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Saying Hi to Gestalt Therapy

Hi. I am Carmen. The following text was originally written for my brother. It was an intense exercise of synthesis that was moved by my desire for making myself understood in my enthusiasm for therapy.

My goal was and is to explain a theory in the simplest possible way, a theory that has taken a great effort for me to integrate. I have been elaborating it, chewing it, in training courses and personal therapy sessions. Throughout this work I have tried to connect theory and practice in its basics issues.

What is psychotherapy about

It’s a method in which someone who needs psychological help can ask for it to someone offering it. This relationship is established under the terms of a code of ethics.

This is a generic definition that does not say much about the content and the specific meaning that psychotherapy has for me. This is something important to emphasize because there are a lot of psychotherapies and in my opinion there all very different. In Psychology -and in all sciences- theories are elaborated to help us understand the experiences we live. We use theories for elaborating hypothesis of work, methods and techniques that need to be coherent with these theories.

Each theory has a specific way of understanding the world and the human being

For example, psychoanalytic theory understands that man’s life energy comes from his drives and instincts and that this energy is something “animal” that society tries to tame with its educations, so that the person’s behaviour is adaptative and social life is possible. Somehow this means that man is in a constant fight between him as an individual and society as his repressor. They are separated entities and they are in conflict.

For gestalt theory the starting point is very different. It states that “organism and environment are inseparable” and this means that we are always in relation with what surrounds us.

  • Nothing and no one exist isolated. It does not make sense to talk about eating without mentioning food.
  • I am who I am depending on what I have been in contact with during my lifetime. We grow assimilating, nourishing ourselves with what surrounds us, breathing, eating, reading, seeing, talking, fighting, etc.
  • I feel different depending on where I am and with who I am. Nothing occurs to me that does not involve my environment and nothing happens in my environment that does not affect me. Constantly, we are being affected from subtle forms to the most notorious ones, from the decrease of the amount of oxygen that makes us have to breathe more, to a push that throws us down to the floor. And nothing remains the same in my presence, from the slight influence of physically being in a place, to the fact that you are busy reading what I’m writing now.

What does the psychology of gestalt therapy study?

Gestalt therapy studies how contacts take place in us, how we do to nourish ourselves from our environment, not only in a physical sense, but also in the emotional, intellectual and spiritual way. How we manage to grow. What is supporting my growth now. What is the next step to take in that direction.

The aim is to expand possibilities, the modalities of contact with our environment. You may find this simplistic. After all, if we have all arrived to this point and we are alive, is because we have contacted our environment. This is one the characteristics of Gestalt therapy, it focuses on normal, healthy functioning. And one of the qualities that we have is the capacity to preserve ourselves, to survive (although we don’t always do it in the most convenient way).

Sometimes we interrupt this process. We can do this in many creative ways, that can also be quite harmful for our quality of life, due to different reasons that may be reasonable and understandable. Even if it may seem crazy now, everything we do we learned it at some point of our life because at that moment it was the best thing we could do with the resources we had. To continue acting in this fixed way, regardless that these conditions have changed, is what causes problems.

How do we work in Gestalt therapy?

There are therapies that search in a traumatic past for the beginning of our “problems”. In these therapies, the therapist tries searching for past traumas, making interpretations out of what the patient says, until the patient can reinterpret his or her life in a satisfactory way.

Other therapies are oriented to the future, giving formulas and advices so that we can make our life more adaptative.

A Gestalt therapist is focused in the present. Nutritious contacts that help us grow take place in the present, and we learn by growing session after session, having life experiences. The experience of an uninterrupted contact enriches us. In therapy, we learn to nourish ourselves from our environment and we also learn to do it out of the therapy context.

As an example taken from my own life experience, I remember one day I told my therapist that I was afraid of being too intrusive with some people. “Intrusive? How?” – she asked. “I am afraid I might push them too far” – I answered. So she stood up in front of me and said: “Do it, push me.” And I did it. In that exercise I discovered many things. One of the most important ones was that she was there and she was not going to let herself be pushed away just like that. Therefore, when I try to “push” someone (metaphorically), he or she will not necessarily disappear. I just have to see that the person is there, that he or she is not at my mercy. I have to take into account what he or she has to tell me. My pushing is not the only thing present, the other is there as well.

I could have this experience because she was there. This was the opposite to my interruption of contact which was not to consider that the environment was able to deal with my pushing.

Being able to live the healthy part of the experience is therapeutic. This way we can integrate it into our lives.

Right now I ask myself that maybe this is not so evident for someone who is not me. A kind of therapy where the therapist tells the patient to push her, and the patient does it and at the same time discovers many things, may sound strange to you. Maybe you are thinking that pushing someone, even in a metaphorical way, is not nice, and that learning like this is foolish.

