HEALTH, IMPROVEMENT, & THERAPEUTIC SERVICES
Gestalt Development Center
Last Updated: 05-07-17
Target Audience, Experiential Learning, Who Are “They”
I’m writing this as a supplement to supervision. It became clear to me that I’ve gotten good at doing one very specific thing and it’s marketable in our society. I feel called to be as clear as I can about how to do this. This call emerged at first as a desire to tape supervision sessions so a supervisee can step outside of themselves and witness our interaction from a different angle. Gestalt therapy is more easily visible (or at least looks different) when it’s not aimed at you. I imagined being able to illustrate *how* and *why* I’m doing what I’m doing from the video. Then I realized I can write about the technique instead. So here we are.
The best learning is experiential. So when I’m face-to-face with supervisees, I try to have them *feel* gestalt therapy rather than *talk about* gestalt therapy. Experience is of primary value. Experience might be the only thing that actually has value. Some words here about philosophy and technique can be a nice supplement, thereby leading to better experiences.
I don’t necessarily want “clients” to read this. There are some parts about the philosophy that can sound condescending - there’s an ad hominem offensiveness built in - there are denials that are very deniable - and there are parts about my personal process that might be off-putting. But for the clinician, I hope to provide tangible ways of thinking and doing, concrete tools you can use to help others grow.
The word “clients” is in quotes because we’re all clients. We all work the same way. I’ll be using “they” or “them” simply because my target audience is “you,” the therapist. “We” work with “them” but I don’t want to imply there’s any inherent difference between “us” and “them.” I’m just pointing to the difference in roles.
I’m going to write as if my opinions are facts. If I didn’t do it that way, I’d have to say “in my opinion” over and over again. On the other hand, it is very factual that these things are my opinions. So my opinions are, in fact, facts. This is phenomenology.
Phenomenology takes the words “subjective” and “objective” and twists them together, destroying what they mean to most people. Phenomenology says, “we don’t experience the world. We experience ourselves experiencing the world.” No one can see the world without looking “through” or “out of” or “with” themselves first. The [observer] and the [observed] are a [unified whole]. If you zoom out, you see this unified whole as a part of larger unified wholes. This shows the interconnectedness of phenomenology and systems/field theory.
Systems and Field Theory
Is it systems theory or field theory? They’re close enough to where I’ll use them interchangeably. The main point is this: everything is tied together. There are no empty spaces. Things are stuck together in exactly the way they need to be in this moment. A singular person is a system of parts. Every part is a system in relation to all the other parts. The system of a singular person is embedded within larger systems of multiple people. You are I are forming a system of writer and reader. Our system will affect the systems you have with your clients. Everything is connected to everything else.
All of the movements we make are “needs-based.” Even further, we see the world with our phenomenology in the way that we need to see the world. If I’m paranoid, I need to be paranoid. If I’m a serial killer, I need be a serial killer. Everything is needs-based, even down to our perception. All of our movements are based on our perceptions. And everything (everything!) is based on needs. Take any element of life and stamp the lens of “need” on top of it and it will hold true, sometimes even more true. I need to write this. You need to read this. I took a moment and wondered if any reader will be thinking, “well, what about the difference between ‘want’ and ‘need’?” I needed to stop and wonder that.
This has major technical implications for therapy. We become curious about *how* the client sees the world and *what* the need is. The more we understand phenomenology, how each one of us lives in a different world, the more fun therapy is. It’s a joy to get glimpses of other worlds. We live in the world that we need to live in.
Existential Responsibility and Systems Theory
Perls semantically bridged the gap between systems theory and existentialism by talking about “response-ability.” With systems theory, things are happening that inevitability have to happen. There are loops, patterns, and forces that are much bigger than us. Each one of us is a tiny piece of a humongous machine and we have very little control. On the other hand, in existentialism, we are responsible for creating our reality. We are gods and we have ultimate control. These are polar ideas and they’re both true. The space in between the poles can be summed up with response-ability. We may not have created an impulse, but we can choose what to do with the impulse. When a person grows, they perceive a bigger and more fluid window of choice. And since there’s a polarity: when a person grows, they perceive more accurately the limitations of their choices; the space outside of their window of choice is also getting bigger. Their relationship with “choice” is ultimately what we’re manipulating in order to grow them.
Self-preservation, Creativity, and Feedback Loops
If you look at everything as “needs-based,” then you quickly see how the need is “self-preservation.” Every entity (every system) wants to live. Every entity (every system) is behaving accordingly. Our families are a living entity. The government is a living entity. Every part of you is a living entity in and of itself. We strive to keep striving. Like plants, we will bend and twist towards the sun and we will wrap around stable objects when we need to. Every movement of a living entity is based on keeping it alive. Nothing wants to die. Every movement is also seen as creative. At every moment and in every movement, we are creating existence and trying not to die. We need to live.
