GESTALT IN BRITAIN - A POLEMIC
The theme of this paper is that there is widespread misunderstanding in British Gestalt of the original theory as
expressed in Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (PHG), and ignorance of the debates that have taken place over the last twenty years round this theory, mainly in the pages of the (American) Gestalt Journal. Thus,
Gestaltists in Britain have noticed (accurately) a dichotomy between 'old-style Gestalt' which is identified with Fritz Perls, and a 'new- style Gestalt', more identified with the writings of the Gestalt Institute
of Cleveland. However, the issues at stake, both theoretical and clinical, are in my opinion often not understood, and the value given to 'new-style Gestalt', whose American proponents also often do not understand
the original theory, leads to a dilution rather than an enhancement of the power of the original.
So I want to make a bold statement: my Gestalt work is based squarely on the theory (particularly the theory of
self) in PHG. I work with clients who can be classified as growth- orientated, neurotic, character-disordered, self-disordered, and exhibiting psychotic symptoms. I have worked in a number of different ways within
the Gestalt spectrum, and across the wide range of clients I have worked with, this way of working is by far the most powerful and effective. Furthermore, the latest thinking in science and developmental studies
supports the assumptions of PHG better than they support the 'revisionist' thinking.
Thus, I am concerned when it is assumed that 'new-style Gestalt' is an improvement on the original. It is certainly
an improvement on what some of the revisionists believethe original is, and an improvement on the work of those who, while they misunderstand the theory in the same way, work in line with their
misunderstanding of the theory: lots of shouting and bashing cushions. I also do believe that Gestalt needs to grow methodologically and not slavishly copy Perls or any other Gestaltist. There are inconsistencies in
PHG, some of which I have written about elsewhere (Philippson 1990). However, no Gestalt writing so far is as complete a statement of the subtlety of the approach.
An American History
Gestalt therapy was developed nearly 50 years ago by a group of theorists based in New York: Fritz and Laura Perls,
Paul Goodman, Paul Weisz, Elliot Shapiro and Isidor From. Fritz Perls wrote the first book, 'Ego, Hunger and Aggression' (1947), detailing his movement away from psychoanalysis in the direction of Gestalt. (There is
a story originating with Isidor From (1984) that Laura Perls wrote some of the book, and received the dedication in the first British edition for this, but not in the American edition. However, the first British
edition was dedicated to Wertheimer, and we will never know how much truth there is in the story. In some ways, it is irrelevant.) The other major text to come from this group is 'Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and
Growth in the Human Personality' (1951) [PHG], whose theoretical section was written by Paul Goodman, apparently from original text supplied by Fritz Perls.
It is important to realise that the reason why the complex ideas in these books received any notice at all, let
alone the widespread acceptance they did find, is that Fritz Perls was widely seen as the most effective psychotherapist working in America in his day. Walter Kempler, the family therapist (quoted by Bergantino,
1993), said that the only therapist he would refer people to was Perls, "Because he worked at such a level that each time he worked he either did or had a chance to move someone's life." This is important
for our heritage: Fritz Perls was not a nice person, nor an ethical therapist, nor a systematic writer or trainer, and he was a showman and an inveterate producer of 'soundbites'; and he was also, by his skill, the
guarantor that the theory had practical significance. Many of those who now criticise Perls' approach to Gestalt only came to Gestalt because they were attracted by the power of his approach.
Early in the history of the spread of Gestalt, a group of mental health workers from Cleveland, Ohio, went to New
York and trained with Perls, Jim Simkin and others. They then set up the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland, which is known in Britain through the comparatively large amount of literature it has produced, in a field
where many people do not write books. However, many in America widely believe that the Gestalt that comes through from most of the Cleveland literature diverges widely from what they would understand as the Gestalt
approach. This has been most centrally stated by (Cleveland graduate) Joel Latner (1983) and in the review by Gary Yontef (1992) of Gordon Wheeler's (1991) book 'Gestalt Reconsidered', making very similar points to
the present author's review of the same book in the British Gestalt Journal (Philippson 1991). A vital part of the equation as I understand it is that Cleveland (strangely for an Institute which expounds 'open systems theory') is almost totally isolationist! It is rare for any Cleveland book to reference anyone outside Cleveland (except Perls, often disparagingly). There is no mention of, or involvement in, any of the Gestalt Journal debates by Cleveland writers. So Wheeler does not mention the extended debate round the 'interruptions to contact' which took one and a half issues of the Gestalt Journal(Fall
1988 and Spring 1989) which covers many of the points he raises. Similarly, British Gestaltists are not aware of the debate between Davidove (1991) and Polster (1991) on "Loss of Ego Functions, Conflict and
Resistance", or the debate between Jacobs in Alexander et al (1992) and Yontef round the former's case presentation at the 1991 Gestalt Conference on the themes of Gestalt and Self Psychology.
I want to list several items, most of which have been very fully discussed in PHG and the Gestalt Journal,
but where the debate is widely unknown or oversimplified in Britain.
