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The Importance Of Dealing with Resistance in Group Therapy

Updated: May 1

When we ask clients to open up about their personal and valuable experiences, memories, or emotions in therapy, they often exhibit a natural hesitation. We are either implicitly or explicitly asking them to give up or reveal a personal experience, feeling, or memory that they are guarding.

This reluctance stems from their unconscious (and sometimes conscious) desire to conceal certain thoughts, feelings, or experiences that they deem too precious to be exposed.

This phenomenon is known as client resistance, a concept first identified by Freud.

Dealing with resistance in group therapy or individual therapy is so important to address and understand because, ultimately, it's why the client is in your group or coming to see you. We might have a tendency to label this as a 'difficult client' or them having 'avoidant responses', which maybe true in some situations, but understanding these behaviors as signs of resistance might be more helpful to our work

In the video below and in this post, I discuss some accounts of resistance, discuss managing resistant clients and handling resistance from an approach to therapy from Modern Group Analytic perspective, a theory of group therapy that is a technique-based approach in clinical psychology developed around the work of Spotniz and Ormont.

What is resistance in therapy?

In the context of psychoanalysis and the therapeutic relationship, clients agree to engage in free association, sharing their thoughts freely without censorship.

Freud was the first to observe resistance in psychotherapy when he observed that some clients struggled to comply with this agreement. He saw it as an impasse in the therapeutic alliance. He famously defined a client's resistance as

"whatever interrupts the progress of the analytic work".

What is resistance in group therapy?

Similarly, in group therapy, we establish a group contract that outlines our commitment to participate fully, including being punctual, sharing our feelings, and being receptive to the emotions of others. However, resistances often surface, hindering client engagement and their ability to fulfill this contract. As group facilitators, our role is to help clients identify and work through these unconscious resistances, which are essential for building more authentic and fulfilling relationships in our personal lives.To better understand resistances, it's essential to distinguish them from defenses.

While defenses are global structures that serve as a protective mechanism to shield us from painful emotions, being defensive is a more reactive response to feeling attacked. Defenses develop early in life as a healthy coping mechanism to avoid overwhelming feelings like grief, shame, and fear. Their primary function is to maintain a strong, consistent sense of self, as we fear that these emotions might threaten our ego functioning.

Managing Resistant Clients

Our job as therapists or group facilitators is not necessarily about managing resistance; our job is actually to help uncover the resistances, which are nearly always unconscious and work through them. The resistances are not the fault of the clients; they are protective functions that have helped us in the past but are not preventing us from being able to share ourselves with others in groups or in therapy.

Rather than managing the clients, we're going to manage the resistance, because dissolving that resistance will help in the real world, to have happier, closer, more intimate, and fulfilling relationships.

How To Address Resistance in Therapy?

As part of the counseling process, our job as group facilitators is to help them uncover the resistances which are nearly always unconscious and work through them - because being able to share our selves with others in group is going to help us do it in the real world, and in turn help us have happier closer more intimate and fulfilling relationships.

Let's explore two scenarios where I, as a therapist, sense underlying emotions behind my clients' excuses.

Scenario One: In the first case, Ken arrives late to our session, claiming he lost track of time. I recall our previous session, where I had to interrupt him mid-sentence due to time constraints. It's possible he's still upset with me, but instead of acknowledging his feelings, he's using a denial defense mechanism.

His response – "I just was late because I was busy" – doesn't entirely convince me but it might be true, so I'll be monitoring client signals in the session for hints of anger or hurt, and might revisit the topic later.In another counseling session,

Scenario Two: I'm about to meet with Barbie, who had to cancel our previous session and couldn't reschedule until now. She arrives late, apologizing with a Starbucks gift. This generous gesture raises my suspicions, as it's an unusual display of kindness. Might she be compensating for feelings of frustration or disappointment due to my unavailability during the previous week?

I decide to probe further, saying, "Barbie, your thoughtful gift is appreciated, but I'm curious about the timing. I know we didn't reschedule last week, and I'm wondering if you had any feelings about my lack of availability."

Depending on Barbie's background, it's possible she's using an "undoing" defense, where she transforms her anger into kindness to avoid confronting her emotions. My goal is to create a safe space for her to explore and acknowledge any potential resentment she may have towards me.

Three Types Of Client Resistance In Group Therapy

The therapeutic process to deal with client resistance in group therapy works in much the same way with group members.

dealing with resistance in group therapy


One key aspect is member-to-member resistance, where individuals deflect from intimate connections and conversations with their peers.

For instance, during a poignant discussion about family dynamics, a group member might shift the focus away from themselves by asking another member a question or taking on a therapist-like role. Consider the following example in a group which is discussing painful relationships with their father, instead of sharing about her own feelings, Barbie says

"Ken, don't you think you should call your dad and tell him all this?"Here, Barbie gives a great piece of advice and a legitimate question, but she might also be avoiding revealing her own emotions and instead diverts attention to Ken's feelings, which could be seen as a resistance


Another form of resistance occurs when group members direct their resistant behavior toward the therapist.

