At the heart of every course of therapy sits a struggle between change and resistance.
Traditionally, the therapist is seen as an agent of change. In this view, it is the therapist’s job to help bring about change, be that the explicitly desired change of the client, or an unwanted albeit necessary change.
In gestalt therapy, this agent of change view of the therapist is rejected as a barrier to organismic self-regulation. By positioning myself as an agent of change for the client, I encourage a conflict between two sides of the client to play out as a conflict between the client and me.
Which in traditional psychoanalysis is the whole point of the analysis; to evoke the core transference that is taken to be the root of the problem, and resolve it. This sets the scene for successful therapy (the transference is resolved by change winning over resistance), and unsuccessful therapy (resistance overcomes change, and the transference stays in place).
That’s why in gestalt we talk about working with resistance by understanding the environmental context that demonstrates its necessity. And we approach that work with an openness to the range of possibilities that work entails: maybe change will win out over resistance, maybe resistance will win out over change.
Of course, the gestalt therapist smiles wryly about all this because the very act of exploring the struggle between change and resistance is in itself a change to the previous situation of keeping the conflict out of awareness. So whatever happens, the paradoxical theory of change wins out because just to contemplate one’s struggles is to act from organismic need.
The difference is that the gestalt therapist introduces awareness into the conflict. And our observation is that awareness supports response-ability. Resistance is no longer a kind of abstract disembodied force. It is me, resisting. “I can’t” becomes “I won’t”. I won’t because I don’t want to. I don’t want to because you’re asking too much of me, it’s hard, I’m afraid. Whatever is in there, awareness draws it out.
And that isn’t a magic cure; it’s not a trick. I don’t for a second think that, once we draw out the difficult thoughts and feelings and memories and fantasies that generate a resistance to some otherwise desired change, a sunbeam will break through the clouds and my client will see the light and rise up a different person. That’s not how it works; that’s not what this is all about.
Much of the time (maybe even most of the time), the end result of bringing that conflict into awareness is returning to the comfort of the starting point, of not changing.
But the power of changing I can’t into I won’t mustn’t be underestimated (and it is a therapist’s duty to explore in good faith whether that “I can’t” is in fact true; a blind person isn’t resisting sight).
It plants a seed. Maybe that’s a seed that never germinates because the end result of that conflict is a choice to give up on that previously desired change. In which case, rejoice! The gestalt is complete! Or maybe that conflict demands further rounds of struggle. In which case, “I won’t” becomes a question of motivation and support. What do you need to make this change possible? How can you get that support? Who could you turn to? What’s missing?
In the course of that exploration, the past must be contended with as unfinished business in the present. So someone told you years ago that you could never do it? How do you keep that memory active now? What is their hold over you now? It’s shocking, actually, to realise that a great number of disembodied voices holding us back turn out to be children. We introject them at a formative age, then keep the message alive as a conviction of truth. Then one day, you put that message back into context, and you’re a grown up dealing with the memory of a 7 year old child.
Resistance is also a deeply political phenomenon. When protests spring up, it’s usually an attempt to resist people in power. The French resistance against Nazi occupation stands out in Europe as an archetype of resistance. And as we’ve seen with police sending undercover operatives to infiltrate campaign groups, and the use of agent provocateurs to disrupt popular movements, the State often responds to resistance with both overt and covert violence.
This is not metaphorical. This is actual resistance in the form of one set of human beings exerting their will against another set of human beings. The hellscape that is the ongoing civil war in Syria began with resistance.
Resistance is ultimately about a clash of wills, and a loss of dialogue. The gestalt therapist’s aim is to bring that clash of wills into awareness, where it has the opportunity to develop into a conversation. Maybe that eventually supports a negotiated settlement, maybe it doesn’t.
Whatever happens, the principle objective is awareness.
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Photo credit: featured image is “resistance is fertile” by Nicolas Nova.