When bad stuff happens, we resist. We do things to create safety for ourselves and others, uphold our dignity, and mitigate the possibility of experiencing more adversity in the future. This is a simple and incredibly vital aspect of our humanity.
When I talk about adversity in general, I include anything that we experience as being negative. That could include “natural” or unavoidable experiences, like losing a beloved family member, dealing with illness, or financial ups and downs. Then there are those experiences of adversity that are imposed on us by others, like rejection, judgment, stigma, exclusion, abuse, and various forms of violence. In my experience as a therapist, regardless of the kind of adversity we’re talking about, people do what’s in their power to resist.
I’ve written about the notion of resistance in the past, as well as how our so-called “negative” emotions are often private acts of resistance. Regardless of the magnitude, our resistance speaks volumes about where we stand on the things that happen in our lives. Allan Wade calls these important actions “small acts of living”.
The least common form of resistance is clear and overt. Literature on domestic violence has helped to elucidate this point. Although sometimes our acts of resistance are totally out in the open, like at public demonstrations or when we simply say “no” to another person, it is often safer to resist in quieter ways. When it doesn’t feel safe to resist overtly, people often fly under the radar, making their resistance invisible to others, or making its purpose unclear.
Resistance is easy to spot when people are asserting their boundaries or overtly refusing to do something. However, less obvious acts of resistance are just as important to our wellbeing and dignity. In fact, sometimes our actions serve as red herrings, throwing others off the fact that we are resisting all. In these cases, responses that might appear negative or self-harming to outside observers, actually might create safety and self-protection for the individual.
An Example: Caring by “Not Caring”
I was working for a young man who has suffered a long list of adverse experiences: from parental abandonment, to abuse and mistreatment by step parents, to sexualized violence, and subsequent rejection, alienation, and violence by his peers. When he went to the police about being subjected to a sexualized assault, they chose not to look into it. He felt understandably disheartened and depressed in response to these combined experiences of indignity and injustice.
As you might imagine, he responded by feeling anxious about going to school, feeling unsure of who he could and couldn’t trust. He felt hopeless about things getting better (because no one was doing much of anything to help), and he eventually resigned himself to his bedroom and took on a position of “not caring”. When he came to see me, he described himself as feeling very, very depressed.
When he first shared that he “didn’t care” about himself, what people do to him, and how things turn out in the future, I felt really concerned for him. It sounded like he was giving up on life, and I admit to being biased toward people living happy and fulfilling lives. However, when I started asking more questions about “not caring”, he started to reveal more about the surprising purpose behind his response.
It turned out that “not caring” was actually an ironic act of self-care and resistance against all the adversity he had suffered up to that point, and a means of protection against more bad stuff happening. When I asked about the history behind this response, he explained that when he was in middle school and subjected to bullying by older students, he figured out that if he “didn’t care” about what others said or did to him, and cared less about himself, it wouldn’t hurt as much when people did him harm. By “not caring” about himself, he reduced the emotional pain he would feel when he reflected on all the terrible experiences he had up to that point, as well as those that had yet to happen.
When we look at this example in this way, it becomes clear that “not caring” can actually be a way of taking great care of oneself. However, it’s easy to miss that when we look only at what’s being said, and ignore key pieces of context. In the example above, this young man cared about himself enough to want to feel less pain and take away other people’s power to hurt him. What might be misread as a case of “low self-esteem” is actually a case of esteeming himself highly enough to create a kind of shelter from adversity. In other words, “not caring” really wasn’t “not caring” at all. It was actually caring a great deal.
Other Unlikely Forms of Resistance
There are many other (maybe even endless) creative and surprising forms of resistance that people employ that we can easily misread as “negative” emotions, behaviours, or attributes. For example, guilt and shame are often regarded in a problematic light, but can speak volumes about our sense of right and wrong. Anger, with its bad reputation, is often looked at as an unhealthy emotion, when in fact is can be one of our most basic and fundamental forms of protest. I’ve even heard stories of how self-hatred can be a way of finding a target for discontent when it’s unsafe to express it toward more fitting subjects.
- Imagine yourself responding differently (perhaps how other people think you “should” be). What’s your gut emotional response to this image?
- If your first response includes feelings of distress or discomfort, why do you think that could be? What might your discomfort or distress say about your knowledge of the situation and your reason for responding as you have been?
- If you experiment with responding differently, do you expect you’d feel more or less discomfort or distress?
- Would responding differently make you vulnerable to anything negative that might actually make matters worse?
- What does your response say about your values and what’s of most importance to you?
- If your response has worked well enough up to now, at what point would you seriously consider doing things differently?
About Will Bratt
Will Bratt is a counsellor in Victoria, BC, specializing in therapy for trauma and interpersonal violence. He is passionate about addressing stigma through depathologizing human suffering. In addition to writing for Healthy Minds Canada, he runs his own blog on his website, Will Bratt Counselling. You can connect with Will through Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn.