John R. Paddock, Ph.D., ABPP, LLC

Much of my conceptual outlook originates from Personal Construct Theory, otherwise known as Personal Construct Psychology. Developed by George Kelly, and quite popular in the United Kingdom and across the world, I am one of a relatively small number of practitioners in the United States who draw inspiration from his core concepts and assessment methods.

Personal Construct Theory

Kelly’s idea was that we interpret, read, or understand our day-to-day, moment-to-moment experience through what I like to think of as a geodesic dome of constructs, ways that we use to make sense of our world around us. In simplest form, constructs help us anticipate and predict what will come next in any given interpersonal moment. When people encounter relationship difficulties – i.e., problems in living – they often still use constructs that in the past made sense and helped them understand the world, but just flat-out no longer work.

Personal Constructs Conceptual View

The Personal Construct Theory conceptual view frames many psychological disorders – particularly those which are most amenable to psychotherapeutic or psychoanalytic interventions – as “software” problems. Specifically, when people come to therapy or analysis, they are often getting responses from others which they cannot account for or do not understand. Their repeated, default way(s) of construing and understanding experience are getting consistently invalidated, because they are often relying somewhat rigidly on an idiosyncratic pattern of interpreting experience. In a phrase, their interpersonal perceptual system is stuck, and the project of psychotherapy or psychoanalysis is to help patients craft more useful, appropriately flexible construal patterns.

While the specific content of their personal constructs patterns differ, there is empirical evidence to suggest that folks who experience clinically significant anxiety and depression have construct systems that are too tight, and thereby easily subject to experiential invalidation (i.e., the constructs do not adequately predict future experience), resulting in negative emotions that interfere with living. Persons with symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) experience “construct bankruptcy”, where they do not have adequate ways of construing or understanding experience – a phenomenon often seen in returning combat veterans. Alternatively, extremely depressed individuals, for instance, who experience suicidal thoughts and impulses, have a constricted view of the future – an inability to conceptualize experience in any way other than their current misery – that can lead to feelings of haplessness, helplessness, and hopelessness. Persons who have a pattern of episodically volatile and unstable relationships, are likely to have construal patterns that are too loose, overly inclusive, prone to result in over-personalization and over-generalization, leading to sharp emotional ups and downs. Such individuals often experience a fragmented sense of self and a personal identity that seems to them as ungrounded, changeable, and inconsistent, which cannot not lead to interpersonal difficulties.

Finally, drawing from Personal Construct Theory, I often use Kelly’s Role Construct Repertory (REP) assessment tool to identify a patient’s characteristic interpersonal perceptual style, and generate a statistically determined map of their construal geodesic dome. With this approach, patients “rate” significant others on the constructs they use to interpret interpersonal relationships. The result is a statistically determined visual map of their geodesic dome of constructs, which often helps them begin to answer

The Prime Directive:

Why does it make sense that I am having these sets of problems with these people in these situations in my life, and what can I do to be more effective and satisfied in these relationships.