1. The theoretical and clinical adequacy or otherwise of the PHG theory of self. Does it only deal with
well-functioning self process? Does it need to be supplemented with inputs from analytic writers such as Kohut?
2. 'Resistances'/'interruptions to contact' or 'contact styles'? Does PHG view these as necessarily pathological?
3. Working with 'structure of ground' (Wheeler, 1991). Is this a new approach?
4. The Gestalt experiment: is it a behavioural tool as Zinker (1976) suggests, or is this a misreading of the place
of the experiment in Gestalt therapy? How is Gestalt a 'paradoxical theory of change'? The relative place of dialogue, experiment and the therapist's suggestions and interpretations in Gestalt.
5. The debate over the Cleveland 'Cycle of Experience', the 'five layers', and the 'Gestalt Prayer'.
I shall go through these in turn.
1. Theory of self
Every psychotherapy is fundamentally based on a particular view (or non-view, in the case of behaviourism) of
the 'psyche', and the methodology and aims of the psychotherapy need to be in line with these. Gestalt is fundamentally a field theory, where 'self', far from being an encapsulated thing inside someone, is an emergentprocess.
Perls (1957) wrote a beautiful explanation of this concept: "...the field is, like in modern physics, the basis of Gestalt therapy. We are here in a field...The self is that part of the field which is opposed
to the otherness. You see, you can look for the self. Does the 'self' exist? Does the 'I' exist? Can you dissect the brain and find the 'I', or the 'super- ego', or the 'self'? Definitely not...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."
In other words, it is a mistake to look for 'self' as arising 'inside me', but as a relationship process at a
boundary of interaction. This is the Gestalt, and the original Goldstein (1939) concept of self-actualization: self actualizing at a contact boundary. That boundary is not created by some 'self' and some
'other' coming together; rather, the boundary is prior to both 'self' and 'other'. And there are some quite particular requirements for that contact boundary to be the birthplace for the statement "I am."
As I write this, there are several terrible conflicts taking place in the world, which have as a major factor the habit of the former imperial powers of drawing fairly random lines on the map of Africa, Asia and the
Balkans. These boundaries have never been able to carry out the function required of them. In some cases, other factors, such as a politician of great charisma or repressive power (or both) has managed to weld those
inside the random boundary into a coherent state. When the charismatic leader dies, or the repressive regime is toppled, the state fragments. Either 'other' is inside the boundary - "I am not part of the same
nation as them", or 'self' is outside the boundary - "Those across the border are also my kin."
The process which we could call "selfing" consists of two factors: an identification"This is me" and an alienation "This is not-me." Notice that I am here talking about a polarisation of experiences,
whereas, in self-concept, what is identified and alienated is a polarisation of concepts. In PHG, these functions of identification and alienation are called the ego functions.
A number of Gestaltists have written of the 'inadequacy' of this formulation. In particular, Stephan Tobin (1982)
has written (I shall quote this at length, since it contains the core of the objections of 'new Gestalt' to the theory of self) of "serious problems with this description of self. First, it seems to imply that
each person has an equally effective, well-functioning self. Second, it makes the self a function only of conflict and fails to touch some of the important self-functions of stability, groundedness, confidence and
flexibility that I think should be subsumed under the concept of self. Third, in their definition Perls and his co-authors do not consider the fact that, for some people, conflict results in a fragmenting of the
self rather than a mere diminution, which is less rather than more self." He therefore advocates the introduction of concepts from Self Psychology (Kohut 1977) into Gestalt therapy.
Each of these statements is inaccurate, as Yontef (1983) has pointed out. Gestalt theory nowhere assumes that all
selves are equally well-functioning. Perls (1948) wrote about narcissism, and stated that the customary understanding of narcissism as 'self-love' was to miss the point, which is that the narcissist is not capable
of love of self or of others (he was not always so clear). Rather, the defining concept is narcissistic retroflection, where the person splits, and provides the contact and continuity for him/herself rather than
getting contact from the environment. The point about the Gestalt theory of self is that it is non-normative, unlike psychoanalytic theories. It is much more true to say that Gestalt conceptualises all neurosis as self-disorder. The processes involved in a fragmented self are based on the same capacities for creative adjustment as those involved in a more unified self process. In fact, paradoxically it is Tobin, in his second objection, that identifies 'self' with stability and groundedness! This is similar to the 'humanistic psychology' rewrite of the concept of 'self-actualization': an 'actualized' self is somehow better or more whole than an 'unactualized' self. This is certainly not Goldstein's or Perls' view of actualization.
Our experience of self as stable and continuous in the (non- neurotic) situation of good contact is viewed in
Gestalt theory in terms of three aspects of the selfing process: ego, id and personality. Ego is essentially the process of making figure (identification) and ground (alienation). The ego
process can also involve identification with my own acts of choice: values, interests, avoidances. In fact, when this happens, it is what PHG call the 'autonomous criterion for health'; when it does not happen, self
is fragmented and unstable. 'Id' is the relaxation of deliberateness in the absence of any particular interest or need. It is 'unified only by the looming sense of the body' (PHG). 'Personality' is the verbal
analogue of self, a statement of 'This is who I am.' It can (but may not) provide another kind of continuity. In healthy functioning, "...the Personality is a kind of framework of attitudes, understood by
oneself, that can be used for every kind of interpersonal behaviour." (PHG) Neurotically, however, it "consists of a number of mistaken concepts of oneself, introjects, ego-ideals, masks, etc." (PHG)
For me, this is far more profound and far closer to my own experience of the varieties of self-functioning than any
other theory of self. It is most definitely not a theory of just a well-functioning self, nor one that leaves our sense of continuity of self unexplained.
