Resistance 2.0: How Gay Men Can Claim Their Power and Resist With Purpose

by | Gay Mental Health

I was once in a counselling training where the trainer said “there’s no such thing as client resistance, just inflexible counsellors.”

You could feel half the room of counsellors freeze and struggle to ingest the idea. And I think it’s because that statement cut to the core of this topic.

Of course, limits and boundaries are important in any type of healthy relationship, whether that’s at work, at home, or in counselling. I don’t think boundaries are what this trainer was arguing against.

Instead, I believe this trainer was commenting on the assumptions that counsellors have traditionally been taught to make about what it means when the counselling process feels blocked or stuck.

When I work with a client, one of the questions I’m asking myself is how what’s happening during the counselling represents other patterns in the client’s life. This is useful because we can then take the time to look at that pattern in a new way.

So when I’m working with a client, and it feels like they aren’t receptive to the counselling process in some way, I try to get curious about what’s happening, and bring this observation into the counselling itself.

Traditionally, a client being “uncooperative,” or “unwilling” to engage in counselling is know as “resistance.” However, in my work with gay men and other oppressed communities, I’ve come to believe that “resistance” needs to be thought about in an entirely new way. 

What is “resistance?”

“Resistance” was first made popular as a therapeutic concept by Freud. In its original conception, client disagreement with a psychotherapist’s analysis or intervention attempts was seen as a defensive reaction that the counsellor had to “combat.” Over the years, different ideas about “resistance” have arisen in the counselling field. However, client “resistance” as psychopathology has remained an undercurrent up to the present day.

The issue with “resistance”

While traditional “resistance” gave a framework to think about what was “getting in the way,” there are some assumptions in this concept that need to be examined.

One of these assumptions is that the counsellor is the expert on the client’s life, and that the client just needs to do what the counsellor says. It sets up a dynamic where if the client agrees, the counsellor is right, and if the client disagrees, the counsellor is also right because disagreement is just a form of client resistance to what’s best for them.

In extreme cases, this dynamic can end up gaslighting a client when a counsellor becomes convinced they know what’s best and pathologizes a client’s disagreement or reluctance. A counsellor taking this stance can be highly triggering for gay men and other oppressed communities who have lived their lives having their experiences ignored and/or invalidated. This triggered response from the client may then be further interpreted by the counsellor as an extension of the client’s pathology. This is classic gaslighting.

In this sense, traditional notions of “resistance” frame the client as the “issue.” There’s no consideration that resistance could be a sign of coping or health. In essence, it closes the conversation to multiple viewpoints.

A new way to think about resistance

I’ll forever be grateful for the learning I continue to do in a branch of psychology called liberation psychology. This is a an approach to psychology that seeks to address social inequality and understand how oppressed people are affected by the societal structures in which they exist (including counselling). 

From a liberation psychology standpoint, resistance can be thought of as a healthy way for oppressed folks to cope with an oppressive society.

Resistance can show up in all sorts of ways. Resistance can be a creative act. It can be “small” or “large.” It can be direct or indirect.

For gay men, resistance could be something like disengaging from/refusing to cooperate with a homophobic person, highlighting an instance of discrimination, or refusing to attend an event with a homophobic family member.

So when I’m working with a client and I feel some resistance, I don’t see it as “maladaptive.” I respect it as a possible coping mechanism that has likely served the client as they’ve struggled in a world that hasn’t always treated them well.

I also try to check my thinking in that moment and later on. I might simply be mistaken about something. Counsellors can make mistakes after all. Gripping unrelentingly to an expert position is far from therapeutic with someone who has experienced a lifetime of society and authority figures telling them they’re wrong.

It’s an opportunity to get curious and respect how resistance might have helped someone to survive and feel some agency in their life.

How to harness your resistance even more

Another approach that can be helpful, is to look at how you can harness your capacity for resistance purposefully.

Often, gay men and other oppressed folks have to creatively find ways to resist during in-the-moment encounters or experiences of being oppressed. Especially when someone has repeatedly faced oppression throughout their life, it becomes necessary to automatically find ways to push back.

When we have the space to explore our resistance safely, we can also take a step back and ask ourselves if there are ways we can be even more intentional with how and when we resist. This purposeful application of resistance can help us live the type of life that we desire, and support other people to do the same. Ultimately, it’s about being in charge of resistance, not resistance being in charge of you.

A common example might be a gay man who had to constantly fight against homophobic peers and adults who pressured him to “act more masculine” during his childhood. As an adult, this gay man could explore if and how he can update these resistance strategies so that they match the challenges of his current reality.

Upon exploring, it may be that these resistance methods are working just fine with no need for a “resistance 2.0 update.” In this case, he could look at how to respect these resistance strategies instead of feeling shame about them, and look at how to apply them even more intentionally so that he’s more in control, and can maximize the rewards of resistance.

In other cases, someone might find that they’re applying resistance in automatic ways which are not serving them in the way they would like.

For example, a gay man might find that he’s automatically closing himself off emotionally, or lashing out unintentionally at a partner when he feels vulnerable. Here, there’s an opportunity for a necessary form of resistance from the past to be updated so that it isn’t automatically calling the shots and undermining his wellbeing.

In short, this approach to resistance is not about conforming to oppressive systems. It’s quite the opposite. It’s about really owning how and when you resist so that resistance is pointed at oppressive forces: not at yourself. 

How is this concept useful in everyday life?

1. Reframing resistance as a necessary coping strategy can help you see your history and current challenges with more self-compassion. This self-compassion is also useful if you’re in the process of trying to update your resistance and aren’t applying it in the way you’d like to just yet.

2. Similarly, thinking about resistance in new ways can help you to be more curious, non-judgmental, compassionate, and respectful with other people who have had to resist to survive.

3. Respecting the necessity and creativity of resistance makes it easier to keep your resistance up to date with your current life challenges, live with less shame, and apply it purposefully so that it’s helping you live your life the way you want.

If you’d like some help learning how to claim more of your power and resist purposefully, click the button below to get started. 🙂

Blog Bio Jordan Gruenhage Canada Gay Counsellor Therapist

Jordan Gruenhage

MA, CCC, RCC

As a counsellor at The Centre for Gay Counselling, Jordan excels at helping fellow gay men understand their emotions better, heal from past trauma, and grow their sense of self-worth so that they can enjoy living fully as themselves. He believes that gay men have inherent worth, and that they deserve to live fulfilling lives. Interested in working with Jordan? Click the button below to get started.