Potential Space

by Lorrie Goldin, LCSW
Resistance is in the air. What are the parallels between the political and psychological manifestations of the word?
Freud's initial concept of resistance came from observing people's difficulties in feeling, thought, and meaning-making. Patients often seemed unable or unwilling to apply new insight in the service of change. Resistance, initially regarded by Freud as an annoying obstacle, soon earned his respect as a powerful albeit often self-defeating unconscious process to preserve the familiar and a sense of safety.
Therapists frequently encounter those who cannot feel because doing so invites the bully's taunts or a crippling despair; those who cannot make meaning because connecting the dots would be unbearable; those who cannot change because doing so threatens key relationships and identity.
Rather than failing to cooperate, such patients are employing important protective maneuvers and signaling core issues. As psychologist Steven Hayes notes, "the reason people are resistant is that there's work to do."
We also see in our patients not just classic inhibitions, but acts of open or passive defiance to survive a volatile or oppressive environment. When power differentials are great, passive resistance can be the wisest and most effective choice. Such coping mechanisms can harden into self-defeating behaviors. Yet they are also flags planted in hostile territory to stake a claim for selfhood. Our task as therapists is to honor the intent of self-preservation while helping our patients find less self-sabotaging expressions.
"Resistance" is also used as shorthand by therapists frustrated with patients they view as refusing to go along with their psychotherapeutic program. In the political realm, this manifests as disdain for "sore losers" who should just "get over it."
In both the political and psychological realms, it is difficult to know the best way to resist: outright defiance may liberate but also backfire; individuals can act out in self-defeating ways that unwittingly perpetuate their own problems while letting oppressors off the hook. Political resisters who are violent or disruptive (e.g., the free speech battles on campuses) risk handing ammunition to those they oppose.
Again, power differentials matter. Civil servants who keep their heads down while leaking anonymously to the press are as important as fiery speakers who rally people to the cause.
It's ironic that a concept understood by Freud as arising from unconscious inhibitions has taken on a whole new meaning under a president who lacks all inhibition. Trump's unleashed id has unleashed a powerful resistance.

Whether psychological or political, resistance is an urgent communication from the powerless to the powerful. It means that there's work to be done.