Tobin's third objection, that Gestalt theory fails to account for fragmentation of self resulting from conflict in
narcissistic people, also cannot be upheld. What Tobin does not take into account is the very basis for psychopathology in Gestalt theory: the fixed gestalt, which repeatedly looks for closure, and recycles its own
chosen method of frustrating itself. In the case of someone whose understanding of the world is that it is barren or overwhelming, and who has withdrawn into a system of splitting and false identifications, any
demanding approach by others immediately makes this splitting obvious, and simultaneously terrifies the person by exposing the falsity of the retroflective pseudo-world which s/he has projected onto the environment.
So the id process of relaxation and withdrawal can never take place, because then the person's (fantasy) world would disappear. And of course the body never then 'looms' via proprioception, but is replaced by a
visual, conceptual or fantasy image of the body.
Later in Tobin's paper, he underpins his and Kohut's approach with the infant developmental theory of Mahler, Pine
& Bergman (1975). However, the later researches of Daniel Stern (1985) fit much better with orthodox Gestalt theory than with Mahler: "[Infants] never experience a period of total self/other
undifferentiation. There is no confusion between self and other in the beginning or at any point during infancy. They are also predesigned to be selectively responsive to external social events and never experience
an autistic-like phase.
"...There is no symbiotic-like phase. In fact the subjective experiences of union with another can occur only
after a sense of core self and a core other exists." Interestingly, Perls himself (1957) proposed a very similar model of human development involving five stages which begin sequentially but do not end: see
In other words, separation comes before joining in Stern and Gestalt, rather than joining before separation as in Mahler and Kohut. The former is also the position taken by Buber: "...Buber asked himself, 'What is is that makes the I-Thou and the I-It relationship possible?' He decided that it was a twofold human movement that the animals do not have that makes possible both of these relations. He called it 'Urdistanz
und Beziehung' - the primal setting at a distance and then entering into relation." (Friedman, 1990, italics in text). This of course must have implications for clinical practice: the possibility of joining
between therapist and client must be based on a prior separateness, rather than the possibility of separateness being based on prior empathic joining. As an aside, I am concerned that a number of people identify
with both Buber and Kohut, not noticing that both theoretically and clinically they are incompatible. Kohut's method, by systematically downgrading therapist's presence and commitment to dialogue and by its emphasis
on empathy, is not compatible with dialogic relating.
There is often in British Gestalt circles a lack of understanding of the dangersof working from a developmental theory. These are:
Cultural bias: Developmental theories tend to assume the patterns of child upbringing favoured in the society from
which they stem. In a different cultural situation, it may well be that different ways of bringing up children are more valuable.
Loss of the 'autonomous criterion of health': This is replaced by the assumption that certain ways of being are in
themselves pathological (for example, homosexuality).
Dependence on shaky theories: Whether these are the theories of Mahler et al. (op. cit.) or of infant feeding by the
clock, one era's 'proven' theory is contradicted in another era. If psychotherapy is based on a particular developmental theory, it is difficult not to fit the client into it.
So we have the strange situation that the Gestalt approach has been backed up by observational evidence, but some
Gestaltists still look to theories that both fit less well with Gestalt and are not supported by the latest evidence. I would go further: almost every new theoretical approach in science has backed up the Gestalt approach! Chaos theory (Gleick 1987) and complexity theory (Waldrop 1993) are based on the idea of emergent order,
which is central to the Gestalt concept of self emerging from the contact boundary. Land's (1977) 'retinex' theory of colour vision states that we cannot see any colour except in relation to our whole visual field.
The issue for orthodox Gestalt theory in working with people with fragile self-process is one of grading contact to
keep the level of the encounter within a sustainable anxiety range for the client. I am happy to integrate Masterson's (1981) suggestion to interpret to the client my understanding of the disappointment and rage
behind any withdrawal and acting-out (although I must own that it is more out of previous experience and cognitive understanding than out of empathy that I can make the interpretation). I am available for contact
and I do not force contact. With borderline clients, I find that the contact skills that have come out of my Gestalt training (and personal psychotherapy) greatly enhance the effectiveness of the therapy, and I
would see Gestalt as treatment of choice with borderline clients. Further elaboration about how to work from a Gestalt perspective are beyond the scope of this paper, but see Yontef (1988) and Greenberg (1989, 1991).