It is possible because there are still many things left to explain.

Healthy aggressivity

When we feed ourselves we are aggressing the environment. When we eat an apple and chew it we attack it. It is healthy and essential.

In gestalt therapy we understand “aggressing” like the act of “going towards”. When we study something that we want to learn, we need to aggress this that we want to learn, go towards it, we need to shred it, re-elaborate it, put it in our words, so we can assimilate it. This is what I am trying to do by writing this text.

We constantly destroy what is old so we can build novelty and grow.

The therapeutic relationship

One of the things that I feel it is necessary to take into consideration is that all that I have told you until now about my therapy session did not happen at the beginning of my therapy. We had been working together for over a year, we already had built a trusting relationship, in which trust relied on something that was new for me as well. It was not only that we had good feelings for each other. It was not only thinking that she would always listen to me. It also meant that together we could go through difficult moments, at times even difficult between us, and still remain present.

Another relevant aspect of the therapeutic relationship is that in our approach we do not consider the therapist to be “the expert” on what is happening to the patient. We try not to interpret, label or define people’s problems in prefabricated terms. The name I like the most for describing what the therapist is is “expert explorer”. Our function is to search, to clarify with the person the meanings that make sense for her.

It is not easy for therapist to hold back his or her interpretations about the patient. We therapists try not to understand too fast. We try to maintain a candid and naive position when we listen to the patient. This means giving space and time for opening new possibilities.

What is the purpose of therapy? What are “new possibilities”?

What I meant before when I told you that we approach people from the point of view of health, from the non-pathological point of view, I meant that we pay attention to what is healthy, so we can go in that direction. But, obviously, this does not mean that everyone feels perfect.

We consider that contacts that make us grow are healthy and these are the kind of contacts by which we can assimilate novelty. Nothing that we have eaten already can feed us again. We can eat apples but we cannot eat the same one twice.

Another aspect of healthy contact is that it is dynamic. It is a process that begins with a need, a desire that makes us go towards its satisfaction. We are orientated and our resources are mobilized by the desire, and this will allow us to get what we need from the environment. Then we can assimilate what we have taken from the environment and grow.

Let me give you an example of this process of healthy contact. It starts when we feel the desire of wanting to learn how to dance, we think about it a certain time, we consider our possibilities (economic, possible couple, schedule, places, etc). If we are still contacting with this desire, excitement grows, and we orient ourselves towards finding a place where we can learn how to dance, finding a person, money, etc. All these operations need energy and there is a possibility that we might fail. This we need to assume. And finally the first day of class, we may have a good time or not. The healthy part of the process is not only that we do well, but that we are fully engaged. Whether we are having a good time or not is not that important. Suffering can also be nourishing and it may give us an experience that may transform us and make us grow.

“To open new possibilities” means to allow this type of process to take place.

The interruptions, the “problems”

The essence of life is movement. Nothing which is alive is immobile.

The same example of healthy contact that I talked about before, learning to dance, can be used to explain the possible interruptions that may occur. The first of these interruptions is not feeling the desire. You don’t move. It is not that you don’t like to dance (this would not be a problem). The point is that you don’t feel the itch, the spark, you feel safe not feeling a desire.

The next possible interruption would be that when you start to feel excitement, rather than following it, you do not follow it because maybe your parents have always said that you have to save money for more important things. Believing that you are doing what you want, you save your money. You don’t move. The act of feeling some other person’s desire as if it was yours is introjection and the content of that desire which is not yours is an introject.

When you accept your desire to learn how to dance and begin to search for information on how to do it, you start to feel emotion. If the interruption occurs at this stage, the result is a projection. You begin to feel that the environment is hostile, the professor of the academy seems unfriendly, or you imagine that your potential partner is going to reject you. Something tells you this will not work. You don’t move.

Suppose now that you haven’t given up your desire and that you have done what you had to do in order to attend classes. Now it’s time to dance with your partner and you start thinking that you’re going to step on her, that you’re clumsy, that you can’t do this to such a nice girl. So instead of dancing with her, you decide to dance alone. This is a retroflexion, an act of deliberate self in a difficult situation in which you conclude that you can only count on yourself. You don’t move towards the environment.

Even if we dance with our partner, it is possible to interrupt contact if we do not relax when we are dancing, if we keep controlling and we are in a state of vigilance, we are not spontaneous when we are learning how to dance. We get stiff, we convert the act of dancing in a boring process. You do not really learn to dance. This is what we call egotism.

