Chapter 7: Growth Resources in Gestalt Therapy
The founder of gestalt therapy was psychiatrist Fredrick Perls. Born in Berlin, in 1893, he trained as a psychoanalyst before going to serve for a time in the South African medical corps. Peris gradually began to question and reject psychoanalysis. In 1947, he published a revision of Freud’s basic theories and methods.(1) Perls came to the United States in 1952, settling in New York, where he began an institute for gestalt therapy. He moved to California in the early 1960s. By 1966 the Esalen Institute had become his primary community, his “place of being.” There the charisma of his personality and his skills as a therapist impressed many persons in the human potentials movement, including many younger therapists. Perls died in 1970 while attempting to establish a gestalt-oriented therapeutic community on Vancouver Island.(2)
Throughout his life. Perls was a searcher who experienced and drew on a wide variety of philosophical and therapeutic approaches in creating gestalt therapy — psychoanalysis, gestalt psychology, bioenergetics (he was analyzed by Wilhelm Reich), psychodrama, existential philosophy, Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and the thought of Kurt Goldstein.(3) The rapid increase in the influence of his approach since his death is evident in the development of several gestalt therapy training institutes and the burgeoning writings of creative therapists who continue to modify, amplify, and enrich his original formulation.
Gestalt therapy is one of the most innovative therapies now available. It provides significant resources for growth-oriented counselors, therapists, teachers, and group facilitators. Its underlying philosophy is existentialist, holistic, and growth-centered. The word “gestalt” is used to mean “figure formation,” a holistic configuration that determines all its parts. Gestalt therapy is particularly useful in helping functional people enhance their awareness and deepen their relationships, and it can be integrated in a complementary way with other growth-oriented therapies, particularly TA and psychosynthesis. This therapy has been an important resource in my own growth struggles in recent years.(4)
Insights About the Nature of Growth
The growth-orientation is robust and wholehearted in gestalt therapy. It identifies the key problem of people in our times as inner deadness; its goal is to increase psychological aliveness by facilitating growth toward wholeness. At a training workshop for therapists, Perls stated, “We are
here to promote the growth process and develop the human potential.”(5) He spoke of the increasing disillusionment of therapists, including himself, with the medical model. He described neurosis in Maslowian terms as a “growth disorder,” which, he observed, shifts it from the medical to the educational or reeducational field.(6)To grow is to fulfill one’s deep need to create. As one gestalt therapist puts it: “The act of creation is as basic as breathing or making love. We are driven to create.”(7)
There is a radical holism in Perls’ understanding of persons. The focus of therapy is on the organism-as-a-whole, on enabling persons to actualize the essential unity that transcends the sum of their parts. Perls rejected the split in much philosophy, psychology, and psychotherapy between the mind and the body, the human organism and the wider interpersonal environment. There is an organic unity in whole or healthy persons both within themselves and in their ongoing interaction with their environment. In healthy persons the ever-changing “contact boundary” between their organism and their environment is permeable and flexible. These qualities enable them to establish need-fulfilling contact with others, but also to withdraw from contact when privacy is needed. When the boundary between the organism and the interpersonal environment becomes rigid and nonpermeable, behavior becomes inflexible and stereotyped and people lose the ability to draw essential psychological nourishment from their ever- changing relationships. Awareness arises at the contact boundary with the interpersonal environment. Healthy contact is the lifeblood of growth, the means of relating to others with awareness, therefore nourishingly and growthfully. Therapy aims at increasing the quality of one’s contactfulness.
Perls declared, “Every individual, every plant, every animal has only one inborn goal — to actualize itself as it is.”(8) There is a deep trust in gestalt therapy in “the wisdom of the organism.” Human beings possess an inborn capacity to meet their needs and thereby to grow. The task of therapy is to “fill in the holes in personality (created by the disowned or rejected aspects of oneself), to make the person whole again.(9) By enabling persons to relive and finish the incomplete experiences that they carry from the past, the configurations or gestalts of these experiences are completed. In this way the energy that has been locked up in unfinished gestalts becomes available for use in self-awareness and relationships. This process enables persons to move from being supported and controlled by others toward increased self-support and freedom to choose to relate to others in need-satisfying ways.
There are two interdependent poles of growth — increasing awareness of and contact with one’s total mind-body organism, and increasing awareness of and contact with other people and the world (one’s environment). Increased contact with others depends on increased self-awareness and self-support. My relationship with others can be only as deep and authentic as is my relationship with my own inner center. Awareness of the many polarities within oneself — kindness-cruelty, top dog-underdog, for example — allows a person to discover the unity of these seemingly antithetical sides of oneself.
