Envy is the idealizing of an object outside oneself, with the wish to devour the coveted object. This object is something possessed by another person or persons. The trappings of envy is that one cannot find peace through separation of oneself from the envied object and the envied other. The resultant is hatred and the need to destroy the other.
Envy can also be seen as a projection of goodness into another person, so that one idealizes the other while devaluing oneself, and eventually hating the other. Envy is a painful emotion and is almost not in the awareness of the individual. It is also integral to being human, and hence it exists in every reasonably living functioning person.
Envy vs. Jealousy
Envy is exists in terms of two persons– it involves you and me. I want what you have, because that is what I lack. Jealousy involves a third person. I am not allowing that other person to take you / your attention/ love, etc away from me.
If I cannot have what you have I’ll seek to destroy that coveted thing. Sometime this destruction is abstract.
Greed is a means to extract all the goodness from the other. Greed doesn’t necessarily seek to destroy. Greed is to consume without gratitude. Hence greed never gets satisfied.
Defenses against feelings of envy
Vanity or grandiosity is a defense against envy. To make oneself more superior to overcome envy of another. Self idealization, feeling omnipotent, not needing or depending on others.
Invidiousness, is a means to act so that the other becomes envious of you. To projective identifying or evoking emotions of envy in the other. The problem this causes the person to fear the envious eye of other.
Spoiling, devaluing, rigid idealization, projection of envy (a superego that attacks and devalues own achievements) are examples of means to counteract feelings of envy.
When envy is strong, even what’s seems as a good object becomes a source of pain.
In normal experience good experience predominates over bad. Pathology aries when bad predominates good internally and externally.
Positive use of Envy
Constructive envy is one that inspires one to work harder to improve oneself. If I am envious of somebody’s abilities, e.g. piano playing, I practice harder. We also witness the energy derived from envy in the masterpieces created by highly creative people.
Gratitude as the Antidote to Envy
Melanie Klein tells us that gratitude is the antidote to envy. To be thankful is to be able to see the glass half full. Gratitude allows one to feel satisfied with what one has achieved or bestowed.
Carveth, D. (2016) Introduction to Kleinian Theory 4. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bb-L_QXNyQU&t=2s
Pathologically violent projective identification, where the object (ego) is splintered, attacked. Reality is seen as persecutory and hated. When envy is intense, the perception of the good object is as painful as the bad object.
46:00 Psychopathology is the result of early decision to try to base your life upon evading pain (Bion). Psychotherapy is the process of turning this around. To help the individual face the pain and move on to more functional existence.
Thought and speech are constituted by language. The medium of our consciousness, also known as our psyche, can be understood from verbal thought, as Lacan says, “the unconscious is structured like a language.”
In this blog, I re-post an interesting lecture “Introduction to Theory of Literature ” by Fry (2009). Fry talks about the essay of Peter Brook, “Freud’s Masterplot: a Model for Narrative”, a chapter in his book, “Reading for Plot, Design and Intention in Narrative“. From this essay the psychological meaning of discourse is developed and discussed.
Plot vs. the Story: The Plot, which Brooks calls, syuzhet in Russian. The story, fabula, it is the subject matter out of which the plot is made.
Metaphor and Metonymy:
Metaphor unifies, brings together different ideas, situations.
Metonymy brings things together “by a recognizable gesture toward contiguity but which nevertheless does not make any claim or pretension to unify or establish identity” — without unifying. Metonymy is a figure of speech which a thing or concept is called not by its own name but rather the name of something associated in meaning with that thing or concept.
Reading Jakobson and de Man, Brooks helps us understand the terms described to us above. In Brooks’ essay, “Freud’s Masterplot,” the that the framework for argument is psychoanalytic and that the author is draws primarily from the text of Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle.
In this essay Brooks takes from Freud is the idea of structure. The idea that the unconscious is structured like a language. Hence in psychoanalysis is considered a “talking cure”, in which the unconscious is revealed via narrating and free association. “Talking cure” was first coined in the case of Anna O.
In terms of creating fictional plots, in terms of the nature of fiction, which is what interests Brooks–well, what does this mean?
Aristotle tells us that a plot has a beginning, a middle and an end. It seems almost logical, but we should consider this … A beginning, of course–well, it has to have a beginning and it has to have an end… but why does it have a middle? What is the function of the middle with respect to a beginning and an end? Why does Aristotle say, that a plot should have a certain magnitude? Why shouldn’t it be shorter? Why shouldn’t it be longer?
What does the middle have to do with the necessary connection with the beginning and the end, in such a way that resolves a kind of logic that makes the story worth being? How does all this work? Brooks believes that he can understand it in psychoanalytic terms.
The central two mechanisms of the dream work are simultaneously:
Condensation : takes essential symbols of the dream and distills them into a kind of over-determined unit, so that one can see the underlying desires and wishes expressed in a dream, manifest in a particular symbolic unity.
Displacement: essential symbols of the dream, the way a dream attempts to manifest that which it desires, are not expressed in themselves but are displaced into obscurely related ideas or images or symbols.
Displacement is a detour of understanding. Condensation is a distillation of understanding. SIMULTANEOUSLY.
Jacques Lacan probably noticed that the work in every day discourse, and also in our dreams, and our narratives, can be understood as operating through these two mechanisms, condensation and displacement.
Condensation is metaphorical in nature, and displacement metonymic in nature. Metonymy is delaying, and a “différance of signification”– or deferring to a later time. Metaphor is in trying to bring together meaning “in a statement of identity of the discourse that’s attempting to articulate itself”, bringing together identity, “affirmation of resemblance”.
So we can see how Brooks combines Freud’s structure in the interpretation of dreams, showing its correlation with Jakobson and de Man’s structure of literature. Brooks is not interested in the psychogenesis of the author, nor the characters.
The text is not there to tell us about the author or the character. The text is alive, to express desire, put in motion. The structure of the text is there to manifest desire. Freud has a particular desire to fulfill a desire for reduced excitation. can be associate the death wish as the reduction of excitation.
Brooks’ Departure from Freudian Criticism
Brook is taking a different angle with his essay by not getting involved in freudian criticism nor does he talk about how freudian ideas are used in literature.
“I would remind you in passing that although we don’t pause over traditional Freudian criticism in this course, it can indeed be extremely interesting: just for example, Freud’s disciple, Ernest Jones, wrote an influential study of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in which he showed famously that Hamlet has an Oedipus complex. Think about the play. You’ll see that there’s a good deal in what Jones is saying; and in fact, famously in the history of the staging and filming of Shakespeare–as you probably know, Sir Laurence Olivier took the role of Hamlet under the influence of Ernest Jones. In the Olivier production of Hamlet, let’s just say made it painfully clear in his relations with Gertrude that he had an Oedipus complex. Again, there were actual sort of literary texts written directly under the influence of Freud. One thinks of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers,for example, in which the central character, Paul Morel, is crippled by an Oedipus complex that he can’t master and the difficulties and complications of the plot are of this kind.”
“Moving closer to the present, an important figure in literary theory, Harold Bloom, can be understood to be developing in his theories of theoretical text, beginning with The Anxiety of Influence,a theory of the author–that is to say, a theory that is based on the relationship between belated poets and their precursors, which is to say a relationship between sons and fathers. So there is a certain pattern in–and of course, I invoke this pattern in arguing that Levi-Strauss‘ version of the Oedipus myth betrays his Oedipus complex in relation to Freud. Plainly, Freudian criticism with these sorts of preoccupations is widespread, continues sometimes to appear, and cannot simply be discounted or ignored as an influence in the development of thinking about literature or of the possibilities of thinking about literature.”
The text is there to express desire, to put in motion, and to make manifest desire or a desire. Brooks says that he has a particular desire in mind.
The structure of the text, or the way in which the text functions is to fulfill a desire for reduced excitation. This means that the desire which can be associated with the pleasure principle in sexual terms and can be associated with the idea of the death wish that Freud develops in Beyond the Pleasure Principle.
In these ways Brooks understands the structure, the delay, the arabesque, or postponement of the end.
Within the text there involves a kind of coexistence between the possibility through “desire of reducing excitation, being excited, and reducing excitation.”
