As mental health issues have moved more to the forefront of our culture, there’s been an increase in referrals to us by courts, schools, and families as a means to change socially unacceptable behavior. The perception of the therapeutic process has shifted from one in which people with problems seek our help to one in which others send us people to fix. The shift to the perception that we have the ability to “fix” people has gone largely unchallenged by the mental health community. To this end, we’ve taken on the responsibility of setting goals for clients that the world assumes are feasible rather than sorting out clients’ goals for themselves. Whenever goals are imposed on clients by outside agencies, “resistance” is inevitably provoked.
After 100 years of the existence of this profession, it’s time to reexamine both the possibilities and the limits of psychotherapy. The concept of resistance is central to that reexamination. Like so many other people in this field, I’ve spent countless hours going to workshops and lectures trying to learn ever more powerful techniques for producing change. But no matter how seemingly powerful the methods I learned were, I wound up regularly experiencing “resistance” from my clients. It’s only recently, as I’ve grown more aware of how much of that resistance was created by me, that my experience as a psychotherapist has undergone a fundamental transformation.
I now see my primary job not as trying to change my clients, but as trying to keep increasing my understanding of their world. To that end, I’m always monitoring our exchanges to make sure I stay in sync with where they are and where they want to go, and I notice when, for whatever reason, I begin to create more of what I formerly labeled “resistance.” When I detect a client’s reluctance to go along with my perceptions, I immediately notice what isn’t working and focus on slowing the pace, getting more details, and discussing how the conversation can better serve the stated goals of the session, until the client and I are once again on common ground. To be sure, the path toward helping clients achieve meaningful goals in our work together can often be indirect. At times, it can seem as if I’m journeying to the East to reach the West. But I feel that my clients and I are closer partners in the process, especially since I’m not regularly distracted by the intrusive presence of my old companion “resistance,” who rarely visits my office these days.
Clifton Mitchell, Ph.D., is the author of Effective Techniques for Dealing with Highly Resistant Clients. He’s created The Legal and Ethical Game Show Challenge, the only legal and ethical training utilizing a game-show format. He’s a Teacher of the Year recipient at East Tennessee State University. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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