There are three zones or dimensions of awareness: inner awareness of one’s organism and its needs; awareness of the outer world as experienced by the senses; and a middle zone (Perls called this the DMZ) composed of our fantasies, imagination, memories, beliefs, interpretations, prejudices, and our total social programming by our culture. Perls criticized Freud for concentrating so much on understanding the middle zone that he virtually ignored the other two zones. In contrast to Freud’s trust in learning by the exercise of reason (producing insight), Perls emphasized learning by moving from direct experiences of the environment and of one’s organism to understanding.
The middle zone can function in a healthy, constructive way — e.g., in creative activities. But often it distorts perceptions and diminishes awareness of both the organism and the world outside the organism. To illustrate, a person sees a spider, adds old memories and fallacious beliefs (that all spiders are dangerous) from the middle zone to this experience, thus becoming inappropriately frightened, without checking to discover that it is a harmless, even beneficent garden spider.
Therapy seeks to increase accurate awareness of both one’s organism and the world by clarifying the middle zone, e.g., by helping the person discover the inaccurate belief about all spiders that prevents distinguishing beneficent from dangerous spiders.
The major blocks to growth in gestalt therapy all involve diminished awareness of what one is experiencing in the here-and-now. Reduced awareness prevents one from perceiving accurately, feeling alive, coping freely and responsibly with one’s ever-changing situation. Perls held that there are four basic psychological mechanisms in the DMZ that reduce awareness and contact with oneself and others, and thereby constrict growth: Introjection is the “swallowing whole,” in undigested form, of the attitudes, beliefs, values, oughts and shoulds, usually from parents or other authority figures. These internalized messages (Parent tapes in TA) prevent people from distinguishing what their organism really feels, needs and wants, from what others want them to feel and do. Projection involves disowning one’s feelings and fantasies, impulses, and desires by putting these outside oneself and seeing them in other people. Projection distorts perception of others, deprives the individual of the power and potential resources of the rejected aspects of the self. Retroflection consists of turning inward on oneself what one would like to express to others. To illustrate, a woman feels frustrated and angry at her husband because of his disregard of her needs. But, in response to a middle zone belief — “a good woman doesn’t express anger” — a belief produced by her sexist programming, she turns the anger on herself and gets a sick headache. Depression and many psychosomatic problems are the result of retroflexed anger. Behind every projection and retroflection is an introjection — an internalized message that prevents one from expressing feelings and from using a potentially valuable part of oneself (such as the assertiveness in one’s anger). The fourth growth-blocking mechanism, confluence, is the lack of a clear sense of the boundary between one’s organism and the environment. This diffused sense of identity makes impossible the healthy rhythms of flexible contact with and withdrawal from others. By these four psychological mechanisms people reduce their awareness of themselves and others, and deprive themselves of potential strengths that would enable them to stand on their own feet and function effectively.
When children do not get the acceptance, support, and nurture they need from others and cannot yet provide adequate self-support and nurture from within themselves, they learn to manipulate others to try to get their needs met. They do this by pretending to be stupid, helpless, submissive, or weak; by pleasing and flattering, and by other phony games. They also learn to manipulate themselves to conform to other’s expectations by self-improvement games (called “should-isms”). All these manipulative maneuvers reduce their awareness of and contact with themselves and their strengths. Therapy seeks to interrupt such growth-blocking, self-other manipulation.
From her therapeutic work with women, Miriam Polster describes the ways in which our sexist society alienates many women from their strengths, teaching them to retroflect their real feelings and manipulate men to try to get their needs met: “Growing up a woman in our society leaves a psychological residue that cripples and deforms all but the most exceptional woman. . . . Our society reinforces in women dependent, exploitative and defensive behaviors aimed at procuring conventional and stereotyped rewards. . . . No wonder many women give up the fight.”(10)
The goals of growth in gestalt therapy are really directions of continuing change. Artist-therapist Joseph Zinker summarizes these growth directions when he states that he hopes a person in therapy moves toward greater awareness of himself — his body, his feelings, his environment; learns to take ownership of his experiences, rather than projecting them on others: learns to be aware of his needs and to develop skills to satisfy himself without violating others: moves toward a fuller contact with his sensations, learning to smell, taste, touch, hear and see — to savor all aspects of himself; moves toward the experience of his power and the ability to support himself, rather than relying on whining, blaming or guilt-making in order to mobilize support from the environment: becomes sensitive to his surroundings, yet at the same time wears a coat of armour for situations which are potentially destructive or poisonous: learns to take responsibility for his actions and their consequences: feels comfortable with the awareness of his fantasy life and its expressions. (11)
The Process of Growth
Perls saw choicefulness as the wellspring of all growth. There can be no creative change until persons begin to get a sense of their own power and responsibility — that is, the ability to choose to respond to their organism’s real needs by taking action to meet them. Persons are responsible for creating their own lives by the choices they make moment by moment. By helping people become more aware, therapy makes them more choiceful, more free to grow in a self-chosen direction.
