As the client of a depth psychologist back in the mid-1980’s, I acquired a copy of The Basic Neurosis by Edmund Bergler. My therapist told me the book was important, and I was determined to read it. I did so for five or six pages and then, inexplicably, put it aside.
Over the following weeks, I occasionally remembered the book and my intention to read it. But by then I couldn’t recall where I’d put it. I finally came across it six months later, tucked into an excellent hiding place, out of sight in a back shelf in my office.
In a classic case of psychological resistance, I had hidden the book from myself! I had not wanted to learn what it insisted was true, that unconsciously we’re ready and willing to participate in our own misery.
Psychological resistance is like an invisible wall that stands between aspiring individuals and the actualized self they desperately want to become. Bringing this resistance into view is vitally important to our personal development.
People continually bump up against this wall, get knocked back on their duff, get back up, and incomprehensibly repeat the procedure ad infinitum. We don’t even know we’re bumping into a wall. We’re just left feeling confused, dazed, and disoriented, unable to make any sense of recurring self-defeat or self-sabotage.
The experience of hiding the book from myself made resistance more visible to me. I could now understand resistance in a very personal way after realizing how it got the best of me. Because of the therapy I was getting, my resistance at that point had lessened somewhat. I was now more willing to recognize and resolve my unconsciousness determination to recycle and replay negative emotions such as feeling deprived, refused, helpless, criticized, and rejected.
When it comes to the psyche, people don’t know what they don’t know. In terms of resistance, they don’t want to know what they don’t know. We uncover this incredible fact as we examine our psyche under the microscope of depth psychology.
Our resistance to inner truth brings to mind a cartoon I’ve wanted to draw and submit to The New Yorker, in which an angry client glares at his psychotherapist and says, “How dare you tell me something I don’t already know about myself!”
Resistance of a psychological kind is, essentially, an unconscious unwillingness to open one’s awareness to the inner truth that exposes our hidden participation in emotional and behavioral problems. Everyday people, even the smartest among us, can be limited to a surprising degree by their resistance to seeing and overcoming hidden weaknesses, while people with borderline and mental health disorders can be exceedingly resistant to knowledge and strategies that could help them become healthy.
Psychological resistance is an aspect of human nature that not only forms an inner barrier but also causes people to act against their best interests. Under the influence of such resistance, we decline to shift away from our negative emotions, to change our bad habits, to initiate plans and strategies for self-fulfillment, and to open our minds to more objective consideration of our perceptions and beliefs.
I’ve previously written in passing about resistance but have hesitated to highlight it. From the start, people can be resistant to inner work, and I didn’t want to discourage them with the idea that their first fledgling steps might require a steep ascent. It’s nothing like that, as I’ll make clear. I’m writing on the subject now because some clients have asked for more insight into it, and I hope to present the challenge of resistance as an adventurous climbing expedition rather than a mission impossible.
The biggest resistance is fear—and it’s all irrational. Propping up our resistance is a stubborn, largely unconscious determination to avoid the anxious or fearful feelings of having our consoling, subjective perceptions and beliefs (the limited me with which we identify) challenged by truth and reality.
The fear is associated with the possibility that we’ll discover disorienting self-knowledge. This involves the sense of being overwhelmed by the vast dimensions of our inner life and thereby losing our comforting associations and illusions. As well, our ego’s pomposity can induce us to believe that we already know everything that could possibly be relevant or important.
Another cause of resistance is our repressed belief that something “bad” lurks within us, some wickedness we need to keep secret. This impression stems, in part, from the degree to which as young children we felt defined in terms of “badness” by our sexual instincts. Whether objectively or subjectively, children also can feel they’re not being adequately appreciated or loved; they can personalize this impression, thereby believing that some abhorrent aspect of themselves, a dark notion of self they prefer to keep locked away, accounts for why they’re not being more fully appreciated or loved.
While it’s important to begin to recognize resistance, we certainly don’t want to try to smash our way through it. Doing so intensifies inner conflict. Instead, we just have to watch for it, acknowledge it, and even show some begrudging respect for its existence as a facet of human nature. We do our best to recognize it, and then we try to proceed with confidence that it won’t defeat us.
