Getting To Grips With Gestalt : Part 1
Published first in the June 2017 issue of ACCORD magazine
I have a sneaking suspicion that one of the main reasons people are wary of Gestalt is that they’re not sure how you pronounce it. It’s one of those psychotherapy words which unfortunately doesn’t have a neat English translation, and going around saying, “I use the ‘Bringing-all-the-bits-together-so-that-they-take-shape-and-form-a-complete-whole’ model of therapy” was never going to catch on.
For the record, it’s pronounced Guh-Shtalt - rhyming with ‘shalt’. As in: thou shalt never incorrectly pronounce Gestalt. And traditionally it always has a capital letter G.
You know those amazing counselling sessions which have a good beginning, a crisis, a revelation and a resolution, after which comes insight and change, and a positive ending?
No, me neither. But if it happened that would be a Gestalt: it all comes together.
The Whole is greater than (different from) the Sum of the Parts
Fritz Perls, who is most associated with this model, believed that we all consist of many ‘selves’. The counsellor’s job is to hold the client, with all their confusions, conflicts and contradictions, seeing them in the context of their whole lives, not just the self who turns up for therapy each week. In the counselling room particular aspects of their personality and behaviour will come into the foreground, while others remain hidden. We are curious about that. We watch carefully to see tiny details that might indicate background noise. A slight frown, a tapping finger, a glance away, a flush to the skin. This is micro-processing. These tiny actions and reactions are all worth exploring, and sometimes exaggerating; they can lead to deeper insight and increased self-awareness.
On the One Hand, on the Other Hand…
Gestalt therapy is, to me, an adventure, a journey I share with the client, neither of us really knowing where we are going or what we are doing. This edginess is on the one hand very releasing, and on the other hand a bit scary! Here too, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts – what happens between us goes beyond what either of us individually brings.
One the one hand, on the other hand expresses the conflict many clients feel. “I’m so confused” has to be one of the most common phrases we hear in the counselling room. It can be helpful to use glove puppets which can literally be placed on our hands to explore symbolically the contradictions we feel. For example: On the one hand I can accept that I am a wise owl who has learnt a lot of stuff and has a certain amount of wisdom. One the other hand I can feel like a small mouse who is fearful of making mistakes and wants to scurry away at the least sign of tension.
Reflecting on this, I was reminded that the Apostle Paul was quite good at Gestalt too… Romans 7:18-22 (The Message):
“I realise that I don't have what it takes. I can will it, but I can't do it. I decide to do good, but I don't really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway... I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge’…”
Yep. Know how you feel, Paul.
One of the most famous aspects of Gestalt is ‘empty chair work’ where we are encouraged to dialogue with our different selves. You don’t actually need a physical chair to do this, you can just start talking to yourself (although preferably not in Sainsbury’s).
So I put my fearful child in the chair, or my despairing teenage self, and try and see how much they still dominate my thinking or behaviour.
I dialogue between the confident, gifted me and the child who was rebuked for ‘showing off’, and who still pulls at my coat tails and urges me not to make God mad by my behaviour. I swap chairs with her and see the world from her vantage point, dominated by Plymouth Brethren theology and strong injunctions to be ‘good’.
I have a discussion between the adventurous, ‘Super-P’ part of me who wants to take on the world, and the other part who is scared of flying. Well, crashing, to be honest.
You can of course also put other people in the empty chair. Some of the early work I did in my own therapy was to ‘put my father in the chair’ and talk to him. I poured out my heart, saying how much I had been afraid of his angry outbursts as a child, how hard it was to love him, how his volatile personality dominated the home, leaving me a lasting legacy of fear. I told him how this had led me to be afraid of conflict, feeling I was somehow responsible for keeping everyone happy so they wouldn’t get angry. As part of this task, I swapped chairs and sat in my father’s seat, trying as much as possible to understand his world and his feelings. I got in touch with the stress he was under trying to provide for his wife and children, and also his aged mother-in-law and chronically sick sister-in-law, both of whom lived with us: one man and five females. As Dad, I looked back at ‘Pauline’ in the other chair and tried to see how he saw me and my sister, how distant he felt from us – unaccepted and unacceptable. This was a turning point for me and helped me begin to find compassion for him.