"...if the awareness is creative then these very resistances and defenses - they are really counterattacks and
aggressions against the self - are taken as active expressions of vitality, however neurotic they may be in the total picture. Rather than being liquidated, they are accepted at face value and met man to man: the
therapist, according to his own self-awareness, declines to be bored, intimidated, cajoled, etc.; he meets anger with explanation of the misunderstanding, or sometimes apology [cf. Masterson on working with narcissism],
or even with anger, according to the truth of the situation; he meets obstruction with impatience in the framework of a larger patience." (PHG)
Much has been written in 'new Gestalt' about 'resistance' as a form of contact (see in particular Wheeler ).
This seems to have become for some British Gestaltists a touchstone of difference from 'old Gestalt'. However, as this quote (chosen from among many) shows, the connection between resistance/interruption and
creative adjustment was explicitly there from the beginning. It was in fact the basis for Perls' critique of Reich: that understanding tension as 'character armour' was to alienate it. Rather, both impulses - to
express and to repress - need to be acknowledged, owned and worked with. As I understand it, Gestalt adds something to the "There is no such thing as resistance" model: yes, a communication is always being
made; sometimes the sole content of that communication is "I am resisting you; I am interrupting our contact." There is another theme here around confluence, which I shall come to after talking about
'structure of ground'.
3. 'Structure of ground'
Wheeler (1991) has made the major thrust of his book the 'fact' that previous Gestalt was 'figure-bound', and that
we need to 'pay attention to the structure of ground'. But how can you explore ground without making it figure? To quote Yontef (1992) "In Gestalt therapy theory, when one examines something from the ground,
including structure, it becomes figure." The submerged point of all this is that there is absolutely no reason why the client and the therapist need to make the same things figural (and lots of cogent reasons
why not!). When you look at things this way, it becomes obvious that Perls, with his interest in the 'holes' and 'what is not there in the dream' would have absolutely agreed with this. I think every statement about
being 'figure-bound' WHICH WE MUSTBE BY DEFINITION, or about 'structured ground' should be ritually expunged, lest trainees stop understanding the basic concept of 'figure- ground', i.e. gestalt formation! Of
course, the therapist must not be 'bound' by the client's figure: this would be confluence.
So we come to what in PHG is called the 'contextual method', i.e. "Fundamental theoretical errors are
invariably characterological, the result of a neurotic failure of perception, feeling, or action." (PHG). The fundamental error in both the discussion of 'resistance' and of 'structured ground' is the
assumption of confluence between therapist and client. Let me clarify this. The assumption is that 'resistance' or 'interruption to contact' or 'figure' or 'ground' will have the same meaning for two people who are
sitting together: therapist and client. So, while it may be true for the client that s/he is resisting, it is not true for the therapist that s/he is being resisted against, since hopefully the therapist is not avid
to push the client into doing what s/he doesn't want to do, but rather is ready to be interested in the client's hesitation. The client's image of the therapist as pushing for a particular result should be a
projection (although granted this would not be the case with Zinker: see below!). Similarly, when a client interrupts contact, the therapist can note the interruption, but not feel interrupted. Wheeler's assumption
that we can 'pay attention to ground' has only got the possibility of being meaningful in relation to an assumption that what is figure for the client is figure also for the therapist. This might be true for
Rogerian practitioners (although not for Rogers himself), but should not be true for Gestaltists. It certainly was not true for Perls. (Please take a moment to check with yourself whether this is accurate, or just
me being rude.)
Yontef (1992) has written that 'Structures are slowly changing processes that organize other processes'. If part of
the ground is structured, that part of the process is slow-moving. This could include my family, cultural and national identifications, my memories, my 'representation of interactions that have been generalised
(RIG's)' (Stern, 1985) - that is, a generalised picture that I create of interactions with a particular significant person ('self- regulating others'). Gestalt theory is a well-balanced theory in recognising both
the advantages and the disadvantages, the neurotic and contactful uses of this. The advantages are in not having to reinvent the wheel each time, in having sufficient Yontef-structure to organize our process of
contacting (= self). What is gained is autonomy. What is lost is spontaneity. "Autonomy must not be confused with spontaneity. It is free choosing...But the middle mode of spontaneity does not have the luxury
of this freedom, nor the feeling of security that comes from knowing what and where one is and being able to engage or not; one is engaged and carried along, not in spite of oneself, but beyond oneself." (PHG) I orient myself on the spectrum leading from confluence with a particular view of myself (with all the implications for my creativity) to surfing the wave of my creative encounter with my environment, each moment fresh, without commitments (with all the implications of this for myself and my family or society). The question for Gestalt therapy is whether the identifications are chosen with awareness or whether they are unawarely introjected; and whether the choice is made with awareness of the implications for contact with the environment. Thus, clients generally come into therapy (of any kind) when their identifications are not adequate for the environmental situation in which they find themselves.
I also want to be clear that Gestalt therapy is flexible enough to operate through ongoing individual or group
therapy and also through weekend or longer workshops with good results. People have found their lives transformed in intensive short-term Gestalt therapy, not least in workshops as part of training programmes.