The “paradoxical theory of change”(12) in gestalt therapy holds that when one really becomes aware in the “now,” change unfolds in its own way. By being fully in the present, the growthful direction in which one needs to move becomes clear. The only place from which one can take a step is where one actually is. Thus, living in the future or the past prevents one from taking intentional growth steps. Miriam and Erving Polster put it well: “When a person gets a clear sense of what is happening inside him, his own directionalism will propel him into whatever experience is next for him.”(13)
Increasing awareness is both the goal and the means of growth. Awareness restores self-support by enabling one to “take back one’s power, mobilizing one’s ‘center.'” (14) Because one’s contact with others depends on inner contact (awareness) with oneself, increased self-awareness is a prerequisite to more need-satisfying relations with others. Increased awareness also empowers the growth that results from experimenting with new behavior which in turn facilitates further growth in awareness.
The methods of gestalt therapy are nonanalytic and integrative. Interpretation, the key method of analytical therapies, is rejected as a counterproductive mind-game by which therapist and client both avoid experiencing the “now” fully. The therapeutic focus is on “the what and how in the here and now.” Peris rejected as an irrelevant waste of time the search (which is central in all insight-oriented therapies) for the why of behavior. All behavior has many causes, and each of these causes has many causes. Attempts to unearth past causes do nothing to stimulate growth. Such efforts lead away from full awareness in the now, the only time that growth can possibly occur.
Growth-blocked (“neurotic”) people are unable to live in the present. Their energy is wasted by guilt from unfinished, past happenings and by anxiety from fantasies about catastrophic future dangers, which they strive to ward off by frantic planning and rehearsing. Such persons consequently lack energy and awareness to enjoy living in the present moment, the only time anyone can be alive and aware. As the Polsters declare: “The major problem of good living is to keep up to date with the possibilities which exist rather than being stamped on the ass for all time by experiences which were only temporary.”(15) As persons in therapy try to attend to the flow of here-and-now experiencing, unfinished experiences from the past keep interrupting their awareness. By paying attention to what is experienced now from the past, and how they are blocking present awareness, past experiences can be worked through and completed and that energy made available for living now. Instead of seeking to remove resistances to growth, the therapist encourages people to enter into their resistances, exaggerate and “lean into” them and thus to get in touch with the power-for-growth that is there in their resistances.
According to Perls there are five layers through which people must move as they grow from deadness to aliveness, from trappedness to freedom: (1) The cliche layer is composed of superficial contacts with oneself and others — e.g., “Nice day, isn’t it?” Relating mainly on this level is a kind of token existence. (2) The phony, role-playing layer consists of the games by which we manipulate one another in vain attempts to get our needs met. (3) The impasse orphobic layer is the level at which one experiences the fear of emptiness or nothingness which lies behind the manipulation. This occurs in therapy when the therapist frustrates the person’s manipulative games (e.g., defensive intellectualizing) by refusing to play them. (4) If persons resist the urge to flee and instead stay with the fear, they reach the implosive or death layer. The experience of losing the manipulative games by which one has survived brings the awareness of deadness and terror (called “hitting bottom” in AA), the experience of being paralyzed (imploded) by opposing inner forces. (5) By staying in touch with their deadness, persons then move to the explosive layer, in which they experience rebirth as one or more of four types of creative energy is released — repressed anger, unfinished grief, orgasm (in sexually blocked people), and the explosion into joy and laughter which Perls called joie de vivre. On this layer of growth a more authentic person emerges, capable of experiencing tragedy and joy, pain and laughter, more able to create her or his own future. It is clear that the process of therapy involves struggle and pain and ecstasy, death and rebirth. As Perls puts it in an oft-quoted line: “To suffer one’s death and to be reborn is not easy.”(16)
My personal growth in a gestalt workshop group I attended several years ago followed the basic flow of this process. (17) I was confronted there with a situation where I had to relate as myself, without the protective wall of a professional title or the status of a leader or teacher. In that setting my games became painfully evident, first to the therapists and to perceptive group members and gradually to me. I became aware of the deadness of my voice and my body much of the time; the ways my “nice guy” front and my intellectualizing games both feed and sugarcoat my anger; the way I tend to lock up my energy by not breathing fully; the way I give my power away to others, seeking by manipulation to get validation from them; the way I spend energy rehearsing in my mind what I will say to get approval from others; the ways I cut myself off from my laughing, playful, don’t-give-a-damn side and thus burden myself and others as a “heavy”; the way I often stay distant from my center and therefore out of deep contact with others; the way I tend to live “five miles ahead on the road” worrying and planning; the ways I postpone living and savoring the real experiences of this moment. My anxious attempts to be a “successful” gestalt therapy patient (another game) naturally led to increased frustration and eventually despair. The impasse that followed was, indeed, deathlike. I experienced an explosion of energy, and the joy of being alive (expressed as a dancing mountain stream) when I finally gave up the frantic search for “the answer” and spontaneously began to laugh at myself and my futile attempts to manipulate myself and others.
The role of the gestalt therapist in the growth process is not that of “changer,” teacher, or helper. It is to provide a relationship that will be an environment of growth, within which one can confront one’s deadness and experience rebirth to one’s own strengths, responsibility, pain, and joy. The therapist seeks to balance contact (supportive awareness and acceptance of the here and now person) and “skillful frustration” of the person’s aliveness-avoiding manipulations. Peris saw the therapeutic relationships as an authentic encounter between two human beings, not a variation on the doctor-patient relationship. The therapist seeks to be present as a real person interacting in a fluid, active way with the other. There can be a playful, joyous dimension for the therapist in this encounter. In describing the therapist as an artist involved in a creative, loving encounter, Joseph Zinker identified a parallel with the experience of Artur Rubinstein, who said that “playing the piano is like making love, it fills me completely with joy.”(18)
Spiritual Growth Resources in Gestalt Therapy
Many of gestalt therapy’s insights and methods can be used to help persons move from growth-blocking to growth-nurturing religious experience. The authoritarianism, moralism, and legalism of much traditional religion diminishes spiritual awareness by encouraging people to project their own spiritual powers onto deity (thus impoverishing their inner lives), introject self-punishing beliefs that diminish self-other esteem and distort relationships, and retroflex vital assertive and sexual energies, thus blunting their aliveness. Gestalt therapy challenges the “aboutism” of endless intellectualizing (in theology and philosophy) concerning the “ultimate meaning of life” which so often becomes a substitute for the direct, enlivening experiencing of spiritual reality.
Although Perls was a nontheist who rejected his Jewish heritage, there are significant affinities between the best in the Judeo-Christian tradition and gestalt therapy. Its holistic orientation is reminiscent of the whole-person understanding of human beings in the Old Testament tradition. (19) Perls’ emphasis on authentic living, on encountering the “fertile void,” on death and rebirth, on awakening to one’s potential and powers — all have affinities with the salugenic (wholeness-nurturing) dimension of the Judeo-Christian heritage. The influence of Eastern philosophies in Peris’ thought is reflected in gestalt therapy, for example, in his Taoist-like admonition, “Don’t push the river, it flows by itself,”(20) and in the paradoxical theory of change.
Several spiritually oriented gestalt therapists have sought to develop the spiritual growth potentials inherent in this approach. Claudio Naranjo has explored the many affinities between both Eastern and Western religious traditions and gestalt therapy.(21) Joseph Zinker describes creative therapy as a relational
Being fully present for each other in a given hour , . . is like worshipping together. . . . It is an interesting paradox that we discover our most important inner ecstasies in the process of moving beyond ourselves into other lives. It is only after such an intimate transaction . . . that we can enter into more ascending, religious transactions. To speak with God one must first give up one’s narcissism, and to give up one’s narcissism one must enter into an authentic dialogue with fellow human beings: To speak with God one must speak with humankind.(22)
Weaknesses of Gestalt Therapy
From the Growth Counseling perspective, gestalt therapy has several significant weaknesses. It is impoverished by the reductionistic elements in Perls’ thought. In reacting against growth-blocking moralism, he reduced all values to “shouldisms” and dismissed them without seeing that authentic values are essential in human wholeness. In reacting against sterile intellectualizing he seemed to reduce all intellectual activities to mind games. Reacting against the paralysis of endless analysis in therapy, he failed to see that cognitive understanding and self-insight can help mobilize one’s resources for creative change. In his appropriate rejection of authoritarian religions. Perls failed to see the essential role of salugenic spirituality in human growth. There was no awareness in his thought of a transcending dimension, a higher Self in human beings. He dismissed the concept of the self, in fact, as “a relic from the time when we had a soul.”(23) This deficiency points to the need for integrating a spiritually oriented approach like psychosynthesis with gestalt in developing ways to maximize whole-person growth.
In his fight against symbiotic dependencies, Perls fell into the other extreme, hyperindividualism, expressed in his much quoted “gestalt prayer”: “I do my thing and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations and you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you and I am I, and if, by chance, we find each other, it’s beautiful. If not, it can’t be helped.” (24)
This prayer, in Perls’ mind, may have been only a teaching device and not a statement of a basic philosophical principle. But as a perceptive gestalt therapist observes, the emphasis on doing one’s own thing can, with only minor distortions, be used to justify destructive, psychopathic behavior. (25)
The hyperindividualism in gestalt therapy seems to be particularly offset by Perls’ view that a group is a microcosmic world in which people can expand their awareness and try out new behavior. However, when he worked in a group setting, he kept the entire therapeutic process centered on himself. Consequently he missed the unique power of therapy or growth groups — the developing, through group-centered interaction, of a group climate that frees everyone in that group to grow and to become mutual growth facilitators.
A weakness in gestalt is an underemphasis on the responsibility of truly liberated persons to strive to change the oppressive structures of society. Peris was keenly aware of the social sources of diminished growth. It is from the collective psychosis of our culture that we learn our phony, deadening games. But in response to this awareness he offered only the image of the autonomous, self-directed individual standing against the insanities of society. There is little or no awareness of
the extent to which the capacity to take full responsibility for one’s life presupposes a degree of freedom from social, economic, and political oppression that is not available to two-thirds of the world’s peoples. There is no sense of the interdependency of individual and societal wholeness and no call for using one’s therapy-developed strengths to help overcome growth-crippling institutional injustice and oppression.
It is not surprising, then, that the growth-stifling impact of institutional sexism has received little attention in gestalt therapy literature. The multiple ways in which our society cripples the full becoming of women and, in different ways, of men, is almost ignored. A refreshing exception to this near silence is an insightful statement by Miriam Polster on “Women in Therapy: A Gestalt Therapist’s View.” Gestalt therapy can help women repair the damage of sexism in their lives by enabling them to stop giving their power away to men and to sexist institutional practices. But even valuable self-powering and self-responsibility techniques can be used against women to excuse our male-dominated social systems. The authors of Feminism as Therapy report:
Too often women friends of mine have told me of incidents in Gestalt groups where they have made connections between their problems and the social system and been told to quit blaming outsiders for their problems. Everything is not my projection, and there are many things over which I have little control no matter how clear and sane and together and responsible I become. . . .Women have been taking personal responsibility too long for difficulties in their lives whose roots are social. It is time we put some of the responsibility where it belongs, on the oppressive political-economic system. (26)
The near vacuum of social responsibility in gestalt therapy’s philosophy is highlighted by this version of the gestalt prayer in a radical therapy journal: “I do my thing, and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations and you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you and I am I, and if by chance we find our brothers and sisters enslaved, and the world under fascist rule, because we are doing our thing — it can’t be helped.”(27)
Perls’ hyperindividualism and lack of systemic awareness was counterbalanced, to some degree, by developments of his thought in his later life and by others since his death. Just before his death, he declared that therapy could only be done fully in a community that supported growth. His collaboration in establishing a kind of gestalt commune or kibbutz on Vancouver Island (which disintegrated after his death) is an example of his growing sense of need for community. The relational awareness of Joseph Zinker and the Polsters, who write of going beyond cure and growth to the development of a new communal climate,(28) is an example of more systems- oriented gestalt therapists. They show that gestalt has the potential of becoming a more systemic and political therapy.
Growth Methods from Gestalt Therapy
Gestalt therapy offers a rich variety of methods for growth work. All gestalt methods are ways of enhancing awareness. In what follows, I’ll describe a few gestalt approaches that I have found useful, presenting them so that you can try them yourself before you attempt to use them with others. Before proceeding, it’s important to emphasize a danger that gestalt shares with some other therapies — its vulnerability to the abuse of its powerful techniques by inadequately trained therapists. At its heart, gestalt therapy is an orientation, a philosophy of how persons change and grow. It is not a set of therapeutic gimmicks. Particular techniques emerge from the therapist’s flowing awareness of the growth needs of a particular person. The choice of techniques results from the therapist’s understanding of the gestalt philosophy and principles. To be aware of the person’s unfolding needs, the therapist’s mind must be clear of pre-selected techniques.
Attending lo the Whole Person (Beginning with Yourself): Because of our organic oneness, everything we do reflects our here-and-now being. Our awareness of body messages in ourselves and others — posture and movement, voice quality, breathing, muscular tension, and so forth — often reveals more than words about growth blocks. To experience this, close your eyes and be aware of any part of your body that feels up tight right now./ Carry on a dialogue with that part of you, speaking out loud for the part and then for “yourself.” Let your words flow, and see what emerges./ Close your eyes again and be aware of some motion you feel like making with your body,/ Now, do it, repeating the motion several times, exaggerating it more each time./ Let sounds that express how you feel come out as you do this./ Be aware of the message to yourself in what you have been expressing with your body./
A man is sitting in a growth group with crossed legs making small repetitive kicking motions with one foot. When it seems appropriate, I ask if he is aware of what his foot is saying to him. Or I may invite him to “be your foot and carry on a dialogue with the rest of yourself.” What emerges into his awareness is the frustration, anger, and aggressive feelings that he has been retroflexing and expressing covertly through body language.
From the Here-and-Now to the Then-and-There: To increase your awareness of the here-and-now, try this experiment. Become aware of how you are experiencing yourself in your present situation with its surroundings, relationships, happenings, smells, temperature./ Now, if you’re feeling tired or bored, think of another situation that you’ve enjoyed in the past, a setting where you’d prefer to be right now./ Go there in your imagination./ How have your feelings and your energy level changed?/ In your mind, go back and forth several times between your present situation and the other one, savoring the differences in the two./ Now, see if you can bring some of the energy and feelings from the other situation into the present one to enliven your experience now./ Go back and forth until you feel more comfortable and “present” in the here-and-now.(29)
Increasing Awareness by Enactment: This approach uses dramatization of some aspect of a person’s life, within a counseling session or growth group. Here is how the Polsters use the method:
“It may start from a statement he makes, or from a gesture. For example, if he makes a small gesture, we may ask him to extend this movement to a fuller dimension. Suppose when he does he finds that the movement feels like a lion sitting on its haunches. We ask how that feels. He says it makes him want to growl. Go ahead and growl. So he does; with this he begins to move around the room, pawing at people. By the time he is done he has frightened some people, amused others, beguiled others and discovered his own held-in excitement. This excitement shows him a new side of himself — the power side, the animal side, the side that moves vigorously into contact — and he begins to realize something of what he has been missing in life. Well timed, and recurring at appropriate moments, such characterizations tap into the individual’s action system, opening up new directions.”(30)
This method can be used in a variety of forms — e.g., to enact and work through an unfinished, energy-wasting experience from the past or to enact a polarity in one’s life — being devilish or angelic — to help one “own” and integrate both sides.
To get inside this approach, close your eyes and image some animal that you would like to be./ Now, open your eyes and be that animal for several minutes. Let yourself go, making the appropriate sounds and movements. Do this until it feels finished./What feelings did you experience? Did you discover any new aspects of yourself?/ Share your experience with a friend./
Take Back Your Power and Response-ability: Gestalt therapy uses a variety of methods to help people become aware of and interrupt the process of giving their power away to other people and to circumstances. For example, the next time you’re anxious about something you have to do in the future, try completing the sentence as many times as possible, “Right now I’m frightening myself with the fantasy that . .” You’ll probably discover catastrophic fantasies and expectations to which you are giving your power (to do your best) away. By separating your fantasies from whatever is real in your fears, you can use your energy to prepare to handle the reality situation effectively./ Make a series of statements beginning with the words, “I’d like to do the following, but I can’t . . .”/ Repeat the statements changing all the “can’ts” to “won’ts.”/ Be aware of how you feel when you make the change./
Here is another power-responsibility reclaiming approach. Close your eyes and imagine that you are a client in therapy wrestling with a difficult personal problem. The therapist says to you: “I’d like to use you as a consultant. What advice would be helpful to you in this situation?”(31) Be aware of your feelings as the therapist affirms your potential wisdom and gives responsibility for your therapy back to you./
The Empty Chair Dialogue: This approach has a wide variety of uses in counseling and growth groups. The method is invaluable in helping those experiencing painful losses to do their “grief work” by bringing into the open and perhaps finishing the energy-depleting inner dialogue (usually of guilt and anger) with the lost person. The individual, in fantasy, puts the person with whom he or she has unfinished feelings, in an empty chair and then alternately speaks to and for that person, moving back and forth from one chair to the other in the process. It is important to encourage the person to continue this dialogue until some resolution has occurred, as shown by the person’s experience of inner quiet and increased energy. Many of us are carrying around “ghosts” of powerful unfinished feelings about long-past relationships. The increased flow of creative energy, when these feelings are worked through, often is dramatic.
It is possible to use the dialogue method as a self-help technique. After my father’s death, I went alone to the cemetery and carried on an extended dialogue with the dad I carry in my memory, expressing some of the unfinished feelings of sadness and anger, guilt and love and gratitude about our relationship. The empty chair method can also help in working through feelings about people who are still alive but with whom direct confrontation is either impossible or probably unproductive — e.g., a rigid boss on a job you still want to keep, an aged parent with whom an open confrontation would be destructive, or an ex-spouse toward whom one has energy-wasting resentments.
Empty chair work can help people re-own rejected, “alien” parts of themselves. It can also help resolve conflicts between aspects of one’s personality. We waste enormous quantities of life and energy in the civil wars among potentially complementary parts of ourselves. Here is an awareness exercise to let you experiment with such a dialogue: Close your eyes and picture a chair in your imagination./ Put the part of yourself that feels weak, inadequate, and one-down in the chair./ Be aware of how that person in the chair feels./ Now. picture another part of yourself — the part that feels strong, effective, competent — standing so as to look down on the person in the chair./
Be the standing person now, and give the sitting one a lecture to get that person to shape up. Put your feelings into what you’re saying!/ How does the one in the chair feel and respond?/ Carry on a dialogue between the two for a while, first being one and then the other./ Be aware of the feelings stirred up in each person by the dialogue, the power in each position, the energy consumed by the conflict, the increasing polarization that occurs./ Now, see if you can change the dialogue so that it leads to reconciliation between these two sides of yourself (which Perls calls the “underdog” and the “top dog”)./
Dream Work: According to gestalt theory, dreams are messages about the holes in one’s personality gestalt. Each person or thing in a dream is a disowned part of the dreamer. The person is invited to tell the dream or act it out, not as a story from the past, but in the present tense, and then finish the dream in fantasy. Here is how Fritz Perls described the use of dreams in one’s own growth work:
“In Gestalt Therapy we don’t interpret dreams. We do something more interesting with them. Instead of analyzing and further cutting up the dream, we want to bring it back to life. . to re-live the dream as if it were happening now.
You can do a tremendous lot for yourself on your own. Just take any old dream or dream fragment, it doesn’t matter. As long-as a dream is remembered, it is still alive and available, and it still contains an unfinished, unassimilated situation.
So, if you want to work on your own, I suggest you write the dream down and make a list of all the details in the dream. Get every person, every thing, every mood, and then work on these to become each of them. Ham it up. . . . Really become that thing. . . Turn into that ugly frog or whatever is there — the dead thing, the live thing, the demon — and stop thinking. Lose your mind and come to your senses. Every little bit is a piece of the jigsaw puzzle which together will make up a much larger whole — a much stronger, happier, more complete real personality.”
Then the person has the different parts of the dream dialogue with one another. “As the process of encounter goes on, there is mutual learning until we come to a oneness and integration. . . . Then the civil war is finished, and your energies are ready for your struggles with the world.”(32)
For Further Exploration of Growth Resources in Gestalt Therapy
Fagan, Joen, and Shepherd, lrma, eds. Gestalt Therapy Now: Theory, Techniques, Applications. Palo Alto, Calif.: Science and Behavior Books, 1970.Twenty-five papers by gestalt therapists including Fritz and Laura Perls. Dedicated to “Fritz . . . a profound and disturbing teacher.”
Hatcher, Chris, and Himelstein, Philip, eds. The Handbook of Gestalt Therapy. New York: Jason Aronson, 1976. Twenty-five chapters on various techniques, and a section on the relation of gestalt therapy to other therapies — TA, bioenergetics, biofeedback, and art therapy.
Perls, Fredericks. Ego, Hunger and Aggression. New York: Random House, 1947. Explains the theory of gestalt therapy as it developed from psychoanalysis and gestalt psychology.
—The Gestalt Approach: Eyewitness lo Therapy. Ben Lomond, Calif.: Science and Behavior Books, 1973. The manuscript on which Perls was working when he died. A theoretical exposition of gestalt therapy and a transcript of a series of filmed therapy sessions with Perls as therapist.
— Gestalt Therapy Verbatim. Lafayette, Calif.: Real People Press, 1969. A discussion of the principles of GT, including transcripts of several sessions.
—In and Out the Garbage Pail. Lafayette, Calif.: Real People Press, 1969. Perls’ candid, humorous, anecdotal autobiography. Communicates the flavor of his colorful personality. Describes the beginnings and development of GT.
Polster, Erving, and Polster, Miriam. Gestalt Therapy Integrated: Contours of Theory and Practice. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1973. An exploration of key concepts of GT.
Schiffman, Muriel. Gestall Self-Therapy. Menio Park, Calif.: Self Therapy Press, 1971. Techniques for self-growth using GT.
Smith, Edward W. L., ed. The Growing Edge of Gestalt Therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1976. Explores the relation of GT to other therapies — Jungian, Existentialism, Zen, TM, and Taoism.
Stevens, John 0. Awareness: Exploring, Experimenting, Experiencing. Lafayette, Calif.: Real
People Press, 1971. Awareness and communication exercises focusing on inner communication, fantasy journeys, pair communication, art, and movement.
Zinker, Joseph. Creative Process in Gestalt Therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1977. Shows how the therapist is really an artist.
Also see the books combining TA and GT by Lessor and James/Jongeward in bibliography at end of TA chapter.
1. See Ego, Hunger and Aggression (New York: Random House, 1947).
2. See In and Out the Garbage Pail (Lafayette, Calif.: Real People Press, 1969) for further information about his life.
3. See “The Roots of Gestalt Therapy” by Edward W. L. Smith in The Growing Edge of Gestalt Therapy (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1976), chap. 1.
4. See my book Growth Counseling, pp. 21-25.
5. Gestalt Therapy Verbatim (GTV) (Lafayette, Calif.: Real People Press, 1969), p. 2.
6. Ibid., p. 28.
7. Zinker, Creative Process in Gestalt Therapy (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1977), p. 9.
8. GTV, p. 31.
9. Ibid., p. 2.
10. Polster, “Women in Therapy: A Gestalt Therapist’s View,” in Chris Hatcher and Philip Himelstein, eds., Handbook of Gestalt Therapy (New York: Jason Aronson, 1976), pp. 557 ff.
11. Zinker, Creative Process in Gestalt Therapy, pp. 96-97.
12. See Amold Beisser, “The Paradoxical Theory of Change,” in Joen Fagan and lrma Shepherd, eds., Gestalt Therapy Now (Palo Alto, Calif.: Science and Behavior Books, 1970), chap. 6.
13. Gestalt Therapy integrated (GTI) (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1973), p. 17.
14. GTV, p. 63.
15. GTI, p. 85.
16. GTV, flyleaf.
17. For a fuller description of this experience, see Growth Counseling, pp. 21-25.
18. Zinker, Creative Process in Gestalt Therapy, p. 5.
19. Lynn Walker, Body and Soul (Lafayette, Calif.: Real People Press, 1969).
20. In and Out the Garbage Pail, p. 22.
21. See “Present-Centeredness” in Gestalt Therapy Now, pp. 47ff.
22. Zinker, Creative Process in Gestalt Therapy, p. 17.
23. GTV, p. 76.
24, Ibid., p. 4.
25. Robert Resnick, Gestalt Therapy Workshop, May, 1978.
26. Anica Vesel Mander and Anne Kent Rush, Feminism as Therapy (New York: Random House, 1974), p. 48.
27. Reprinted from Rough Times by Journal of Humanistic Psychology, vol. 17, no. 3, p. 78.
28. Polster and Polster, GTI, p. 24.
29. This is adapted from an exercise by Fritz Perls in GTV, p. 61.
30. Polster and Polster, GTI, pp. 239-40.
31. Paraphrased from a statement by Bob Martin in a gestalt therapy workshop, May, 1978. 32. GTV, pp. 68-70.