Different Selves, Different Theories
The idea of different selves is not unique to Perls. For example, Transactional Analysis talks about the Parent, the Adult and the Child. Carl Rogers (1959, p. 201) noticed “violent fluctuations” in his clients’ self-concepts. He recognised a deep longing for approval, for positive regard, as if the client were switching selves in a desperate search for the special formula that would unlock the longed-for relationship. He suggested that clients often try to win over their therapist by being who they should be, and he would sometimes encounter what he called “rehearsed material”, a type of social exchange which the client felt suitable for the environment of the counselling room.
Brian Thorne (2004) inspires us to accept our conflicted mind with tenderness, finding our way to the ‘liberating paradox’ of embracing our contradictions. He writes:
“I love my mother but I hate her – therefore I can neither rebel nor conform. I am strong but I am weak – therefore I can bring myself neither to lead nor to follow…. All the time the liberating paradox is standing there in the shadows like a candle waiting to be lit. In the moments of tenderness I have experienced both my weakness and my strength and known them to be not contradictory but complementary, not paralysing but releasing.”
Accepting who we are at this deeper level can be an important part of our healing.
I and Thou, Here and Now
Gestalt would urge us to grow beyond old beliefs and life-limiting behaviours which hold us back from being our fully functioning selves. Ideally the therapeutic relationship provides a context which is safe enough for the client to identify these without being condemned or shamed. Gestalt calls it an I-Thou relationship. Why are we using an archaic word for ‘you’? Well, it’s back to German again.
German has two words for you: Sie (formal) and du (informal). Like the French vous and tu. We don’t have that distinction in English, so we’ve borrowed the old word thou to signify a sense of closeness, intimacy and deeper connection.
English actually comes into its own when we talk about the I-thou relationship because it rhymes neatly with another Gestalt concept, here and now. The theory is that if we can truly meet each other, right here, right now, looking at what is happening between us in the counselling room, this can be potentially life-changing. Many theories are familiar with this concept of immediacy, and this is (should be) part of every counselling training course. As students, when we first learn to counsel others, we tend to be very mirror-signal-manoeuvre, concentrating so hard on rehearsing what to say next that we forget to listen. Gestalt would call this an I-It relationship, rather like a lawyer and his client, or a doctor and his patients where there is a professional distance. (My husband Chris remembers a consultant on a ward round saying he wanted to see “the hernia in Bed 10”.)
I-It relationships can be important – I don’t want an I-Thou with my doctor. I want just her to make me better. It’s when we are seeking intimacy and depth in relationships that it can be painful to be objectified. In Gestalt the Dialogic Relationship is definitely an I-Thou connection. It includes words like presence, confirmation (unconditional acceptance), phenomenology (an understanding of the client’s world), inclusion and a willingness for open communication. We bracket off our pre-judgements to be fully present to the client, empathically entering their world.
Some of you reading this will have watched how Fritz Perls treated Gloria in the training film, “Three Approaches to Psychotherapy” (1965) and be highly sceptical. He is very challenging and winds her up a treat, although he seems to win her grudging respect. If you haven’t seen the film, get yourself a cuppa and watch Perls in action (https://youtu.be/it0j6FIxIog). Have a cushion handy as you may be tempted to throw something at him, although Albert Ellis, another of her counsellors, annoyed me more. (She likes Carl Rogers.) Thankfully Gestalt therapy has mellowed over the years, although it does contain a clear element of challenge. In my experience it can move clients on quickly and bring about significant change. It also lends itself to working creatively, using symbols, metaphor and the imagination, and provides a fascinating way of working with dreams. Although Gestalt is a humanistic therapy, there are many elements which I find sit comfortably with my own Christian faith, including the concept of freedom and release from things that hold us back from being all we were meant to be.
Next time, in Part 2, we’ll take a look at the Gestalt Cycle of Experience and how it addresses some of those behaviours that block us from living freely.
Thorne, B. (2004). “The Quality of Tenderness.” The Norwich Centre for Personal & Professional Development.
Rogers, C. (1959) “On Becoming a Person” (2nd ed.). New York:Mariner Books.