Gestalt Therapy: Roots and Branches - Collected Papers

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There has been a renewed interest in the last ten years in the underpinnings - theoretical, philosophical, and historical - of the Gestalt approach. Often in the past, these have been lost in oversimplified versions of the therapy. The author's aim in his writings has been to provide a full and coherent account of Gestalt theory, and to emphasise our links to our therapeutic and philosophical heritage, particularly psychoanalysis and existentialism. His theme is a field-relational theory of self as the centrepiece of the approach, and how this has been placed within a structure that is still recognisably psychoanalytic. In this approach, self is understood as meaningful only in relation to what is taken as other, and how that other is contacted. The formation of a relatively coherent self-concept is a task, not a given, and can be problematic as well as helpful (when it no longer supports the person's life-situation). Thus therapy is not an attunement to a self inherent in the client, but an exploration of contacting and awareness; and the therapist's stance can never truly be seen as neutral. Many of these ideas have found their way in some form into other therapeutic approaches (Intersubjectivity Theory, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy), and the actual relationship between therapist and client is acknowledged as highly significant. However, this has usually happened without the underpinning of a systematic field-relational approach to psychotherapy, and Gestalt Therapy, which has one, has for historical reasons not been in a position to engage with these developments. Fortunately this is now changing, and it is hoped that this work will help that development

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CHAPTER ONE: The world according to Gestalt therapy

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It was a joy to rediscover this piece, and its questioning of what we take for granted. Looking at this now, when we know about the banditry of the financial institutions, and the use of the Internet by people in rebellion against their governments in Egypt and other places, as well as by criminals, I feel somewhat smug in my predicting.

Afew centuries ago, much of Europe consisted of small villages or towns, with open country in between. There were various lords and rulers who owned the villages, and made rules for the inhabitants. There were usually walls involved. Some towns had walls all round them. Villages were more likely to be overlooked by a castle, where the lord lived, and whose walls they could shelter behind in case of attack.

In open country, there were “outlaws” and bandits. There were wild animals. The law was based on survival rather than the law of the land, or the law of the lord of the manor.

Between the village and the open country there was a relationship. People from the village went out through the countryside to hunt, or to go into the next village, or to join the outlaws. The outlaws in the countryside often had family links with people in the village, although they risked their lives if they came visiting.

 

CHAPTER TWO: “Let’s work seriously about having fun!” Psychotherapists’ systemic countertransferences

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We all have our blind spots! The areas of our functioning of which we are unaware lead us, as therapists, to messy contact with clients. We avoid areas that we find frightening or uninteresting (because we do not let them be frightening). We call these messy contacts, and the processes behind them, countertransfer-ence, and bring them to supervision.

But what of the countertransferences which are liable to be shared between therapist and supervisor? Areas where the nature of our profession helps to blind us? In these areas, we can project our life choices on to a client, and have the process potentially invisible to a supervisor who has made the same life choices.

I shall go through the potential “systemic countertransferences” that I have thought of. These are not meant to be a fully inclusive list. The areas I have focused on are: relationships, playing, problem-solving, money, work patterns, clarity, and organismic change vs. effort. My method will be exaggeration: my picture of the psychotherapist is a caricature, but, I hope, a useful, recognisable one. I want to thank the therapists and clients from Manchester Gestalt Centre, and friends in the Gestalt in Organisations group, for their comments and suggestions.

 

CHAPTER THREE: Commitment

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I am quite influenced by the thinking of Christopher Lasch. I like his combining of psychotherapeutic language and political/social understanding, which reminds me of both Gestalt therapy’s Paul Goodman and Paulo Freire. I also think it is important for psychotherapists to take on board social critiques of our activities, rather than to assume that we are the “good guys”.

“Even when therapists speak of the need for ‘meaning’ and ‘love’, they define love and meaning simply as the fulfillment of the patient’s emotional requirements … To liberate humanity from such outmoded ideas of love and duty has become the mission of the post-Freudian therapies and particularly of their converts and popularizers, for whom mental health means the overthrow of inhibitions and the immediate gratification of every impulse”

(Lasch, 1979, p. 13)

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where –” said Alice.

