Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW
There is a social psychology term for resistance called reactance. The theory goes like this: we humans like to believe we have free will, are acting on our own behalf, and when we feel forced to do anything we balk, even if that thing we are being forced to do is in our own best interests.
This balking or reactance is amplified if the behavior is a new one. Seat belt laws, for instance, initially drew the criticism that they were creating a “big brother” role of government, even though seat belt use would clearly save lives. (Tangent: even a cursory reflection on the role of government should confirm that a big brother—that is, an older, more experienced and concerned member of society telling us what to do—is EXACTLY the kind of government we want to create and live inside of).
Now combine reactance with the is-ought fallacy, or the common mistaken belief that the way things are, are the way they ought to be. Slave owners claimed their right to own humans was divinely ordained and pointed to the fact that they owned humans as proof. The old adage “might makes right” and the entire conservative political party could be summed up as the is-ought fallacy in action.
While there is something in the human mind capable of imagination and creativity, unfortunately the much more well developed portion of the mind is the yearning for repetition and stability that comes from knowing what to expect.
When I assign self-care homework to my clients, most of whom are survivors of childhood abuse and neglect, they leave my office with the best of intentions. This week they will step away from their computers and go for a walk, or schedule their dental cleaning, or stand up to their demanding boss.
But when they come back to therapy, most have forgotten about the self care homework that they selected for themselves the previous week. What’s happening here? My clients are spending good money and time on therapy. They want to increase their self esteem, improve their empathy, reduce their anxiety. But—they also want to be able to rebel in a low stakes sort of way.
Standing up to their boss or taking space from a mediocre boyfriend, or even scheduling time to think about what they really want can have real world consequences. They might lose their job or their partner or no longer be able to pretend that a well paying sixty hour a week job is a tolerable fit.
Forgetting to do their homework is an easy way to demonstrate reactance, that is the part that says “You can’t tell me what to do” while keeping all the truly important—albeit possibly toxic—elements of their life in place.
But here’s the thing: without even knowing it, they are nonetheless practicing self care, because they think they are disappointing me. When I remind them that homework is only and always an option, their choice, then they have the experience of knowing that they can do something contra to what someone else wants them to do, and still be treated with respect.
And that’s the homework underneath the homework: one they only get to via rebellion. My hope is that by rebelling agains their therapist and still being okay, they can take memory that into their larger lives and risk staging more significant rebellions. Because that’s what most of us really came to therapy to do: to be a better adult parent to ourselves than they one we got as a kid.