This also has incredible technical implications for therapy. We don’t try and take anything away from the client. The assumption is: they’re moving towards their perceived sun - they’re wrapped around stable objects - clinging to life and striving for safety. If something they say or do quickly strikes you as “bad for them,” think again, you’re not seeing it clearly.
If the Observer (organism) and Observed (environment) are a unified whole, then every movement by the organism is a creative attempt to set things up in the environment so that the organism doesn’t die. This can be seen as a feedback loop. (And a feedback loop is also a living entity that doesn’t want to die.) The organism spends energy (the cost of a behavior) which loops back as payoff/return on investment. To repeat: every movement by the organism is a creative attempt to set things up in the environment so that the organism doesn’t die.
The term “talk therapy” isn’t fully accurate when it comes to gestalt therapy. We’re actually working with energy. Words are only important sometimes. Energy is always important.
Working Backwards and Judgment
If you look at everything as needs-based, it’s impossible to have judgment towards a person. A rhetorical attack: “why would you do that!?!?!” becomes a literal curiosity: “seriously, why would you do that?” Of course, we rarely ask a client, “why would you do that?” for two reasons: (1) it’ll probably be taken as an attack and you’ve done nothing but make them better at defending against you and (2) they probably don’t have the insight as to why they’re doing the behavior in question, hence doing something that would invite a rhetorical attack. So if you try to get an answer, you’ve done nothing but make them better at making things up. On your end, when you believe everything is needs-based, it rushes you to search for understanding. We don’t rush for change. You simply want to learn. And the more you learn, the more things make sense. The more things make sense, the less judgment you have. The less judgment you have, the more the client will show you their phenomenology. The more they show you, the more things make sense. That’s another feedback loop. You can’t judge something that makes perfect sense. It’s impossible. If you’re judging something, you can’t see it clearly. And if you try and change something too fast, then you don’t fully understand why it needs to be there. Don’t try and change anything.
With this in mind, we’re often working backwards and forwards. When we have the assumptions of creativity and self-preservation feedback loops, we see an aspect of the client’s existence and we believe there’s a perfect need for it. Everything that’s happening, they must have wanted it. Therefore, the hunt becomes: what does it do for them? What’s the payoff? So our creativity as therapists is going in two directions: forwards and backwards. Forwards: we hear the clients’ desires and we think, “how can we help them create that reality?” Backwards: we see their existence and we think, “how did they create that and what’s it doing for them?” If you’re only working forwards, then you’re rushing for change. That’s only half of the equation and there will be dead-ends. We want fullness. We don’t want half.
This is one of those offensive concepts. Imagine introducing yourself to your clients by saying, “Hi. I believe every awful part of your existence is there because you actually want it.” But that’s truly what we believe. The only exceptions are the obvious ones that were clearly outside of the clients’ creativity: acute circumstantial traumas that they couldn’t have possibly controlled (like childhood).
There’s a way to work backwards with your clients without actually being offensive. In fact, it will be perceived as very respectful. This will be covered again in other sections.
The goal is to help the client be able to move more and more weight. In psychological terms, this means having more and more awareness. (Awareness is the perceiver. Remember: we move based on our perceptions. Our strengths and ranges are limited by our perceptions.)
Everyone has a weight they’re able to handle. If 200 lbs is a semi-uncomfortable amount of weight, a person would get injured if they tried 600. They would get weaker if they only did 100. The proper amount of work would be, let’s say, 210. This is how we do therapy based on energy and awareness. Once you do enough of this work, you’ll be able to see the sizes and shapes of people’s awarenesses and you’ll be making calculated decisions in order to increase their work capacity at a sustainable rate without either understimulating them or injuring them.
Our awarenesses shrink when they need to shrink. More often than not, we’d be able to trace most of the shrinkage (and the stunting of growth) to childhood. When we’re in situations where we’re not allowed to self-regulate fully (being overpowered in a system) we adapt, we shrink, we twist, we numb parts out. It’s a natural, healthy anesthesia that is based on self-preservation. So as therapists, we’re seeing those adaptations and we’re gauging the clients’ work capacity and flexibility in order to strengthen and stretch them without injuring them. The ultimate goal is full psychological range of motion and strength in every part of the range.
