The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

'Resistance is only a metaphor' - but is it a useful one?

‘It must be kept clear that resistance is only a metaphor for describing certain regularities of phenomena, and that other metaphors can be used. Resistance is not something concrete, only a concept used as an explanatory metaphor.’


Steve de Shazer
Patterns of Brief Family Therapy (p 12)


Finding this in Steve’s very first book, written before he had perhaps realised that he was developing a ‘solution focused’ approach, made a useful difference to my thinking and to my practice. It is, as Steve makes clear, so tempting to think of ‘resistance’ as something ‘real’, ‘concrete’, ‘out there’, something that can be pointed to and prodded, a product of the client’s “internal dynamics” (p 10). But if we think about it as a ‘metaphor’, then it becomes just one of many possible metaphors, one of a myriad of different possible ways of describing, of different words that we can use to speak of what is going on. After all we do not judge ‘metaphors’ according to their truth. We might judge them in relation to their elegance, to their beauty, in relation to their capacity to encapsulate a complex experience or to highlight a particular aspect or element of the distinction that we are attempting to communicate or to grasp. 


And in therapy, as opposed perhaps to in literature or poetry, it would seem sensible to evaluate a ‘metaphor’ pragmatically, considering and reflecting on what the effect on me as the worker is of describing things in any particular way. And when I focus on the effects of the ‘resistance’ metaphor, I find that those effects are generally unhelpful, leading almost inevitably to a conflictual model for therapy, a conflictual way of describing and conceptualising the interaction between client and therapist. As Steve writes “From the earliest days, 20th-century psychotherapy has most often been described as a contest . . . The contest was this: The therapist (for change) had joined battle against the client's resistance (a force against change). Once the therapist "won" this contest, the client was no longer seen as resistant, and there was a "cure"; the problem was solved. (p 13)” Accepting Steve’s invitation and developing a ‘cooperating’ model has proved, for me, altogether more fruitful.

Evan George