Quick Tips for Therapists

Rolling with and Supporting the Resistant Client

By Leah Aguirre, LCSW

We have all had those clients that show up to every single session, but continue to report the same problem behaviors and are observably resistant to change. As providers, these clients tend to bring up feelings of frustration and helplessness—and sometimes, even dread. What’s important to remember is that (most of the time) it’s not you, it’s them.

When you have a client that is resistant, the first step is recognizing and acknowledging the resistance to change. Typically, resistance is a form of avoidance that is fear-based. Change requires our clients to be vulnerable by doing something new or different.

For example, let’s say you have a client that initiated therapy with the intention of learning how to set and reinforce boundaries with their overbearing parent. While this client has insight into the dysfunction of their parent-child relationship, there are also reasons why they might struggle with making the changes they need to make to experience relief. It’s important that we explore this resistance with patience and non-judgment.

Here are some exploratory questions to ask your resistant client:

  • What feelings come up when you think about making the change in behavior we have talked about?
  • What do you think is getting in the way of making the changes you need to make to feel better or experience relief?
  • Are there any cons to changing this behavior? If so, what are they? Do the cons outweigh the pros?
  • What could happen within your relationship if you change the behavior? What are possible short-term consequences? What are some of the long-term consequences?
  • What would you need to feel more confident in making this change?

It’s important for us to normalize and hold space for resistance. We need to honor our clients and where they are in their process, while at the same time exploring this resistance and encouraging growth.

Leah Aguirre, LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker practicing in San Diego, CA. She works primarily with teens and adults who have experienced complex trauma, including childhood abuse, domestic violence, and dating violence, and provides trauma-based treatment including eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). Aguirre writes a blog on Psychology Today, and has been featured in BumbleGQThe San Diego Union-Tribune, and in the Reframe and DiveThru apps.

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Quick Tips for Therapists