Mental Illness and Pathology
The last paragraph is a description of mental illness. Please notice how there aren’t any diagnostic terms. It has to do with movements, creativity, shapes, strengths, and ranges. Mental illness is a solution to tough situations. We are all the same. We get really good with our strengths. Then we over-develop our strengths and make ourselves more imbalanced and we avoid our weaknesses even more. People who sell drugs will talk about a “chemical imbalance.” People who sell behavioral/energetic change will talk about a “behavioral/strength imbalance.”
Denial and Weight
If the goal is to help the client handle more and more weight, what exactly is weight?
Weight is reality.
We want them to be able to handle more and more reality.
Death is the ultimate reality that we don’t want to see. All denial is an offspring of this bummer of existence. It’s a bummer. You only have a certain amount of minutes on Earth. (You. Not me. I’m not going to die. It’s more of a bummer for you.) Within these limited minutes, we wish there was certainty about what we’re supposed to do while we’re here, but there isn’t. So we’re on a conveyer belt, moving uncontrollably closer and closer to death, running out of time, scrambling for anything to grab a hold of. We didn’t even ask to be here, but now we’re on this conveyer belt. Please notice if you have any keen objections to these words.
Death is the ultimate thing we don’t want to see. All denial is an offspring of this central avoidance. Reality has a heaviness. That’s the weight. We’re trying to help clients handle more and more weight, more and more reality. The gestalt therapist will make many “matter of fact” statements to the client. On these statements, we can stamp an implied ending: “are you able to accept that as a reality?”
For example, “you started moving your feet when you said that.” (“Are you able to accept that?”) “Your face looks sad.” (“Are you able to accept that?”) “You’re talking fast and you’re saying ‘do you know what I mean’ a lot.” (“Are you able to accept that?”)
It’s within the second implied question that we’re assessing their shape and their work capacity, whether it’s 200 pounds or 600 pounds, trying to find the lines of understimulating them or injuring them. We’re also assessing the relationship. We don’t want to injure them and we also don’t want them to defend against us. Both are counterproductive. If they’re defending against us, it’s like someone going to the gym but then locking themselves in a changing room because the other patrons might hurt them. That’s a total waste of time and energy.
We want them to be able to handle more and more reality, so we’re trying to figure out where the avoidances live. The avoidances might be living actively or they might’ve been anesthetized.
It’s their “self” that’s going to go back out in the world and make their lives better, so we want them to have a full understanding and vision of this “self;” a full realization of this creative tool to make change. So the ultimate acceptance that we’re moving towards looks like, “yes, it’s me sitting on this couch, moving my hands, saying these words, having these thoughts, feeling these feelings. Yes, I’m here. Yes, I’m choosing. Yes, I’m doing. Yes, I’m creating.” So, in essence, we’re feeling around and saying, “this is you?” and we’ll get a string of “yes”’s sometimes and then we’ll get a “no!” That’s how we learn their shapes. And that’s also how we learn their relation to us.
There’s Nothing But Now
The more gestalty you get, the more you will live in the present moment. The more you live in the present moment, the more you realize that’s the only place you can live. Nothing else exists. To be clear, “here and now” is referring to this millisecond that your eyes are passing over these symbols. “Here and now” does not mean the last couple weeks or what you’re going to do after you’re done reading. “Living in the present” does not mean keeping your vision on a range of the nearest 3 months. I’ve heard people say, “here and now therapy means you’re working on how your marriage has been over the last few weeks, how work has been going, whether you’re going to the gym regularly, etc. It’s not depth therapy.” That’s not what “here and now” means. “Here and now” means this exact millisecond.
The closer you get to the world of energy (not the world of words) the more contrast you’ll be able to perceive from millisecond to millisecond. You’ll be able to feel time move. (This is a major bummer because of where it’s headed.) This exact millisecond is “the present.”
Therapists “get stuck” with their clients for two reasons: (1) they can’t feel time move and (2) they haven’t established a “continuum of awareness,” so they’re living in a world of words. It’s important to really understand how, at any given moment, a person is aware of something. So, technically, we’re working more towards “meta-awareness” than awareness: being aware of what you’re aware of.
You should never “get stuck” with a client. If you get stuck, it means you’re both in hiding. Only one of you is allowed to be in hiding (and it’s not you).
How to Feel Time Move and Increase your Meta-Awareness
In order to get better at feeling time move and meta-awareness, there’s a very direct exercise. Repeat the phrase, “Now I am aware of [__fill_in_the_blank__].” Keep repeating it. Endlessly. Whenever you notice it ended, go back to it with, “now I am aware of how I must’ve ended the exercise.” And then keep going. It doesn’t matter what you fill in the blank with. But it does matter, and I can’t emphasize this enough, that you get *all 5 words perfectly* before you fill in the blank. Don’t forget the “now.” Don’t forget the “I” or “am.” Don’t change the “of” to “that.”