In fact, all these mechanisms of interruption of the process exist because they have a healthy function. For example:

Introjection is the mechanism that is used to learn social norms, or new techniques for doing something. You take for granted that doors open when you turn the key and that beating up people is a way of getting into trouble, and then you learn this and it becomes automatic. The problem comes when we use automatisms to get away from our growth and we are unable to make a choice.

Projection is also indispensable. We use this mechanism to make intuitive correlations, inferences, when we first contact people who we do not know. It becomes a problem when we attribute to another one what really belongs to us and we are not aware that we are doing this.

The retroflecting mechanism is appropriate when our environment cannot really support our action, or when we need to delay it until the environment can give the support we need. Sometimes it is better to dance alone until you meet a dance partner with whom you feel good.

Healthy egotism is caution, making sure that your environment is safe, before you stop controlling. It means taking care of yourself.

A fixed interruption of the sequence of contact is what we call neurosis: it is losing flexibility, losing the capacity to choose what to do in our lives and how to do it.

How to recover the ability to choose

It’s essential to know what options are available when you have to make a choice. If you were to choose a journey, it is important to know what the possibilities are, and when this is clear, you can choose among the possible options. Surely you will choose according to three criteria: your desires, possible destinations, and what you think is more correct. If you don’t consider any of these three criteria you can end up feeling bad.

Sometimes we think we are choosing but we are not really contacting with what we want. We do what is imposed from the outside or what we have learned that “we have to do.” It’s very complex at times, especially because it’s hard to distinguish between the criteria we use and the criteria we would like to use.

In therapy, we try to bring awareness to what our sensations are telling us, both our own and those belonging to the environment. We become more aware of the emotions that arise, but also of our thoughts, associations, feelings of guilt or obligation. We question ourselves about how and when things are no longer possible, no longer flexible, and remain fixed.

This doesn’t mean always doing what we want, it’s not doing what they say or the “right thing.” It’s knowing what each option is about and deciding freely.

Feeling supported has been important for me, so I could feel free to choose when I needed to.

Support

In Gestalt therapy terms, support is not just finding someone who will tell you that you are right or will give you a pat on the back. It is presence and involvement, it is committing to create with an other.

Sometimes support means to confront, sometimes it is listening in silence, other times it is asking. There are many different forms depending on the situation.

I remember when I started my gestalt training, the first day in a group of eighteen people, somewhat unfamiliar, with the “master” Jean Marie who was in front us for the first time. I was anxious, we were all very silent, as if we were in a funeral, and he was silent too. We all looked at each other more openly, and the man goes off with a surprising question: “What is your silence made of?” The excitement increased, also my anxiety. And to my surprise, at the moment in which he asked this question my anxiety disappeared. My interpretation now is that this change was due to the fact that he was giving us space so we could move towards him. The game was going in both directions. We were establishing the groundwork for dialogue so that we could have our spaces, our ground. In my opinion, this is support.

When we do not feel support we experience anxiety. In therapy, the therapist should be available for the patient and should offer sufficient and appropriate support. It is important that, together, they can go through the conflict, even if it seems impossible to solve. Exploring every available detail, awareness will increase and also understanding.

Let me go back to the example that I told you before, when I told my therapist that I was afraid of being too intrusive to some people. I remember we explored for a while what being intrusive meant to me. Then we looked for a way to represent pushing physically. I remember I was standing in front of her for a while and then I stood behind her. I didn’t really pushed her, but I hung onto her. I was trying to show her the feeling that I associated the most with pushing someone. During the experience it turned out that I was pushing downwards, as if I was a burden rather than pushing her. At that time, all this brought to my mind many associations of how I had felt like a heavy burden for some people and how I had learned to withdraw and not trust the other could sustain me.

And something that helps me make a change regarding this is that I could contact with the painful experience of “feeling I was being a burden” and I could understand what I did not want to do again. At the same time, I was having the experience with my therapist that she was there and she was not going to accept foolishly a heavy burden on her that she didn’t want. She was able to bear weight, she was not going to sink, she was not going to let herself crush without defending or moving if she needed to. And even more, she asked me how it was for me without forgetting how it was for her.

I love realizing that I can understand how I got where I am and that I can decide to walk in another direction. I have more faith thanks to the support I have received. And now let me quote a text that has been present in my head many times and still touches me.

“Faith is knowing, beyond awareness, that if one takes one step there will be ground underfoot.”

And thanks to faith I can allow myself to move on towards the world, to walk a little beyond the limits of what I know, to look at myself with respect. This helps me build respect for others, which is also to my benefit, and so, day after day, I can build a ground on which I can walk, grow, create with… co-create.

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