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Resistance to change
From time to time all does not go well with predictions that arise from our construing of an event. Perhaps someone has always thought that she could be a very good artist if only she had the time. On retirement there is suddenly the time available and so she starts going to an art class. But it suddenly dawns on her that all is not well. The teacher and some of the other pupils think she is not making good progress. Invalidation faces her - perhaps she is not so good after all. She resists that change in her construing of herself. She does so because she is aware, at some level of cognitive awareness, that the change will require her to reconstrue the sort of person she thinks she is. She becomes aware that change is imminent and comprehensive - in other words, the invalidation threatens her. She may say to herself "OK, I got it wrong, it's not the end of the world"; or she might join another class and try again. A third way of dealing with invalidation of this sort is to become hostile. She may persuade herself that really she is still a potentially talented artist but she has just got a bad teacher and the students aren't up to much either. She is right and it is the others who are wrong - so she keeps the way she construes herself intact.
The opposite of the term "resistance" is usually something positive to do with change, making "resistance" undesirable and meaning "no change". That is unfortunate because personal construct theory sees resistance as helpful and understandable in certain contexts. Fransella (1993) suggests that it might be useful to build on the ideas of Watzlawick, Weakland & Fisch (1974) who talk of "persistence" being the opposite of "change". Persistence means actively seeking "no change". We can all resist change or persist in keeping the status quo from time to time and for the personal construct psychologist there is nothing wrong in that at all. Of course, it causes a problem if we become hostile on too many occasions but it is part of everyday life for most of us. It is in the counselling and psychotherapy situations that it becomes really important. The personal construct counsellor or psychotherapist does not see such resistance as a "bad" thing but as a reaction that needs to be understood. Quite often resistance is encountered when the psychotherapy is becoming too successful; the client is dealing with his or her problem too well. The person is suddenly confronted with the fact that they are well on the way to becoming "a person without my problem" - whatever that problem is. Things must be slowed down. The reconstruing undertaken so far needs to be consolidated.
One situation when resistance to change can occur is if  the goal, or alternative core role is the ideal (Fransella, 1993). Then one confronts the "if only" cry. "If only I were not someone who stutters I would be a great orator"; "if only I were not an alcoholic I would be a powerful business man"; "if only I were not obese I would be a very successful fashion model" and so on. The client progressively discovers that there has to be fundamental change in how they construe themselves as the goal of the ideal is not tenable. He or she does not just need to change construing within the construct system, but gradually comes to realise that there really is no alternative except to change the system itself. Few of us can easily live the ideal. Relapse occurs when the person sees they are moving toward the unconstruable rather than some idyllic existence. Not surprising that many relapse.
Leitner and Dill-Standiford (1993) describe some of the ways in which they have come to recognise "resistance" in experiential personal construct psychotherapy. "Resistance" is thought to be the explanation when a client starts dealing with important matters in a very concrete way; when he or she becomes passive; or starts to deal with things impulsively (shortens the circumspection stage of the CPC Cycle).
If we agree to change "resistance" to "persistence" then we can say that personal construct psychology states that a person is usually right in persisting in the status quo if the current invalidation of the behavioural experiments makes him or her aware that change will have to be more radical than the person can deal with at that time.  

  • Fransella, F. (1993) The construct of resistance in psychotherapy. In L. M. Leitner & N. G. M. Dunnett (eds) Critical Issues in Personal Construct Psychotherapy Malabar, Fl: Krieger Publishing Company.
  • Fransella, F., Bell, R. & Bannister, D. (2003) A Manual for Repertory Grid Technique (2nd edition) Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Leitner, L. M. & T. Dill-Standiford (1993) Resistance in experiential personal construct psychotherapy: theoretical and technical struggles. In L. M. Leitner & N. G. M. Dunnett (eds) Critical Issues in Personal Construct Psychotherapy Malabar, Fl: Krieger Publishing Company 
  • Watzlawick, P., Weakland, J. & Fisch, R. 1974. Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution. New York: Norton.

Fay Fransella

Establ. 2003
Last update: 15 February 2004