Dreams and stories don’t just express this desire; they also delay it.
Many of the dreams we have are neither exciting, and are tedious. Fiction, as art, has structure, and is thus precisely designed to create delay to a desired degree but not unduly beyond that degree.
Middle of fiction involve this process of delay, they seem also to revisit un-pleasurable things. The experiences that constitute the middles have a tendency to un-pleasurable. The middles are not un-interesting, but they are page turners because they reflect un-pleasant episodes… which we seem to be fascinated with.
Why, in other words, return to what isn’t fun, to where it isn’t pleasure, and what can this possibly have to do with the pleasure principle?
Beyond the Pleasure Principle
In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud considers the phenomena experienced with trauma victims. Written at the end of the First World War, many of the contemporary books written in that time dealt with the subject of war experiences: Virginia’s Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, that her treatment of Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dallowayis a treatment of a traumatized war victim and Rebecca West, wrote one in particular called The Return of the Soldier, the protagonist of which is also a traumatized war victim. It seemed to be the theme of the period and Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle contributes to this theme.
Brooks himself likes to refer to the text of Beyond the Pleasure Principle as itself a master plot–in other words as having a certain fictive character, like The Return of the Soldieror Mrs. Dalloway.
Freud begins by saying, “The weird thing about these trauma victims whom I have had in my office is that in describing their dreams and even in their various forms of neurotic repetitive behavior, they seem compulsively to repeat the traumatic experience that has put them in the very predicament that brought them to me. In other words, they don’t shy away from it. They don’t in any strict sense repress it. They keep compulsively going back to it. Why is that? How can that possibly be a manifestation of the only kind of drives I had ever thought existed up until the year 1919, namely drives that we can associate in one way or another with pleasure–with the pleasure principle, obviously; with a sort of implicit sociobiological understanding that the protraction of life is all about sexual reproduction and that the displacement or inhibition of the direct drives associated with that take the form of the desire to succeed, the desire to improve oneself, and the desire to become more complex emotionally and all the rest of it? All of this we can associate with the pleasure principle. How does this compulsion to return to the traumatic event in any way correspond to or submit itself to explanation in terms of the pleasure principle?”
“The Aim of All Life is Death”
The compulsion to repeat, manifests itself in adults in various forms of neurotic behavior. We can think of it in terms of effort at mastery of something, like a rehearsal of the inevitability of death. The trauma of death which awaits and which has been heralded by traumatic events in one’s life, a near escape: for example, in a train accident or whatever the case may be. So Freud in developing his argument eventually comes to think that the compulsion to repeat has something to do with a kind of repeating forward of an event which is in itself unnarratable: the event of death, which is of course that which ultimately looms.
Freud’s argument is that there is somehow in us a compulsion or a desire, a drive, to return–like going home again or going back to the womb to return to that inanimate state. “The aim of all life,” he then says, “is death.”
We need at present to follow Freud into his closer inquiry concerning the relation between the compulsion to repeat and the instinctual. The answer lies in “a universal attribute of instinct and perhaps of organic life in general,” that “an instinct is an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things.“…
This function [of the drives] is concerned “with the most universal endeavor of all living substance–namely to return to the quiescence of the inorganic world.”
But there’s a reason as to why novels are long: “not too long, not too short, but of a certain length–of a certain magnitude, as Aristotle puts it.”
The organism doesn’t just want to die. The organism is not suicidal. That’s a crucial mistake that we make when we first try to come to terms with what Freud means by “the death wish.” The organism wants to die on its own terms, which is why it has an elaborate mechanism of defenses–“the outer cortex,” as Freud is always calling it–attempting to withstand, to process, and to keep at arm’s length the possibility of trauma. You blame yourself as a victim of trauma for not having the sufficient vigilance in your outer cortex to ward it off. Part of the compulsion to repeat is, in a certain sense–part of the hope of mastery in the compulsion to repeat is to keep up the kind of vigilance which you failed to have in the past and therefore fail to ward it off.
According to Freud, the organism wants to evolve toward its dissolution.
So there is this tension in the organism between evolving to its end and being modified prematurely toward an end, a modification which in terms of fiction would mean you wouldn’t have a plot, right? You might have a beginning, but you would have a sudden cutting off that prevented the arabesque of the plot from developing and arising.
Now what Brooks argues following Freud is that to this end, the creating of an atmosphere in which with dignity and integrity… this is where the pleasure principle and the death wish cooperate.
Hence Freud is able to proffer, with a certain bravado, the formulation: “the aim of all life is death.” We are given an evolutionary image of the organism in which the tension created by external influences has forced living substance to “diverge ever more widely from its original course of life and to make ever more complicated détours before reaching its aim of death.” In this view, the self-preservative instincts function to assure that the organism shall follow its own path to death, to ward off any ways of returning to the inorganic which are not imminent to the organism itself. In other words, “the organism wishes to die only in its own fashion.” It must struggle against events (dangers) which would help to achieve its goal too rapidly–by a kind of short-circuit.
… [W]e could say that the repetition compulsion and the death instinct serve the pleasure principle; in a larger sense [though], the pleasure principle, keeping watch on the invasion of stimuli from without and especially from within, seeking their discharge, serves the death instinct, making sure that the organism is permitted to return to quiescence.
Two differing drives coexist in the developing and enriching of the good plot.
The problem in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, is that it’s awfully hard to keep death and sex separate. The reduction of excitation is obviously something that the pleasure principle is all about. The purpose of sex is to reduce excitation, to annul desire. The purpose of death, Freud argues, is to do the same thing.
For example, the compulsion to repeat nasty episodes, to revisit trauma, and to repeat the un-pleasurable. It could be called something which is a kind of pleasure and which therefore could be subsumed under the pleasure principle and would obviate the need for a theory of the death drive as Freud develops it in Beyond the Pleasure Principle.
As with the plot: desire emerges or begins as the narratable.
What is the unnarratable? The unnarratable is that immersion in our lives such that there is no sense of form or order or structure. Anything is unnarratable if we don’t have a sense of a beginning, a middle, and an end to bring to bear on it. The narratable, in other words, must enter into a structure. So the beginning, which is meditated on by Sartre’s Roquentin in La Nauseeand quoted to that effect by Brooks. The narratable begins in this moment of entry into that pattern of desire that launches a fiction. We have speculated on what that desire consists in, and so the narratable becomes a plot and the plot operates through metaphor, which unifies the plot, which shows the remarkable coherence of all of its parts.
In narrative theory there’s no such thing in fiction as irrelevant detail. Nothing is there by accident. The nature of the underlying desire that’s driving the plot forward; but on the other hand, metonymy functions as the principle of delay, the detour, the arabesque, the refusal of closure; the settling upon bad object choice and other unfortunate outcomes, the return of the unpleasurable–all the things that happen in the structure of “middles” in literary plots. The plot finally binds material together, and both metaphor and metonymy are arguably forms of binding. Brooks says:
To speak of “binding” in a literary text is thus to speak of any of the formalizations (which, like binding, may be painful, retarding) that force us to recognize sameness within difference, or the very emergence of a sjužetfrom the material of fabula.
Tony the Tow Truck Revisited
Tony the Tow Truck. I would suggest that in the context of Beyond the Pleasure Principle we could re-title Tony the Tow Truck as The Bumpy Road to Maturity. It certainly has the qualities of a picaresque fiction. It’s on the road, as it were, and the linearity of its plot–the way in which the plot is like beads on a string, which tends to be the case with picaresque fiction, and which by the way is also a metonymic aspect of the fiction–lends the feeling of picturesque to the narrative. Quickly to reread it–I know that you all have it glued to your wrists, but in case you don’t, I’ll reread it:
I am Tony the Tow Truck. I live in a little yellow garage. I help cars that are stuck. I tow them to my garage. I like my job. One day I am stuck. Who will help Tony the Tow Truck? “I cannot help you,” says Neato the Car. “I don’t want to get dirty.” “I cannot help you [see, these are bad object choices, right?],” says Speedy the Car. “I am too busy.” I am very sad. Then a little car pulls up. It is my friend, Bumpy. Bumpy gives me a push. He pushes and pushes [by the way, this text, I think, is very close to its surface a kind of anal-phase parable. In that parable, the hero is not Tony in fact but a character with whom you are familiar if you’re familiar with South Park, and that character is of course the one who says, “He pushes and pushes…”] and I am on my way.” [In any case that is part of the narrative, and then:] “Thank you, Bumpy,” I call back. “You’re welcome,” says Bumpy. Now that’s what I call a friend.