 

CHAPTER FOUR: Zen and the art of pinball

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This is, for me, a very satisfying paper. I used to be pretty good at pinball when I was much younger. And I think the application of pinball to philosophy has been underrated. Why does it just have to be archery or motorcycle maintenance? I like how the principle is illustrated by such an accessible means. I am also proud that it was quoted on a website devoted to all things pinball!

“You know the theory of destiny: that we are destined to do what we do? Well I don’t agree with that. We are destined to be where we are; what we do with it is ours”

(Said by my younger son when he was eight years old)

Suppose you’ve never seen a pinball table before, and come across one for the first time. Stripped of all the flashing lights and noises, what you see is a large bagatelle game, most of which operates automatically. It seems the only control you have is the spring-loaded plunger and two flippers. If you then try to play the table, you discover that most of the movements of the ball are entirely random and out of your control.

 

CHAPTER FIVE: Gestalt therapy and the culture of narcissism

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I was very impressed by Lasch’s book The Culture of Narcissism (1979) as a Jeremiad for our times. I wanted to introduce the ideas to a Gestalt audience. Part of the idea, which I believe psychotherapists need to consider, is that the things put in place to try to solve the problems of our society, including therapy, are part of the problem and participate in the same blind spots as the problems they are trying to solve.

Even when therapists speak of the need for “meaning” and “love”, they define love and meaning simply as the fulfillment of the patient’s emotional requirements. It hardly occurs to them – nor is there any reason why it should, given the nature of the therapeutic enterprise – to encourage the subject to subordinate his needs and interests to those of others, to someone or some cause or tradition outside himself. “Love” as self-sacrifice or self-abasement, “meaning” as submission to a higher loyalty – these sublimations strike the therapeutic sensibility as intolerably oppressive, offensive to common sense and injurious to personal health and well-being. To liberate humanity from such outmoded ideas of love and duty has become the mission of the post-Freudian therapies and particularly of their converts and popularizers, for whom mental health means the overthrow of inhibitions and the immediate gratification of every impulse. (Lasch, 1979, p. 13)

 

CHAPTER SIX: Requiem for the earth

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This is a rather bleak piece. I do not know if I would put it in this fairly extreme form now, but sometimes I would, and I think it is a viewpoint very much worth expressing.

The death of the human race

My sons have T-shirts saying, “Why should I tidy my room when the earth’s in such a mess?” I believe that we all know that several factors are coming together which, together or separately, could spell the end of the human race and many other species within the lifetime of people (especially children) who are alive today. Further, I believe that we cannot understand many of the clients who come to us except with this awareness. This is because many of the “problems” we see are manifestations of people’s responses to this situation. Many of the stock ways of working with these “problems” are manifestations of therapists’ denial of the situation.

The illness

We know about the hole in the ozone layer and the increase in skin cancer, and that what is being done about it is too little too late.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN: Cultural action for freedom: Paulo Freire as Gestaltist

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I have liked the work of Paulo Freire since the days of being a student activist, and I had the pleasure of attending seminars with him in Britain in about 1975, and loved the way he worked. Later, as I became involved in Gestalt therapy, I realised the similarities between the two sets of ideas, in both the theories and the methodology. Part of our holistic heritage as Gestaltists is an interest in the social and political aspects of being a human being, and Freire brings that in a manner similar to our Paul Goodman, who was, after all, author of one of the first radical critiques of education: Growing Up Absurd (1960). The writing is experimental, trying to capture some of the essence of Freire’s approach in the linear format of a paper.

I would particularly like to thank here the participants in my Cleveland workshop of the same title, in particular the participants from Brazil and the Philippines, who brought their own experience of Paulo Freire and his work.

Iam caught in a paradox. If I present the approach of Paulo Freire here, I contradict his approach, and my workshop. As a participant in my Cleveland workshop pointed out, if I tell you why this is, I already pattern your response.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT: Response to “Intercultural aspects of psychotherapy”

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I pondered whether to include this. In some ways it is not fair to include a critique of a paper that people have not seen. However, the subject of the invisibility of assumptions about race, class, sexuality, and culture is an important one. Where therapists take for granted that our professional assumptions of openness to diversity are to be imposed on clients as the only acceptable cultural assumptions, we are paradoxically losing our openness to diversity. Yet, otherwise, we are facing people whose life choices, while valued in their community, are uncomfortable for us to face. The act of defining those whose ideas run counter to ours as psychologically disturbed has a long and dishonourable history.