If you remove the “now,” you’re losing the ability to feel time.
If you remove the “I” or “am,” you’re losing your creativity and responsibility.
If you change the “of” to “that,” you’re losing the world of energy and moving towards the world of words.
Do it out loud whenever you can. Eventually, you’ll learn how to breathe it so that you can do it in public without being involuntarily hospitalized. When you’re breathing it, you still have complete mental words happening during your exhale, but none of the muscles for talking are active.
Deliberate versus Spontaneous Energy
The exercise seems stupidly easy. On one hand, it is. But on the other hand, if it were so easy, why do we stop? Because we have to go do stuff? Are you not going to carry your awareness with you when you go? Try and take it with you! Try to do the exercise all the time.
There’s a couple tricks to keep it going. Make it easy on yourself. Don’t try too hard. Try to fill in the blank with the most obvious thing available. Try not to work. Try not to be effortful. If it starts to feel like you’re working too hard, let go of whatever was happening and reset. Grab onto something obvious. Remember, there’s absolutely no incorrect thing to put in the blank. The only important thing is the first 5 words. Another trick: if you get the urge to stop, use that urge as your awareness to fill in the blank. “Now I am aware of how this is pointless. Now I am aware of feeling like I’m wasting my time. Now I am aware of being angry. Now I am aware of how I’m sick of doing this.” Just use it. Try to use the most obvious thing. Use whatever is available. Use whatever’s easiest.
The exercise is an investment in your ability to do gestalt therapy. It helps you feel time move and it helps you get below the world of words. You need these two skills. Here’s what happens after a while: you’ll start to see there’s two types of energy: spontaneous energy and deliberate energy. Deliberate energy is a cost. Spontaneous energy pays you. If you’re forcing yourself to *pay* attention, that’s a deliberate energy. If the exercise becomes taxing, you’re being deliberate. If you get a burst of energy from something, that was spontaneous. Spontaneous energy is like riding the waves when you’re surfing. You didn’t make the waves but you’re using them to move. Deliberate energy is like putting your mouth near a bowl of water and blowing hard on the water to create waves. Eventually, something else will need to happen. You can’t do that forever.
Figure, Ground, and Needs
Anything you notice while you’re doing the exercise is called a “figure.” When we were going over systems and how each part of a person is a system; zoom out and the person is a system; zoom out again and multiple people are a system; zoom out again and the universe is a system; the same is true with figures. Each one of these letters is a figure in and of itself. They form a word which is a figure in and of itself. They form a sentence which is a larger figure. They form a book which is a larger figure. This book is one of many which is a larger figure. And so on. If it’s noticeable and can be called something, it can be a figure. A figure can come and go. It comes from the ground and returns to the ground. If you’re noticing it, it’s a figure. If you’re not noticing it, it’s in the ground. That’s how our needs work. A need will emerge from the ground, try to make itself noticeable, and then it’ll return peacefully and become unnoticeable when it’s done. This is closure. This is satisfaction. Needs get opened (become a figure) and then they get closed (return to ground and become unnoticeable). If I’m enjoying writing (a figure) and my coffee has made its way through me, my bladder will try and get my attention (a new figure that’s now noticeable) and it will actually take away the joy of the writing because it’s now pressing and competing with a prior need (older figure). I would be *deliberate* if I *paid* attention to writing even though my bladder is calling me. If I chose the new energy (figure) that came to me, I’d be *spontaneous* and I’d take a quick break and “relieve myself.” It’s always a relief to go with the most pressing energy.
The concept for the most pressing figure is called “dominance.” Life is fun when we’re able to move with the dominance. That’s surfing. We fold the two types of energy over. We’re deliberately spontaneous and we’re spontaneously deliberate. There’s nothing that can go wrong when we’re doing that.
Things That Can Go Wrong
Picture a piece of paper and imagine a vertical line down the center of it. On the one side is the column named “You.” On the other side is the column named “Someone Else.” This particular line on the paper is called a “Contact Boundary.” The line is how we know there are two different things.
If this paper were cut into perfectly equal small squares and then put back together, there might be some pieces of “You” that ended up on the “Someone Else” side and vice versa. This mix up is what keeps us from always surfing.
An Introjection is something that isn’t “You” that got stuck in the You section.
A Projection is something that *is* “You” that appears in the “Someone Else” section.
A Retroflection is a “You” that wants to travel to “Someone Else” but then only runs into another section of “You” instead.
Confluence is where there was no line and it’s really confusing to know what belongs where.
If it weren’t for these mix ups, we would flow like we’re on vacation in paradise, joyfully building a habitat for everyone we know and love to join us.
