Gestalt Therapy : Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (1951)

Notes from Gestalt Therapy’s seminal book by Fritz Perls, Ralf Hefferline and Paul Goodman, Published in 1951 republished in 1994, entitled, “Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality.

The book starts with a preface discusses key differences between Gestalt Therapy and Psychoanalysis, from which Gestalt Therapy evolved.

On Aggression Gestalt Therapy vs. Psychoanalysis

Gestalt therapy views aggression positively, in contrast to Freud’s association with the death instinct. Perls theorized aggression stems from “dental aggression,” a process of selectively internalizing experiences. This fosters self-preservation, environmental interaction, and creative agency. Gestalt therapy views the “no” as equally important to the “yes” in healthy personality development. Its repression, due to fear of conflict, is believed to be a core driver of neurotic tendencies.

All psychotherapeutic approaches hold implicit or explicit views on human development. Psychoanalysis encourages regression and reintroduces introjection through interpretation, while Gestalt therapy emphasizes early development of self-determination. Gestalt therapy integrates interpretation with patient-led experiments fostering self-discovery. Importantly, this includes encouraging patients to actively resist or critique the therapist’s interpretations.

The Structure of Growth

1. The Contact Boundary

“Experience occurs at the boundary between the organism and its environment, primarily the skin surface and the other organs of sensory and motor response.” (p. 3).

Interaction of Organism and Environment

Experiences occur at the boundary between Organism and Environment. The point of contact is where the Self meets the environment. The self is always in contact with the environment. When we breathe, our lungs come into contact with atmospheric oxygen in the environment.

Contact in the context of human interaction means different things in English. E.g. when we say “I contact you” means to give someone a call or a text message.  Contact in Gestalt therapy, is a  theoretical concept, which describes a process of awareness. This process is ever changing and dynamic.

“Experience occurs at the boundary between the organism and its environment, primarily the skin surface and the other organs of sensory and motor response.”

Contact boundary connects and separates the organism and environment.

“When we say “boundary” we think of a “boundary between”; but the contact-boundary, where experience occurs, does not separate the organism and its environment; rather it limits the organism, contains and protects it, and at the same time it touches the environment.” (p.5)

Contact is dynamic and creative because contact with the environment is novel. Contact is not passive but an active process, which must end with assimilation. “All contact is a creative adjustment between organism and environment”. It is how the organism grows in the field. Interruption of contact hinders movement and growth.

Creative and adjustment are polar and mutually necessary.

The figure of contact against the ground of the organism/environment field is clear and vivid. The figure/ground formation is a dynamic one.

Gestalt therapy focuses on the ‘contact boundary,’ the dynamic interface between self and other. This boundary is where experiences unfold, needs are met or thwarted, and growth occurs through interactions with the environment. The therapist’s role is not to analyze the past but to help the patient identify and work through present anxieties that hinder their capacity for contact and growth.

Therapy is a process of analysing Gestalt, where the therapist looks out for interruptions to the contact through what is said, body language and the chatacter of the therapeutic encounter.

Chapter V: Maturing and the Recollection of Childhood

This chapter explores the role of memory and anticipation in present experience, specifically in the context of psychotherapy. It argues against an overemphasis on recovering past memories or future plans, but instead focuses on present self-awareness and creative adaptation. The emphasis here is on the importance of working with the present experience in therapy, while acknowledging the influence of past experiences on how we function in the present. Therapists and patients should celebrate the value of so-called “childish” traits. It argues that true “maturity” involves reclaiming the joyful and vital aspects of childhood often lost in a restrictive adult world.

  1. Past and Future in the Present Actuality: Memories and plans are present acts of imagination. Dwelling on the past or future can be unproductive, leading to feelings of regret, guilt, or inadequacy. True self-worth comes from actively engaging in the present.
  2. The Importance of Past and Future in Therapy: While recovering past memories can be helpful, it’s not the sole focus. Therapy aims to expand the patient’s “self” by addressing underlying patterns and unfinished situations from the past that continue to impact the present.
  3. Past Effects as Fixed Forms in the Present: The past affects us through fixed forms in the present, such as habits or memories. These can be either healthy (e.g., useful skills) or neurotic (e.g., compulsive behavior).
  4. The Compulsion to Repeat: Neurotic behavior stems from a need to repeat an uncompleted situation from the past. This repetition is unsuccessful because the circumstances have changed, and the fixed attitude used is outdated.
  5. The Structure of a Forgotten Scene and its Recall: Repressed memories function like bad habits, actively suppressed in the present. Recalling them involves relaxing the present inhibition, allowing the underlying feelings and the associated memory (the “scene”) to resurface.
  6. The “Trauma” as Unfinished Situation: The chapter rejects the idea that recovering repressed memories is the sole focus of therapy. It emphasizes that the primary task is to free the underlying feelings and attitudes which were blocked at the time of the trauma.
  7. The Therapeutic use of the Recovered Scene: the recollection of the therapeutic scene serves to bring into awareness renewed flooding of feelings associated with the traumatic event. This allows the client to explain to himself what the feelings mean and express them in the safety of the present.
  8. The Erroneous Conception of “Infantile” vs. “Mature” : The authors strongly critique the use of these terms. They argue that many so-called “infantile” traits like spontaneity, playfulness, and direct curiosity are essential for a fulfilling adult life.
  9. What is True Maturation? The authors suggest that rather than fixating on “growing up”, we need to recover the valuable and joyful elements of childhood. They point out that many supposed hallmarks of maturity are, in fact, signs of neurosis.
  10. Freud’s View on Maturation: The chapter analyzes Freud’s ideas on maturation, acknowledging that while he made a sharp split between childhood and adulthood, he often valued the “child heart.”
  11. Childish Emotions and “Reality”: The authors challenge Freud’s idea that mature people adapt to reality by suppressing desire. They argue children can engage with reality through play and imagination, traits that inflexible adults often lack.

