Client resistance comes in both subtle and obvious forms. It’s a hastening of the breath, a change in speech pattern, or silence. Sometimes, we may not even see any signs until a client suddenly stops attending sessions.
As a younger practitioner some years ago, I sometimes felt as if the resistance was personal – that I was not doing my job well or there was something amiss with my approach. There were moments when it was easy to equate the outcome of one session to the entirety of my competency.
In those times of doubt, seeking the guidance of mentors equipped me with the resources I needed, and to this day, I remain grateful for the growing community of practitioners that continue to share priceless insights. More importantly, flashes of self-doubt or frustration when a client shows resistance is an opportunity to check-in with ourselves to get to the root of the situation.
EGO AND RESISTANCE
The ego is a sophisticated part of the self and is commonly associated with negative values such as vanity and envy. However, a more accurate definition of ego by Eckhart Tolle is that it’s a protective shell in which we encase ourselves to be separate from the “otherness” of the rest of the world. The “otherness” is anything or anyone that is not “me”. This also includes negative self-perceptions and experiences that become part of how we identify ourselves.
Clients come to us in these protective shells with an image of who and what they believe they are. Statements such as “I am a workaholic” or “I’m depressed” are examples of egoic projections. “I’m a champion for social justice” or “I’m a vegan” are similarly egoic declarations.
Notice that the ego self can be captured in an “I am ______” sentence.
Circling back to Tolle’s definition, the ego indicates an identification with a superficial state of being (i.e. being too absorbed with work, feeling indifferent, being part of a social movement, etc). There are benefits to believing in the ego. Mainly, it encourages a person to reach some of their goals. For example, identifying as a painter (“I am a painter”) as long as it coincides with affirmative action (meaning, that person paints regularly), helps them achieve their full potential.
However, problems can arise when a person over-identifies with the superficial version of who they think they are, thereby, causing resistance when interventions are presented.
For most of our clients, the ego is equated with the true self and any intervention against their ego may feel like a threat against their core – the distinction between the true self and the ego may not exist for them. This could be one reason for resistance.
We can observe this, for instance, when we hear a client say “I’m depressed, that’s why no one wants to be around me.” Their thought is that being depressed is who they are and how others see them; and that every reason or decision they make has to factor in the fact that they identify as a depressed person. They may not know who/what they are except for what their current state of being dictates. Guiding them as they find and accept their true self can be a long and uneasy journey that often comes with opening old wounds, some of which they may not even be aware. It’s a negative feedback loop that can cause resistance.
Furthermore, keep in mind that one of the ego’s jobs is to hold onto unhealthy behaviour or thought patterns that may have protected the client in some form, especially during highly traumatic events. An example of the ego’s grip on unhealthy patterns is when a client disassociates every time they are asked to talk about a negative experience. Notice if they try to divert the conversation to something else or if their body language changes.
Interacting with the client’s ego (as well as ours) is not about fighting or forcing it to become smaller. In fact, doing the opposite may be more productive – meaning, we expand the self. I will discuss more on this later.
Spotting these patterns is critical when there’s very little to no progress with a client’s program. Through careful listening and patience, we may be able to answer why the client chooses to stay inside their shell?”
COMFORT IN THE DISCOMFORT
Here’s a scenario:
Anna feels burnt out at work and has lost her motivation to do what she loves – design. For months, Anna has been putting in overtime to finish a huge project she’s been designated to lead. Throughout the campaign, her colleagues have admired her output which her boss also noticed. Her exemplary work was a reason for her boss to entrust her with another project that will simultaneously run with the current one.
Anna took on the responsibility even though she was already overwhelmed with what she had on her plate. She continued to push herself because she thought that saying “no” might be a missed opportunity for promotion and that her boss might think less of her. She resents her boss and her colleagues for her poor health and mental state.
Takeaways from the scenario:
- Anna strongly identifies with her job as a designer.
- She does not want to disappoint others’ expectations.
- “No” does not come easy.
- She’d rather endure her poor health than risk standing her ground.
- She does not take responsibility for her own health and wellbeing.
There’s an Irish proverb that goes, “Better the devil you know…”
The proverb essentially means it’s more tolerable to deal with something unpleasant that we’re familiar with than with something uncertain. If it’s stress and anxiety we’re used to, then we stick to it because it’s what we know.