Sigmund Freud noted that psychoanalysts invariably encounter “tenacious resistance” from their patients. The deeper the analysis, the greater the resistance. Many modern therapies meet with little resistance because they do not penetrate deeply into the psyche. (In mythology, resistance and other emotional issues are represented by the many monsters, dragons, and other vile creatures that are intent on blocking aspiring heroes from fulfilling their destiny.)
The invisible inner wall of resistance weaves its way from “coast to coast” inside our psyche. From whatever direction we come as we struggle to advance our consciousness, we encounter the wall. That means that a wide range of psychological dynamics—all our defenses, for instance, as well as our unresolved inner conflict—act as forms of resistance.
To be precise, there’s more than one wall to climb. We get over the first one, advance contentedly for many miles, only to encounter another. This second wall, at least, is likely to be more visible and less imposing. Subsequent walls become even easier to scale. Getting over the first wall is the toughest slog.
Like walls of different composition, resistance takes many guises. It includes (1) inner conflict that produces anxiety, procrastination, and indecision; (2) psychological defenses such as cynicism and passive-aggressive reactions; (3) an unwillingness to consider new ideas; (4) a passive tendency to allow good intention and willpower to collapse; (5) a narrow focus on minor details or secondary issues that obscures the big picture, (6) a strong identification with our old, flawed self; (7) a stubborn unwillingness to do what’s in our best interests; and (8) an unconscious determination, even compulsion, to produce self-defeat and self-sabotage. This subject of resistance could fill a large book.
Inner conflict (number one from the above list) takes the form of resistance because the symptoms of the conflict, as well as the conflict itself, are felt to be so intrinsic to one’s nature, personality, and character. The emotional identifications and behavioral repercussions associated with inner conflict become our default sense of self. Dysfunctional individuals have difficulty maintaining or stabilizing themselves outside the realm of conflict and its ensuing negativity. They cling to an old conflicted sense of self because, while painful, it’s still familiar and it thereby seemingly attests to who they are. When people resist inner growth by blaming their plight on others, this blame becomes both their defense and their resistance. Blaming is employed unconsciously to cover up one’s unwillingness to let go of an old identity and its emotional attachments.
That’s why people can be so resistant to new ideas. Insecure or neurotic people, rather than knowing themselves intrinsically through feelings, say, of goodness and integrity, tend to orient themselves around ideas and beliefs that validate their inner defensiveness. New ideas that challenge their old ones can strike at the fabric of their identity and threaten to undermine it. Some new ideas, of course, are more powerful than others. The notion that we’re so willing to cling to negative emotions is one such new idea (it’s not “new” per se, but new to most people).
For insecure adults, learning something new about their psyche feels as if they’re being asked to acknowledge the degree of their ignorance. That’s a bitter step down from what they feel to be their saving grace, their illusion of knowing their own mind. Resistance combines with furious non-acceptance to debunk this humiliating new idea. It’s not a stretch to say the neurotic person’s inner modus operandi is to try to falsify reality in order to accommodate their defenses. (In the case of people with mental disorders, reality has already been falsified.)
When doing therapy, clients experience a form of resistance that involves the stubborn refusal of their symptoms to dissipate. Even for a person exposed to good therapy, his or her symptoms continue to come and go over time, until neurosis eventually collapses. Neurosis and its symptoms are very stubborn, and overcoming them can be a person’s greatest life triumph. The process takes time, yet time itself doesn’t have to feel like a burden or obstacle—it is, after all, just day-to-day life. Once a person is pointed in the right direction, time is on her side. I tell clients, “Don’t use the recurrence of symptoms as a form of resistance that can persuade you to give up on your goal of inner freedom and self-realization.”
Some of my readers have told me that, when reading my books, they find themselves becoming quite sleepy. My writing itself, I’ll modestly suggest, is not the cause. The sleepiness is a form of resistance. In my own therapy 30 years ago, I would get drowsy when my therapist was correctly identifying my issues. When his best analyses were being presented, I would mysteriously “zone out” and stop hearing what he was saying. “Could you repeat that last part?” I often requested of him as I came back to my senses. One time, after he had astutely broken through one of my defenses, I snarled at him and said, “So what! Big deal!” It took a saintly therapist to put up with my resistance.