An example of this is the 'nice group' which may show excessive flattery or admiration to the therapist. While an occasional compliment may be harmless, if it becomes a recurring pattern, it warrants scrutiny because it such resistance might be seen to be about sharing other feelings towards the therapeutic relationship.

Ken: "Oliver, you're really rocking that shirt today, thumbs up!"

As the group leader, it's essential to recognize that group members may harbor a range of feelings towards you, not all of which are positive or affectionate.


When an entire group is unwilling to open up and discuss personal feelings, it can be a significant obstacle. These unconscious resistances can be detrimental to the group's progress and individual well-being.

Some forms of resistance are more alarming than others, and these require immediate attention to prevent group members from disengaging or experiencing emotional distress. As a therapist, it's essential to prioritize the protection of the group and its members. Seeking supervision and support can help you navigate these challenging dynamics.

Group Destructive Resistances

1. Acting out:

This occurs when individuals, instead of expressing their emotions in a healthy manner, resort to aggressive behavior, such as verbal attacks or tantrums. While this behavior might be tolerated in children, it's unacceptable in adults, especially when directed at other group members.

2. Scapegoating:

This phenomenon occurs when the group, sometimes influenced by the therapist, identifies a single individual as the source of all problems. In reality, the person being scapegoated often has an unconscious role in the group's dynamics. As a therapist, it's crucial to recognize and address this pattern, rather than getting swept up in the group's misguided perceptions.

3. Lateness

habitual lateness or absence from sessions can be detrimental to the group's progress and cohesion. When individual members consistently miss sessions or arrive late, it can hinder the group's ability to resolve issues and work through challenges, ultimately causing harm to the group as a whole.

Dealing with Other Resistances in Group Therapy

Other types of group resistance might not be destructive to the group but have a demoralizing effect. As such, they are essential to be aware of as crucial issues to confront in your psychotherapeutic efforts to help the group process and connect.

Status-quo Resistances

In a group setting, I've observed a pattern where individuals dedicate 15 minutes each to sharing their weekly experiences, filling the entire session. At first glance, this might seem like a pleasant and engaging activity. However, it can also be a sign of a group stuck in a comfortable but unproductive routine, avoiding certain topics and, ultimately, the real purpose of the group: to explore and express emotions.

Resistance to progress

Such a group is hindered from advancing emotionally, which is a fundamental aspect of modern group analysis. The concept of "progressive emotional communication" refers to the ability to freely identify, acknowledge, and discuss emotions as they arise, including those directed toward others. A group resistant to progress will likely struggle to express their emotions genuinely, instead focusing on discussing others rather than their own feelings or merely sharing thoughts without delving deeper.

Resistances To Termination

Moreover, some groups may resist the idea of termination, even fabricating or exacerbating crises or health issues to justify extending the sessions. This manufactures an unnecessary sense of dependency on the group, rather than allowing members to move forward and bring closure to their shared experience.

Five Examples of Group Resistance to Change

  • The Silent Group

  • The Social Chit-Chat Group

  • The Positive / Pleasing Group

  • The Group That Ignores The Therapist

  • The Repetitive Group

  • The Group That Talks About The Past

Resistance Is an Opportunity, Not a Problem

In group therapy, unconscious barriers often hinder our capacity to form deep connections with others. These blocks, developed over a lifetime, can be subtle yet powerful obstacles. Rather than seeing them as roadblocks, we encourage clients and group members to reveal their resistance, allowing us to work through them together.By acknowledging and addressing these resistances, individuals can break free from their constraints and cultivate more authentic relationships within and outside the group. A crucial step in this process is recognizing the emotional responses that arise within the group, such as feelings of boredom or frustration.

Therapist's Recommendations For Dealing With Resistance In Group Therapy

Notice Your Feelings

Notice your feelings in group and towards the individual or group as a whole.

I have a low tolerance for group in which no one talks about feelings, my first indication that there’s a resistance might be noticing that I’m bored or annoyed in group.

Name The Resistance

Name the resistance (in supervision or by yourself by exploring your observations or feelings.

That might be just as simple as realizing that I’m bored or irritated because the group isn’t expressing feelings.

Ask What The Resistance Means

Ask what the resistance might mean - maybe about the client's family of origin - or the group as a whole.

Because I know the group, I might be able to connect the dots that this group has had various difficulties dealing with anger in their past- an abusive partner, angry mothers, raging dads.

The group becomes your family, so dynamics from childhood will be repeated over time.

Bridging To Helpful Members

Bridge to the person who might be able to name it or can recognize it and see what the group does about that contribution. To learn more about Bridging, you can watch this video.

You don’t want to say ‘YOU ARE BEING RESISTANT’.

Always in group therapy things land better and sink in more when a fellow group member helps unveil it.

Welcome The Transference

If you uncover or suspect the resistance is covering up negative feelings about you, it’s always good to remind the group that you welcome all their feelings that go towards you, the yummy and the yucky.

The idea is to  welcome transference by saying 'What am I doing that is not making the group safe enough to talk about their feelings?”

When you keep the blame on you, it lowers defensiveness and welcomes the discussion of transference and feelings to you

dealing with resistances in therapy groups and individually

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