Resistance (psychoanalysis)

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Resistance, in the context of the field of psychoanalysis, refers to oppositional behavior when an individual's unconscious defenses of the ego are threatened by an external source. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalytic theory, developed his concept of resistance as he worked with patients who suddenly developed uncooperative behaviors during sessions of talk therapy. He reasoned that an individual that is suffering from a psychological affliction, which Sigmund Freud believed to be derived from the presence of suppressed illicit or unwanted thoughts, may inadvertently attempt to impede any attempt to confront a subconsciously perceived threat. This would be for the purpose of inhibiting the revelation of any repressed information from within the unconscious mind.[1]


Having developed the theory of resistance through his direct experiences with patients undergoing therapy, Sigmund Freud noticed that patients would avoid subjects and topics that struck too closely to uncomfortable memories or unacceptable emotions and desires. Freud then integrated these findings with his previous theories concerning the functions of the id, ego and super-ego. As a result, he eventually advanced his concept of resistance by developing it into a multitude of individual forms that included repression, transference, ego-resistance, "working-through", and self-sabotage.[2]

The common theory behind many of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic techniques, alluding to the fundamentals of psychoanalysis as a science, was that it is possible that memories that have been lost from consciousness provide hints of their existence by the means of prompting certain thoughts and behaviors.[3] Accordingly, the aim of psychoanalysis is to bring what is unconscious or preconscious into consciousness through verbalization. Afterwards, the act of bringing such thoughts into consciousness prevents them from motivating behavior and thus allowing the individual to exert more personal control.[4]

Throughout its history, resistance has caused significant division between psychologists. It remains a debated issue as there are some who considered it to be merely a description of a patient’s temperament rather than a universal construct of the human mind. Nonetheless, the concept of resistance retains a firm place in the history of psychology and the development of modern psychoanalysis.[5]

Forms of resistance[edit]


Repression is the form of resistance where the ego pushes offensive memories, ideas, and impulses down into the unconscious. Essentially, the patient is unconsciously hiding memories from the conscious mind.[6]


Typically unconscious, transference is when the patient allows past experiences to affect present relationships. In therapy, this may come about if the therapist reminds the patient, either consciously or unconsciously, of someone in their past who may have had an early impact on their life. Subsequently, the patient may suddenly tend to regard the therapist in either a positive or negative manner, depending upon the nature of the past influence.[7]


This form of resistance is a neurotic regression to a proposed state of childlike safety. Usually, it involves the patient's attempts to gain attention and sympathy by emphasizing minor medical symptoms (i.e. headaches, nausea, and depression).[6][8]


Derived from the id,[8] this form of resistance reflects the unconscious desire for consistency in a manner that is based upon the pleasure principle. Since the id is an innate portion of human instinct, interpretation of the conscious is an insufficient method, thus the psychoanalyst must first be able to surmount resistances by the means of deduction of patients' unconscious defenses that are presented through exploitation of the mechanism of transference.[6]


The weakest form of resistance that reflects the moralistic sentiments of the superego.[6] Essentially, it is a manifestation of internal guilt that prompts personal punishment by the means of self-imposed impediment.[8]


Psychoanalysis is, altogether, considered to be a type of insight-oriented therapeutic program. Despite general initial reservations, these types of programs have since transitioned from being quite marginal to becoming more well-known and mainstream.[9] In consideration to the theory of resistance itself, within a clinical setting, the expression of resistance is considered to be a significant stage to recovery because it reveals the presence of repression. Additionally, it is indicative of progress in the effort of resolving any underlying issues that may be the cause of personal dysfunction. As resistance is theorized to be a manifestation of the unconscious mind's attempts to protect the ego, it is the task of the psychoanalyst to combat this opposition by directing the patient to confront the unacceptable desires or uncomfortable memories. By this course of action, the patient may reach a cathartic conclusion.[10]


Psychologists remain divided with regard to the concept of resistance. Since Freud first developed his theory of resistance, he has been significantly criticized for using personally favorable and unfalsifiable methodology. For example, if a patient were to agree with a psychoanalyst's inference about themselves, it is a confirmation that there is something they are repressing. However, if the patient disagrees, it is also a sign they are engaged in repression, which means the psychoanalyst is correct in either scenario.[11] Additionally, many psychologists believe that the success of psychoanalysis is not due its various explanatory systems or its reasoning for repression, but rather simply due to the process of communication.[12]


  1. ^ Larsen, Randy; Buss, David (2008). Personality Psychology: Domains of Knowledge About Human Nature. McGraw-Hill Education. p. 696. ISBN 978-0-07-110168-4.
  2. ^ "Psychoanalysis - Resistances". Retrieved 2016-04-15.
  3. ^ Ikonen, Pentti; Absetz, Kimmo (2002). "The basic tools of psychoanalysis". The Scandinavian Psychoanalytic Review. 25 (1): 12–19. doi:10.1080/01062301.2002.10592721.
  4. ^ Bernstein, June (2009). "Consciousness and interpretation in modern psychoanalysis". Modern Psychoanalysis. 34 (1): 1–11.
  5. ^ Miller, William R., Stephen, Rollnick (2002). Motivational Interviewing: Preparing People for Change, 2nd Edition. New York City: Guilford Press. ISBN 978-1572305632.
  6. ^ a b c d Wolman, Benjamin (1968). The Unconscious Mind: The Meaning of Freudian Psychology (1st ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall. p. 182. ISBN 978-0-13-935767-1.
  7. ^ Williams, edited by Glen O. Gabbard, Bonnie E. Litowitz, Paul (2012). Textbook of psychoanalysis (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Pub. ISBN 9781585629794.CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)
  8. ^ a b c Freud, Sigmund (1926). Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0393008746.
  9. ^ Harrington, Anne; Dunne, John (2015). "When mindfulness is therapy: ethical qualms, historical perspectives" (PDF). American Psychologist. 70 (7): 621–631. doi:10.1037/a0039460. PMID 26436312.
  10. ^ Larsen, Randy; Buss, David (2008). Personality Psychology: Domains of Knowledge About Human Nature. McGraw-Hill Education. ISBN 978-0-07-110168-4.
  11. ^ Holowchak, Andrew (2012). "The problem of unassailability: analogy and adequacy of constructions in freudian psychoanalysis". Psychoanalytic Psychology. 29 (2): 255–266. doi:10.1037/a0020863.
  12. ^ Freud, Sigmund (1938). The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud (Psychopathology of Everyday Life, the Interpretation of Dreams, and Three Contributions To the Theory of Sex). New York City: Modern Library. ISBN 978-0679601661.