One challenge with working with clients that are resisting is that you will likely feel annoyed, irritated, frustrated or inept. Those feelings drive us to do things to protect ourselves, too. We get snarky, dread these sessions, and blame the client. The danger in this is that it reinforces what the client fears, and therapy becomes unsafe.
Reframing how we understand clients and resistance helps. Instead of resistance, we see hurting people trying to protect themselves the best way they know how, which heightens our empathy. Instead of feeling like we are terrible therapists, we recognize that working through the resistance may be the most important work we do with these clients, which helps us genuinely see the resistance as the work. As we see the resistance as an attempt to meet core needs, we develop more unconditional positive regard for our clients.
Therefore, part of working with a client’s need to resist the work is a self- awareness about how it triggers our own needs. Perhaps a therapist likes to help others because it gives her inner value and makes her feel worthwhile. That works fine until she feels like she cannot break through a client's resistance to help, and then she doubts her worth. Then, she begins doing things to reaffirm her worth ... and it is now about the therapist’s needs, not the client’s needs. The problem is not that the therapist has an unmet core need to be valued and worthy. We all have our stuff. The problem is when the therapist’s needs supersede the client’s needs and result in behaviors that negatively impact the client.
Since we all have core needs, this is a gentle reminder that therapists need to do their own work, too. These needs do not generally surface when our clients think we are awesome. They surface when the therapy is seemingly thwarted, when we do not feel like we are making progress.
When Is Creative Play Therapy Not a Good Treatment Choice?
Although we love Creative Play Therapy and have seen impressive outcomes with this treatment, it is not the best treatment choice for all clients at all times. While therapy may be beneficial for the individual, it may have unintended consequences in the family system. It can go very deep, and it can leave a client raw and exposed if not used properly. It can quickly get to core needs that a client is not yet ready to address.
Creative Play Therapy is not a good treatment choice if the client does not want to do it. If it is too outside the box, too risky, or too invasive to the client, then trust that the client knows best and do something else for now. Without using creative approaches, explore the resistance and learn what the client needs to protect. Or, just trust that the client knows what is needed.
When clients are in the middle of a painful situation, they may be in what we like to call survival. For example, when a loved one is dying, the client is not ready to process the grief because the client needs everything they have to still go to work, care for children, savor the time left and prepare for the impending loss. Digging deep into the emotional response could require using emotional energy that is more needed elsewhere. All clients are different, but if you find a client cannot seem to go deeper, it may because their current life situation requires all emotional coping skills to survive for now. Creative Play Therapy may be more appealing and useful after the situation stabilizes.
Any time physical safety is at risk, those safety needs are more important than deep healing work. Sometimes, they will work together, but you may need to do more traditional talk therapy safety planning and suicide or homicide assessments before returning to the creative work.
Creative Application: Procrastination
Procrastination is resistance to doing something. Have you ever considered how resisting might be a way to protect yourself1 You resist that commitment because you know that you do not really have time for it, despite all those good reasons to do it. All that mental anguish about having to do it might be your body telling you to step away from the commitment. You resist starting a project too soon because finishing it on a tight deadline makes you feel accomplished ... or you resist starting too early because if you are rushed, you cannot do your best work, and that protects you from believing you are not good enough, since you can blame it on running out of time.
Consider something that you have been procrastinating. What is the why behind your own behavior? How is your resistance an attempt to meet a core need? How can you address that need and thus reduce the procrastination? Did you know that procrastination is actually your body communicating with you, trying to keep you safe?
Creative Technique: The Wall
Walls are great metaphors because they protect what is inside from threats outside, but they also may imprison what is inside. Both things happen with resistance. It is an attempt to protect, but it may also impair the client, distancing them from things that would be helpful. This technique is about externalizing the resistance. To explore both sides of the wall, request the client to construct a real wall with cardboard blocks, a paper drawing, miniatures in a sand tray, or other expressive art. Ask the client to add what is being resisted or from what the client needs protection. Then discuss how it is both a protective wall and an imprisoning wall.
Clients, at times, resist helping work because the perceived costs are too great. They need safety and security, but they may also have other unmet core needs. While resistance may be challenging for the therapist, reframing it as part of the client’s work, not something to get through before starting the work, helps maintain unconditional positive regard.