Competing Needs / Figures
Introjection, Projection, Retroflection, and Confluence are the forces that keep us from skipping gracefully from dominant figure to dominant figure. Life would be a breeze. Sure, there would still be some tough choices that emerge. But they would have more creative fun in them when they’re not distorted by those forces. Sometimes the forces are called “disturbances of contact.” The reason they’re disturbing is they mess up our vision. We move based on our perception and if our compass is finicky then we’ll travel inefficiently. We won’t realize it. It will seem like we’re doing the right thing but it’ll be a bumpy ride and we don’t know why. This is very different than a “tough choice” where we’re able to weigh out the pros and cons, acknowledge it’s not a clear answer, and then make a calculated risk based on the variables. When it’s a “disturbance of contact,” we can’t see it. It’s in the ground. There’s a competition between figures and we’re somewhat aware of a lack of peace or an energy drain but we don’t know where the leak is. Always remember: there’s a perfect reason the disturbance arrived. The organism must’ve been really close to injury, so it adapted and it curled around something stable. The disturbances create a reliable stability. They are a solution to high tension. They are a way of trying to bring peace to a war.
So we have several realms of competition. We have competing needs that are figural within awareness: the “tough choice” where the variables are assessed and an educated risk is taken. We have competing needs that are further into their ground that they can’t see: the “disturbances of contact.” So now we can start talking about competing needs between two people.
If I’m a serial killer, I need to be a serial killer. If I’m going to work, I need to be going to work. What happens if the serial killer attempts to satisfy his need while the worker is attempting to satisfy his need? These are competing figures - competing needs. One of the two people will not be satisfied. It’s impossible for both people’s needs to be satisfied. As far as figures go, it’s identical. Two figures can emerge within one person and they will compete. Or two people can bring their own figures into an interaction and they will compete. Or even a larger system like a big corporation or a nation will have its own needs and these needs may compete with the individual’s needs within that same exact system. Figures compete. It doesn’t matter whose they are.
I / Thou
There’s a grace within the gestalt idea of health. Figures compete but it can be more like a beautiful song where one chord plays itself through until the song is ready for another chord to move in take over. Yes, the old chord is dead but it was a pleasant movement and it set things up nicely for the next movement. Its death was not in vain. The place where the new chord touched the old is the “contact boundary.” One of the most energized contact boundaries is where one person meets another person. The term “I / Thou” is used to describe an ultimate level of respectfulness in a two-person system. The “I” respects itself. The “I” respects the “Thou.” The “/” in the middle can represent the dividing line connoting the difference between them, which is thoroughly respected as well. It is violence if either person steps over the dividing line and places any demands on the other. Violence is disrespectful. The serial killer is expressing to the worker, “I demand that you make yourself available to me so I can meet my need to be a serial killer. Kip said I need to be one.” Yes I did. And now I’m sensitizing the reader to the contact boundary within the I/Thou and how needs compete.
The gestalt mantra sums this up: “I am I and you are you. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations. You are not in this world to live up to mine.” The “I” doesn’t impose on the “Thou.” In the same way that a “disturbance of contact” had the sides mixed up (remember the paper? There were pieces of “Someone Else” in the “You” section and vice versa) the same is true with interpersonal violence like this. It’s a disturbance if Person A imposes his needs on Person B. There’s a mix up of figures. This happens in subtle ways like codependence and enabling. It’s the same concept and process, though not so subtle, if our serial killer wins the competition with our worker. It’s a mix up. It’s a disturbance.
Violence, Aggression, Homeostasis, Novelty
Violence is unavoidable. We can also begin to talk about “aggression” now. Aggression does not have a negative connotation in gestalt language. Aggression is simply the force necessary to do anything. In order to move my fingers to type these words, I had to use my aggression. If I didn’t have aggression, I couldn’t type. Every breath I take, it’s aggression that made it possible. It’s helpful to realize this because of how much violence there is in the world. There are many, many figures (needs) competing.
Homeostasis is the force that wants to keep things the same, always pulling towards the status quo. Novelty is the appearance of difference, always arriving with every new second. If we had no aggression, we couldn’t make change. Trying to make positive change is disrespectful and violent towards the status quo. Trying to keep things the same is disrespectful and violent towards the novelty.
Destruction and creation are the same words. Any destruction of something is the creation of something else. Any creation is the destruction of whatever was previously there. If I do nothing, I’m violent against all the potentialities that I could've created. If I do something, I’m violent against stillness. These are all concepts for the polarity of Homeostasis <-> Novelty. That’s the ultimate competition. Feeling the competition between these opposed energies is very similar (if not identical) to feeling the difference between Deliberate and Spontaneous energies. The spontaneous pulls us towards novelty because it's always arriving but we’re scared so we often deliberately go where we’re familiar.