Ihave been sent a copy of the above paper by the Intercultural and Equal Opportunities Committee, and I want to raise with readers of The Psychotherapist some concerns I feel about it. Essentially, while I am very glad this paper has been produced, I would hope from an organisation committed to psychotherapy something less standardised, and more willing to face some of the really difficult questions round “equal opportunities”. I do not see this here, particularly in writing about class, race, culture, and sexuality. Rather, I see some culture-bound assumptions being treated as if they were objective.

 

CHAPTER NINE: Gestalt and drive theory

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This article reflects two of my ongoing concerns. First of all, to acknowledge our roots in, and commonalities with, the psychoanalytic community. Here, I point to the lack of acknowledgement that our founders used the language of drive theory within the Gestalt approach. Second, I raise a concern that the very popular language of dialogue has been used in a way that disembodies us, and takes away from a sense that, on a bodily level, we have needs and desires that are not focused on a specific relationship. Such an approach to dialogue seems to me to import a mind–body dualism that is antithetical to the Gestalt approach.

My thesis in this paper is that the uncritical rejection Gestaltists of Freudian drive theory is part of the ground of the historical neglect of the body and sexuality in much therapeutic thinking. This neglect has more recently been written about in a number of articles in the British Gestalt Journal and elsewhere (see, particularly, Latner, 1998; O’Shea, 2000; Roberts, 1999, and responses in the same issue; Kepner, 2003, and other papers in the same issue; Cornell, 2003, and responses in the same issue).

 

CHAPTER TEN: A Gestalt approach to transference

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This is another bridge between Gestalt therapy and psychoanalysis. It has a particular importance for me in that it raises questions about the place of regression and the character of the therapist–client relationship. If I were writing this today, I would add something about “mirror neurons” in the section on “projective identification”.

The question that I want to pose in this paper is: what is the meaning of transference in Gestalt therapy?

The originators of Gestalt therapy, trying to distance themselves and their approach from their psychoanalytic roots, emphasised the here-and-now relationship between therapist and client rather than transference. More recently, there has been a rapprochement to psychoanalysis in many parts of the Gestalt community, and a rediscovery of transference, countertransference, and projective identification. Often, there is a sense of two relationships going on simultaneously: the real relationship and the transferential one (see, in particular, Clarkson, 1992). Yet, there are still questions about what these words mean in a Gestalt context.

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN: Gestalt and regression

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Once again, I am exploring territory opened up by psychoanalytic thinking, and wondering what it might become from a Gestalt perspective. I was aware, in writing this piece, that “regression” has taken on many different meanings in different approaches: “reparenting”, “past life regression”, “inner child work”, “hypnotic regression”, etc. Some of these have justified very questionable or even abusive practices. I decided this was a minefield worth stepping into. It is also one where I received angry feedback from people who did not want me to allow any meaning to the term at all, having had bad experiences in their own therapy.

Introduction

At the time of writing the first draft of this paper (30 September 1991), there was a controversy raging in the national media about “regression therapy”. There was particular concern that there had been occurrences of abuse within this kind of therapy. At the same time, there are a number of different attitudes to the meaning, usefulness, therapeutic approach to, and even existence of, “regression” within the field of Gestalt therapy. This paper is intended to give my particular perspective on the subject. I will argue that “regression” can mean a number of different things, some of them wholly alien to the theory and spirit of Gestalt, some of them thera-peutically invalid. However, there are ways of seeing regressive phenomena that fit well with the Gestalt theoretical and clinical approach.

 

CHAPTER TWELVE: Notes for a book on the id

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This is an unpublished fragment of a book I never wrote! Many years ago, I read the original Book of the It (Groddeck, 1949), which so strongly influenced Freud’s view of the unconscious, and found it fascinating, sometimes thought-provoking and sometimes mad (and sometimes both). I enjoyed Groddeck’s free-wheeling, unstructured approach in a series of letters (signed, for some reason, “Patrik Troll”). I thought that I would like to do a Gestalt version of the book, rambling and edging into taboo areas, but did not get very far. I think there are some interesting ideas in this fragment.

