Integration through Experimentation in Gestalt Therapy: origins and theory

Bocian’s article, translated by F. Staemmler, “From free association to concentration: from alienation to Ferenczi’s “forced fantasies” and “the third” in Gestalt Therapy”, helps us to grasp the fundamental difference between the work of the “typical” Gestalt therapist and the Psychoanalyst.

Gestalt therapy is a form of psychotherapy that is based on Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, which itself developed from Pierre Janet’s hypnosis. This shows a transition from hypnosis, where the patient is simply an object of investigation with no agency in their own treatment, to psychoanalysis where the patient plays a more active role by expressing the analyst through free association. Psychoanalytic work deals with the resistance to free association by analysing the transference in the therapeutic relationship.

The focus of analytic work used to be on verbal content and reconstructing the patient’s childhood. However, this approach was criticized as being “passive” and being rich in interpretations and “poor in results” by Wilhelm Reich in 1942. Instead, in 1924, Ferenczi and Rank suggested that the therapy should prioritize what happens in the present moment between the patient and therapist.

The author highlights that since there is no third person in the room, the situation that plays out in the transference and countertransference can sometimes feel threatening to the client, and overwhelm the therapist.

Gestalt therapy provides the option to externalise the intrapersonal drama of the client, leaving the therapeutic relationship intact. The externalised figure, which may represent a parent or a fragment of the client’s personality, is introduced into the therapy room as a virtually present third person. Harsh emotions and memories from childhood that belong to the internal states of the client can be expressed and worked through with the holding and witnessing of the therapist.

The client can externalise and dramatize psychic conflicts in therapy, working through unfinished situations and integrating intra -psychic splits. In Gestalt therapy the therapist stays present, does not get themselves caught up in a swirl of emotions and enactments in the counterteransference, making themselves available to the client’s vulnerable split-off parts.

Gestalt therapy utilizes “embodied performance” to facilitate free association. This allows patients to fully inhabit and express their in-the-moment experiences—sensations, thoughts, and feelings. The result is a level of self-understanding that goes beyond simple intellectual awareness. The work of the therapist is to attend to the “emerging figure” by paying close attention to the body-language & phenomenology of the client, giving space for any form of emotional and physical expression.

The paper describes how therapists can use creative methods to facilitate enactments, enlivening therapeutic process. Well ahead of their time, Psychoanalyst Ferenczi writes, in 1929, of “physical memory symbols” in which he explains how patients get in contact with pre-verbal memories of events that occured during early childhood, through these physical enactments. (Now known as “The Body Keeps the Score”) Reich in 1925, adds to this observation that “acting-out and remembering are complementary.

Ferenczi mentions that these unpleasant memories which reverberate somewhere in the body represents unfinished situations that need to be developed completely. In gestalt therapy this process is described as an active organising force mobilised, similarly experienced during hysterical attack, where through word or gesture an inner or external experience is acted out.

Free-association is not merely a speaking of fragmented associations or repetitions, but has the potential to organize these parts into meaningful wholes, filling in unfinished pieces. Free associating may also characteristically be devoid of emotional experience in practice. To frustrate the patient’s “elliptical associations”— when talking in circles, spiralling— is to enable making contact with painful emotions, a process that might often be met with resistance.

these interventions that are considered “active” at the time, facilitates remembering. Laura and Frederick Perls incorporated psychoanalytic work with character analysis as well as experimental transformation of behaviour and experience to establish Gestalt Therapy integrated.

Fritz Perls acknowledges that Freud is right in believing that contact with the present was essential, however the traditional practice of having the therapist sit behind the couch neglects other expressions like body language, lending to the possibility of what Perls calls, free-dissociation, where associations “float away”. The

Experimentation in the therapeutic session gives context the actuality in the here-and-now, establishing a ground for “felt-contact” allowing the figure of the symptom to sharpen; what Perls would call the “middle mode”.

The client involved in the experimentation becomes instrumental to the process of his own self-awareness. “The goal of Psychotherapy is not for the therapist to become aware of something about the patient, but for the patient to become aware of himself.” (PHG 1951)

Gestalt therapy incorporates character analysis instituted by Reich, reintegrating the splits between the psyche and the body, the individual and society. The emphasis is on using the observed phenomena in the therapy room to investigate past situations and fantasised content; a movement from the figure to the background. The importance is on description, less on explanation, and experience and experiment over interpretation. The therapist withholds premature analysis of repressed material, instead bringing light to how the client repressed the material.

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Bocian, B. (2009). From Free Association to Concentration: About Alienation, Ferenczi’s »Forced Fantasies,« and »the Third« in Gestalt Therapy. In: Studies in Gestalt Therapy: Dialogical Bridges 2, 37-58