her behavior towards her daughter and others.  On the more positive side, her dreams also reveal her excitement about our work, about outgrowing her timidity, sense of being burdened all the time, and her resultant sour attitude; in the second dream that night, she experienced and expressed how much our sessions mean to her, her excitement at her “little epiphanies” and how much better they left her feeling, all of which one would hardly suspect from her outward demeanor.  Alternatively, but with equal energy and passion, we see in her first dream just how furious she can become with me – perhaps at times because of how fragile and exposed she becomes in sessions, opening up her personal life to me, and how she therefore how wants to turn the tables and destroy me, making me small, colorless (albino, draining the life/color from me), then torturing/destroying me.  By contrast, in her daily life Emily tends to keep herself bland, on the straight and narrow, amiable, professional, even colorless.  (Of course if that approach worked, she would not be having nightmares and panic, would not be so depressed – lifeless/colorless? – would not be in such constant irritation or outright conflict with others, and would not have contacted me.)

Finally, this vignette illustrates one of the great things about my job.  People sometimes ask me “how can you listen to people’s problems all day?  Don’t you get bored?  Doesn’t their unhappiness affect you?”  The answer to these questions is in this vignette.  Our session left Emily feeling more alive, calmer, more optimistic, clearer, and functioning better – of course, not all sessions are this productive – so not only don’t I feel crushed or weighed down by her problems but I’m 1) hopeful, 2) gratified that I can help.  It’s also great fun because it is in my office that I can be most honest.  Think about it.  Unless you’re talking to a very close friend, it is not usually acceptable to interrupt with several repetitions of “Shaddup” when you feel bored, when listening to someone’s defensive retreat from admission of what they felt and did in the story they’re telling, when hearing a sanitized or even self-serving version of events – such as when a politician or salesman says almost anything.  But in my office not only can I tell the truth but I have to; it’s what cures.


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