Also called the Cycle of Experience, this is a particularly helpful way of exploring blocks to healthy growth.  We engage in this cycle many times a day, from everyday tasks through to major relational dynamics.  This article, which follows on from Part 1 in the Summer 2017 issue of Accord, will largely focus on using the Cycle to explore relationships.


Gestalt throws us a curveball right at the beginning of the Cycle of Awareness:  be aware of a feeling and then name it accurately!  This has to be one of the biggest blocks experienced by clients; how often the counsellor’s favourite question, “What are you feeling?” is met with the heart-sink response, “I don’t know.”    


I asked a small group of counsellors how easy it was for them to express their emotions as children.  Cathy was thoughtful.  “We were brought up not to have needs after the war,” she told us.  “It was all about duty and stoicism.  My parents weren’t unkind, and you could have needs if they were ‘on the list’.  Like crying if you hurt yourself was ok.  Or  if you’d been frightened.  But crying because you were having a tantrum definitely wasn’t on the list!  Tears of frustration or anger were soon dealt with by a smack, so I learnt not to show that, or be ‘moody’.  Most of the time I hadn’t a clue what I was feeling…”

It flashed through my mind that the morning after the Wimbledon Mens’ Singles final in July, a headline appeared in a national newspaper:  “New bawls please!  Federer wins weepiest Wimbledon final ever.”  Marin Cilic had sobbed into his towel during a break, apparently overwhelmed at playing badly, and Roger Federer had wept on receiving the trophy for the 8th time.  One sensed the commentators had shifted a little uneasily in their seats at Cilic’s emotional meltdown.  There was a shaming sense of, ‘get a grip…’  This definitely would not have been on Cathy’s parents’ list…

Emma commented, “My mother would get very annoyed with us if we showed our feelings.  I remember once saying I was fed up, and she rounded on me! ‘What do you know about being fed up!  You have nothing to be fed up about!’  I can still hear her voice now, and I still say it to myself!  I think she was frightened of our feelings.”

Sarah remembered her father’s words very clearly: Sarah!  Control yourself!  “I would slam doors very loudly and get into big trouble,” she told us. “ Mum would turn her back on me and cry.  If I said I was sorry, she’d push me away.”

The Invalidating Environment

Marsha Linehan, who developed Dialectical Behaviour Therapy for the treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder, describes the Invalidating Environment of a childhood where feelings are ignored, ridiculed or judged.  It can also be quite subtle.  Alison told us, “My father never wanted me to be sad – he only wanted happy feelings in the home.  He told us, ‘as long as you are happy, that’s all that matters’.  I failed the 11+, my dog had to be put to sleep, but I couldn’t be sad.  ‘Don’t be upset,’ he’d say, ‘it’s all going to be alright’.  He couldn’t stay with my sorrow, and neither could I…”

In the group we focused on how difficult anger can be to identify and express accurately.  The Cycle of Awareness is asking us to give accurate names to our emotions, and this is a tricky one if our angry feelings have been shamed, feared or punished.  Rather than say, “I am angry!” it can be easier to say, “I am hungry,” or “I need a drink.”  Diverting the energy to a different need, we eat our anger or drown our sorrows and the true feeling, deep inside, remains unacknowledged.

If we are trying to live a different way and name and validate our feelings, this can’t just be done in theory.   The Gestalt cycle assumes that the next stage will be actually to do something about the situation.  It wants us to consider our options and take action.


It was a silly argument.  We were going for a swim together and I had asked which car we would take.  Chris replied that we would take mine, and walked to the driver’s side, got in and switched on the engine.  I felt annoyed.  It was my car!  “Oh.”  I said, in my best sarcastic tone of voice.  “So apparently you are driving!”  The feelings bubbled up inside.  The words, “It’s MY car” were whizzing round my head and I felt petulant.   I weighed up my options in my head.               

…Say nothing, don’t make a fuss.  Don’t be so childish.  Grow up!

…It is important.  It’s my car and I should be consulted on who drives it.  I should drive it! 

…Stop being such a diva – who cares what you feel?


That last one made me stop in my tracks.  I had created my own invalidating environment!  It suddenly felt really important to do something.  If I didn’t, this would remain as what Gestalt calls unfinished business.   When I was small I learnt by heart the verse Ephesians 4:26 as, “Don’t let the sun go down on your wrath.”  I understood that you shouldn’t go to bed angry.   And yet we did, all the time, in my childhood home.  So much got swept under the carpet, it was six inches off the ground, and when I came to try and sort out my feelings in therapy I had accumulated decades of unprocessed anger.  But expressing it had always been unsafe.  And now, 50 years in the future, I still found myself inept at expressing my true emotions and experienced a sense of shame for being ‘needy’ and ‘difficult’.  I could mobilise the feelings and look at my options, but taking action and doing something was still scary.

I am blessed with an understanding and emotionally sensitive husband and we stayed in the car outside the swimming pool and talked it through until we had both felt heard.  The story I had written around that simple interaction about driving the car was a very different one from how Chris had seen it.  He had suggested my car because I find his uncomfortable; he was thinking of me.  He acknowledged that he had assumed he was driving and apologised.  Being understood, with my feelings acknowledged, meant I could let it go rather than storing it up and holding it in evidence against him which had the power to contaminate our relationship.  I could move on in the Cycle. 