Like Anna, some of our clients would rather deal with the discomfort of their current state than do the work for an uncertain end. In their minds, pain is tolerable because at least it’s expected and familiar. When a person is on autopilot, they think that there’s little work needed when it’s not the case.
Again, this is part of the ego’s function – to discern which stimuli will make a person feel safe. It’s all part of the shell that gives one a sense of security. The familiarity of the shell’s contents is what a client clings to regardless of the negative effects on their wellbeing. Often, their familiarity with negative feelings turns into excuses for not doing the work.
When we locate the discomfort that feels comfortable for a client, we can begin to understand why they choose to keep the status quo rather than shift to a positive change.
…which brings us to a universal truth: Change can be a struggle.
TOO MUCH TOO SOON
Proposing too many changes over a short period is confusing and distracting for the client as well as ourselves. Focus on the essentials and make small yet meaningful changes at a reasonable pace.
It’s like helping a client clean a messy room.
During the process of cleaning, there’s a period when the room will look like a tornado passed through. It’s chaos but a controlled one. With gentleness, we can remind the client that there really is no way around it. The mess is necessary before everything can be placed in their proper place.
However, there has to be a rhyme and reason for displacing (or discarding) the objects in the room. For the client, they need to discover for themselves why the mess is part of the process; and that is part of the challenge for us. A resistance to “clean the room” could mean they have yet to recognise the need to tidy up. It’s up to us to provide the support and space they need to see the bigger picture.
Borrowing from Kanter’s Law, “everything can look like a failure in the middle” and while the client is in the thick of that feeling, it’s imperative that they know we’re there with them. Establishing trust during this state of discomfort will often determine whether a client will continue to resist or go with the flow.
The middle of a program can seem like a failure for practitioners too. We set goals at the start of the program and realise none of the boxes has been ticked. We may even find ourselves restarting from scratch because the client is simply not responding to the plan.
On days like this, let go…
Let go of the ego and accept what is instead of dwelling on what was/is up ahead. What is is that we can’t control how a client reacts. What is is that we’re doing our best and that is enough. Be present to let go. Is our thought where our body is?(link to presence blog) If not, what steps can we take to sync the two so we can regroup and find a solution?
MORE QUESTIONS FOR PRACTITIONERS
There isn’t a singular technique to successfully connect with a resistant client. Once we accept this, then it becomes easier to let go of our pessimistic views on the matter.
Fortunately, there are questions we can ask ourselves to find our bearings and see if it’s worth continuing sessions with a client. These questions are: 
- Do we want the change more than the client? Check to see if there is countertransference.
- Are we able to balance objectivity and empathy? Perhaps our aim to avoid countertransference is coming across as being too cold.
- Does the client have external support from friends or family? A support system, or lack of it, plays an important role in a client’s progress.
- Has there been an unexpected change in their program? It is a collaboration, therefore, both parties have to be aware of each step for trust come.
- Did the client seek help willingly? Being coerced to do something that does not resonate is a strong contributor to a client’s motivation.
Honest answers to these questions will let us know whether we have the resources to help a client or if we can refer them to a colleague that can match their energy.
As we mentioned at the beginning of this reflection, client resistance is an opportunity to look inward. Of course, this is not to say that there is always something lacking in us when we experience friction with a client. Rather, it’s an invitation to check-in with our “vastness” so we may provide a safer space for our clients to discover their true self.
Remember the phrase, “expand the self” earlier? This is what that is pertaining to – the vastness inside us. It is in expanding the self that we help clients do the same for themselves. The exercise of expansion of the self can free us (and client) of the isolation and fear that the ego fosters.
Tonglen is an ancient Buddhist term that means “giving and receiving.” This is one of the foundations of our work as coaches and practitioners. Breathing in negative energy and breathing out positivity. It’s breathing in and filling ourselves with love so we can breathe out the same love. It’s a sense of connectedness with the All, such that, every minute change we make affects the universe.
And so, as we look inward, we take inventory of the amount of space we have to expand the self so we can create space for the client. Is anything within that may be distracting us from tonglen? Are we able to fill our vastness with compassion to make room for our client’s energy?
To expand the self, start with “I am.”
Not “I am tired.”
Not “I am frustrated.”
Just, “I am” – who we are in this moment. No other identifier.
We can do the same affirmation with a client when we can sense that there is resistance and there’s too much ego present in that moment. Again, we go back to awareness; back to presence.
When we (the client and us) are free from the need to become anything other than our present, we bring forth our true self… open and ready to change.