There is constant turmoil, chaos, violence, and aggression in the realm of this competition between Homeostasis and Novelty. This is the ultimate violence to live in. This is where you want to live. This is the surf. If the competition between Homeostasis and Novelty is a storm, then the surfing is like moving within the eye of it; a stillness surrounded by chaos. This is where violence is fun, productive, and good. But this is in stark contrast to the I / Thou realm, where we’re very careful to be nonviolent. With that said, if the worker violently wins the battle against the serial killer, even though this would be in the “I / Thou” realm, we can say this was a “defensive violence” and we were all hopefully rooting for him.
Knowing Things In Your Bones
We have went over a good deal of philosophical material so far. There’s a big difference between “knowing things in your bones” versus “knowing things in your head.” It’s incredibly important to continue to do the awareness exercise so you can fully experience these things and verify them for yourself. The more you work on your meta-awareness, the more you’ll be able to feel how things tug at you. You’ll be able to feel the drains when you’re extra deliberate. You’ll be able to feel your awareness shrink when you get scared or intimidated. You’ll be able to feel the competition between figures. You’ll be able to feel the joy of a graceful movement from figure to figure. You’ll be able to feel people compete with you. You’ll begin to realize the present moment is all we have available. You’ll be able to rest on available pieces and surf on fun pieces.
Interest and Contact(s)
Our bodies would do everything for us if they could, but some figures are more complex and require some sophisticated movements. If hunger emerges as a figure, my body can’t just manifest a sandwich in its awareness and eat it. There has to be something else involved. Enter “interest.” Hunger will emerge as interest and the interest can help me reach things that are at a greater distance. Awareness and interest are the two tools that are required.
Paradox of Change
The paradox of change is the hardest part for novice therapists. As a new therapist, we want to feel good about ourselves. Our clients come to us for change. This is a recipe for disaster because we will try and make change.
The harder you try for change, the more you're going to get in the way. Here's why.
Any movements we make are movements through reality and with reality. We're always moving in relation to *what is.* If I'm going to get that sandwich, I need to become aware of what my desire *is.* I need to know where the fridge *is.* I need to know where the floor *is* to move my feet across it. If I just wished for a sandwich, there wouldn't be enough aggression to close the gap between myself and the sandwich. I have to move with *what is* in order to successfully close the need. And that's how change happens. That's the paradox. Change happens based on relating to *what is.* Yes, the wish for the sandwich *is* a creative, aggressive *piece of what is* but it's not enough is-ness to get the job done. If I stop there and simply wish, I’m in denial of all of the is-ness *in between* me and the sandwich. In gestalt therapy, we are always “working with is-ness” because this is how true change happens.
Change happens when we're moving with is-ness and when there's enough is-ness piled up. We grow by handling more and more reality, more and more is-ness. What is, is. More is-ness is change. This is the paradox.
Any force has a counter force. The harder you’re trying, the more counter-force there is. This is the same concept as the deliberate and spontaneous energies, the drain versus the receive, as well as the concept of working forwards and backwards. Your clients want to work forwards but they're recruiting you because it’s not working. There's a chunk of is-ness as a counterforce that they either can't see or don't want to see. They're not able to move enough weight (be in touch with enough is-ness) to be able to fold the two energies over and use the deliberate energies to flow with the available waves of spontaneous energy and create change. They’re stuck. We get stuck because we’re either too deliberate (compulsive, conservative, self-conscious) or too spontaneous (impulsive, risk-taking, dissociative). We get stuck because it’s not an even fold between the two energies.
We get stuck when we’re not using enough resources. Each piece of is-ness is an energy and a resource. We need to use the is-nesses that are available. And if we don’t use them, they will persist. They will strive to keep striving. If you try and move away from a piece of is-ness, it will pull you back.
As creatures, we are not sufficient. We need to use energy that we didn’t make. If I think I'm so awesomely sufficient and independent that I don't need to breathe anymore or I don't need to eat, that will not work out well for me. We need to use the is-ness of what's available. Every piece of is-ness is a resource. Polster described the paradox as, “what is, is. And one thing leads to the next.” This beautifully shows how time and change are interrelated. We've covered how it's important to be able to feel time move. We've also covered how the present moment is the only thing that exists. The client needs to “get in touch with what is.” And within that movement of “getting in touch,” change is happening. Awareness and interest are both healthy aggressions in relation to *what is.* Awareness and interest are the tools for true change. That’s how to move from hungry to sandwich-in-belly.
