When people come to therapy it is usually because they have identified some behavior, some feeling, or some aspect of their life which they find problematic and want to change.
Yet psychotherapists have long known that clients usually resist the very changes which they consciously claim they want.
For example, I know I should not procrastinate in school or at work, but even though I can list all the rational reasons why procrastination works against me, I still cannot simply make a rational decision not to procrastinate anymore.
Resistance to Change:
In therapy this force within me that is working against myself is referred to as my resistance.
My resistance confronts me with the fact that I am not always the master of my own house. It tells me that all the logic, reason, and will-power in the world often isn’t enough to bring about change. It reveals to me the presence of motivations within me that do not fall under the purview of my rational self.
These motivations that work against me oftentimes do their work outside my conscious awareness. They are not parts of my personality, which I identify with. It is this that makes them my most formidable adversary, for how can I win a battle against forces that are mostly invisible to me?
The Benefits We Derive from Symptoms:
The part within a person that resists change is considered by psychodynamic therapists to be motivated by secondary gain. It derives comfort from the very symptom the rational part of me wants to get rid of.
When looked at from the perspective of the rational mind this of course does not make any sense. Why would I for example not want to stop procrastinating? What possible benefit could I get from sabotaging myself?
The secret to understanding this conundrum is to begin to unlock the unconscious logic that makes procrastinating a successful bulwark against greater fears or threats to a person’s psychological safety.
Could it be that I am afraid to succeed because I at some level don’t believe I am worthy of success? Could it be that I am afraid that if I truly try and ultimately fail, I will get affirmation of this fact? Or could it be that a part of me resents the fact that I have taken on a career or a field of study which I thought would make my parents proud, a fact that I cannot openly acknowledge to myself, or which would require me to live with the guilt of openly disappointing my parents?
From the perspective of the unconscious, these would all be excellent reasons to procrastinate. My resistance to change is here the last bulwark against an unconscious and unacknowledged conflict, which must be kept out of my awareness to spare me much psychological turmoil and anxiety.
Keeping Unconscious Conflicts at Bay:
Oftentimes when we seem to not be able to wrest ourselves free of a depression, or change a self-destructive habit that keeps us stuck, it is because of the presence of an underlying unconscious conflict, which motivates us to resist a change to the current status quo.
Although being depressed, for example, is pretty miserable, it is often unconsciously preferable to being assertive and risking other people’s rejections or wrath, or confronting the realization that I need to change career or get a divorce. Depression sometimes keeps me from drawing the unpleasant conclusion of a realization that would cause too great of an upset to myself or to others.
It is often safer to stick with the devil we know.
And so it is that approaches to change that only address the conscious rational side of a person are almost always destined to fail. Although willpower and logical reasoning can get us far in life, they cannot win the battle over our secret fears and unacknowledged conflicts. To truly change oneself is thus ironically to first truly accept oneself: to honor our resistance and let our resistance reveal its logic to us, which means to become more aware of who we truly are and what is truly motivating us not to change.
Perhaps we should become a little more like Soeren Kierkegaard who instead of declaring warfare on his symptoms, acknowledged with a degree of self-compassion: “My depression is the most faithful mistress I have known -- no wonder, then, that I return the love”.
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist and psychodynamic therapist in Houston, TX.