So that’s the text of Tony the Tow Truck. Now we’ve said that it’s picaresque. We can think in terms of repetition, obviously, as the delay that sets in between an origin and an end. We’ve spoken of this in this case as–well, it’s the triadic form of the folk tale that Brooks actually mentions in his essay; but it is, in its dilation of the relationship of beginning and end, a way of reminding us precisely of that relation. He comes from a little yellow garage. The question is, and a question which is perhaps part of the unnarratable, is he going back there? We know he’s on his way, but we don’t know, if we read it in terms of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, whether he’s on his way back to the little yellow garage or whether–and there’s a premonition of this in being stuck, in other words in having broken down–whether he’s on his way to the junkyard.
In either case, the only point is that he will go to either place because the little yellow garage is that from which he came; in either case–little yellow garage or junkyard–he’s going to get there on his own terms, but not as a narcissist and not as the person who begins every sentence in the first part of the story with the word “I,” because you can’t just be an autonomous hero. On your journey, and this is also true of the study of folklore, you need a helper. That’s part of fiction. You need another hero. You need a hero to help you, and having that hero, encountering the other mind as helper, is what obviates the tendency, even in a nice guy like Tony, toward narcissism which is manifest in the “I,” “I,” “I” at the beginning of the story. Notice that then the “I” disappears, not completely but wherever it reappears it’s embedded rather than initial. It is no longer, in other words, that which drives the line in the story. So the arabesque of the plot, as I say, is a matter of encountering bad object choices and overcoming them: neatness, busyness–choices which, by the way, are on the surface temptations. We all want to be neat and busy, don’t we? But somehow or another it’s not enough because the otherness, the mutuality of regard that this story wants to enforce as life–as life properly lived–is not entailed in and of itself in neatness and busyness. Resolution and closure, then, is mature object choice and in a certain sense there, too, it’s a push forward, but we don’t quite know toward what. We have to assume, though, in the context of a reading of this kind that it’s a push toward a state in which the little yellow garage and the unnarratable junkyard are manifest as one and the same thing.
Now as metonymy, the delays we have been talking about, the paratactic structure of the way in which the story is told–all of those, and the elements of repetition, are forms that we recognize as metonymic, but there’s something beyond that at the level of theme. This is a story about cars. This is a story about mechanical objects, some of which move–remember those smiling houses in the background–and some of which are stationary, but they’re all mechanical objects. They’re all structures. In other words, they’re not organic. This is a world understood from a metonymic point of view as that which lacks organicity, and yet at the same time the whole point of the story is thematically metaphoric. It is to assert the common humanity of us all: “That’s what I call a friend.” The whole point of so many children’s stories, animal stories, other stories like this, The Little Engine that Could, and soonis to humanize the world: to render friendly and warm and inviting to the child the entire world, so that Tony is not a tow truck–Tony’s a human being, and he realizes humanity in recognizing the existence of a friend. The unity of the story, in other words, as opposed to its metonymic displacements through the mechanistic, is the triumphant humanization of the mechanistic and the fact that as we read the story, we feel that we are, after all, not in mechanical company but in human company.
That’s the effect of the story and the way it works. In terms of the pleasure principle then, life is best in a human universe and in terms of–well, in terms of Beyond the Pleasure Principle,the whole point of returning to an earlier state, the little yellow garage or junkyard, is to avert the threat that one being stuck will return to that junkyard prematurely or along the wrong path.
What is interesting?
Narratives are interesting. We compulsively repeat the unpleasant, return to the un-pleasurable… why? In order to gain mastery of what might otherwise be a moment of helplessness in the face of traumatic experiences. I am not sure if it is a death-wish as much as a defying of death. It is as if repeating the event is a means of making “banal” that which has caused so much “excitement” in the form of anxiety.
As in psychotherapy, patients with psychological issues talk away their suffering. How does the talk do this? Talking or narrating, is a form of repeating unpleasant events. It is not the mere talking about something, but talking to someone who is listening. If there are more people listening, the healing effect gets better.
There is also an effect of hearing another person’s narrative on the listener. The listener is touched by the unpleasant narrative of the other. There is a vicarious effect (something to do with our mirror neurons) and our sense for empathy. Hearing another’s narrative, has a spiritual effect on the listener. This is the reason why we are drawn to such stories and narratives, of plots in literature. NIk
Brooks, P. (1992).Reading for the plot: Design and intention in narrative. Harvard University Press. p. 90.
These are excerpts on the subjects from notes taken from Carveth’s lecture “Introduction to Kleinian Theory 5”.
Manic defenses are manifested to protect the ego from despair. It is a means of being omnipotent, and is very much belongs to the paranoid-schizoid position as defined by Melanie Klein.
Inability to deal with loss, leads to symptoms, like depression, and behaviors, like rage. This is a sign of a regression into an existence of black-white thinking, in which there are projections made towards the outside world to ward off unbearable feeling. It is attack on psychic reality, in an effort to control the external objects.
These acts defend the self against realization of dependency. It defends against loss. Triumph is needed so that the person defeats the object, so that there is that “I do not have to care for the object”– which is an aggressive and dangerous condition.
This kind of thinking also serves to ward off envy. Hence it is better to come to terms with one’s feelings of envy, so that on can use it constructively, like for self improvement, than to avoid feelings of envy by trying to dominate and destroy the other.
Contempt is there to deny the object’s value …the object is rendered not worthy of guilt. Contempt justifies the abuse and annihilation of the other.
There is also “manic” in the culture we live in. Our culture as we know it, is one that seems to put taboo on tenderness.
Quote from the 18th Century on Control of the Other
Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) in Social Contract 1762:
“Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.”
Interesting points (at the last 5 mins of the video) on guilt, control and being omnipotent.
A group is not an aggregate of individuals. It’s a body that has a mental state and creates a phantasy.
The group produces its own mythology. When the group work is focused on primary functioning, in problem solving, this causes the surfacing of anxiety. Myth has function. It acts as mediator from the mother – infant position to society.
From narcissism (living as only me) to socialism (living as part of society). Myth generates reaction and response because it connects the inner worlds of people. Myths can also be changed. Psychomythology.
Myths are used by the mother to explain “facts of life”. It provides a illusion that answers the questions of the child and solves his/her developmental problems in understanding the self and world around him/her.
Parent-child transferences are re-played by individuals in groups. Family stories are re-told through unconscious acting out in groups.
Myths also occur in “work” & “non-work” transition.
External influences that change the group pose challenges to status quo of the group. This makes the group conscious of itself. Arrival of a new member, e.g., creates this kind of uncertainty and awareness.
This is a fright-flight response*, but with decorum. The new member is instructed then implicitly how to tow the line.
The task of making contact with the emotional life of the group is like the contact between mother and child. Breast mother family group. The chapter in this book describes an interesting case study of a group therapy, in whicha new member enters the group (Garland 2003).
Bion describes the situation that unfolds when the group is left without a leader. The leaderless group is displaced by one of the following:
baD: Basic Assumption Dependency –> the need for an omnipotent omniscient leader (a kind of God).
baP: Basic Assumption Pairing –> Group members support tactically a pairing, with a basic assumption that something good is going to come out of it (like a primal scene).
baF: Basic Assumption Fright Flight –> there is need for rational leadership. If the ability to reason fails, the group plunges into anxiety and hatred.There is regression, and a need to hold onto magical thinking. The group finds the man/woman that has marked paranoid tendencies (Carveth, 2017).
Carveth, D. (2017). THE TRUMP EFFECT: Freud’s and Bion’s Group Psychologies. Youtube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SdWG8UiAtpE .
Garland, C. (2003). Group Therapy, Myth in the Service of Work. Mawson, C. (Ed.). Bion today. Routledge. p. 298-316.
Reparation allows us to live out loud. When I can apologize, I have less inhibition. According to Melanie Klein, Reparation is a basis of creativity… to restore the loss. Capable of recovery.
We make reparation for our miss-doings. We are humans and we make mistakes. Sometimes it is our negligence that hurt others. Sometimes we are just too weak, too young, too old, too ill, too afraid to do the right thing at a particular time.
Mourning is involved in also other aspects of losses, which does not involve the death of another, but rather the death of one’s sense of self. An example of how this can happen is when one is being diagnosed with a debilitating illness or has become disabled in some way, or has a child/family that is diagnosed as such. Mourning is also “the reaction related to painful experiences that entail an experience of loss — such as loss of the quality of life, loss of health, loss of previous self-identity, loss of hope, or loss of the container function of the parents. (Barone 2005)”
Owning up to our mistakes/shortfall/incompetencies and taking responsibility for hurt caused is a means of making reparation.
In so doing we also mourn the losses (a broken relationship, a lost trust, a lost opportunity, a metaphorical or real death) as a result of our incapacity to do what was necessary to avoid the unfortunate situation.
Being able to face with the loss / to accept responsibility is the path towards inner-strength. We are able to move on from our human failing. We know that we have the resources in us to get on with life because we are able to overcome a mistake that caused us guilt.
Facing up to one’s role in such losses is not the same as blaming oneself. It is to acknowledge what actually happened, and how one was part of it. To blame oneself is to accuse oneself of something one doesn’t believe one has responsibility for.
Gestalt Therapy Case Example of Making Reparations
Mr. K, a young man of 23, comes to therapy with impulsive anger issues. He has been incarcerated for assault and battery. Each time he regresses into violent behavior, he regrets it, and feels guilt. However, at the slightest provocation, he bursts into uncontrolled rage.
He has been to behavioral therapy to control his impulses. The treatment did not work and he was sorely frustrated. In jail, he was offered gestalt therapy counseling from an intern– what looked like fighting fire with paper.
The therapist realized after 4 sessions a pattern in this client. Each session, he earnestly repeated the same story to her. Each time he did so, he revved himself into anger. It was a story of his childhood. His father had a violent nature and would beat his mother. As a child, from his early childhood, he remembers his mother in tears of fear and frustration as she served the family their meals. His older brothers were also later violent towards her and Mr. K.
The work for Mr. K turned out to be one of reparation. This was only possible because he was able to feel sadness and guilt (in the case of violent patients who do not feel this kind of remorse, it might not be possible).
Mr. K. was supported to revisit this childhood scene, and as he was retelling the story, the therapist asked him to hold back his anger and breathe by saying comforting words. She asked him what he experienced watching his mother’s sadness. He said he felt hopeless. He said he was too small and afraid to save her.
The therapist supported the client with helping him formulate these statements: “mother, I am 6 years old, and I am too small and too weak to save you.” and to himself “K, I am sorry, I am 6 years old and I am too small and too afraid to save your mother.”
Both K and the therapist were very touched by the phenomenon in the therapy room. This is the taking of responsibility. It is not self blame, but the recognition that one was simply not humanly able to save the mother.
The next steps came naturally. The therapist guided the client in a mourning process. The loss of a mother that could protect the son. Weeks of therapy was devoted to this process. It included creating art, writing poems.
Incapacity to make reparations and mental pain
There are individuals who have difficulty or have not capacity to accept responsibility. This is a mental state for some people and is part of their personality. In psychoanalytic term, it is a condition of being stuck in the paranoid-schizoid position and not being able to move forward to the more ambivalent depressive (nothing to do with depression) position.
When one is stuck in the paranoid-schizoid position, one suffers deep depression and paranoid anxiety. One’s state of mind is that on seeing the world in black and white and nothing in between. Everything is either very good or very bad. This was Mr. K’s life before his sessions with the therapist. He was had paranoid rage, and was very depressed.
Being so paranoid also leads one to have a need for omnipotence, which one displays through grandiosity or threatening (manic) behavior.
Taking responsibility for one’s own deeds is a lessening of omnipotence. Discovery of the resilience of the good object. Less fear of destroying it.
Manic reparation in the Paranoid-Schzoid position.
Say for example a man who strikes his wife then brings her flowers. Avoidance of acknowledging damage done, his aims to repair the hurt is in such a way that his own feelings of guilt and loss is never experienced. Not acknowledged. His wife is felt as inferior, dependent and contemptible. She is confused by his behavior. He then considers her ungrateful. He blames her for his anger towards her.
In this case his unconscious guilt is not reprieved. The good object, the wife, is “magically repaired”. Instant repair. It is like the instant cure of swallowing pills instead of going through therapy. Of going to sleep so that you do not see.
Emotional tantrum is used also as a quick way of handling problem
How do, for example, some people reveal their contempt? By raising emotionality. This is also see among people who do good deeds, like some social workers and activists?
Freud on Mourning and Melancholia
Freud (1922), in Mourning and Melancholia, writes about the ability to mourn as a means of overcoming loss. The inability to mourn or the absence of the mourning process leads to melancholia, which we understand today as major depression.
Genuine Reparation and Creativity
Genuine reparation is slow, there is no quick fix. It takes consideration of the other person. It takes mourning the damage. It takes getting to experience the guilt, the fear of damaging the good object, the relationship. It also takes creativity.
Un-recognized guilt, leads to aggression turned towards the self, which is a condition we know as major depression.
Hence the recognition of a loss and the process going through the mourning process, is essential to recovery and prevention of major depression. Much of the therapeutic process involves in one way or another accompanied mourning of loss.
Barone, K. C. (2005). On the processes of working through loss caused by severe illnesses in childhood: a psychoanalytic approach. Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, 19(1), 17-34.
Klein, M. (2002). Love, guilt and reparation: and other works 1921-1945 (Vol. 1). Simon and Schuster.
Freud, S. (1922). Mourning and melancholia. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 56(5), 543-545.
Religion is in the modern “westernized” world today a topic of contention, that sparked off ever since the era of the Radical Enlightenment that began in the 18th Century in Europe. The situation is somewhat reversed in Asia because the religion of Asia was not Christianity till after this era. Since the theme of this website is not focussed on Religion or History, we cannot completely separate these aspects of cultural anthropology from modern life.
Religion founds the value system of the person. In Psychotherapy, we view the person’s wholeness. This includes the patient’s cultural background and religion. Religion is an important factor of life regardless of whether the person admits it to him/herself or not.
This is the focus of this article: to connect religion in mental health, and to mention the similarities and dis-similarities between the mindset of the two institutions– Religion (Christianity, in particular) and Psychotherapy.
Religion and Metaphors
Religion is transmitted by spoken and written word. Some are also depicted through art. There is hardly any religion in this world that is not transmitted through texts. Literature and art are language of metaphors. It is because of the use of metaphors that the meanings and wisdom of the texts can transcend through time.
Metaphors are poetic. These poetry contain truths about human nature and relationships, truth about our existence, our humanness as part of nature, and wisdom (Carveth, 2017). These are valuable messages that we learn through our culture and hand down to our children.
Much of this poetry is also transmitted through art. Visual art and music. This is how we attain the feelings and the essence of the religious influence.
As part of being human, we gain much from being able to absorb the images, poetry and music and make meaning out of them.
Some of these metaphors are considered myths. Myths are the stings that connect people in a group (Bion on Groups).
This is also known in Cultural anthropology as symbolism.
When we use symbols, we are able to grasp profound meanings through the symbols. We do not just look at the symbol as an object for what it is.
For example, a dove may symbolize peace. When taken literally a dove is just a white bird.
Religion against Pathological Narcissism
Narcissism is a word that very much belongs to the world of mental health. To the psychotherapist, narcissism is the root of mental and relationship issues. Religion, in its roots, and psychotherapy share, in a way a common goal of weaning man out of narcissism. There is a differentiation between healthy narcissism and unhealthy narcissism. Healthy narcissism is a self-preserving instinct that help us excel and survive in life. In this context, unhealthy narcissism is being referred to. Unhealthy narcissism is a borderline-operated personality structure as defined by Kernberg.
The intrinsic value system most religions is one of denouncing self grandiosity, entitlement and the exploitation of others. In the beatitudes recited by Jesus, it is written in Matthew 5:1-12:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
In the beatitudes, Jesus lists out the qualities in a person’s character, and this aligns with Kleinian thought: that healing comes with the ability to mourn, accept one’s weakness, reconciliation (accepting others’ guilt and hence one’s own). Read also: The Manic Need to Control : Kleinian Theory
Religion against Idolatory
The grandiose self-image, and all the objects associate with this image (i.e. wealth, intelligence, looks…etc.) are the worshipped idols. The person is fixated on them, and has no time for anyone else. Idolatry is a projection of value on to external objects. It is a means of being a creator of something/someone greater than oneself. Underlying is the need to feel omnipotent, avoiding the shame of being small.
Religion against Self-Omnipotence, Pride and Oppression of Others
The narcissist lives in a state of constant need for omnipotence. No man is omnipotent, because we are vulnerable to the forces of nature. Eventually we get weak and die. The narcissist cannot deal with that and works against this dreadful thought by creating mental scenarios, idealization, demolishing others, envy, ambitions etc. Victimization of other persons by devaluing, discriminating against, bullying, alienating… is a means for the narcissist to deny his or her own vulnerabilities. He/she gets a taste of overcoming these vulnerabilities by annihilating the spirit of other people who he/she perceives to have these qualities.
Religious literature and art do teach us to overcome our self pride and grandiosity, and be kind and empathic to other beings.
Religion against Envy
Also a part of gaining omnipotence is the need to grab what is seen as good in other people. Read more about envy here. Religions tell us to “be thankful”. In many religions there is a kind of celebration of thanksgiving. Psychoanalysis mention too that gratefulness is an antidote for Envy.
Religion for Guilt and Reparation
Most religions have concepts of guilt and making reparations. Read about Guilt here. As human beings we often are tempted to do deeds that interfere with the wellbeing of others, and that our conscience tell us is not right. We feel guilt. Sometimes we feel guilt if we cannot fulfill our duties because we are human. Guilt is hence felt when we have humanity and compassion in us.
In pathological narcissism, guilt feelings cannot be felt by the individual. The pathologic narcissist has a mental issue that blocks out guilt feelings and empathy. When no guilt is felt, no reparation can be made.
Reparation is practiced in many religions. We are sorry and make up for it. According to psychoanalysis, reparation is the route to empowerment of the self. When we fall, we repair. We know then that we can overcome our failure and live stronger.
The narcissist who cannot feel guilt and cannot repair becomes more paranoid.
Religion is our source for ethics, aesthetics, anthropology and should ideally be a cure for narcissism.
Religion and Magical Thinking
Religions also include what many may call “magical thinking”. Belief in “facts” we cannot rationalize. These are things that we will never be able to prove exist or doesn’t exists, and things that we leave to faith, because they are ungraspable.
While the wisdom and insights to human existence correlate overall in different religions, it is the content of this magical thinking that differ in different religions. This content that differs sometimes cause conflict between groups of people of different religions.
When Abuse of Religion cause Suffering
In today’s world, as it was in the days of the Enlightenment, people suffered because of abuse of religion by religious institutions. The ways people suffer because of religion:
Being oppressed by religion.
Being persecuted due to religion.
Being shamed by religion.
Being judged by religion.
Restriction of freedom /rights by religion. etc.
When this happens, we see the narcissistic side of religious institutions. The very act of omnipotence, grandiosity, pride and envy is enacted by religious institutions, and this causes immense suffering.
Psychoanalytic theory explains this as a phenomenon of the loss of ability of religions to separate the metaphors from the objects. The taking of metaphors literally. Seeing the white bird instead of peace in a dove.
In narcissist, this inability to symbolize is well documented. There is splitting of the psyche in the paranoid-schizoid position, and the person (in this case the institution) sees things in black and white. This split person is devoid of empathy and a sense of being one with humanity. Like a narcissistic person, a narcissistic institution idolizes and is concerned about its grandiose self image. It is against everything the religion it represents is about.
Put under the microscope, no religion is free from narcissism. Not even the so-called New Age or the Atheists!
Psychotherapists would often say that it is highly unlikely for a narcissist, especially a malignant narcissist or psychopath would ever show up for in their practice. It is usually the victims of these narcissists that seek help because of abuse. Pathological narcissism is a cause for suffering and environmental damage. It has been mentioned, that we live in a culture so terrified of tenderness, that we are drawn to pick up narcissistic traits ourselves. This too is the root of much of our mental pain.
Freud was quoted as saying that the cure for mental illness is the cure for narcissism, and in order for that to happen, one must learn to love. Melanie Klein says the antidote to envy is gratitude.
That said, I am not subscribing to adopting an attitude of accepting powerlessness, uselessness or total abandonment one’s rights. This kind of new-age mentality reflects also black-white thinking of the paranoid-schizoid position, and describes masochism, which harms more than it serves. There is, after all a concept of healthy narcissism and healthy use of envy, which serves to preserve the organism (self) and serve the environment (others).
Rather than deciding to be for or against religion, we could figure out for ourselves what works for us as individuals in the realm of spirituality and religion. We may also choose to look around us with unbiased eyes so that we can see what serves the world that we have and what destroys. This is probably our best guide.
Carveth, D. (2017). F&B 2017F Religion. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oeHOKh1NCqQ
Kernberg (2008) writes that for the treatment of any case in which antisocial features of the personality disorder (PD) are suspect, the following should be evaluated by the therapist. Such evaluation makes it possible to access his/her ability to rely on the patient’s ability to sustain the therapeutic relationship and also to access the safety of the sessions:
The presence or absence of pathological narcissism.
The extent to which the superego pathology dominates (i.e. which part of the spectrum of the triad).
The intensity of egosytonic aggression and whether it is directed against the self in the form of suicidal/self mutilating behavior, or violent behavior against others / sadistic perversion.
Severity of paranoid tendency.
Stability of the person’s reality testing (ibid. p. 130).
The prognosis for Antisocial PD is not expected to be good in psychotherapy, in particular, if the client has severe aggressive pathologic behavior, and /or if the patient has no social support which the therapist can work with. According to Kernberg, therapists should begin work with client only after gathering the facts surrounding the clients’ coming for therapy, social support, ability to proceed with therapy in safety.
The treatment of malignant narcissistic PD (MNPD) has somewhat better prognosis than APD. A precondition for treatment is also strict control of antisocial behavior, and removal from social environment that facilitates his/her current behavior—e.g. exposure to the street gang.
General Psychotherapeutic Strategies
Kernberg’s suggestions are:
Establishment of solid, unbreakable treatment frame.
Systematic interpretation of psychopathic transference.
Guiding the patient to communicate honestly (if at all possible) about their behavioral problems outside the session.
Combining the above narrative with the developed regressive behaviors experienced during the sessions.
Gradually making it possible to connect the pathological behaviors interpretively into cognitive and affective experiences in the transference.
Highly deceptive clients make this work almost impossible. In such cases family members or other informants may be of help. The therapist should always make it prioritize urgency of intervention: 1. Danger to self/others, 2. Threats of treatment disruption, 3. Dishonesty in communication, 4. Acting outside and inside sessions, and 5. Trivialization of the communication.
Kernberg also states that it is essential to look for affects through verbal and nonverbal communication, nonverbal behavior, and the transference. The content of what the client says is usually a weaker source of affective information than what goes in these realms (ibid. p.140).
Treating Personality Disorders with Gestalt Therapy
Considering Kernberg’s suggestion, I notice the congruence of his method to Gestalt therapy practice:
Gestalt therapy is focussed on the process of the therapeutic dialogue, i.e. non-verbal interaction / body language. Therapist also encourages the client to enact situations that cannot be talked about. Poor functioning personality disorders prevents the individual from communicating with the therapist on a contactful level. As Kernberg notes, there is a tendency for such a client to deceive / idealize and devalue/ play victim or rescuer or persecutor with the therapist. The awareness of the therapist of this phenomena is essential. He /she is most effective when he/she can contain the clients behavior without getting roped into the game.
For this reason, in gestalt work, we focus of body language / tone of voice together with what is said, and we also focus on our (the therapists) own personal reactions. What the therapist tells the client is not analysis, but a descriptive reflection of what the therapists sees hears and senses.
The client benefits from this kind of honest interaction, because he/she too are not going to be caught up in games. In the beginning, there will of course be discomfort and frustration. If the client sticks to the work, there will be progress made.
From a development standpoint, this ability to mourn a loss develops in the infant that has moved on from the paranoid-schizoid position onto the depressive position (remembering that the word depressive here has nothing to do with depression). It is a healthy development.
The more integrated infant who can remember and retain love for the good object even while hating it, will be exposed to new feelings little known in the paranoid-schizoid position : the mourning and pining for the good object felt as lost and destroyed, and guilt, a characteristic depressive experience which arises from the sense that he has lost the good object through his own destructiveness. (p.70)
Together with the ability to mourn is also the ability for feeling loss and guilt. This means also that there is a capacity for love that overcomes hate, and there is less projection of destructiveness on to another. In a infant this ability is a milestone in ego integration. He loses his hallucinations of being omnipotent, and can accept dependency.
Mourning and symbolization through creation of art…
The pain of mourning is experienced, leading to drive toward reparation. These, Segal adds, are the basis of creativity and sublimation (turning negative experiences into creative objects). In other words, creating art in various forms is a means of symbolic reparation of loss. These reparative activities are done because the individual is able to feel concern and guilt towards the other and the wish “to restore, preserve and give it eternal life”. This is in the interest of the self preservation, “to put together what has been torn asunder”, to reconstruct what has been destroyed, to recreate and to create.
“After his hospitalization in the asylum in Saint Remy Van Gogh felt like a “broken pitcher” that could never be mended. Even so, in between bouts of mental illness, he worked on steadily and courageously to become an even better artist. Painting and drawing, moreover, gave structure to his days and ensured that he did not fall prey to the loneliness plaguing the other patients.”
Sublimation helps the individual put his destructive impulses into creative work. At this point the genesis of symbol formation can be seen. The ability to symbolize is a very important development in human ego development. It is also a means for us to communicate metaphorically, thus allowing us to create and maintain contact with another person/or with society in an empathic way. Religions, for example, are founded on symbols. The healthy individual can also differentiate the symbol he/she has created from the reality from which the symbols are derived.
The depressive position is never fully worked through. The anxieties pertaining to ambivalence and guilt, as well as situations of loss, which reawaken depressive experiences, are always with us. Good external objects in adult life always symbolize and contain aspects of the primary good object, internal and external, so that any loss in later life re-awakens the anxiety of losing the good internal object and, with this anxiety, all the anxieties experienced originally in the depressive position. If the infant has been able to establish a good internal object relatively securely in the depressive position, situations of depressive anxiety will not lead to illness, but to a fruitful working through, leading to further enrichment and creativity. (p. 80)
The Neuroscience of Symbolization
Neuroscience explains brain activity difference between non-schizophrenic and schizophrenic patients in their ability to symbolize.
The above diagram shows a the gamma oscillation image from the brain of a non-schizophrenic person (left) and that of a schizophrenic person (right) when they are showed the black-white image of a face. The gamma oscillation on the right shows more brain activity, which is interpreted as the individual being able to derive a picture of a human face from the black-and-white shapes. The schizophrenic brain shows little activity, implying that the individual does not recognize the image as a face.
My Thoughts on Mourning and Gestalt Therapy
Reading this chapter by Segal on the depressive position has inspired me to thing about this subject in relation to gestalt therapy. Mourning brings with it lots of sadness and underlying guilt. In the text above, this guilt is attributed to the imagined destruction of the integrated love object.
If we observe people in mourning, there is always this element of regret. There is also a need to make reparation. This is often symbolic and aesthetic in nature. The whole process of the funeral services is in a way a symbolic way of bidding farewell to the dead. This helps the living to heal psychically.
In patients that have problems with the mourning process (e.g. those who cannot move on, those who could not feel sadness, but rage instead, or those who get chronically depressed) are usually stuck in a situation where they aren’t able to fully experience the loss. This could be because of their personality structure, from which the defense is against painful experiences. There is tremendous fear to go to those dark emotions.
The work of mourning in therapy is the work of reality testing. For the client to come to terms with loss. This reawakens deeper feelings of loss experienced in infancy. It requires reworking of loss in the internal object. This process is needed to regain the ability of the patient to come back to reality, learn to love again and build up confidence again.
In therapy, these are worked through. For this to happen, there needs to be a lot of trust in the psychotherapeutic alliance. The therapist and client would spend hours together uncovering the defenses that hold back the client from mourning. The technique of therapy is client centered, with a lot of focus on the phenomenology (non verbal experiences) in the therapy session.
From this article I also see the link between creativity and mourning. Using art in therapy(not to synonymous with art therapy) is also common practice among Gestalt therapists. Creating art is a reparative measure, and together with therapeutic contact and communication, it facilitates openness to emotions and ultimately the freeing from depression and despair. This is a reinforcement of the technique.
In Sagentini’s Art of the mother, the artist uses his art to sublimate the mourning of the loss of his “good mother”.
While PTSD is a typical response to a single stressor in adulthood, Complex posttraumatic Stress Disorder ( CPTSD ) is the result of childhood experience of abuse.
Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder CPTSD occurs in neither ICD nor DSM, but it has been proposed for over two decades (p.190). Adult victims of CPTSD suffer lifelong effects of emotional and physical instability of varying degrees of severity, making them also vulnerable in the face of stressful life situations.
Consequences of CPTSD:
Another name proposed for this disorder is “developmental trauma disorder.” CPTSD compromises an individual’s identity, self-worth, and personality; emotional regulation and self-regulation; and ability to relate to others and engage in intimacy.
Individuals can experience ongoing despair, lack of meaning, and a crisis of spirituality.
Children are Victims of CPTSD
While PTSD is an atypical response in traumatized adults, developmental trauma may be a very common (and thus the typical) response in traumatized children. Such trauma often goes unrecognized, is misunderstood or denied, or is misdiagnosed by many who assess and treat children.
Children are, due to their immaturity and helplessness, are more prone to being traumatized than adults. They are also easy targets for narcissistic abuse.
Types of Abuse in CPTSD
CPTSD is generally associated with a history of chronic neglect, trauma, and abuse over the course of childhood. Neglect in early childhood compromises secure attachment and tends to result in avoidant or resistant/ambivalent attachment—or, most severely, toward the disorganized/disoriented attachment style that leads to significant dissociative pathology.
This neglect sets the stage for trauma in early childhood, which further interferes with normal affective maturation and the verbalization of feelings, leading to anhedonia, alexithymia, and intolerance of affective expression. Children and adolescents are more prone to dissociate than are adults.
Experience of Betrayal
Dissociation is especially linked to betrayal trauma—the neglect that allows for, or passively tolerate, more active trauma.
In the face of continued betrayal trauma, dissociation is the child’s best life-saving strategy.
The Bystander Parent
Repeated trauma in childhood involves a perpetrator and victim, but also a parent who permits the trauma to occur; is uninvolved, oblivious, and neglectful; or else is paralyzed by fear into inaction. Patient and therapist may find themselves playing any of these roles and their opposites.
Psychotherapeutic Treatment of CPTSD
When a client comes to therapy, it is often not apparent that he/she suffers CPTSD. Adult clients visit therapy for an array of symptoms that include (but not exclusively) depressive, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive, posttraumatic, dissociative, somatoform, eating, sleep-wake, sexual, gender, impulse-control, substance and non-substance dependency disorders and personality disorders.
There is a danger that therapists who are not aware of CPTSD overlook childhood experiences and spend too much focus on the diagnosed symptom.
If the therapist were to treat the trauma of CPTSD itself, this treatment if successful can ameliorate all the symptoms. This requires that the childhood abuse experiences be recounted and worked through.
The Therapeutic Process
It is common that the patient who has CPTSD will not be able to recollect the events of abuse. If he/she did, he/she may not be able to experience the feelings associated with the time. This is because of the dissociation of the child who was in the situation. Freud explains that what the client does not remember, he acts out. It is important for the therapist to be observant to the repeated behavior of the client in the interaction with the therapist.
The trauma and neglect of CPTSD are essentially relational, and so the therapeutic relationship itself becomes the principal vehicle of change. How the therapist feels, thinks, and acts depends on what aspect of the neglect/trauma drama is being played out with the patient (p.191).
Dealing with childhood trauma is a complicated process in therapy. There may a degree of enactment in the transference and this can be confusing. What is really necessary is a sound therapeutic alliance based on trust. Within the transference relationship, the client a therapist experience the client’s enactments and attitudes towards the abusing parent, the bystander parent and the client as victim and perpetrator. For this reason, the therapist has to be alert to the phenomenology and the here-and-now of what unfolds in the therapy sessions.
Lingiardi, Vittorio. Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual, Second Edition (Page 192). The Guilford Press. Kindle Edition.
Individuals suffering PTSD display symptoms that look like that of those suffering from trauma symptoms associated with the narcissistic personality (TANS).
This article by Simon (2002) sheds clear light on distinguishing between the 2 types of patients. The table below is an extract from the article:
If we were to extract the gist of the difference between PTSD and TANS, we may be able to summarize that unlike in PTSD, patients with TANS main “damage” is that of the grandiose image of the self. There is more shame and humiliation underlying. This is manifested by anxiety about damage to a kind of grandiose self image. In PTSD symptoms, the anxiety is mainly about survival.
Knowledge of these differences facilitate the psychotherapeutic treatment of the patients, since both types of patients experience the relationship with the therapist differently. This also reflects the difference between event onset trauma in the case of PTSD, and developmental attachment related trauma in the case of complex trauma.
Simon, R. I. (2002). Distinguishing trauma-associated narcissistic symptoms from posttraumatic stress disorder: A diagnostic challenge. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 10(1), 28-36.
We go through life adjusting to situations that we encounter. In some situations we end up using repeating patterns of behaviors and thought processes, which may or may not suit the situation at hand. When our reactions to situations are incongruent to the situations, it is dysfunctional. Dysfunctional reaction leads to problems in relations, stress and different crises.
Oftentimes when we are aware of our patterns and try to make changes in our attitudes or behavior — i.e. we go for behavioral therapy, coaching, read self-help books or listen to friends’ or families’ advice — the effort get thwarted. This is because for every action comes an opposing reaction.
Take for example trying to be nice to a neighbor who is irritating to you. You try not to lash out at him/her for weeks until… snap.
Short Case study:
Tackling symptoms alone, without investigating the root causes of the symptoms sometimes makes the life for the individual worse. A client I knew, who was overworking to point of sleeplessness, decided to stop work for a while and went for a meditation workshop. At the workshop he suffered anxiety attacks and needed to leave the workshop. He was later (more) successfully treated after he discovered his motivation for excessive work– to escape his abusive father. This was only possible because the therapist allowed this patient to delve into his need for work, and sat with him through his re-experiencing of being a child of a bullying father figure.
The paradoxical theory of change is thus explained like this: “don’t just do something, sit there.” As gestalt therapists we are trained to be containers of the client’s unpleasant emotions, helping the clients by being with them long enough in these often painful moments, so that they may gain insight, wisdom and resources to find their solutions.
It is said that the truth will set you free. In psychotherapy patients liberate from the psychological stressors in their lives through uncovering the truths about themselves.
This might sound counterintuitive if we believe that we know everything about ourselves or that we are in total control of the decisions we make. The field of psychology has proven empirically that this is not the case, and psychoanalysis has provided theories about how this is so.
Put briefly, the human person is an integral part of his/her society and culture through which our psychological processes are influenced.
Knowing the truth is coming to terms with this realization. That we become depressed, anxious, angry… etc because we have lost the sense of our of needs. In so doing we turn them into symptoms, so that we do not have to face these needs.
An example would be that of a woman who is depressed and no longer able to enjoy simple things in life. Through therapy she uncovers the truth that her going into depression is a means for her to not face up to an inner rage, for it was safer to lock oneself into a state of depression than to attack another person, especially an abusive childhood caregiver. Realizing the truth of her rage, she is able to talk about it and understand it. In Gestalt therapy, the client is encouraged to express this rage through art, speaking, acting out, writing… etc. When the underlying issue is set free, the depressive symptoms lose their foundation as well.
Therapy in this way is done with the patient being in control of his/her progress. Therapists in general do not advice, coerce or make analysis to tell the clients what the truth is. Clients find this out through dialogue with the therapist. The client has the agency to his/her own truths and healing.
When patients are asked retrospectively what they gained from a period of psychotherapy, their answers frequently feature an increase in their sense of agency: “I learned to trust my feelings and live my life with less guilt,” or “I got better at setting limits on people who were taking advantage of my tendency to comply,” or “I learned to say what I feel and let others know what I want,” or “I resolved the ambivalence that had been paralyzing me,” or “I overcame my addiction” are typical comments (McWilliams 1990 p. 16).
It is a given that a person comes to therapy to seek relief in symptoms psychological stress, relationship tensions and/or physical pain/discomfort not treatable by medicine alone. Usually a patient comes to a therapist to present a problem or a chief complaint after having suffered it for a considerable amount of time, while trying alternative/self-treatments.
It is not unusual that the decision to come for psychotherapy and the meeting of the therapist alone can diminish the symptoms. This is due to the relief the client usually feels after having let go of the need to control his/her own symptoms.
Despite this, psychotherapeutic treatment usually lasts months and often years. This is because as the therapy progresses the client and therapist uncover areas underlying the symptoms that need to be addressed, along the way setting new therapeutic goals. The work of therapy goes beyond the swift removal of disturbances.
Uncovering root causes of symptoms are often painful processes. The client needs to feel safe and trust the therapist enough to go deep into the work. For example a young woman with anorexia comes to terms with her feelings of betrayal and entrapment within a perfectionistic family only after 6 month in treatment. She needed another year to come to terms with inner rage against her care givers in order to overcome feelings of disgust for having food in her stomach.
Other examples include the man who comes for short- term couple therapy to “improve his communication” with his wife turns out to have a secret lover who is rearing his unacknowledged child; or the little boy referred for “acting up” with authorities has a private habit of torturing small animals (McWilliams 1999).
Clients usually need a lot of time in order to have the courage to open up their most painful emotional experiences– first to themselves, than to the therapist. Through the trust built within the therapeutic alliance, can revelations of negative emotions like fears and shame be grasped. Through coming to terms with these feelings of vulnerability can the client learn to master his/her feelings and behavior with understanding, knowing that he/she has choices and has the capacity to reach for resources.
The man who is compulsively unfaithful to his partner wants not just to stop having affairs but to be relieved of his constant preoccupation with fantasies about them. The woman with an eating disorder wants not just to stop vomiting but to get to the point where food is merely food to her, not a repository of desperate temptation and wretched self-loathing. A man or woman who was sexually abused in childhood wants to change internally, subjectively, from feeling like a sexual abuse victim who happens to be a person to a person who happens to have been a sexual abuse victim (Frawley-O’Dea, 1996).
Psychological symptoms (and psychosomatic symptoms as well) are the result of an individual’s survival strategy, otherwise known as creative adjustment to unpleasant experiences usually encountered in childhood. Hence the problems clients come to the therapists with,( e.g eating disorders, panic attacks, depression, relationship problems, addictions… ) are superficial signs (or tip of the iceberg). Looking at the experiences and emotions that lie within to keep these symptoms going is what the therapy is about. It is through uncovering these that the client gets to fully understand the root of his/her symptoms, and gradually find their own resources to relieve themselves of the effects of these symptoms and live better.
The questions “what is psychotherapy for?”, “what is the benefit of psychotherapy to the client?” “what should I expect from seeing a psychotherapist?” can be summarized as questions to seek out the goals of psychotherapy.
Setting Goals are Necessary in Therapy
Psychotherapy research has shown that goal setting on the onset of psychotherapy treatment is instrumental in the outcome of the therapy. This may seem the obvious course of action and “something all therapists and clients do”. However, if we think setting therapy goals is straight-forward, it could be that we are not setting the goals conscientiously enough.
