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 by Peter Philippson

This article was inspired by trainees' requests for an overview of Gestalt therapy. There are all these words: field theory, existentialism, phenomenology, contact, awareness, self, ego, id, personality, dialogue, experiment, interruptions to contact, layers of neurosis... How do they fit together? Are they to be bolted onto each other, or do they stem from a more basic philosophical perspective?

I want to present here my own map of Gestalt therapy, from its first principles in philosophy to its expression in specific methods of psychotherapy.


Ground level: the field

Gestalt field theory begins with the whole. It is not that there are 'things' which contact other 'things', but that "It is the contact that is the simplest and first reality." Perls, Hefferline & Goodman [1994/1951] (PHG). This is stressed over and over again by PHG: " is always to such an interacting field that we are referring, and not to an isolated animal. Where the organism is mobile in a great field and has a complicated internal structure, like an animal, it seems plausible to speak of it by itself ... but this is simply an illusion ..." Thus the definition of a human being is the definition of the person/environment field, and the creative adjustments that the person is making in the field. The process of adjustment in the field creates/defines the person as much as, or more than, the person defines the creative adjustment.

In looking at the world, we recognise the 'things', but underlying the things are processes - events which reorganise the field. If I see a chair, it is because there is an interaction of light in our visible spectrum, the quantum event called the chair, the quantum event called my eyes, and the quantum event called my brain. At another level, it is a function of scale: if I was the size of a planet, I'd be unlikely to see a chair. At another level, it is a function of my culture: 17th century Japanese wouldn't recognise a chair. At still another level, it is a function of human physiology: where I bend, where I'm comfortable. A chair wouldn't be a chair for a horse! PHG gives a marvellous process description of 'the present': "The present is the experience of the particular that one has become dissolving into several meaningful possibilities, and the reforming of these possibilities toward a single concrete new particular." In a way, this process approach says that the building blocks of which the world is made are in motion (what mathematicians would call 'vector quantities') - being and becoming (as Buber would say).

Because of the centrality of field theory in this map, I want to say more on field theory, based on Parlett [1991]. Parlett states five principles, which I shall state and then comment on briefly.

1. The Principle of Organisation

This states that "meaning derives from looking at the total situation, the totality of co-existing facts." [Parlett, 1991]. Thus, in Gestalt field theory, there is no such thing as a purely 'intrapsychic' activity. What we think, feel and do is based on our interaction with our environment at that moment.

2. The Principle of Contemporaneity

This is the Gestalt 'here-and-now'. We are not affected by the past, which no longer exists for us. We are affected by our memories of the past (and we choose which of our myriad memories we bring into the present) and our expectations and learnings from our past. All of these are present parts of the field, as are all the environmental reminders of the past (people, photos and situations which in some ways parallel past events). People in Gestalt therapy regularly change the pattern of the way they remember, and the way they relate to their childhood learnings.

3. The Principle of Singularity

"Each situation, and each person-situation field, is unique." [Parlett, 1991]. As a Gestalt therapist, I cannot have a rote response to clients. We are co-creating the therapy to fit in with the specific therapist, client, and client's life situation. All generalisations are provisional, and subject to change where the field warrants it.

4. The Principle of Changing Process

The field is continuously changing. Thus, for Gestalt therapy, homoeostasis and creativity go hand-in-hand. I need to come to some kind of balance with my environment (homoeostasis), but this cannot be a conservative act, since the field is changing, and what worked before will often not work now. I must then invent new ways of balancing my needs and interests with environmental possibilities (creativity).

5. The Principle of Possible Relevance

This states that any part of the field is possibly relevant to the situation, and might need to be addressed. This is what Perls talked about in naming Gestalt the "therapy of the obvious". I remember one training group, where an interesting process started with my observation that they used an amazing amount of toilet paper.

I will now move on to how this field approach carries over into other aspects of Gestalt theory.


Self and other

"Now the 'self' cannot be understood other than through the field, just like day cannot be understood other than by contrast with night...the 'self' is to be found in the contrast with the otherness. There is a boundary between the self and the other, and this boundary is the essence of psychology." Perls [1978/1957]

What does the concept of 'self' mean in this field? For PHG, it means very little in itself, rather it is a polar quality with 'other', just like 'big' and 'small' are only meaningful contextually, and in relation to each other. ('Self' is not the same as 'organism', nor 'other' the same as 'environment', in this theory.) Underlying this polarisation are two processes, identification and alienation, which are called by PHG the 'ego functions' of self. I identify with some aspects of the field and label that 'self'; other aspects I alienate, and call that 'other'. But the form of the self is inextricably linked with the form of the other, and vice versa. The way I experience and configure my self depends on how I configure my environment (again, and vice versa). It is important to notice here that when I write of 'configuring', I am not primarily meaning verbal concepts: rather I am pointing at the configuration inherent in my actions. For example, in writing this, I configure myself as teacher/someone with something to say/writer ..., and configure the environment in terms of readers, people with interest (or no interest) in what I'm saying. Before this, I've been having lunch with my family at my wife's work, and configuring myself as family man, man having lunch, etc., and my environment in terms of family, food ... A good image is the drawing by Escher of two hands, each hand drawing the other.