I never tell clients about a “paradox of change.” They would probably stop coming if they heard, “hey, I’m extremely invested in not trying to make change.” And I would probably be too far in the world of words if I brought up such an abstract verbal concept. They learn to move with is-ness because they’re sitting with me and I’m moving with is-ness. Once they feel better, they don’t need to know why. They’ve learned to move with is-ness and they simply take that skill with them when they go. That’s all that matters. Most clients don’t have the psychological interest in understanding what happened. But we (as therapists) need to understand what happened so that we can reliably create it for people.
I don’t love how this section sounds when I re-read it. I’m going to stop editing it and give myself a break because maybe it’s impossible to fully describe the paradox of change - which exists fully in the world of energy - by typing things in a world of words.
The Therapist’s Interest and The Paradox
In an earlier section, I mentioned how “working backwards” is extremely offensive because we believe every part of the client’s existence, even the terrible parts, is there because they actually wanted it in some form. And then I said: “There’s a way to work backwards with your clients without actually being offensive. In fact, it will be perceived as very respectful. This will be covered again in other sections.” Here’s the section.
The clients learn how to move with is-ness because they’re sitting with me and I’m moving with is-ness. Absolutely every single intervention is based on is-ness. Sometimes it’s very obvious, like if I say, “your hand is clenching the couch.” You can see the word *is* in there. It’s extremely obvious how that is getting the client in touch with is-ness, right? It’s the same concept, but a little harder to see, when it comes to interest and questions. (Remember, awareness and interest are the two tools.) For example: “how did he respond?” “What did you do next?” “Was there lingering feelings for you the next day?” “When was the last time something like that happened?” “What are you considering doing next?” All of those questions are still based on is-ness. I am moving the client around from is-ness to is-ness. Within all these movements, the shapes of figures will become clearer and energy forms. The work that’s needed will become clearer and clearer.
The client feels extremely respected when we have the intent of exploring for is-ness. Even though the base belief is “they must’ve created their problem for some reason,” the outcome of this belief is a hunt for how and why it happened - an attempt to learn their creative efforts - an attempt to get to know *them*. We respect them and their creative efforts. We respect the power of is-ness. So even though it sounds offensive to work backwards based on these beliefs, it’s not offensive at all. It’s extremely respectful and it’s in the I/Thou nonviolent realm.
Clients come in with different levels of trust immediately. Sometimes it’s important and necessary to be really clear about the nonviolence. If you re-read those questions two paragraphs above and you imagine a judgmental tone, those questions could raise defenses immediately. So it can be good to be really clear about your intent of simply hunting for is-ness. “I just want to check in with you about...” “Where do you stand with…” “What are your thoughts about… “I just want to make sure I get this..” “I’m just curious about…” If you frame your interests with phrases like that, it provides a protective bubble as you’re sending your interest to your client so that the nonviolence is clear. It’s almost like it invites a “pause button” into the structure of things and makes it really clear that you’re not violently trying to *move* pieces around. You’re simply interested in getting to know them. Being a client with a therapist who just wants to get to know you is extremely empowering.
Intent, Experimentation, and Exercise
Your intent *always* needs to be is-ness; and *never* a violent attempt to change another person. It’s amazing to me (and disgusting, to be honest) to hear questions from therapists and the questions themselves could be *perfect* in their wording, but the intent is sadistic. We all have sadistic sides and they’re all beautiful. But the best way to use our sadism is in the homeostasis <-> novelty realm, not in the I/Thou realm. Don’t try and change your client.
The same is true with experimentation. I often point this out to supervisees if they say, “I tried doing some empty chair technique and it didn’t work.” Experimentation is simply moving variables around in order to see what type of is-ness happens. It can’t “not work.” If you go in with attempt to create a specific thing, it’s an exercise. We exercise to get specific results. But in gestalt experimentation, it’s about learning. It’s about finding new resources, new pieces of is-ness.
So we’ve touched on three levels of interventions that are all completely based on is-ness: (1) a statement of is-ness like, “you are holding your breath” (2) a movement of interest for is-ness like, “what has been the happiest moment of your life?” and (3) an experiment to see what is-ness shows up: “let’s see what happens if you picture your father in the chair and speak to him.” All of those interventions are moving with is-ness.