People have found their neurotic manifestations (phobias, work or relationship problems) changing very quickly, not because the Gestalt therapist is aiming to solve the problems, but because the problems are part of
a larger gestalt which can sometimes move very quickly. Short-term workshops will not deal with deeply ingrained self- or personality disorders, but can make them more obvious to the client and the therapist, and be
the route by which the client moves into more long-term therapy on the advice of the therapist.
4. The experiment
"...a unique quality of Gestalt therapy is its emphasis on modifying a person's behaviour in the therapy
situation itself. This systematic behaviour modification, when it grows out of the experience of the client, is called an experiment." (Zinker, 1977)
"Sonia and I began to notice...that we had developed and meticulously followed an aesthetic process...[Zinker
then outlines 10 steps of which some are:]
6. After some further discussion, proposing to the family that they need to learn a skill that is not fully
7. Teaching them how to do an experiment intended to enhance their functioning in the underdeveloped area.
8. 'Selling' the experiment to the family and making sure they understand its purpose.
9. Watching the family work the experiment and occasionally coaching them if they get stuck.
10. Asking them what they learned from the experiment and how they could practice their new skill at home."
I'm sorry, I cannot recognise any similarity between this and what I understand as Gestalt therapy, and really worry
that Zinker is seen as the theorist of the Gestalt experiment. In pushing couples to change in particular ways to get away from 'problems', Zinker is truly 'figure-bound' (i.e. confluent with the client's wish to
change). Clients can only understand or name their difficulties in relation to their own perspective, which is in itself part of the problem! The impasse inherent in their perspective is why individuals and families
come for therapy in the first place. When a client is at this impasse, s/he is profoundly suggestible, looking for a way out to be given from outside. Anysuggestion then will be taken as the therapist's
advice. The sequence of the Gestalt experiment as I understand it is rather: experimenting with new possibilities, orwith an exaggeration of the old pattern, leads to the impasse, where the therapist stays
with the client until s/he risks moving through to implosion/explosion, whereupon s/he will autonomously find new possibilities for him/herself. This is the same as what Erickson (1980) calls 'indirect suggestion':
the suggestion leads to a place where the gate to wider choice is open, rather than in any way suggesting the choice, or even requiring the client to enter the gate.
This is a true experiment rather than the kind of 'experiment' that children do in school, where they've done it
wrong if they get the 'wrong' result. It is truly based on the paradoxical theory of change, where the client is supported and challenged to say "I own this as my existence now", and in this owning is
aware of choicefulness - including the choice to disown and to stay where s/he is. Even to say "I own that I don't want to look any further." must be acceptable here. Again, Zinker (1994) subtly changes
this theory: "We encourage the couple or family to see and to experience the goodness, the usefulness, the creativity of what they discover when they examine themselves." The point is not that it is good,
or useful, or creative (it may be or it may be a weary accommodation to a situation which only exists in the family's imagination), but that it's theirs! They do it. They will keep doing it until they stop
doing it or are stopped by the environment. And that is the reality that must be affirmed by the therapist. I think some ways of doing Gestalt have introjected a 'humanistic' sense of "All clients are good
really." From the point of view of creative indifference, we may as well say "All good clients are evil really." The existentialist perspective is merely "They are."
Means and ends
The paradoxical theory of change also has implications for the therapist's stance. In some other systems of
counselling/psychotherapy, it is assumed that the stance of the therapist will be consistent with the desired end result. Specifically, if the end result is to be that the client experiences themselves as empowered
or as being equal in power to the therapist, then the therapist is expected to be careful not to advise or suggest anything to the client, or to act powerfully in relation to the client.
In Gestalt therapy, which combines a paradoxical approach with a methodology which distinguishes direct and indirect
suggestions and an emphasis on boundary conditions, the logic of the therapist's stance is very different. If the therapy is paradoxical, it is to be expected that the means will differ qualitatively from the ends.
It is only if the therapist is powerful that the client can take her/his own power. Paradoxically, if the therapist 'empowers' the client, that in itself affirms the therapist in a 'one-up' position, from which s/he can hand over some power. The implication is that 'in the real world', where people do not hand over their power, the client is no better off than before. What the Gestalt therapist provides is a safe but strong boundary in relation to which clients can experiment with developing their own strength. The therapist can be active, suggesting experiments and giving feedback, and simultaneously be providing a graded experience of firm contact in relation to which the client can take her/his own power. Along with these active possibilities come a number of considerations of which the Gestalt therapist must be aware. With a compliant client, is the activity of the therapist pointing towards the 'safe emergency', or is it providing a series of exercises which the client can compliantly go through the motions of carrying out, without touching their real growing edge at all? Much 'Gestalt' done by people copying Perls without understanding the basis of what he was doing can end up this way. With a frightened or ashamed client, is the contact offered by the therapist graded right, or so overwhelming that the client must leave therapy or dissociate, and again go through the motions, while cordoning off their vulnerability? The opposite problem would be to work so hard at trying to avoid 'shaming' clients that they do not experience the shame linked with their 'response-ability' in abusive situations. It must be recalled that one of the distinguishing features of Gestalt is that there are no passive victims.