Existentialism and phenomenology

Existentialism was a philosophical reversal of the dualism inherent in Platonic and Cartesian thought: essence and matter, body and soul. Existentialism makes primary the 'is-ness' of existence, rather than any attributes. There is great emphasis on the choices which people make, and people's relationship with the givens of the world, for example with death. And this is precisely what Gestalt field theory offers. The field is primary, experience arises from the field, 'self' and 'other' are processes in the field, our choices configure the field, meaning arises from field interactions rather than from some pre-existing 'essences'. Instead of Aristotle's "The unexamined life is not worth living", we have more "The unlived life is not worth examining." The Polsters say "What is, is; and one thing follows another." Phenomenology asserts that while what we perceive is coloured by our preconceptions and our method of viewing, we can learn to pay close attention to the actuality of our sensing, to what our senses tell us. We can also learn to recognise what preconceptions we bring to a situation, and to bracket them off, and thus come closer to an ability to relate to our environment in an immediate way. Notice the similarity to the 'awareness continuum' in Gestalt therapy.

There is also no dualism in Gestalt between 'mind' and 'body': there is no experience without body. This links with the existentialism of Merleau-Ponty [1962], who talked about the 'lived body' as the basis for experience.

The phenomenological grounding in the 'given' of body experience and fleeting awarenesses of environmental possibilities (what PHG calls 'id') forms the basis for the contacting and meaning-making processes which I shall now discuss.



The ego functions of identification and alienation help us to do more than define self and other. They are the processes of creative adjustment in themselves. Out of the 'given'/'id', I identify in the environment what is interesting, novel, or needful to me - make it figure - and alienate what is not of present interest to me - make it ground. That is, when we talk about ego functions, we are talking about figure/ground formation: the two are different formulations of the same act. Other names given in Gestalt theory to the same process are: awareness; choice; creative adjustment; aggression; response-ability; and contact/withdrawal. These are all entirely the same process. Notice that this process, however it's named, is not an 'internal' or 'mental' one, nor necessarily verbalised, but a process of orientation and action in the field, involving interaction, movement and communication as well as sensation and emotion. While we can separate these, and think about what we are doing before doing it, they are not inherently separate. Some situations are sufficiently complex, and our choices sufficiently crucial that we need to stop and think before we act. This stopping and thinking reduces the liveliness of our contact with the environment, but in some cases (e.g. situations where I want to negotiate diplomatically with some powerful other) I am quite glad to avoid some of the potential liveliness! The separation we then make is an interruption to the contact process (called 'egotism') in the service of making more effective contact in a complex situation.


Dialogic therapy

The basis in Gestalt therapy for the dialogic method is that Gestalt field theory is inherently dialogic: the therapist and the client are co-creating each other in their contact. The dialogue points to the field, rather than to the individuals. Thus the therapist provides an other in relation to which the client explores self. This is a particular kind of dialogue, not limited to verbal exchanges, but to the whole way in which we act towards each other and expect each other to act towards us. Questions in this dialogue are: how is the client presenting him/herself to me; and how is the client encouraging, or discouraging, me to present myself to her/him? With what characteristics is the client identifying - "This is what I am like." (what PHG calls 'personality function')? If the client brings an issue, dream, memory, what is the importance of that here and now, and what is s/he wanting from me in telling me? What am I wanting here, and which parts of this are valid parts of the therapy, which are guided by the client's expectations? Going back to the discussion of the principles of field theory, the dialogue is an example of the 'principle of singularity': a creation of unique people in an unique field.



The other in relation to which I am self is not just other people. By the 'principle of possible relevance', it also includes my whole environment, including the inanimate objects round me; and also aspects of my functioning which I am presently disowning and making other. In Gestalt experiments, I can explore how I relate to these aspects of other, and try out new ways of relating. Thus in relation to the inanimate environment, I can explore my use of my senses: looking, touching, smelling. Or I can explore my preferences: I like this, not that, or this aspect and not that aspect. In relation to a disowned aspect of my functioning, I can dialogue - the famous Gestalt 'empty chair'. The aim is to create a 'safe emergency': a safe place where I can accept the anxiety of moving out of the familiar and risk acting differently.

Of course, in offering an experiment to a client, I am also engaging in dialogue in the sense that I was discussing above. In configuring myself as the provider of experiments, I am encouraging the client to configure him/herself as someone who takes my advice. I therefore need to decide whether, with a particular client, I regard this as worthwhile. For example, with a compliant client, I will be very careful not to offer experiments, because I would expect the client to do them for me, rather than asking her/himself whether s/he is interested and willing to do what I ask. My rule of thumb is that I do not introduce experiments unless and until I have good evidence of the client's willingness to say 'no' to me, even/especially if the client wants me to tell him/her what to do. There is a converse approach, for me to give a client totally meaningless tasks to do until the client realises that my instructions are getting her/him nowhere; however, this is difficult to do without the client feeling loss of your respect.

