Individual Counseling

Resistant Clients

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Every therapist ends up working with resistant clients. It can be an exhausting, frustrating experience but it doesn’t need to be. Actually in the face of gridlock it’s not the client who’s to blame for that gridlock, the client is simply recurring to the same protective life strategy that’s recurred to in all other spheres of life. It’s the therapist who’s to blame for failing to take the conversation away from the content, away from the concrete encounter, and towards the process, towards the meaning behind the encounter.

Resistances of all kinds are meant to protect the psyche from material felt at some level of awareness to be threatening to the integrity of Self. Most clients who resist talking about this or that subject matter are not actively trying to be difficult at all. Just the opposite, they’re trying to be pleasant. They’re in the session to work but they aren’t yet ready or able to put certain parts of themselves under the microscope.

What usually ends up happening is a bunch of ‘yeah buts’. The therapist keeps pushing and the client keeps pulling away and then suddenly there’s a strange power change where it might seem like the therapist is in charge but actually it’s the client who’s in charge, the client who determines which data points are relevant and which aren’t. The therapist suddenly takes all the responsibility for the quality of interactions and works to exhaustion trying to prove this or that data point to be true.

This is a complete waste of time and it’s counterproductive to the therapeutic endeavor. What therapists need to do in these cases is take a step back and instead of living in the push-pull content of the encounter talk about the meaning of the encounter itself. They need to give their clients space to talk about the life strategy of ‘yeah but’, the life strategy of excuses and rationalizations, and to help them tease out the origin of those feelings of helplessness in a world perceived as hostile that led to that strategy in the first place.

Just as importantly, the gamble must be taken to basically say “I’m a guide, I can’t scale the mountain for you.” The responsibility for change must be placed squarely on the shoulders of the client, where it belongs, not on the shoulders of the therapist who hopes that through relentlessly arguing some point of interest the client will finally relent. Of course this gamble can and does end in the termination of the therapeutic relationship but it’s much better than the alternative, which is the exhausting and pointless effort to convince the client of some reality while the client undermines that effort at every turn. It’s go process or go home.

Greetings I’m Michael, the owner of Evolution Counseling and the author of all the articles on this site. I got my master’s degree from Seattle University in community mental heath counseling and have committed myself to advancing my knowledge of psychology and my own theoretical system ever since. The content here represents my personal evolution of thought. I’ve also become a big fan of photography and I take all the pictures you’ll see at the top of articles. We don’t advertise to get traffic so this site’s increasing popularity is grassroots, it’s based on you and people like you deciding for yourselves that these articles are a good source for psychological insight and that they’re worth sharing with others.