Thus a Gestalt dialogic approach has a very specific character. Gestalt shares with other approaches from the
analytic tradition an emphasis on therapeutic abstinence, coupling this with a de-emphasis on the verbal. Gestalt dialogue does not presuppose a great deal of verbal self- revelation by the therapist. The therapist
invites contact, but not with the partial, neurotic self of the client; rather, by owning his/her strength and frustrating such contact, the therapist offers a relationship with a more authentic integrated self at
the highest sustainable level of honesty. This is also what Buber and his followers did (he called it "confirmation of the client's becoming as well as the client's being), and is inherent in the existentialist
tradition. It is not a 'nice' approach!
5. 'The cycle', the 'five layers' and the 'Gestalt Prayer'
In the past, Gestalt therapy was identified with the empty chair. Then it became identified with yelling and bashing
mother on a cushion (which was not at all what Perls did), or lots of touching and holding clients (which Perls also didn't do). Now it seems to be becoming identified with the 'Gestalt cycle' (Zinker, 1977). This
was developed as a teaching aid in the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland, where, to avoid introjection, it was drawn in many different ways. I want to state why the cycle as conventionally drawn (withdrawal - sensation
- awareness - mobilization of energy - action - contact - satisfaction - withdrawal) is incompatible with Gestalt theory, and how the way it is used takes it even further away from that theory.
"...in act, in contact, there is given a single whole of perception-initiating movement tinged with
feeling. It is not that the self-feeling, for instance of being thirsty, serves as a signal that is noted, referred to the water- perception department, etc., but that in the same act the water is given as bright-desirable-moved toward, or the absence of water is absent-irksome-problematic." (PHG) That is, there is no necessary separation between sensation, awareness, mobilization of energy, action and contact. In the complex situation, we can make separations, which slow down or block contact, but the Cycle, as described, describes a particular situation of complexity rather than basic theory. I suppose, like 'Mind', it may be an unavoidable illusion in the 'low-grade chronic emergency'. In PHG, it is clearly spelt out that awareness is not an aid to solving problems, or a step on the way to action: "But it has always seemed a mystery why 'mere' awareness, for instance recollection, should cure the neurosis. Note, however, that the awareness is not a thought about the problem but is itself a creative integration of the problem. We can see, too, why usually 'awareness' does not help, for usually it is not an aware gestalt at all, a structured content, [Yes this is PHG, Wheeler please note!] but mere content, verbalizing or reminiscing, and as such it does not draw on the energy of present organic need and a present environmental help." I think what is often called 'awareness' is what PHG call 'egotism': "This is a slowing- down of spontaneity by further deliberate introspection and circumspection, to make sure that the ground possibilities are indeed exhausted - there is no threat of danger or surprise - before he commits himself...Normally, egotism is indispensable in any process of elaborate complication and long maturation; otherwise there is premature commitment and the need for discouraging undoing. Normal egotism is diffident, skeptical, aloof, slow, but not noncommittal.
"Neurotically, egotism is a kind of confluence with the deliberate awareness and an attempted annihilation of
the uncontrollable and surprising." There are shades here of the Zinker approach to experiments. I would say it is basically a behavioural/RET approach, not a Gestalt one. Now if the Gestalt approach didn't
work, then maybe there would be a case for rewriting the theory to include this. However, the basic theory works (in my experience) very quickly and effectively.
The other limitation of the Contact Cycle is that 'withdrawal' does not only occur via 'satisfaction' (which is not
on the Zinker diagram; Parlett (personal communication) tells me that the word shown at that point on the Cycle when he was training at Cleveland was 'integration') but via mourning! It is not just that we go
from something nice to something even nicer. Old ways of being die and are organismically mourned.
The 'five layers of neurosis'
At the other pole to the attention given to the over- simplicities of the 'cycle' is the lack of attention given to
the model of neurosis given by Perls (1969). This is not, and was never attempting to be, a model of human functioning. It is a model of working through neurosis, the layers that we form like a scab over authentic
functioning. Each layer (apart from the last) acts as a defence against moving to the next. Thus the layers are consecutive and discrete, and need to be worked through in order (although clients might go back to an
earlier layer to move away from anxiety). It is important to make these distinctions, since there has been a great deal of controversy and misunderstanding in the Gestalt world about this model. It is not a global
model of human functioning: that is the task of other aspects of Gestalt theory. It is a specific structural model of a particular neurotic manifestation as it is being worked through. Now Gestaltists, with our
emphasis on process, rather look down on structure, although Yontef (1988) has accurately defined structure as 'slow- moving process'. The point is that neurosis in the Gestalt model is precisely a moving away from
the existential anxiety involved in embracing authenticity and spontaneity, and moving to a more predictably structured activity of fitting in with the world. We limit ourselves to a structure which we experience as
keeping us safe and which also manipulates the environment to act in certain ways towards us. From this perspective, neurosis is predictability, and the point of Gestalt therapy is to facilitate the client to
In this model (Perls, 1969), the client in therapy moves from meaningless clichesto role-playing, that
is, identifying with a limited self-description (personality function) and a limited range of ways of being in the world. At this point, and at no other, the Gestalt experiment invites the client to move
beyond the role, into the anxiety-filled impasse (PHG calls this the 'safe emergency'). The therapist encourages, supports and challenges the client to stay at the impasse, and into the implosive/death layer,
"the paralysis of opposing forces" (Perls, 1969). Perls makes clear that this is not Freud's 'death instinct'; rather it appears to the client as death, with no available energy to move in any direction.
