Gestalt Aim & Elements
There is no manual to Gestalt work...
Nor are tools dispensed. Then again, neither is there to life. And when trying those readily on offer through many other sources, you may have found that often they don't quite fit anyway, being "too small/large, short/long, narrow/wide, early/late or not-quite-me" etc.
Life is often likened to a journey, same can be said to describe Gestalt work. No two lives are alike. And so Gestalt work is tailored, made-to-order, to each client in each session, considering how and where they are on any particular day.
The turn in the road at which you are now, made up by steps that went before, and the place from where the next ones are taken, only how and when... - that's where we start. Gestalt work is about life and our journeys through it. And whilst no pre-defined roadmaps are given, which wouldn't reflect reality's terrain anyway, there are a a few key elements, solid anchor points, to support your moves...
Many come to therapy and coaching motivated by a wish to change, objects of change being varied, sometimes several. Their thoughts, emotions, actions, habits, work, career, home life, relationships, future (sometimes even the past), the others, themselves. And likely with numerous and unsuccessful attempts leading up to our first conversation.
Their reaction, when I tell them that I am not in the ‘change business’, is at best one of puzzlement. Understandably so, coming from places of frustration, disappointment, stress and pain, often over long periods of time, their longing for something else, somewhere, is genuine and deep; “get me out of here!”
In Gestalt work, the primary aim is not change per se, although it may be an outcome. It is awareness, plain and simple – which is also the means by which work is done. And yes, if you are keen on a tool, this is it. Awareness and attention, exploring “what is happening in a situation; how does it affect me; how do I respond (or not); and what meaning do I make of it all?” Discovering what is, rather that what should be, what could have been, or the ideal of what may be. Learning to trust oneself and develop self-support.
Gestalt therapist and psychiatrist Arnold Beisser (1970) in his Paradoxical Theory of Change describes the approach like this:
“change occurs when you become what you are; not when you try to become what you are not”
It may at first sound a little convoluted and even unhelpful. Here are a few other ways of saying it:
“change occurs, naturally and organically, when sufficient awareness and support exist around what-is, not when we are pre-occupied with what-isn’t” (Frew, 2017)
“to acquire a different habit, one must first feel what one is actually doing, and then you can experiment with doing something else” (Perls, 2017)
In other words, before taking a next step or maybe a leap, it helps first finding a firm footing on the ground where you stand now.
With awareness comes comes freedom, responsibility (response-ability) and choice. It enables knowing and owning a situation, making decisions and creatively responding to its needs and demands, own and others.
From there change may follow, or not, as you choose.
Choices are made, and awareness is trained, in the present.
Gestalt works in the ‘here and now‘ and has done since its inception back in the 1930-50s. Inspired by Eastern philosophies and a counteraction to the ‘archaeological’ approach of Freud’s psychoanalytic therapy dominant at the time.
“there is no other reality than the present” (Perls, 1992)
Present moment focus doesn’t mean disregarding the past and the future. It is human habit spending time in both, learning from experiences, preparing for the next, savouring and staying safe. In the past, we search memories, finding meaning, the joy of recollection and the terror of regrets — “I shouldn’t have”, “if only” etc. Similarly with the future, we go there to anticipate what lies ahead, and can meet the ‘tyranny of shoulds‘ and the ‘paralysis of dreads‘ — “I ought to”, “what if”, “never will”, “better not”.
Gestalt work includes it all, remembering, imagining and planning, where and when it is relevant. Experiences and needs that were left incomplete and unsatisfied in the past, because circumstances didn’t permit otherwise, will continue to strive for closure. We call them ‘unfinished business‘ or ‘open gestalts’; patterns and themes that repeat themselves in present relationships, situations or thoughts. This is where history and early experiences are brought into the work, in light of how they affect your life today.
“Where Freud’s psychoanalysis made the past foreground, Gestalt makes the present foreground” (Clarkson, 2014)
The foreground, what is given attention, is immediate experience. ‘What’ you select to be aware of, ‘how’ you make a choice and ‘what’ you choose, rather than ‘why’… – “Why?”, you may well ask; the question that often takes lead in our attempts to finding meaning and a way out of a tight spot. Reason is that ‘what‘ and ‘how‘ lead to rich descriptions, to exploring the tight spot, the situation and all its components, parts and people. Whereas ‘why‘ invites only to intellectual speculation. It is likely where you have already spent considerable time before getting to here. Were it possible to think your way out, we trust you would done so by now.
