I, like many spouses I suspect am quietly on a mission to help my other half live a healthier existence. It’s not that he’s unhealthy, but he could be healthier. A little too much alcohol, the odd cigarette, a few too many crisps, a bit too much cheese, you know the drill.
When we are in a happy, connected, well attached place with each other, my attempts and efforts to help are well received and perhaps even welcomed! but! if we are not or he suspects he is being manipulated or coerced, he will deliberately do the opposite of what I am suggesting….and some! This resistance to doing what we are told by someone we are not feeling pre-disposed to take instruction from is called counterwill.
Counterwill is a term that was first coined by an Austrian psychoanalyst, Otto Rank. It is not to be confused with having a ‘strong will’ which is the will we use to achieve our goals. Rather, counterwill is a ‘resistant will’ that drives us to reject what we are being asked or told to do and potentially send us in the opposite direction, even if that is bad for us and ultimately not what we would have wanted to do left to our own devices!
Counterwill is an instinct. It is designed to keep us safe. It is an automatic reaction that prevents us from following the instructions of someone who we are not ‘attached to’ or in a good relationship with. It’s what helps to keep kids safe from strangers, and what enables us to ultimately become our own person with our own thoughts, but if it’s not understood it can be the source of a great deal of anxiety and problems in relationships.
When you are aware of it and start looking for it you notice how often counterwill is at the centre of resistant behaviour. You probably remember as a child that there were those teachers who you would gladly follow instructions from and behave impeccably for, and those who made you want to do the opposite of what they were asking! Of course there are the rules and sanctions that often prevent us from taking the kind of resistant action we would like to, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there! How many of us have fantastic report cards from the teachers we loved and downright awful ones from the ones we hated? Same child, different relationship.
But I have a great relationship with my child I hear you say but they still won’t always do as they are told!
A critical aspect of counterwill to understand is that however well attached or connected to another person you are, it is possible for this ‘attachment’ to be temporarily switched off for some reason. For example an argument, time apart, being distracted by another activity, hunger, a bad mood can all affect someone’s predisposition to exercise their counterwill.
Dr Gorden Neufeld Phd in his book “Hold on to your Kids” talks about the need to ‘collect before you direct’. What this means very simply is to remember that before you ask or tell anyone to do anything (especially kids because kids have stronger counterwill than adults), check your connection, their face will tell you everything! If the eyes are not inviting you in and you don’t have a smile or at least the inklings of one, then this may not be the ideal moment to ask or tell anything.
I think that most of us know that it is the strength of our relationships not the force of our personality or position that ultimately leads to greater happiness and success. But, when we are tired, when people around us seem difficult, when deadlines or targets loom, when we feel disappointed for example, it can be easy to use the blunt tool of force rather than the sophisticated instrument that is the natural good will that emanates from a close relationship.
As ever, I have merely scratched the surface of another fascinating topic (I think!), but here are some links if you would like to read on……..