Again, supporting the client to stay with this layer allows him/her to move to an explosion of authentic functioning in the world.
For me, this describes exactly what I do in my Gestalt work, in a way that fits beautifully with an existential
rather than behaviourist outlook, and also has great affinity with my experience of Zen training. It does not fit with the Zinker conception of the experiment as a behavioural tool.
The 'Gestalt Prayer'
'New Gestalt' does not like the original form of this. "I am I and you are you" does not fit well with a
rejection of Perls' individualism. Smith (1977) rewrites the Prayer to end "The truth begins with two." I want to argue here that there is nothing wrong with what is said in the Prayer: however, things are
left out. To begin with, it is worth pointing out that we are back with the Mahler/Stern polarity: for Mahler et al (1975), symbiosis certainly precedes separation, and the truth does begin with two; for Stern
(1985), Gestalt and Buber, self-actualization begins at least at birth, and the capacity for intimacy is built on this primary separation. But this self-actualization is not an isolated 'I', but an I in relation to
other. So, with this in mind, let us look at the Gestalt Prayer:
I am I and you are you
For Gestalt, the beginning of selfhood is a relation with other: not just human, but the whole of the person's
environment. This is the 'ego' aspect of self: identification ('I') and alienation ('you'). This act of making I I and you you must be the basis for any conception of self.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations
I do my thing, you do your thing
This is both true and incomplete. Your expectations and actions are part of the field context in which I actualize
self. This has two aspects. Firstly, there are consequences inherent in my actions relative to your expectations and actions. An interesting aspect of this is in the practice of Gestalt therapy: no therapist can
live up to any client's initial expectations, as these would be coloured by the client's attempt to close the fixed gestalt that brought her/him to therapy, which would by definition lead to the disappointment and repetition inherent in any fixed gestalt. This would be truly 'figure-bound' therapy! However, an important part of the field of my interactions with the client is what s/he expects of me. The second aspect - the one which Perls truly found difficult - is the capacity to make commitments to someone else, whether this be elderly parents, partner, children, or friends. The choosing to accept some of someone else's expectations as your own (e.g. a child's for food and loving touch) is part of intimacy. Again, in therapy, I make a commitment to a client which affects my life. For example, if I want to take frequent long holidays without much notice, I would not be ethical in taking on borderline clients.
You are not in this world to live up to my expectations
This one is fascinating, and often ignored. The power of an adult saying this to parents cannot be underestimated.
How many clients make their contentment dependent on a mother or father acting differently, or even having been different from how they were! By letting the parents off the hook, the adult comes off the same hook. It is the vital transition to adult maturity that I remake my relationship to these people who have - for better or worse - parented me so as to acknowledge that my survival no longer depends on them, and then make the commitments to each other appropriate to who we are now. Thus...
If we meet, it'll be wonderful; if not, it can't be helped
Smith (1977) found this part particularly despairing: he suggested that Perls change 'it' to 'I' in this section.
However, it is the very despair that for me makes this so valuable. The Object Relations theorists have pointed out most fully that the centre of borderline and narcissistic splitting is an avoidance of despair or
'abandonment depression'. In Gestalt terms, all fixed gestalts are based on false hopes: "If I go round the circle once more, things will be different." The 'death layer' of the five layer model is the
abandonment depression. Thus despair is central to Gestalt therapy, not as an end-point, as in some existentialist writing, but as the doorway to authenticity. It is also a world away from the 'positive thinking',
which underlies much of humanistic therapy, and much of the shallow Zinker approach: "What you have done is good, now here is something even better."
What is missing in this couplet is the idea that I can maintain a commitment even to those who do not choose to meet
me. This is of course vital for therapy with narcissistic clients, who need my continuing commitment even while using every means to avoid contact or commitment to me. Again, I get the impression that this was
outside Perls' world-view. If someone was not willing to contact him, with his own contact-hunger, he was willing to accept that, but not to maintain his openness to contact: "Get off the seat." This
willingness to keep offering contact unilaterally is also important in parenting teenagers and in caring for elderly parents, as well as in maintaining a relationship with a partner during times of conflict.
This has been a whistle-stop tour of the current controversies in Gestalt theory and practice from a basic PHG
perspective. I do not expect all who read this to agree with it in every (or any) detail; what I do hope is that I have helped an informed debate by elaborating this approach and distinguishing it from others within
the Gestalt world. I also hope that I will tempt some people to read the original Gestalt Journaldebates and make up their own minds, and that in doing this, we can keep more of a sense of our 'roots' in the
development of Gestalt.
References and useful reading
Alexander, R., Brickman, B., Jacobs, L., Trop, J., Yontef, G. (1992) Transference Meets Dialogue. Gestalt Journal Vol. XV No. 2, Highland, NY.
