Psychoanalysis understands resistance as something that stands in the way of the progress of analytic work during treatment.
The term appeared for the first time in Sigmund Freud's writings in the Studies on Hysteria (1895d), where he reported how he had given up testing the degree of hypnosis of his patients because "this roused the patients' resistances and shook their confidence in me, which I needed for carrying out the more important psychical work" (p. 108).
Freud perceived this resistance through the efforts he had to make in order to get his patient to remember certain painful representations.
In the Freudian psychodynamic approach, this concept refers to the psychic force that the patient opposes to the bringing into consciousness of certain unpleasurable representations during treatment: the psychic force developed to maintain repression.
If the topographical theory led to the idea that psychoanalysis was, in Freud's words, an interpretative art that consisted of making the unconscious conscious, the analyst's task was henceforth to "lead the patient to recognize his resistance and to reckon with it."
Analysis of the resistances thus became one of the cornerstones of analytic technique; analysis of the transference was soon linked with it.
In "The Dynamics of Transference" (1912b), Freud wondered why transference, the most effective among the factors of success, could become the most powerful agent of resistance.
He was thus led to distinguish between positive and negative transference, and to conclude that "transference to the doctor is suitable for resistance to the treatment only in so far as it is a negative transference or a positive transference of repressed erotic impulses."
Freud agreed that nothing in analysis is more difficult than overcoming the resistances.
However, these phenomena are valuable because they make it possible to bring to light patients' secret and forgotten emotions of love; above all, by endowing these with a sense of immediacy, the resistances facilitate the recognition of these emotions, because, as Freud put it in a well-known formulation, "it is impossible to destroy anyone in absentia or in effigie" (1912b, p. 108).
Instead of remembering, the patient reproduces attitudes and feelings from his or her life, which, through the transference, can be used as means of resistance against the treatment and against the therapist.
It is as if the patient's intention to confound the analyst, make him feel his impotence, triumph over him, becomes more powerful that his or her intention to bring an end to his or her illness.
The article "Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through (Further Recommendations on the Technique of Psycho-Analysis II)"(1914g) marked a turning point where the discovery of repetition compulsion put an end to an illusion: Freud admitted that naming the resistance still did not make it disappear immediately.
Analytic technique purported to be an art of interpretation that focused above all on recognizing the resistances and communicating them to the patient.
Discovering that "The greater the resistance, the more extensively will acting out (repetition) replace remembering" (p. 151), Freud recognized the importance of the need for working-through (durcharbeiten) "One must allow the patient time to become more conversant with this resistance with which he has now become acquainted, to work through it, to overcome it, by continuing, in defiance of it, the analytic work according to the fundamental rule of analysis" (p. 155).
Freud constantly reiterated that it is the working-through of the resistances that offers the patient the greatest chance of change.
In the chapter "Resistance and Repression" in Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1916-17 [1915-17]), Freud underscored the forms of the resistances, which are very diversified, extremely refined, and often difficult to recognize, and their protean character—attributes that require the physician to be cautious and to remain on guard against them.
Thus, during treatment, phenomena such as gaps in memory, screen-memories, overabundant production of dreams, cessation of free association, avoidance of causal links, judgments about the insignificance of thoughts that come to mind, or even flight into treatment may all be understood as forms of resistance.
But it was the most paradoxical forms of resistance—repetition compulsion and the negative therapeutic reaction—which Freud linked to unconscious feelings of guilt, that gave his study of the resistances its full amplitude.
In Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety (1926d), Freud returned to the forms of the resistances and distinguished those of the ego, the id, and the superego.
The first type is under the aegis of the pleasure principle and includes three possibilities: resistance to the lifting of repression, resistance to the loss of secondary gains from illness, and transference resistance, which aims to maintain repression.
The second, resistance of the id, corresponds to "the power of the compulsion to repeat" (1926d, p. 159) and necessitates working-through.
The third, resistance of the superego, comes out of the feeling of guilt and the need for punishment, which stand in the way of successful treatment; this type was later described as a negative therapeutic reaction, itself linked to the death instinct.
If Freud remained reticent on the intrinsic nature of the resistances while underscoring their variability, richness, and solidity, he always believed that the patient's work on his or her own resistances was indispensable to the success of the treatment, even positing in his last writings that this work alone carried in it the potential for real and lasting change in the ego.
Analysts after Freud have done relatively little further work on the manifestations of resistance during treatment.
However, Melanie Klein, by seeing resistance essentially as a manifestation of negative transference, paved the way for a certain number of other studies, notably those of Wilfred Bion, who described psychotic resistance as "attacks on linking."