Kelly's Fixed Role Therapy: How it Works

Kelly's fixed role therapy involves the patient assuming a fictional role. In fact, they explore and learn new ways of building their own reality. They can then choose to stay with the role that seems the most suitable for them.
Kelly's Fixed Role Therapy: How it Works

Last update: 18 March, 2021

George Kelly developed personal construct theory, as well as the technique of fixed role therapy. According to this approach, you build your own reality. Consequently, this reality isn’t fixed. Neither is it totally cognitive. This article explains the concept of personal constructs and how Kelly’s fixed role therapy actually works.

Kelly’s theory suggests that reality depends on each individual. In fact, there’s no single reality. There are as many realities as there are people. Through what Kelly named “personal constructs”, you give meaning to your own reality.

This system of constructs is adapted and modified, depending on the experiences you have throughout your life. Each person’s system of constructs is unique and personal to them.

These constructs are bipolar dimensions of meaning. They make up the structured sets of knowledge you possess. You use these constructs to both understand and anticipate your experiences. Therefore, the construct has a dual function. Firstly, it processes the information when it reaches your senses. Secondly, it anticipates future events. For example, you might classify someone as friendly as opposed to unfriendly, depending on your previous experience with this particular construct.

Therefore, you actually operate as a scientist. You formulate theories (the systems of constructs) that allow you to organize, predict, and negotiate your world. In fact, your construction of experience conditions how you behave.

A man looking thoughtful.

Kelly’s fixed-role therapy technique

Kelly developed fixed role therapy in 1955. His theory of personal constructs also includes other techniques. Indeed, his repertory grid technique allows the therapist to evaluate the patient’s personal constructs. However, the fixed role model is the most representative of personal construct theory. This therapy aims to treat the patient by exploring self-schemas that are different from those that the patient has of themselves.

The therapist helps their patient behave as if they were someone else. In order to do this, the therapist explores alternative roles that might be suitable for them. The patient should then adopt this role for approximately two weeks.

As mentioned earlier, personal constructs determine people’s behavior. Using the same example from earlier, if you construct someone as “friendly”, your behavior accords with that construct. You’ll approach the person and chat with them, etc.

However, if your constructs are maladaptive or ineffective, your behavior will follow that construct. In other words, you’ll see every new person as unpleasant. That won’t be of any benefit to you. Kelly proposes that, in a sense, you need to become an actor. In fact, you have to force yourself to behave as if you’d constructed these people as nice instead of unpleasant. By changing your behavior, it’s easier to explore more effective construct systems.

It should be mentioned that when it comes to this particular kind of therapy, the patient really needs to get on board with the technique and commit themselves to the adoption of new roles. Another point to note is that therapists often use this therapy when others have been tried with no success.

The stages of Kelly’s fixed-role therapy

This technique consists of phases that need to be completed before the patient assumes a role:

  • Autocharacterization. The patient develops a description of themselves in the third person. This is called a character sketch. Then, the therapist writes a new description based on a new role. This is called a fixed role sketch. The therapist is the one that chooses the role for the patient. That’s because they can see which will work best for the patient and allow them to access new personal constructs.
  • Then, the patient commits to the role they’ve been given. They use it for at least two weeks to deal with everything that happens in their daily life. They also use this construct in their consultation with the therapist. Here’s an example of how it works.  A patient might be very jealous. That’s because, whenever they think of their partner, their personal construct is that of  “ownership”. In this case, the therapist might suggest a “trusting” role. This means that, for two weeks, the patient shouldn’t compulsively check up on their partner by calling them or checking their texts, etc.
  • Once the two weeks are over, the therapist meets the patient to evaluate the results. The patient then has to decide whether they want to maintain some of the characteristics of the role, or whether they want to return to their original role. Usually, if the patient’s felt calmer or enjoyed the benefits of their fictional role they’ll choose to continue it. Then, with practice, it’ll become a habit. Consequently, the patient will end up internalizing the role as part of their own personality.
  • Finally, the patient should write a goodbye letter to their previous role. This marks the end of the therapy.

Conclusions

Kelly’s fixed-role therapy aims to activate the patient in such a way that benefits them. The therapist encourages the patient to change. This therapy isn’t carried out from the perspective of the cognitive, but the behavioral plane. As a therapy, it resembles behavioral activation techniques.

One of the advantages of this constructivist theory concerns the fact that the patient feels free to choose for themselves. The therapist doesn’t tell them to behave forever in a certain way. On the contrary, the patient’s encouraged to try new paths and see what happens. Indeed, if they want, they can always return to their original ways.

This technique differs from others because it’s extremely empathetic. In fact, the patient’s more likely to stick to the treatment as they feel they’re in control. Furthermore, they don’t feel pressured to change. In fact, they can choose for themselves. In addition, each role only lasts two weeks, so the patient can experiment with other constructs if they want. The patient also knows that there’s an end to the treatment. Finally, if they want to stay in the role they prefer, they can.

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