Bergantino, L. (1993) Recollections of a Young Whippersnapper. Gestalt Journal Vol. XVI No. 2, Highland, NY.
Crocker, S.F. (1983) Truth and Foolishness in the "Gestalt Prayer".Gestalt Journal Vol. VI No. 1, Highland, NY.
Crocker, S.F., Latner, J., Polster, M. (1982) A Dialogue on Theory. Gestalt Journal Vol. V No. 2, Highland, NY.
Davidove, D. (1991) Loss of Ego Functions, Conflict and Resistance. Gestalt Journal Vol. XIV No. 2, Highland, NY.
Erickson, M.H. (1980) The Collected Works of Milton H. Erickson on Hypnosis. (4 volumes) Ed. E.L. Rossi. Irvington, New York.
Friedman, M. (1990) Dialogue, Philosophical Anthropology, and Gestalt Therapy.Gestalt Journal, Vol. XIII, No. 1, Highland, NY.
From, I. (1984) Reflections on Gestalt Therapy after Thirty-two Years of Practice: A Requiem for Gestalt. Gestalt Journal Vol. VII No. 1, Highland, NY.
Gleick, J. (1987) Chaos: Making a New Science. Viking Press, New York.
Goldstein, K. (1939) The Organism. American Book Company, Boston.
Greenberg, E. (1989) Healing the Borderline. Gestalt Journal Vol. XII No. 2, Highland, NY.
Greenberg, E. (1991) Special: The Diagnosis and Treatment of Narcissistic Disorders.Gestalt Center of Long
Island 14th Annual Conference Presentation.
Kohut, H. (1977) The Restoration of the Self. International University Press, New York.
Land, E. (1977) The Retinex Theory of Colour Vision. Scientific American, Dec. 1977.
Latner, J. (1983) This is the speed of light: field and systems theories in Gestalt therapy. Gestalt Journal Vol. VI No. 2, Highland, NY. Also the debate on Latner's paper and Gestalt theory taking up the whole of Gestalt Journal Vol. VII No. 1 (Spring 1984).
Mahler, J.S., Pine, F., Bergman, A. (1975) The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant. Basic Books, New York.
Masterson, J.F. (1981) The Narcissistic and Borderline Disorders. Brunner Mazel, New York.
Perls, F.S. (1947) Ego, Hunger and Aggression. Allen Unwin, London.
Perls, F.S. (1948) Theory and Technique of Personality Integration. American Journal of Psychotherapy, Vol. 2 No. 4 (Oct. 1948), reprinted in Stevens (1975).
Perls, F., Hefferline, R., Goodman, P. (1951) Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. Julian Press, New York.
Perls, F.S. (1957) Finding Self through Gestalt Therapy. in Gestalt Journal Vol. I No. 1 (Winter 1978), Highland, NY.
Perls, F.S. (1969) Gestalt Therapy Verbatim. Real People Press, Moab.
Philippson, P.A. (1990) Awareness, the Contact Boundary and the Field. Gestalt Journal Vol. XIII No. 2, Highland, NY.
Philippson, P.A. (1991) Gestalt Reconsidered Again. British Gestalt Journal Vol. 1 No. 2.
Philippson, P.A. (1995) Two Theories of Five Layers. Topics in Gestalt Therapy, Vol. 3. No. 1, Manchester.
Polster, E. (1991) Response to 'Loss of Ego Functions, Conflict and Resistance'.Gestalt Journal Vol. XIV No. 2, Highland, NY.
Smith, E. (ed.) (1977) The Growing Edge of Gestalt Therapy. Citadel Press, Secaucus, NJ.
Stern, D. (1985) The Interpersonal World of the Infant. Basic Books, New York.
Stevens, J. Gestalt Is. Real People's Press, Moab.
Swanson, J.L. (1988) Boundary Processes and Boundary States. Gestalt Journal Vol. XI No. 2, Highland, NY. Also the debate which takes up the rest of that volume and some of Vol. XII No. 1 (Spring 1989)
Tobin, S. (1982) Self-Disorders, Gestalt Therapy and Self Psychology. Gestalt Journal Vol. V No. 2, Highland, NY.
Waldrop, M.M. (1993) Complexity. Viking Press, London.
Wheeler, G. (1991) Gestalt Reconsidered. Gestalt Institute of Cleveland Press, Cleveland.
Yontef, G., Tobin, S. (1983) A Dialogue on Theory: Number 2. Gestalt Journal Vol. VI No. 1, Highland, NY.
Yontef, G. (1988) Assimilating Diagnostic and Psychoanalytic Perspectives into Gestalt Therapy. Gestalt Journal Vol. XI No. 1, Highland, NY.
Yontef, G. (1992) Considering 'Gestalt Reconsidered': A Review in Depth. Gestalt Journal Vol. XV No. 1, Highland, NY.
Zinker, J. (1977) Creative Process in Gestalt Therapy Vintage Books, New York.
Zinker, J. (1994) In Search of Good Form. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.
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