The concept of counterwill was originated by the German psychologist Otto Rank in the 1920s, but it received little attention until it was recently rediscovered and refined by the Canadian developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld. According to Neufeld, counterwill is “the natural human instinct to resist being controlled.” It is, “in essence, an allergy to coercion.”
Children who exhibit counterwill are often described as “willful,” but it’s the lack of a mature will that necessitates the protective mechanism of counterwill. Neufeld’s co-author, Gabor Maté, writes that “counterwill may be likened to the small fence one places around a young tender shoot to protect it from being eaten. … It comes at a time when the sense of self is having to emerge out of the cocoon of the family. It is a defence mechanism to protect this fragile, threatened sense of self. By keeping out the parent’s expectations and demands, counterwill helps to make room for the growth of the child’s own, self-generated motivations and preferences.”
When this process is thwarted by parents or teachers who misinterpret a child’s counterwill as disrespect, the counterwill becomes habitual and the child’s true will cannot mature properly. This tragedy is so commonplace in our culture that most adults have an underdeveloped will and many of us are in a chronic state of counterwill or resistance: pushing against what we don’t want instead of aligning with our authentic desires.
In a partnership culture, counterwill is far less visible because coercion and imposition are absent or greatly reduced. When people aren’t trying to wield power over each other, one rarely needs to activate the defense of counterwill.
To learn more, Gabor Maté’s book, Scattered, includes a full chapter on counterwill, which you can read online. (While the book is about A.D.D., the counterwill chapter is relevant to anyone.)
There is also a detailed summary on Neufeld’s website, in the description of a course he calls Making Sense of Counterwill.