No! You can’t make me! You’re not the boss of me! I’m not a baby anymore, Mom (said with an eye roll)! All of these phrases (maybe you’ve heard some of them?) have one thing in common: at their root is a deep human instinct that is (unfortunately!) little known outside of psychoanalytic circles in Germany and Austria.
Counterwill, a term coined by the Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank, is the natural instinct to resist when one feels coerced. Understanding this instinct can help us to better understand our kids, ourselves and other adults. From this understanding can come changed relational approaches that can have a profoundly positive impact.
I have found that it is helpful to begin our understanding of counterwill by finding it in ourselves. The example I always use when teaching about counterwill is for us to remember what we feel when we are stopped at a red light and the light turns green. If we haven’t yet started to go and the person behind us honks at us, what do we feel like doing? Saying “Oh, thank you!” and speeding away? Or taking our own sweet time in getting going? Now, whether or not we decide to indulge the instinct, it is likely the second scenario that plays out inside of us. This is counterwill.
When we feel pushed or coerced, and that feeling is greater than our feeling of connection to the person doing the pushing, we balk. If we feel close and connected to someone (imagine your partner, close friend or beloved relative) and they ask us to do something, we are happy to do it. If, however, even that very same person asks us to do something at a moment where we don’t feel very connected to them, the instinct to resist will rise up in us.
Let’s think about how this might play out with our kids. If we take the time to connect with our kids–to look at their Lego creation or ask them about the video game they are playing–before we issue our instruction to them to wash their hands and set the table, we are going to have a much greater chance of compliance than if we simply march into the room and announce what we want them to do. This idea is encapsulated in my teacher, Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s, wise saying “Collect before you Direct.” We would all do well to remember this before we try to direct anyone!
Of course, kids are smart and if we are collecting them for the sole purpose of issuing our commands, this “strategy” will wear thin quite quickly. Ideally, we are collecting–connecting–with our kids all throughout the day, for no other reason than to let them feel our warmth, enjoyment and delight in them. If we make it our intention to do this, we will be providing some essential “nutrients” to our kids, the reduced counterwill will simply be a happy side effect.
Another reason for counterwill lies not in disconnection, but actually in deep connection and the satiation that comes from that. I would bet that we all have been with a toddler who, after a time of snuggles and reading books, has a clear burst of creative, independent, “do it myself!” energy. This process happens for all kids (and even adults!) regardless of their age; when attachment needs are deeply satiated, the brain is relieved of the work of attachment and shifts into “individuation mode.” In this mode, following someone else’s orders or requests does not feel right and will, again, evoke counterwill. In these instances, what is needed is not more attachment or “collecting” energy, because it is actually an abundance of that which led the child to this state. When they are in this state, it is best to simply stay out of their way and to back off on requests and demands. Emergent energy like this can be fleeing, but it is vitally important to growing up and to discovering oneself–one’s likes, dislikes, values, preferences and affinities. When it is present, the best thing we can do is to let our kids be in it; it usually doesn’t last too long and then they’ll be back, ready for some more connection.
Understanding counterwill makes clear what a losing strategy it is to state our demands more forcefully when our child resists. If they were already feeling that the coercion was greater than the attachment, imagine what it evokes in them when we apply greater coercion (likely in a more frustrated, less warm tone of voice)? Yes, it evokes even stronger counterwill–this is where the worst parent-child power struggles come from. Rather than getting caught in a lose-lose power struggle, when we are faced with counterwill we can identify it as such and decide if this is a time to back off and increase connection before issuing any more instructions or if this is a time to let our tentatively emerging child or teen have some time of self-discovery.
Even though things can feel urgent, there is usually a way around something that feels like it needs to be done right now. Maybe we can take out the garbage tonight and let them bang around on the piano? Maybe the dog can get walked in 30 minutes, after a cup of tea and a card game together? Whatever the case, understanding counterwill provides us with important understanding that we can use to make informed choices about how we approach all manner of situations with our kids. And the reduced door slams, foot stomps and yelling are something we can thank Otto Rank for!