The ‘what’ and ‘how’ of experience are two components in what phenomenology calls the ‘act of intentionality‘, the process of reaching out to and making sense of your world and its different stimuli. Conscious awareness is intentional – I am conscious-of-something. How you think, feel and act are about elements in the world.
Our experience has roots in the past, and it flavours our hopes and fears for the future. The present is where opportunity is to consider our thoughts, feelings, behaviours, motivations and choices. To reassess whether they fit our current situation, or if they may be legacies of the past, outdated strategies that no longer serve us well. And if so, consciously and creatively make adjustments to suit the reality, where we are now.
This is why Gestalt works in the moment.
Research across different therapeutic models has consistently confirmed the importance of the relation between client and therapist or coach, its qualities and dynamics, for a successful outcome of work.
“In Gestalt work, in some sense the relationship is the therapy “(Wheeler & Axelsson, 2015)
In therapy’s childhood, the relation was viewed as being between two persons, one perceived an expert who knew and another who didn’t. The expert’s role was to be detached, a ‘blank screen’, to listen and deliver back interpretations of what he or she believed to be the matter, based on the other’s ‘free associations,. Many a caricature of the psychoanalytic couch & armchair comes to mind, the unequal positions of the two and not just physically.
A Gestalt relationship is in contrast. Equal and horisontal, and asymmetrical, as one has a professional role and responsibility. Mutual, as both are affected. Recognising that each person in a situation interprets it, subjectively and as they experience it. Bringing their different perspectives together in the service of the client.
A living encounter between two real human beings who risk themselves. In pursuit of healing and growth, by the means of developing a capacity for genuine relationships based in dialogue. First between the two in their sessions, in what we call a ‘safe emergency’, so that later, when comfortable, the learning can be taken into the world outside. The latter point is important, as some helping situations may develop new skills. However, they are closely linked to the therapist or coach and thereby of limited use outside the consultation room. Gestalt focus therefore is as much on developing autonomy and agency.
The Gestalt relationship is a laboratory for exploration and experimentation. And it is dialogic, meaning that we as Gestalt therapists are committed to bringing the following qualities to our sessions:
- Presence – staying with and being open towards what arises; suspending ideas and judgments, of what you bring and where our conversation goes
- Confirmation – listening and working towards understanding the experience and uniqueness of you
- Inclusion – ’empathy+’ – attempting to include your experience in our own understanding, ‘seeing both sides’ and remaining centred
- Open and direct – in our communication, including sharing our own reactions and thoughts, when we expect they can be of service to your work
Gestalt relationships are quite exciting and can be very rewarding.
It may be the last in this list of Gestalt elements. And our meeting, the contact between us, is at the very core of Gestalt work.
Contact is what happens between people when we meet. It is what arises in your interactions with someone or something different to yourself. It is a constant process more than an event. We are always in some kind contact. With other people, the environment, aspects of ourselves; life isn’t lived in a vacuum. And it can have different qualities, depending on how we are and what we’ve learned.
Contact can be split broadly into two kinds – one learned in earlier meetings and as we grew up; the other at play in current and new meetings that, if successful, leads to growth. The first kind is how we got to here. Human beings’ babies arrive into the world profoundly dependent on contact with and care from others; for survival, learning and development, including developing into themselves, into a ‘self’.
“In seeing you seeing me, I recognise I am” (Spagnuolo Lobb, 2021)
Sometimes the quality of contact we experience in meetings with the world, this ongoing and life-long process that accumulates learning, may not serve our growth very well. In such cases, we adjust and respond in the way we are able to given the situation and our resources and capacity at the time. If we were young, our range of response options would have been limited, and the strategies we learned thereby restricted. Strategies that worked well at the time, as we’re still here, may now be out-dated solutions to the challenges we face today; and they may stand in the way of our growth and satisfaction.
Much more can be said about contact – its different patterns, potential and traps. Here and for now let me end with a summary: Gestalt work is about becoming aware; of how you contact the world and whether it serves you well.
I hope to meet you.