Chapter VI: Human Nature and the Anthropology of Neurosis

Psychotherapy must consider social, cultural, and biological factors in human development. “Normality” isn’t always a healthy goal within a dysfunctional society. Neurosis reveals where society fails to support the thriving of its members. Evolutionary changes influence current anxieties and coping mechanisms.

1: The Subject-Matter of Anthropology Anthropology studies the relationship between human biology and culture. Understanding these connections helps us recognize the “lost” human powers that often contribute to our current social and psychological problems.

2: The Importance of this Subject for Psychotherapy Psychotherapy must go beyond biological health to address the uniquely human aspects: feelings, interests, and societal influences. A therapist can’t assume “normal” adjustment to a dysfunctional society is the goal. Instead, the goal is helping patients create a more fulfilling life even within societal constraints.

3: “Human Nature” and the Average In a healthy society, cultural norms would define a thriving human. Since our institutions are often harmful, a therapist must look beyond them. Many patients seeking psychotherapy are not “sick” but desire greater fulfillment. This suggests they have potential exceeding the average – a factor for therapists to consider.

4: Neurotic Mechanisms as Healthy Functions Neurosis is a relatively recent human adaptation. The mechanisms behind it (hallucination, isolation, etc.) are safety-valves for protecting the self in the face of overwhelming threat. In neurosis, these safety mechanisms overshadow more “normal” functions. This highlights societal dysfunction, where “normal” behaviors are the root cause of the problem. The therapist’s goal is not to eliminate these valuable self-protective mechanisms but to help the patient integrate them healthily.

5: Erect Posture, Freedom of Hands and Head

  • Advantages: Upright posture improved perception, manipulation, and abstract thinking.
  • Disadvantages: This led to a disconnect between the head and its more instinctual senses (smell, taste). It also made isolation and the fear of falling new anxieties.
  • Consequences: While the ability to abstract and analyze improved, some immediacy in sensing the environment was lost. This can lead to getting stuck in past experiences rather than engaging fully in the present.

6: Tools, Language, Sexual Differentiation, and Society

  • Tools & Language: These emerged from our heightened ability to abstract and symbolize. While useful, they can lead to a disconnect if we mistake these abstractions for the primary source of connection with ourselves, others, or the world.
  • Sexual Differentiation: Intricate sexual systems evolved for reproduction, strengthening social bonds. However, this complexity also creates vulnerabilities in individual well-being, especially with the potential for social exploitation.

7: Differentiations of Sensory, Motoric, and Vegetative

  • The Split: The separation of sensory/thought centers from motor control greatly improved deliberation and action planning. In neurosis, this split can become a means to prevent spontaneity and block the embodied experience of thought translating into action.

8: Verbal Difficulties in this Exposition

  • Complexities of “Self”: Discussing human development highlights the blurred lines between concepts like “person,” “self,” and “organism.” This reflects the reality of evolving identity: we are simultaneously animalistic, individual, and shaped by social forces.
  • Historical Shifts: Theories about the primacy of either individuals or society have evolved over time. These shifts, even if confusing, reflect our complex nature and attempts to understand ourselves.

9: Symbols

  • The Rise of Abstraction: Recent millennia saw a surge in abstract symbols used for orientation, manipulation, and societal organization. This brought power but also alienation from direct experience.
  • Dangers Realized: Symbolic structures (money, politics, even science) can become ends in themselves, devoid of the personal satisfaction that provides intrinsic stability. People are crudely slotted into meaningless roles, working blindly toward nebulous goals. They consume stereotyped images of passion instead of experiencing it authentically.

10: Neurotic Split

  • Safety Valve: Faced with the unsatisfying nature of modern life, the neurotic split becomes a survival mechanism. The vulnerable points where past evolutionary advances created potential conflict (upright posture, abstract thought) are now used to break down the integrated self.
  • The Task: Instead of healthy integration, the neurotic clings to the extremes: pure mental abstraction or pure animalistic regression. Past threats to well-being have become full-blown symptoms.

11: Golden Age, Civilization, and Introjections

  • Lost Powers: Neurotic repression of past strengths leads to idealizations of bygone eras (Golden Age, Happy Primitive). Artists become the keepers of memories of what it meant to be fully human.
  • The Human Condition: Individual expression may always be at odds with social demands. Current ethical standards likely idealize a more personal, instinctual past, while modern realities leave little room for such expression. Perhaps, however, this tension and the suffering it causes are themselves essential to human experience, propelling us into unknown potentials.
  • Symbolic, abstract life disconnects us from personal fulfillment.
  • Neurosis arises when new developments repress former strengths rather than integrating them.
  • We seek images of lost wholeness from idealized pasts.
  • The conflict between the individual and society may be an inherent part of what it means to be human.

