Tips for Overcoming Resistance in Family Therapy

It’s incredibly difficult for many of us in this culture of freedom and autonomy to submit to a group process, to entrust our fate to the whims of consensus, to surrender control.

Democracy we get.  Consensus, not so much.

This fear of losing control manifests often and early in family therapy; it generally shows up as some form of resistance.

“What if I don’t agree with the group?”

“I’m used to being the boss.”

“I’m used to being invisible.”

“I’m used to being the joker.”

“I don’t talk about those things.”

Whatever one’s personal objections are to engaging the group dynamic, they generally tie into a fear of change and a fear of losing control.    I have my place and role and I know how to do that; life as usual at least allows me some sense of consistency and control.  In short, I’m used to the way things are—homeostasis—even when “the way things are” is clearly not working.

This fear of being subsumed by the family system is so powerful that it can end the family therapy process before it even begins.  Sometimes this occurs through passive refusal—as when a family member or members simply won’t open up, refusing to submit their thoughts, feelings, and concerns to the group.  Other times, this resistance manifests when a key family decision maker such as mom or dad simply terminates therapy.


Whole-family involvement, though, is the best way to pursue sustainable healing and growth for a struggling individual  principally because it can generate a powerful internal alignment of that person’s primary system–the family.  But family therapy requires first that each family member submits their intentions, hopes, and feelings to the family for comment, approval, and assistance.  It requires not only that you do your part, but that you trust others to do theirs.

Any one member of the group can stand in your way and you can stand in theirs.   These elements can be nothing short of terrifying and can lead to very normal, sometimes appropriate, but often counterproductive resistance—that feeling inside that says, “something’s wrong; I don’t want to share; I don’t have anything to share; this is dumb.”  But once resistance gives way to sharing, submitting, and engaging yourself and your family in new ways, amazing things can happen.

Following are a few tips to consider as you enter the scary, but exciting realm of family therapy:

* If you feel “emotionally constipated,” “blank” or numb, suspicious, or otherwise hesitant to engage family therapy sessions, articulate these dynamics as a starting point for sharing

* Engage in your own therapy outside of family therapy.

* Articulate your own goals for therapy and ask for input.

* If you’re a talker…try listening careful and actively instead; if a listener or reticent, try speaking up.  Interrupting patterns is a key part of family-systems therapy.

*Listen actively to others as they speak—sometimes it’s easier to open up when your focus is on someone else

* Accept that a level of resistance is normal and appropriate—everyone has a different pace for sharing

* Breathe—slow, deep breathing can reduce anxiety and help you relax enough to feel and to express; yoga is a great way to practice this kind of breathing outside of the therapy setting

* Be willing to try new things—crack a joke, ask a question, stand on your head, shake it up!

* Try a different therapist—if you feel stuck for an extended period of time, it’s okay to try a different therapist; resistance is often a two-way dynamic

Family therapy can be scary, frustrating, and difficult.  But it also creates the most incredible opportunities for sustainable change.   When change occurs at a systemic level in a family, it means that your growth is supported by an almost irresistible force.  It means, ultimately, that you’re not alone—and neither is your son or daughter or spouse or whoever in the family is really struggling the most.