“Resistance” is one of those words whose meaning changes significantly depending on the person talking about it. For example, in social activist circles, it may be used to describe the act of standing against oppressive or problematic forces. In psychology, it’s a term with a history of mostly negative implications. Since Freud, the word “resistance” and other synonyms have been used to describe people in generalized ways when they don’t fall in line with what professionals expect of them. Often, especially in more formalized medical settings, people whose complaints persist despite professional interventions are labeled “resistant” clients or patients. Interestingly, from this clinical perspective, the failure of the treatment is attributed to qualities inherent to the person receiving it, not the professionals administering it.
In recent years, “resistance” has been recognized and talked about in more positive terms by some factions of counsellors, psychologists, community and human service workers, and psychiatrists. This is in part thanks to the important, paradigm-shifting work of folks like Allan Wade, and the Centre for Response-Based Practice, as well as Solution-Focused pioneer Steve DeShazer, and Narrative therapists like Stephen Madigan. When I hear stories of resistance from my clients, I hear accounts of the ways they minimize their exposure to, and survive adverse experiences. This may be in times when someone is subjected to violence, abuse, humiliation, or some other form of mistreatment, or when someone is dealing with a more private concern or issue. Whatever the case, I use the term “resistance” to refer to the life-affirming ways people get by in the world.
Contrary to popular belief, resistance is rarely comprised of visible, tangible actions. In fact, out of necessity, it’s often invisible to anyone outside the person doing it. Using violence as an example, almost any time someone does harm to another person, they act in ways to suppress resistance. Many of us have heard stories of bad things happening to people, who supposedly did “nothing” to stop them. The reality is, anyone in a bad situation actively responds in ways that mitigates the harm done to them and upholds their dignity – even if they can’t physically stop the other person or force acting against them. Emotional responses and thoughts are among the most telling acts of resistance because they are unstoppable. No matter what might happen to our physical bodies, nothing can stop the invisible actions we take within the privacy of our minds.
Our feelings in response to adversity speak volumes to the extent to which we care about our wellbeing. For example, someone’s depression or sadness in response to mistreatment at work or school may contain an implicit preference for better treatment. Or someone’s anxiety around going out in public may be related to a time they were humiliated or assaulted, which could allude to an implicit preference for safety. In spirit, the responses in both these examples serve life-affirming purposes - resistance against some form of adversity. Of course, our responses and resistance may be just as complex as the situations we face in life, and aren’t necessarily so cut and dry. Nonetheless, I consider any emotional complaint or physical action for the purpose of creating safety, minimizing harm, upholding dignity, or protecting others to be inherently positive acts of resistance.
Some questions to help bring your accounts of resistance to the forefront could be:
- When something bad or harmful happened to you, what did you do?
- How did you feel? What did you notice in your body?
- What might your emotional response say about your position on things like that happening to you?
- If you’ve ever known anyone else whose dealt with something similar, how have you responded to them?
- Why do you think you responded that way, and how did you know to do that?