Chapter VII: Verbalising and Poetry

  • Words Gone Astray: Speech, meant to connect us, can become a hollow substitute for genuine experience. We spin words “instead of” living, creating a shell of a self – the “verbalizing personality.”

1: Social, Interpersonal, and Personal

  • The Woven Self: Our selves are born in wordless communion, followed by the echoing stories we tell ourselves. In health, this storytelling remains open, a dance between our depths and the world. When the dance falters, we harden into rigid personas echoing voices not our own.
  • The Poetic Cure: Fixating on the rules of language won’t heal this split. We won’t find wholeness through silence either. We must rediscover speech as poetry – words as tools of the soul.

2: Contactful Speech and Poetry

  • The Living Word: When speech is alive, it channels the “I” (our needs and presence), the “Thou” (how we connect with others), and the “It” (truths of the world). It weaves thought with breath, unfinished whispers of the heart with silent awareness.
  • The Poet’s Task: Poets solve inner riddles through the very act of speaking. They find words that sing their unspoken pain or longing, completing a melody only the soul knew. Unlike the verbalizer who spins in circles, the poet’s words trace a path with a beginning, middle, and end.

3: Verbalizing and Poetry

  • Verbalizing as Cage: When cut off from its roots, speech becomes a cage, a substitute for life. The verbalizer protects their isolation with a mask of sound – a false “I,” irrelevant posturing toward an absent “Thou”, and content that reveals nothing.
  • The Poet’s Freedom: Poets feast on the unfinished whispers within, finding a hidden audience in their own hearts. They bend words like clay to express a truth deeper than fact. This act of creation releases them from the cycle of repetition that haunts the verbalizer.

4: Critique of Free-Association as a Technique of Therapy

  • Mechanical Speech: In free-association, we spill words like beads watched by a silent observer. This can become an exercise in more emptiness, with the therapist’s insights feeling like pronouncements from on high, not self-discoveries.
  • The Better Path: We must reclaim responsibility for our own spoken world! This might mean exploring dreams through drawing, or simply listening more closely to our own voice as we freely associate, noticing the music beneath the chatter.

5: Free-Association as an Experiment in Language

  • Potential in the Chaos: Freeing words from their usual order can break down frozen thought patterns, revealing hidden truths bubbling up from within. This encourages a new curiosity, showing us our unconscious isn’t mere darkness but an untapped wellspring.
  • Shared Interpretation: The therapist should be a guide, not an oracle. Sharing the tools of interpretation empowers patients to discover their own meaning, transforming this process into active exploration.

6: Philosophies of Language-Reform

  • The Limits of Logic: Efforts to make language perfectly “clear” often focus on things we can point to or outcomes we desire. But this leaves no room for the heart of speech – feeling, tone, the way words can twist and transform.
  • Poetry as Essential: To heal our speech, we must learn the language of poets! It’s here that feeling becomes structured knowledge, and words become a way of knowing the world, not just pointing at it. This kind of speech makes ethics possible – where our deepest values aren’t abstract rules, but emerge from the very texture of our experience.

Chapter VIII: The Antisocial and Aggression

The Social and the Antisocial

  • Our personalities are shaped by social interactions. There’s a natural tension between individual desires and societal norms. Sometimes, behavior that goes against societal norms is necessary for personal growth.

Changes in What’s Considered Antisocial

  • What’s considered antisocial changes over time. Behaviors that were once deemed unacceptable may become more tolerated.
  • Psychoanalysis has played a role in these changes, bringing awareness to previously repressed desires.

Unequal Progress and Social Reaction

  • Societal changes often happen unevenly, leading to new problems. For example, increased sexual freedom may lead to a lack of emotional connection.
  • Society tries to control these changes through various means, like education or social norms.

The Antisocial is Presently the Aggressive

  • Our current social climate is marked by violence and a lack of healthy aggression. This is because our aggressive tendencies are repressed.
  • Freud focused on deprivation and frustration as the main causes of neurosis. Today, a lack of healthy outlets for aggression may be a bigger problem.

Annihilating and Destroying

  • The term “aggression” encompasses a range of behaviors, some positive and some negative.
  • Annihilation is a defensive response to pain or danger, while destruction is a necessary part of growth and development.
  • Repressing aggression can lead to problems like self-hatred and a lack of confidence.

Initiative and Anger

  • Healthy aggression involves taking initiative and expressing anger appropriately.
  • When these drives are repressed, people may become withdrawn or lose their sense of purpose.
  • Anger is a natural response to frustration, but it becomes destructive when it’s combined with a desire to annihilate.

Fixations of the Above, and Sadomasochism

  • When healthy aggression becomes fixated on hatred, revenge, or domination, it becomes self-destructive.
  • Sadomasochism is a result of repressing aggression and turning it inward or outward.

Modern War is Mass-Suicide Without Guiltiness

(Modern Violence and Discontent)

  • Our society is marked by wealth and peace, yet also by deep anxiety and dissatisfaction. This creates a desire to destroy the existing order, which seems to have failed.
  • Mass-destructive fantasies are prevalent, fueled by a lack of outlets for aggression in daily life. People project their anger onto distant “Enemies.”
  • War becomes an acceptable outlet for repressed aggression, offering security, authority, and organized sadism. People become resigned to disaster, drawn to the idea of mass suicide as a solution.

Freud’s Thanatos: A Critique

  • Freud saw a destructive “death instinct” in the violence of his time, compulsive repetition of trauma, and primary masochism. His theory has a powerful logic, but we can propose a different analysis that avoids bleak conclusions:
    • Compulsive repetition can be seen as an attempt to finish unfinished situations, not a wish for death.
    • Masochism is a result of releasing energy without strengthening the self’s coping mechanisms.
    • Organisms seek to complete their current stage of life, not revert to simpler states. Seeking equilibrium isn’t a drive for death.
    • Freud’s chain of causes misunderstands causation and isolates the organism from its environment.

Conclusion

  • Growth involves both aggressiveness (destroying outmoded forms) and love (joyful engagement with the new).
  • When society blocks aggression, it turns against both the self and society. This can lead to either revolutionary change or a path of mutual destruction.

Chapter IX: Conflict and Self-Conquest

Here’s a reworked version aimed at conciseness while retaining the core arguments:

1: Conflict and Creative Disinterestedness

  • Neurotics crave victory to make up for past humiliations, avoiding genuine conflicts because of the risk of loss.
  • “Creative disinterestedness” is the opposite: embracing conflict, accepting risk, and letting go of clinging to the past. This allows growth and the excitement of changing into something new.
  • The hallmark of this attitude is faith – a trust in oneself and in the field of life to support the change.

2: Critique of the Theory of the “Removal of Inner Conflict”: Meaning of “Inner”

  • The distinction between “inner” conflict (personal) and “outer” conflict (social) is not always useful. Here’s why:
    • Many conflicts are in a child’s environment, not just inside them. Individual therapy would miss the larger field issues.
    • Societal problems can’t be reduced to the neuroses of individuals. There are problems within the larger social field that require collective solutions.
    • Primitive struggles with nature show us that conflicts not rooted in personal flaws can still disrupt the individual and their relationship with the world.
  • The valuable truth hidden in the term “inner conflict” is this: our internal systems (body, mind, dreams) are largely trustworthy and self-regulating. Often, it’s the interference of external social forces into these inner systems that causes trouble.
  • Much of therapy involves helping clients disengage these external, unreliable forces (prestige, competition, money-based values) from interfering with their internal wisdom and the flow of primary personal life (love, grief, anger, etc.).

Meaning of “Conflict”

Suffering

Self-Conquest: premature pacification

Self-Conquest: satisfactions of conquest

self-control and character

Relation of theory and method

what is inhibited in self conquest

Chapter XII: Creative Adjustment

1. Fore-contacting and Contacting

Physiology and Psychology

Physiological functions involve the continuous interaction between organisms and the environment, allowing for organic adjustments to happen. The contact between organism and the environment happens at what is known as the organism/environment boundary. The self is more than physiology, since physiology is a function on the environment. The self is thus inclusive of the organism-environment field. “in a certain sense, the self is nothing but a function of the physiology; but in another sense it is not part of the organism at all, but is a function of the field, it is the way the field includes the organism.” (p.179)

Fore-contact: Periodic and Aperiodic

The fore-contact is the excitement of the organism in response to an internal need of something from the environment. Periodic urges (to breathe or eat) the organism towards the environment. That is why breathing is so important in therapy. Focusing on our breath keeps us in touch with the environment. Disturbance in breathing is often accompanied by anxiety. Periodic urges happens frequently, equilibrium (homoeostasis). In in situations of pain, the body becomes the focus (foreground figure). Aperiodic pains direct contact towards the body. These excitations initiate the figure / ground process.

when painful, disease situations persist, the body will create new physiological patterns as an attempt to adapt. These reactions are automatic and often out of awareness.

First stages of Contact

The contact process is initiated by excitement at the contact boundary, where the object figure becomes sharpened from the background. As the organism becomes aware of this figure, it begins to move towards approaching the figure, appreciating the figure, overcoming obstacles to get to the figure, connecting with a figure and finally, assimilating the experience.

Fore-contact –> Contacting –> Final Contact –> Post Contact

Fore-contact: the body is the ground and the environment stimulus is the figure.

Contacting: a) the excitement becomes the ground and some object of possibilities is the figure. b) there is a choosing and rejecting the possibilities, a question in approaching a deliberate orientation and manipulation.

Final Contact: the lively goal is the figure , and there is contact. There is a relaxation. The awareness of the self is is its brightest.

Post Contact: there is a flowing, and equilibrium, the self diminishes into the background.

Gratuitous Creativity

The self that is hardly responsive to excitations and environmental stimuli, but acts “as if hallucinating”. There is heavy stress on the “creative” and little on the “adjusting”; a flight from reality. Gratuitous creativity is borne out of the need to express unfinished businesses which lie outside consciousness, and a expression of dissatisfaction of the self. This is not an adjustment of the organism to the environment, and neither is it a satisfactory completion of a contact, but an act without real purpose. “it is not an adjustment of the organism to the environment, not a satisfactory completion of an organic drive in the environment, but it is an adjustment of the whole field to the self, to the surface of contact.” (p.184) There is a sense of purpose without a purpose.

Gratuitous creativity of the arts, philosophy and sciences is a function of the contact-boundary, where the result is carthartic release, enjoyment and reaching of goals. It is not an organismic adaptation, nor a fulfillment of a drive, rather an interaction of the self, harmonising with the field.

What is the function then for gratuitous creativity? When the environmental Field is difficult for the organism, and there is a need to flee from the reality, then gratuitous creativity serves as a recreation, enabling us to breathe.

(Can this be interpreted as compulsions?)

Creativity / Adjustment

Contact is a creativity and adjustment leading to the transformation of the organism and environment. “(C) reativity that is not continually destroying and assimilating the environment given in perception and resisting manipulation is useless to the organism and remains superficial and lacking in energy; it does not become deeply exciting, and its own languishes. It is useless to the organism because there is no completion of unfinished physiological situations without, ultimately, new environmental material for assimilation.” (p. 185)

Emotions

Emotions are the products, the “integrative awareness” of the organism-environment field. By focusing attention and inducing specific muscle movements, therapists can evoke particular bodily states. These states, like clenching fists or gasping, can lead to a feeling of frustrated anger. However, if an environmental element is added through fantasy or perception (e.g., a person to be angry at), the emotion intensifies and becomes clear. Conversely, acknowledging the corresponding bodily state often precedes the full experience of an emotion. For example, clenching one’s fist may precede the conscious feeling of anger.

(This partially validates the James-Lange theory of emotions, which suggests emotions arise from bodily states. The key addition here is that the bodily state must be oriented towards a specific environmental manipulation. It’s not simply running that creates fear, but running away from something.)

(This partially validates the James-Lange theory of emotions, which suggests emotions arise from bodily states. The key addition here is that the bodily state must be oriented towards a specific environmental manipulation. It’s not simply running that creates fear, but running away from something.)

Understanding these integrated connections is crucial for an organism’s survival. Animals must accurately perceive their relationship to the environment and be driven to act based on that knowledge. Emotions provide this motivating knowledge. They allow an animal to experience the environment as a place to grow, protect itself, and thrive. For instance, longing intensifies an appetite when faced with a distant object, propelling us to overcome obstacles. Grief results from the tension of loss, prompting withdrawal and recuperation. Anger fuels the drive to destroy barriers to our desires. Spite, targeted towards an unavoidable enemy, is a means of avoiding complete surrender. Compassion motivates us to help others, preventing our own sense of loss.

Emotions succeed urges and appetites in guiding behavior. This motivational force is strengthened by the specific object of the emotion. However, in complex situations, emotions give way to feelings – the actualized virtues and vices (courage, determination, etc.) – which represent habits and stronger, more focused drives for action. This shift involves incorporating more of the organism itself (habits) and the environment.

Emotions, far from being simple impulses, are well-defined functional structures. Crude emotions reflect a general lack of refinement in one’s overall experience. Language often struggles to express the complexities of emotions effectively. Artistic expression, through visual and musical forms, provides a richer language for emotions, conveying them as powerful statements.

Emotions can be seen as a form of cognition – a unique way to understand the state of the organism-environment field. They are essential for assessing whether our actions align with our needs in the world. While fallible, they can be refined by attempting to transform them into settled feelings associated with deliberate actions (e.g., enthusiasm into conviction, lust into love).

Psychotherapy, through “emotion training,” highlights the need for a combined approach. We must address the external world (relationships, memories), release bodily restrictions and desires, and also consider the internal structure of the self’s emotions.

Excitement and Anxiety

The process of creative adjustment is accompanied by escalating excitement, peaking at the final contact. Even obstacles and setbacks don’t diminish this excitement entirely. However, they can lead to spectacular disruptions in the self’s organization. Rage explodes into tantrums, grief and exhaustion set in, and hallucinations might emerge (fantasies of victory, revenge, or gratification). These are emergency mechanisms that release tension and allow for a fresh start. While frustrating, this process isn’t inherently unhealthy. However, it doesn’t facilitate learning as the self is too disrupted to integrate any new information.

Interrupted excitement, the metaphorical and practical holding of one’s breath, this is anxiety. The clearest illustration of healthy anxiety is fright – the sudden choking off of emotions and movements when facing immediate danger. This can be particularly traumatic, unlike ordinary fear. Fear involves anticipating a threat, allowing for deliberate and defensive actions. When retreat becomes necessary, the approach to the environment remains open, enabling future confrontation and potential solution. However, in fright, the overwhelming threat triggers a complete withdrawal, a shutting down of the environment (“playing dead”). The resulting anxiety, the dammed-up excitement, can take a long time to dissipate until normal breathing resumes.

Projection and Repression

Interruptions can occur at different stages of “contacting,” leading to anxiety and a cautious approach towards the original impulse. This caution manifests as:

  • Aversion: Shifting focus away from the impulse.
  • Distraction: Engaging in other activities to divert attention.
  • Muscular Restriction: Clenching muscles to suppress the urge.

This restriction creates pain because natural urges tend to be expansive. The body becomes the central figure, while the self (the deliberate ego) acts as the ground. This process remains conscious – a deliberate attempt at creative adjustment, working on the body instead of the environment. However, persistent deliberate suppression can lead to repression – unconscious suppression.

Identifying and Alienating

Conflict

In the context of “contacting,” the ego’s function involves identifying, alienating, and establishing boundaries. “Accepting an impulse as one’s own” implies incorporating it into the foundation for the next development. This identification c an be deliberate, and a well-functioning ego aligns itself with grounds that facilitate the development of positive figures, provided these grounds have sufficient energy and potential.

Conflict arises when the ground is disrupted, hindering the emergence of a clear and vibrant figure. Conflicting excitations bring forth alternative figures for dominance. Attempts to force a single figure when the ground is unstable result in a weak and unenergetic outcome.

However, if the conflict itself is embraced, the resulting figure will be exciting and energetic, even if destructive and painful. Every conflict stems from conflicting needs, desires, and self-images within the ground. The self’s function is to navigate these conflicts, endure losses and transformations, and ultimately alter the given situation.

When the ground is harmonious, choosing foreground objects or actions rarely leads to true conflict. In such cases, a better solution usually emerges spontaneously. A strong conflict in the foreground often signifies a concealed and alienated background conflict, as seen in obsessive doubts.

Embracing Conflict vs. Anxiety

From this perspective, we can re-evaluate the notion that “exciting the conflict weakens the self.” The perceived danger lies in the significant self-investment in a weak figure – the result of a past, facile choice. Accepting a new excitation from the alienated background disrupts this weak “self,” which appears threatening. However, the self isn’t truly invested in the weak figure; the self is the act of creating the figure, not the figure itself. Therefore, therapeutic methods that aim to strengthen the self should focus on connecting the weak foreground figure to its underlying ground, bringing more awareness to it.

This approach, as opposed to downplaying the new excitation, can lead to painful transitional excitement, a sign of creative growth. This is the opposite of anxiety. Anxiety is unpleasant, static, and breathless, while a conflict in the grounds brings about destruction and suffering. False conflicts, on the other hand, create dilemmas accompanied by anxiety. The purpose of such false conflicts is to interrupt excitement; anxiety, as an emotion, is the dread of one’s own daring.

The Illusion of Security vs. The Power of Readiness

Two intertwined fears hinder creativity: the pain inherent in rising excitement and the fear of rejection and change. This fear of change draws its strength from a false sense of security found in clinging to past achievements and the status quo. True security, however, is impossible as it would require a completely inflexible self. Without irrational fear, the focus shifts from seeking security to addressing challenges.

A false sense of security signals a weakness – a constant anticipation of its collapse. This illusion is fueled by a hidden struggle. Unfinished internal needs clash with aggression turned inward due to past defeats. This conflict creates a deceptive feeling of stability and control. In reality, the self lacks the power to engage outwardly. The person locked in this pattern repeats familiar struggles, avoiding any newness or vulnerability. They mistakenly label this avoidance as “realism.” Thus, an accepted defeat oddly provides a sense of control and a distorted notion of “adjustment.” Sadly, this sacrifices excitement, growth, and vitality.

In contrast, a self with energy and potential does not seek security. It embraces excitement, has faith in the inherent adaptability of the organism, and a flexible optimism about facing challenges. This “readiness” is the answer when someone asks, “Can you do it?” True power and a sense of adequacy emerge from meeting challenges head-on, generating new solutions and unexpected outcomes.

Final Contact and Post Contact

Unity of Figure and Ground

Final contact, the objective of the contacting process, finds the self fully engaged in the figure. All concerned of the self is embodied, making the self the figure. The self is actualised, transformed, set in its own reality, in acceptance of the reality of the environment.

CONCERN and Its object
Example of Sexual Touch etc
Post Contact
Passagefrom the psychological to the Physiological
Formation of personality: Loyalty
Formation of Personality: Morality
Formation of Personality:Rhetorical Attitudes
Conclusion

Book Reference

Perls, F., Hefferline, R., & Goodman, P. (1951/1994). Gestalt therapy: Excitement and growth in the human personality. Kindle Edition. ME: The Gestalt Journal Press.

Gestalt Therapy Verbatim (Perls, 1969): Book Review

A thousand plastic flowers 
Don’t make a desert bloom 
A thousand empty faces 
Don’t fill an empty room.

Fritz Perls

I enjoy reading this book, written “ad verbatim”, as the title describes. The presentation style gives us an implicit sense of who Perls is and his first-person perspectives as a therapist.

Gestalt therapy verbatim” is a unique book that gives readers a firsthand look at the ideas and techniques of Gestalt therapy through the words of its founder, Fritz Perls. The verbatim format, in which Perls’ words are recorded exactly as he spoke them during therapy sessions, lectures, and workshops, provides an authentic and engaging look at the development and practice of Gestalt therapy. It can be a valuable resource for those interested in learning about Gestalt therapy or for those who are already familiar with the approach and want to gain a deeper understanding of Perls’ thought and practice.

The book is segmented into two parts – first, an introductory section that describes Gestalt therapy and provides brief background information about its origins and development; and second, three case histories that show how Perls applied his approach during his encounter with the clients named in the case studies.

This is an aged enjoyable book. I have assembled some excerpts here.

Perls on “techniques”

One of the objections I have against anyone calling himself a Gestalt therapist is that he uses technique. A technique is a gimmick. […] We’ve got enough people running around collecting gimmicks, more gimmicks, and abusing them.

Perls adds that Gestalt therapy is not about providing instant cure, instant joy, instant gratification. That works in psychiatry, in addictions, and in today’s world, through the likes of pop-cultured therapy. Gestalt therapy offers all the opportunity for growth, and growth is an organic process. The client has to invest in themselves and grow.

Perls on Anxiety

Anxiety is the gap between the now and the then. If you are in the now, you can’t be anxious, because the excitement flows immediately into ongoing spontaneous activity. If you are in the now, you are creative, you are inventive. If you have your senses ready, if you have your eyes and ears open, like every small child, you find a solution. (p. 23).

He differentiates this from hedonism, where one seek pseudo sensory stimulation. Let us perhaps reflect on how we can relate this concept with the problem of compulsive disorders like sex addiction.

Perls on what happens in the splitting of the self and pathology

You are already coming to the point where you begin to understand what happens in pathology. If some of our thoughts, feelings, are unacceptable to us, we want to disown them. “Me, wanting to kill you?” So we disown the killing thought and say, “That’s not me — that’s a compulsion.” Or we remove the killing, or we repress and become blind to that. There are many of these kinds of ways to remain intact, but always only at the cost of disowning many, many valuable parts of ourselves. The fact that we live only on such a small percentage of our potential is due to the fact that we’re not willing — or society or whatever you want to call it is not willing — to accept myself, yourself, as the organism which you are by birth, constitution, and so on. You do not allow yourself — or you are not allowed to be totally yourself. So your ego boundary shrinks more and more. Your power, your energy, becomes smaller and smaller. Your ability to cope with the world becomes less and less — and more and more rigid, more and more allowed only to cope as your character, as your preconceived pattern, prescribes it. (p.31)

Noteworthy is that this book was written in the 1960s, when the polyvagal theroey concept of introception was not yet discovered. In my practice I do guide the client to separate their ruminating thoughts (that is a bottom-up introception) from conscious thoughts.

Perls’ thoughts on trying to change oneself and others

[W]e realize that we cannot deliberately bring about changes in ourselves or in others. This is a very decisive point: Many people dedicate their lives to actualize a concept of what they should be like, rather than to actualize themselves. This difference between self-actualizing and self-image actualizing is very important. Most people only live for their image. Where some people have a self, most people have a void, because they are so busy projecting themselves as this or that. This is again the curse of the ideal. The curse that you should not be what you are. (p.39)

When we reflect on attitudes on mental health today, which modality is most sought after? The modalities that promote self-image actualization, where there is a delusion that we can change ourselves, our thoughts and our relationships, or the ones that are based on the theory of authentic and organic self actualization?

Perls on Growth, the Impasse, and the aim of therapy

[H]ow do we prevent ourselves from maturing? What prevents us from ripening? […] We ask the question, what prevents — or how do you prevent yourself from growing — from going further ahead? […]

My formulation is that maturing is the transcendence from environmental support to self-support. Look upon the unborn baby. It gets all its support from the mother — oxygen, food, warmth, everything. As soon as the baby is born, it has already to do its own breathing. And then we find often the first symptom of what plays a very decisive part in Gestalt therapy. We find the impasse. Please note the word. The impasse is the crucial point in therapy — the crucial point in growth.

The impasse is called by the Russians “the sick point,” a point which the Russians never managed to lick and which other types of psychotherapy so far have not succeeded in licking. The impasse is the position where environmental support or obsolete inner support is not forthcoming and authentic self-support has not yet been achieved. The baby cannot breathe by itself. It doesn’t get the oxygen supply through the placenta anymore. We can’t say that the baby has a choice, because there is no deliberate attempt of thinking out what to do, but the baby either has to die or learn to breathe. There might be some environmental support forthcoming — being slapped, or oxygen might be supplied.The “blue baby” is the prototype of the impasse which we find in every neurosis. (P. 48)

The process of maturation is the transformation from environmental support to self-support, and the aim of therapy is to make the patient not depend upon others, but to make the patient discover from the very first moment that he can do many things, much more than he thinks he can do.

Perls on Character

The more character a person has, the less potential he has. That sounds paradoxical, but a character is a person that is predictable, that has only a number of fixed responses, or as T. S. Eliot said in The Cocktail Party, “You are nothing but a set of obsolete responses.” (P. 53)

Character is a fixed response that we develop in childhood to manipulate the environment, to get our needs met. The basic need is love from the child’s caregivers, and manipulation comes in the form of playing roles that keep the individual immature.

On changing every question to a statement

“One fool can ask more questions than a thousand wise men can answer.” All the answers are given. Most questions are simply inventions to torture ourselves and other people. The way to develop our own intelligence is by changing every question into a statement. If you change your question into a statement, the background out of which the question arose opens up, and the possibilities are found by the questioner himself.

[…]Every time you refuse to answer a question, you help the other person to develop his own resources. Learning is nothing but discovery that something is possible. To teach means to show a person that something is possible.

Why and because are dirty words in Gestalt therapy.” (p. 64)

when we ask why we get an explanation and we will fail to get an understanding.

Perls on Resentment

We see guilt as projected resentment. Whenever you feel guilty, find out what you resent, and the guilt will vanish and you will try to make the other person feel guilty. […]

If you have any difficulties in communication with somebody, look for your resentments. Resentments are among the worst possible unfinished situations — unfinished gestalts. If you resent, you can neither let go nor have it out. Resentment is an emotion of central importance. The resentment is the most important expression of an impasse — of being stuck. If you feel resentment, be able to express your resentment. A resentment unexpressed often is experienced as, or changes into, feelings of guilt. Whenever you feel guilty, find out what you are resenting and express it and make your demands explicit. This alone will help a lot. (p. 68)

Perls goes on to explain how resentment that is articulated, then switched to appreciation is healing.

Perls on Nothingness and the Fertile Void

The whole philosophy of nothingness is very fascinating. In our culture “nothingness” has a different meaning than it has in the Eastern religions. When we say “nothingness,” there is a void, an emptiness, something deathlike. When the Eastern person says “nothingness,” he calls it “no-thingness” — there are no things there. There is only process, happening. Nothingness doesn’t exist for us, in the strictest sense, because nothingness is based on awareness of nothingness, so there is the awareness of nothingness, so there is something there. And we find when we accept and enter this nothingness, the void, then the desert starts to bloom. The empty void becomes alive, is being filled. The sterile void becomes the fertile void. I am getting more and more right on the point of writing quite a bit about the philosophy of nothing. I feel this way, as if I am nothing, just function. “I’ve got plenty of nothing.” Nothing equals real. (pp. 77-78)

The concept of the Fertile Void is critical to the understanding of Gestalt therapy, a topic which is discussed in these pages:

Perls on taking responsibility and blaming

All the so-called traumata which are supposed to be the root of the neurosis are an invention of the patient to save his self-esteem. None of these traumata has ever been proved to exist. I haven’t seen a single case of infantile trauma that wasn’t a falsification. They are all lies to be hung onto in order to justify one’s unwillingness to grow. To be mature means to take responsibility for your life, to be on your own. Psychoanalysis fosters the infantile state by considering that the past is responsible for the illness. The patient isn’t responsible — no, the trauma is responsible, or the Oedipus complex is responsible, and so on. I suggest that you read a beautiful little pocketbook called I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, by Hannah Green. There you see a typical example, how that girl invented this childhood trauma, to have her raison d’etre, her basis to fight the world, her justification for her craziness, her illness. We have got such an idea about the importance of this invented memory, where the whole illness is supposed to be based on this memory. No wonder that all the wild goose chases of the psychoanalyst to find out why I am now like this can never come to an end, can never prove a real opening up of the person himself. (P. 62)

Considering that trauma work is a critical part of therapy, could Perls’ words in the above passage put into question his credibility on the subject of trauma? Well, before the “Harry & Meghan” saga at the turn of this year, 2023, and before “woke-ism” lost its meaning, which is compassion, I might have considered Perls’ opinion here archaic. However, now I understand what he’s saying. Perls warns us in 1969 that we will want to redeem ourselves from our low self-esteem, and the easy way out of true healing from this shame is to lay blame or make excuses for ourselves. Laying blame is relinquishing responsibility, not what trauma work or psychotherapy is about.

The work with trauma, revealing and processing traumatic events in psychotherapy functions to bring to light childhood pain that the client was not previously able to access. In childhood, the individual adapts to suffering out of context. Adaption to suffering ultimately becomes a fixed pattern of being in the world. This pattern is the personality. When the pain of the past is revealed, it can be felt, sensed and shared. In therapy, the therapist witnesses the suffering that is shared. When this happens, there is enlightenment. The client can then fully grasp feelings they have dissociated from in childhood and infancy. Only then can these feelings be relegated to the past. Feelings relegated to the past will less likely interfere with the present and future without awareness.

The “woke” movement of popular culture today has used the psychotherapeutic process as a Trojan horse for its agenda. Instead of realising suffering and being compassionate to their child-self, the woke seek to redeem themselves of the shame (‘low self-esteem’) from having to suffer childhood helplessness by taking revenge. Revenge is a need for release, to lash out, to whine at the world, to complain and criticise, and it is cathartic. The act of revenge is infantile. The woke person plays the role of victim and perpetrator. In so doing, they fail to mature. They become toddlers in grow-up bodies that can cause destructive revenge. Revenge is violent, and the acts do not heal anyone. Revenge is the transfer of pain from the sufferer to their victims through violence. Violence is the transference of pain that is absent in the perpetrator to the victim. Pain is transferred until it is transformed (Weil, 1952, in this article).

Perls on Group therapy

Basically I am doing a kind of individual therapy in a group setting, but it’s not limited to this; very often a group happening happens to happen. Usually I only interfere if the group happening comes merely to mind-fucking. Most group therapy is nothing but mind-fucking. Ping-pong games, “who’s right?,” opinion exchanges, interpretations, all that crap. If people do this, I interfere. If they are giving their experience, if they are honest in their expression — wonderful. Often the group is very supportive, but if they are merely “helpful,” I cut them out. Helpers are con men, interfering. People have to grow by frustration — by skillful frustration. Otherwise, they have no incentive to develop their own means and ways of coping with the world. But sometimes very beautiful things do happen, and basically there are not too many conflicts, everybody who is in the group participates. Sometimes I have people who don’t say a single word through the whole five-week workshop and they go away and say that they have changed tremendously, that they did their own private therapy work or whatever you want to call it. So anything can happen. As long as you don’t structure it, as long as you work with your intuition, your eyes and ears, then something is bound to happen. (p. 93)

Reference

Perls, Frederick (Fritz). (1969/1992) Gestalt Therapy Verbatim (p. 93). The Gestalt Journal Press. Kindle Edition.