Creative Indifference and Healthy Non-Attachments
When we’re talking about interventions, we’re talking about the therapist’s creativity (and the therapist’s aggression). I couldn’t type these words if I had no aggression. If I noticed the client holding his breath and I didn’t say anything, I wouldn’t be using much of my aggression or creativity. My aggression and my creativity are my “I.” When the words leave my mouth, my aggression/creativity have passed over the contact boundary and touched the “Thou.” At that point, we’re adamant about nonviolence and not imposing demands. I need to be respectful of whatever the client does with my words because it’s on their side of the boundary and they can do whatever they need to do. This is an example of “creative indifference.” While we’re moving with is-ness and using our creative aggressions, we don’t have an outcome we’re attached to. Each creative move is an experiment. It can’t go wrong. It just leads to a new is-ness.
It’s at this boundary of the I/Thou where you feel the client and client feels you. We want them to be able to handle more and more reality, so you’re varying your level of touch so that you stimulate them without injuring them. With an attitude of experimentation and creative indifference, you don’t need the session to go a certain way. You’re just moving with what-is and trying to give them the right level of touch in the right places. Let’s say I point some aggression at the is-ness of, “blood rushed to your face when you mentioned your son,” and the client gets really angry with me. Since each creative movement is an experiment and the purpose of an experiment is simply to see what is-ness will happen, their anger at me is just as wonderful as any other reaction they could’ve had. It’s a new is-ness. The level of touch might’ve been too heavy though (chalk that up as learning their shapes) so I might back off, say something about what’s happening on my side of the contact boundary and frame the next touch as a question instead of a statement: “oh, I’m surprised and a little confused about what just happened. Do you mind me asking about the anger?” I’m touching is-ness on both sides of the contact boundary. What my own feeling *is.* And then a question (with a respectful, is-ness frame) about what-is for them.
I was working with a therapist once who wanted to learn more about gestalt. He was moving his foot sometimes and had very little awareness of it. I put my foot on his foot. No pressure. Just laid it there. But it was close enough to his foot to where, if he moved his foot, he’d notice it because it was up against mine. Or if I moved my foot, he’d notice my movement. This sums up gestalt therapy in its entirety. You get close enough to the client to where they can feel themselves move. You are required to get that close to them. But they aren’t required to get close to you. They won’t always know how close you are.
Polarizing the Field
Carl Whitaker brilliantly talked about a “Battle for Structure” and a “Battle for Initiative.” The therapist needs to purposefully “win” the battle for structure and they need to purposefully “lose” the battle for initiative. Every school of thought has a structure of therapy they believe will be helpful for the client. Whether the therapist is Rogerian, behavioral, systemic, psychodynamic, gestalt, whatever; the therapist “wins” the battle for structure by creating this type of environment in which the client can grow. Similarly, every school of thought needs to move the initiative (the responsibility for change) to the client if the client is truly going to have a successful therapeutic journey.
We’ve talked about force and counterforce; how every energy has a contrasting energy; and how strengths are also in polarities that have opposites (an over-developed side against an equal and opposite underdeveloped/atrophied side). It’s true with every system, whether we’re talking about one person as a system or or a mutiple-person-system. A balance will spread throughout a system depending on where the weight is. If we think of a two-person system as a small boat, if one person leans left, the other person needs to lean right so that it can stay balanced. And remember, important pieces of is-ness don’t simply leave. They persist. They will show up somewhere. And like our piece of paper that we cut into small pieces, if one side refuses to (or can’t) welcome a piece into its side, it will have to go to the other side. So as gestalt therapists, we purposefully lean in specific ways in order to make the is-ness pop out the other side. For example, creative indifference for the overall outcome of therapy: someone needs to care, right? What happens if we refuse to be the one who cares? There’s no other place it can go except for the client. If we refuse to care about an outcome, it has to pop out on the other side (the client’s side). Indifference is a very powerful intervention. It’s subtle and unspoken (most of the time) but it’s very present and very powerful.
Since we’re moving with is-ness and the goal is for the client to fully experience themselves so that they can take themselves back into the world and be amazing, the client is the structure of the therapy! Clients will experience this in varying ways, ranging from extremely negative to extremely positive: “structure-less” “pointless” “empowering” “freeing”.
This is similar to the way counseling programs say, “never work harder than your client.” Eventually, that doesn’t hold true. I work just as hard with every single client. I don’t change how hard I’m actually working. But on the outside, it could appear that way depending on how much I’m saying out loud or what types of things I’m saying out loud. But the main formations are the same: the client is the structure of the therapy and I’m indifferent to what the outcome is. If this concept were in verbal form and it was sent to the client, it would be, “I’m going to be paying very close attention while you’re here. I’m not going to try and change you. If anything does any changing, you’ll have to do it.”
Another way to think about this is “polarizing the field” so that you hold certain sections while the client holds other sections. For those of you familiar with Eastern philosophy / medicine, it’s the difference between Yin and Yang energies.