“I assume that man is animated by the It, which directs what he does and what he goes through, and that the assertion ‘I live’ only expresses a small and superficial part of the total experience ‘I am lived by the It’”

(Groddeck, 1949, p. 11).

“What a toilsome business it is to speak about the It. One plucks a string at hazard, and there comes the response, not of a single note but of many, confusedly mingling and dying away again, or else awakening new echoes, and ever new again, until such an ungoverned medley of sounds is raging that the stammer of speech is lost”

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN: On yelling and bashing cushions

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This article also comes out of my interest in the place of emotion in our actions, and in therapy. There was a lot of “bashing cushions” in 1993! I realised that I had never seen anyone change as a result of this kind of cathartic work. Somehow the (melo)drama of this way of working supported its continuation, though it was not an approach that fitted the original theory, which always emphasised that emotion was a means of orientation in the world and was not to be wasted in “discharge”. I emphasise to trainees that, if there is to be drama in therapy, it has to be good drama of believable human characters, drama that you would want to see in the theatre, not melodrama with a wicked uncle twirling his moustache.

“Emotion, considered as the organism’s direct evaluative experience of the organism/environment field, is not mediated by thoughts and verbal judgements, but is immediate. As such, it is a crucial regulator of action, for it not only furnishes the basis of awareness of what is important but it also energies appropriate action, or, if this is not at once available, it energies and directs the search for it”

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN: Gestalt therapy and Morita therapy

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This is an early paper, written when I was less critical of the “cycle of experience” model, so I would not have written it in quite the same way today. However, I think the perspective on emotion and action that comes from Morita therapy is a useful one, and it is good to look at connections between Western and Eastern psychological thought, especially a form that has historical connections with Gestalt therapy.

“Neuroses may be quite subtle these days; they fail to respond to a process of sitting and talking about how we came to be the way we are. They come less from what we have hidden from ourselves than from what we know quite well about ourselves. They come from what we do and don’t do as much as from the ways we think and feel. To be cured, these modern forms of suffering require being honest with ourselves not only in thought - but in behaviour, as well. Pulling oneself together is a difficult and demanding task in these times. A behavioural commitment is necessary. Insight alone is not enough”

 

CHAPTER FIFTEEN: Gestalt in Britain: a polemic

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This paper has been one of the most controversial ones I have written. I decided that there was a need to support the foundational Gestalt theory with the same strength as those who want to support revisions. The first Journal to which I submitted it held an editorial group meeting to decide whether to publish it (they did not), but I have also had warm support for it. Some things have changed very much for the better since then. There is far more interaction between people from different institutes and theoretical “schools” and more international conferences where people meet and discuss, and people do not hold the same views as they wrote then, but the point remains that their original writings are still uncritically viewed by people who are not aware of the debates that have taken place or the full issues involved.

The theme of this paper is that there is widespread misunderstanding in British Gestalt of the original theory as expressed in Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman (1994), and ignorance of the debates that have taken place over the past twenty years round this theory, mainly in the pages of the (American) Gestalt Journal. Thus, Gestaltists in Britain have noticed (accurately) a dichotomy between “old-style Gestalt”, which is identified with Fritz Perls, and a “new-style Gestalt”, more identified with the writings of the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland. However, the issues at stake, both theoretical and clinical, are, in my opinion, often not understood, and the value given to “new-style Gestalt”, whose American proponents also often do not understand the original theory, leads to a dilution rather than an enhancement of the power of the original. So, I want to make a bold statement: my Gestalt work is based squarely on the theory (particularly the theory of self) in Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman (1994). I work with clients who can be classified as growth orientated, neurotic, character disordered, self disordered, and exhibiting psychotic symptoms. I have worked in a number of different ways within the Gestalt spectrum, and, across the wide range of clients I have worked with, this way of working is by far the most powerful and effective. Furthermore, the latest thinking in science and developmental studies supports the assumptions of Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman better than they support the “revisionist” thinking. Thus, I am concerned when it is assumed that “new-style Gestalt” is an improvement on the original. It is certainly an improvement on what some of the revisionists believe the original is, and an improvement on the work of those who, while they misunderstand the theory in the same way, work in line with their misunderstanding of the theory: lots of shouting and bashing cushions. I also do believe that Gestalt needs to grow methodologically and not slavishly copy Perls or any other Gestaltist. There are inconsistencies in Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman, some of which I have written about elsewhere (Philippson, 1990). However, no Gestalt writing so far is as complete a statement of the subtlety of the approach.