Toxic Energy

Neuroscience is teaching us about interplay between emotional and physical dysfunction, and not taking action can have serious health consequences.  Within most cells of the body are the mitochondria - little ‘batteries’ which generate energy, enabling the cells to carry out their particular activities.  Releasing this energy is an anti-inflammatory process and keeps us healthy.  Not releasing energy is inflammatory; it is as if the battery is leaking internally and this is toxic to us, leading to disease.  “I know when I’m pushing away my emotions,” Emma told us.  “I can feel a migraine coming on, or my IBS kicks off again.”  Cathy took it further.  “It’s the cumulative effect that can cause real problems – it hits you when you stop.  Like teachers at the end of term, or a high-powered businessman going into retirement.  You can suddenly get really sick!”  We turned our thoughts to depression and how much this can be related to unprocessed anger.  Is this another example of mis-naming the feelings, right back at the beginning of the Cycle?

Emma suddenly made a connection.  “Yesterday I cleaned the kitchen and I knew it was because of the churned up emotions I was feeling.  I needed to get some order, why else would I be cleaning out drawers on a Sunday afternoon?!  I needed to do something!”    

In Deep Release we have something called Shake-Down when you allow your body to really shake out difficult feelings, with strong physical expression, even thumping a cushion if it helps!  Peter Levine (1997) describes how animals in the wild do this to shake trauma out, for example if they have narrowly escaped being prey to a lion.  You don’t get many depressed antelopes with migraines.


One of the major reasons I was able to let go of the car issue with Chris was because we had an I-Thou encounter over it.  We had truly met and heard each other.  It can be very difficult to work through relationship conflicts if the other person isn’t interested in owning their side of things.  Gestalt talks about our Response-ability:  having sufficient self-awareness to be able to acknowledge and be accountable for our own behaviour.  A very defensive response is unlikely to result in a satisfactory outcome, and the trustworthiness of the other person is crucial.  One of the group shared, “When I began counselling I realised some of my behaviour wasn’t good.  I wrote my husband a letter and said sorry.  He kept it as evidence for our divorce…”

This is where good therapy comes in.  There are two more I-Thou connections, two more types of contact and engagement.  The first is the one between the counsellor and the client.  Within the secure base of the therapy room, I can over time learn to have freedom to release pain, anger and frustration without fear of judgement or censure, knowing that I am accepted and understood by someone who validates these emotions. 

And then there is the unfinished business we have with ourselves.  This is the second I-Thou, an intimate encounter with myself.  It may be about connecting with my hurting inner Child Self, or the Teenage Self whose anger felt out of control, or another part of me I have disowned.   Gestalt encourages me to put that part of me in the empty chair and to engage in a dialogue, with raw honesty and truth. 


It is very satisfying when conflict is resolved, where there is reconciliation and restoration, and this is what we are encouraged to work towards as Christians, living in the light with one another.  Sadly, this is not always welcomed, possible or safe, and may even result in ending a particularly toxic relationship.  As much as it lies within us, it is important to get to a point of ‘satisfaction’ leading to some kind of closure, so that we are able to withdraw from the negativity of the situation. 

The Withdrawal process has an intrinsic sense of ‘letting go’ and this may mean that we need to grieve what we have lost, or what can never be.  Sarah told us, “When you get divorced, people say thing like, ‘Jesus will be your husband’, and I never allowed myself to grieve for my old one.  I had been divorced for 15 years when I did an exercise on a training day where we had to write the ideal letter of apology from someone who had hurt us.  I thought it would be a breeze; I ended up writing 4 pages, in tears.  I hit another level of pain and realised I had put my own grieving on the back burner.”

Our role as counsellors is not to help clients find ways of extinguishing or fixing their problems, but to grow through them.  Gestalt constantly encourages us to live with the here and now reality of life:  it is what it is; and through listening to the different parts of ourselves we have the potential to integrate and accept ourselves as well:  I am what I am.  And so we can learn to express what we really think, really want and really feel.   Richard Rohr says, “The best way to avoid actually changing is to go into one’s head and endlessly argue about what ‘changing’ means.  We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, but we live ourselves into new ways of thinking….”[1]

As we go around the Cycle of Awareness/Experience we can discover where we perpetually block and the fears and insecurities that rob us of energy and freedom.  We can also skip stages in the Cycle, for instance Mobilising our thoughts and choices then deciding it’s all too hard, and going straight to Withdrawal.  It would have been easy for me to do this over the car dispute if I hadn’t talked it through with Chris; I know I would have emotionally withdrawn from him and found myself then going straight to Feelings again and becoming very unhappy.  No Fertile Void there!


When we complete the Cycle of Awareness and reach Fertile Void we find ourselves in a lighter, freer space where we can explore new possibilities.  Going the whole way round without interruption is in itself a Gestalt, it all comes together.  We are now more connected, more integrated with our true self, no longer cluttered or contaminated by unfinished business, and ready to see what the next life adventure holds!  It requires an openness, a willingness to be vulnerable and face our defences and take responsibility for our own ‘stuff’.  Challenging, but really worth it!



Levine, P. (1997), “Waking the Tiger:  Healing Trauma”.  North Atlantic Books