With a client who habitually says 'no', it may become an experiment in itself for the client to risk accepting my suggestions, and configuring me as someone with authority who is also safe and on the client's side. I must particularly in this situation not be invested in any particular outcome, and as ready to explore the process by which the client says 'no', as to exploring the consequences of saying 'yes'.


Interruptions to contact

It is part of our basic human ability to transcend the situation in which we find ourselves that we are able to interrupt the contacting process if we find it too anxiety- producing, or not to our liking. Some commentators have taken Gestalt theory to say that the 'interruptions' are bad in themselves, and either agree with this, or offer various 'reinterpretations' of Gestalt that make them OK, or stop calling them 'interruptions'. But it is clear from PHG that the basis of neurosis is not interruption of contact, but loss of ego functions, that is loss of ownership and choicefulness of the process of contacting or interrupting. I reach a particular point and there is a jarring as I move away from a particular kind of contact without making figural that I am doing it. PHG talks about the autonomous criterion of experience: whatever the content of my experience, is the figure I form bright, clear, graceful, unified, etc.? If not, if it is dull, confused, or energyless, then something in the environment or in my needs is being avoided, and the ground is demanding energy from the figure.

A further point which is often lost is that Gestalt is a therapy which emphasises non-confluence between therapist and client. Thus we are able to configure our interaction in different ways. The client can interrupt contact, and the therapist not be interrupted - since phenomenologically the therapist does not require any particular contact, but relates with interest to what the client does do. (In the same way, Wheeler and others' emphasis on 'structure of ground' assumes that what is figure for client is figure for therapist, and what is ground for client is ground for therapist, i.e. confluence! I can't pay attention to ground - it becomes figure if I do. But what is figure for me is not necessarily, and often isn't, figure for client.)


The Cycle of Awareness

I have written about this at length in the previous issue of Topics. It does not fit with the Gestalt theory I am presenting here, but it does fit with what happens with our awareness if we add delay, thinking and planning (what PHG call 'egotism') to our relating. Then the unified activity of sensation/awareness/mobilization of energy/action to final contact becomes split and sequential: this is the aim of egotism, to delay the action in a difficult environment, where we want to try things out in fantasy before living it out in the world.

PHG has its own cycle: forecontact: the given/id; contacting: ego/making figure and ground; final contact: total engagement in a clear figure, no interest in ground; and post contact: moving back to id. Each of these involves a different level of sensing, awareness, energization, action and contacting. Each aspect is relational, as opposed to the Zinker cycle, where much is intrapsychic. It is thus a superficially similar theory, but is actually quite different in its underlying assumptions and philosophy.


The layers of neurosis

This fits much better into the map. The 'impasse' is where we take the existential risk of moving beyond our identifications/'personality function'/'role playing layer', and experience the anxiety inherent in doing so. The 'implosion' is the move from loss of ego functions, and thus the simplicities of 'doing what I always do', to the facing of the existential question "What do I choose" and the risk of putting myself on the line. At first I am lost, with no external signposts and nowhere for my energy to go (the 'implosion'), then I choose, direct my energy, and 'explode' with unity, colour and grace (the autonomous criterion). Looked at from this perspective, it is clear that the place of Gestalt experiments is in moving beyond the role-playing personality to awareness of loss of ego functions, and thus the impasse. It is interesting also from this perspective that Erv Polster's new book "A Population of Selves" is geared towards a redefinition of Gestalt therapy as a therapy of the role-playing layer rather than of the existential impasse (see my forthcoming review in the British Gestalt Journal).



I hope this discussion of the way the different strands of Gestalt theory fit together, and arise out of Gestalt field theory, forms a useful 'map' of the Gestalt landscape. I am aware that it is one of many possible maps, and that different Gestalt theorists draw the map in different ways. My hope would be that each of these maps could be elaborated (as Polster has done), so that a dialogue between clear figures becomes possible.

I am also aware that this is something of a 'whistle-stop tour' of many concepts, which are in themselves complex, and that to give a complete description of every station en route would make for a book (which I am writing!). My hope is that, in reading this, you will be able to go back to the original sources for all these concepts, and be able to travel more purposefully in this territory of Gestalt therapy.



Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). Phenomenology of Perception. (C Smith, trans.). Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

Perls, F., Hefferline, R., Goodman, P. (1994/1951) Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. Gestalt Journal Press, New York.

Perls, F.S. (1978/1957) Finding Self through Gestalt Therapy. in Gestalt Journal Vol. I No. 1 (Winter 1978), Highland, NY.

Parlett, M. (1991). Reflections on Field Theory. British Gestalt Journal, Vol. 1, No. 2.

Peter Philippson, 14.3.96


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