 

CHAPTER SIXTEEN: Awareness, the contact boundary, and the field

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This is one of my earliest Gestalt papers. I am already trying to look at the theory from a field perspective. I also like that this paper draws attention to, and continues, a period when significant theoretical discussion was taking place in the Gestalt Journal, involving many thoughtful people. In my “polemical” paper, I note that more recent ideas around interruptions to contact are going over ground covered in these discussions, but without awareness that they exist, or, at least, without referencing them.

“… psychology studies the operation of the contact-boundary in the organism/environment field… . The definition of an organism is the definition of an organism/environment field; and the contact-boundary is, so to speak, the specific organ of awareness of the novel situation of the field …”

(Perls, Hefferline & Goodman, 1994, pp. 5, 35)

There has been much discussion in the Gestalt world recently about “boundary issues” (see, particularly, The Gestalt Journal, Fall 1988). My thesis is that if Gestalt theory bases itself radically on the operation of the contact-boundary in the field, then the theory becomes comparatively simple. If the theory is looked at from the point of view of a person encapsulated within the skin, and particularly if we speak about my awareness as basic, then the theory becomes utterly complex, language runs out, and we end up in the kind of multi-various expositions of boundary issues that we have seen in the literature. For example, is there meaning in the term “proflection”, is it a combination of other interruptions to contact, and does that matter anyway? (“Proflection” is a term coined by Sylvia Fleming Crocker to denote interrupting contact by doing to others what you want them to do to you—the helpers’ interruption!) Is the mystical “one with the Universe” experience confluence or contact? Is self-awareness awareness or retroflection?

 

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: Introjection revisited

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This is an unpublished article that I have only recently finished. It seems to me that it fits well into the themes explored in the articles in this book, looking at a core concept and trying to see it afresh.

I want to explore the meaning and use of introjection in Gestalt therapy. It was a very significant concept in the original formulation and it has often been given a significant place more recently, but I have come to the conclusion that they are different places. This is partly through a general blunting and simplifying of the founding theory, partly through Fritz Perls’ own simplifying and sloganising in his California days, and partly through a more recent counter-current in Gestalt circles that questions the central organising concept of aggression.

The original theory

For Perls, the psychoanalytic idea of an introjected superego confuses two different processes, introjection and assimilation. His image of the difference between the two was of teeth: what the environment provides can be swallowed whole without being metabolised (intro-jected) or subjected to dental aggression, and only the nourishing part is absorbed to support our growth. In the situation of introjection, there is a boundary disturbance and I lose the “taste” of what I am introjecting, so that the I and the you are blurred. In the situation of assimilation, there is a differentiation from, and a contact made with, the other, and a clear sense of myself in relation to what the other offers me and does not offer me, and what I do and do not offer.

 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: Pseudo-introjection

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Already, in 1993, I was concerned about the emphasis on introjection as a simple process of “taking in” something alien. Often, with real clients it seemed far more complex than that. See also my chapter “Introjection revisited” in this volume (pp. 145–153).

In this chapter, I am going to look at a common stance that clients take, which looks like introjection, but which actually involves a quite different process: deflection. Attempts to work with this process in ways appropriate for introjection meet with resistance and anxiety.

In terms of the DSM-III-R classification, this process would manifest as obsessive compulsive personality disorder, and possibly in the proposed category of self-defeating personality disorder.

The kind of “introject” I am talking about is: “I’ve got to do better, work harder, I’m not good enough.” Since it is usually immediately obvious to the client which parent said these statements, this looks like a classic example of introjection. However, my experience is that if I try to work with this in ways which would normally help a client to gain his/her own perspective on these statements, something like this develops:

 

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