Difference between Psychotherapeutic Diagnosis and Medical Diagnosis
Somewhat like a patient going to a doctor’s office, the client goes to a psychotherapist because he/she is facing discomfort and/or is suffering from symptoms. Unlike the doctor’s patient, the psychotherapeutic client’s symptoms are of a psychological nature. This is where we have to be more conscientious than the doctor.
Each Client is Unique
Psychological pain is multifaceted and is not realistically diagnosed on the spot. Therapists use questionnaires and their own observations as instruments for diagnosis, but we are also aware that what we see in the client is unique to the client. This is largely due to the understanding that psychological suffering has much to do with the client’s environmental situation (social, economic, historical, etc.) as well as the client physical state. Most of these factors cannot be tested using test kits. These get uncovered through therapist-client dialogues in the therapy session.
Goals in Psychotherapy that Benefit Clients
Goals made between client and therapists that go beyond merely “fixing symptoms” do more justice to, and offer more benefits to the client. This is especially important for client who have dependency or non-functioning behavioral issues.
McWIlliams (1999) writes quite clearly that the goals of psychotherapy extends beyond the disappearance or mitigation of symptoms of psychopathology. It extends also to
* the development of in- sight, an increase in one’s sense of agency,
* the securing or solidifying of a sense of identity,
* an increase in realistically based self-esteem, an
* improvement in the ability to recognize and handle feelings,
* the enhancement of ego strength and self-cohesion,
* an expansion of the capacity to love, to work, and to depend appropriately on others, and
* an increase in the one’s experience of pleasure and serenity.
There is empirical evidence to prove that when these goals are worked on, positive changes happen, including better physical health and greater resistance to stress (p.12).
There are the structural features of what we understand to be healthy functional normal personality in contrast to personality disorders.
The normal personality is characterized by:
1. An integrated concept of the self and an integrated concept of significant others.
“An integrated view of one’s self assures the capacity for a realization of one’s desires, capacities, and long-range commitments. An integrated view of significant others guarantees the capacity for an appropriate evaluation of others, empathy, and an emotional investment in others that implies a capacity for mature dependency while maintaining a consistent sense of autonomy (p. 8).”
2. The capacity for affect and impulse control, and capacity for sublimation in work and values.
“Consistency, persistence, and creativity in work as well as in interpersonal relations are also largely derived from normal ego identity, as are the capacity for trust, reciprocity, and commitment to others, also codetermined in significant ways by superego functions (p.8).”
3. Being able to internalize value systems that is stable, de-personified, abstract, individualized, and not excessively dependent on unconscious infantile prohibitions.
“Such a superego structure is reflected in a sense of personal responsibility, a capacity for realistic self-criticism, integrity as well as flexibility in dealing with the ethical aspects of decisionmaking, and a commitment to standards, values, and ideals, and it contributes to such aforementioned ego functions as reciprocity, trust, and investment in depth in relationships with others (p.8).”
4. Ability to manage appropriately libidinal (all of the instinctual energies and desires that are derived from the id) aggressive impulses. Having the capacity to fully express sensual and sexual desires with tenderness to the other, while being able to be emotional connected to the other in a relationship.
“(F)reedom of sexual expression is integrated with ego identity and the ego ideal. A normal personality structure includes the capacity for sublimation of aggressive impulses in the form of self-assertion, for withstanding attacks without excessive reaction, and for reacting protectively and without turning aggression against the self. Again, ego and superego functions contribute to such an equilibrium. (p.9)”
This article features a study by Binder et. al 2009, Why did I change when I went to therapy? A qualitative analysis of former patients’ conceptions of successful psychotherapy.
The findings of this study provides us with some answers to what patients or clients of psychotherapy regard as change in psychotherapy, and how they perceive their experience in therapy which is considered successful for them.
The client’s point of view is very important. Mental states cannot be fully measured, as opposed to physical states. There is no machine, or test kit to measure the mental state of health. A person’s mental wellness is witnessed through his/her ability to function in daily life, and also his/her own perception of how things are.
What is successful psychotherapy or counseling? If a client claims to feel better, we’d ask what they meant. It could mean they feel more relaxed, less stress, less anxiety. They could say that they are able to sleep better, have less physical pain. Or they could feel more energetic– whichever is important to the client at the time.
Methodology of this Study
The qualitative research was conducted using semi-structured, qualitative, in-depth interviews with 10 former psychotherapy patients, recruited through an advertisement in a local newspaper. A descriptive and hermeneutically modified phenomenological approach–i.e. using expert interviewing and not just questionnaires in order to grasp full meaning of what is transpired in conversation –was used to analyze interview transcripts.
What was most important explicitly for the clients in the therapy?
1 Having a relationship to a wise, warm and competent professional.
the client’s feeling of safety within the therapeutic relationship was mention.
the therapist having the right doses of contact with the client, and
the therapist having flexibility in approach to working with the client.
2 Having a relationship with continuity, safety and hope when feeling inner discontinuity.
the continuity, consistency of the therapy.
therapist being with them through difficult emotional experiences.
3 Having beliefs about oneself and one’s relational world corrected.
the patient is able through therapy to reconnect with his/her meaning making, having a look at misconceptions or introjects of which the client was not aware of.
therapists guides the client through his change of the worldview.
4 Creating new meaning and see new connections in life patterns.
the idea of having been helped by having one’s beliefs and belief systems corrected,
help in making new choices, or change in habitual patterns
helps the client see how the his/her present experiences and behavior in reaction to the experiences are rooted in the past experiences, i.e getting clarity and insight.
This study reflects what I see in practice. Good outcomes in psychotherapy happens when the client is able to engage in the sessions with support of the therapist. The route to good outcome varies with individuals and the therapeutic alliance.
Binder, P. E., Holgersen, H., & Nielsen, G. H. (2009). Why did I change when I went to therapy? A qualitative analysis of former patients’ conceptions of successful psychotherapy. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 9(4), 250-256.
Shame and guilt are uniquely human emotions. These are emotions that does not exist in infants up to a certain age. In other words, shame and guilt are emotions learnt, and this learning coincides with the infant’s discovery of the self, when the infant becomes self conscious.
In the lecture below, June Tangney explains the results of her research in this area.
What is the difference between shame and guilt?
According to Tangney, shame comes with the awareness of (or the judgement of) the self as having done (or being) something wrong or unacceptable. Guilt is related to the judgment of the deed (ones behavior) that one has committed.
Shame is also extremely painful relative to guilt. Shame is a feeling of being defective, a sense of being small, exposed, powerless. Shame can last for short or long periods of time. When one feels shame, one tends to want to isolate themselves.
Guilt is different. It comes with remorse, and people who feel guilt are typically drawn to taking reparative action, rather than isolating themselves.
Link between Guilt and Empathy
Empathy is a state of feeling the other’s feelings, and it brings us to altruism.
@ 24:00 Guilt and empathy are connected. Tangney’s team of researchers have found correlation between propensity for the feeling of guilt and people’s ability to step into somebody’s shoes (to be empathic). Meanwhile the other more self-absorbed, pseudo-empathic responses are related to shame.
When a person talks about a shame related feeling in a situation, there is less concern for the other and more focus on the self. When the feeling is that of guilt, the concern is for the other’s feelings.
Shame, Anger and Aggression
The research also found that proneness to shame also related to proneness to anger and aggression. People who are prone to shame, also tend to manage their aggression in a more un-constructive way.
Shame in Family Conflicts
There is therefore correlation with studies of shame in family conflicts and domestic violence.
People prone to guilt are more likely to live a more “moral” life.
Shame and Guilt are not Equally “Moral” Emotions
On the condition that we do not mis-interpret shame with guilt, the findings show that guilt feelings do not cost the person psychologically (as otherwise thought). This means that so long as we do not judge ourselves, but judge the deeds instead, we are in a better situation to cope with the psychological aspect of having done something deemed as inappropriate.
Proneness to shame, on the other hand has been linked to vulnerabilities to depression, anxiety, eating disorder etc.
This also brings to attention how society treats incarcerated people.
Adapting to a more Guilt-Prone style and less Shame-Prone style
Research showed no real inter-generational link in shame and guilt proneness.
Longitudinal studies show that teenagers that are in the guilt proneness fare overall better than their shame-prone peers.
Dreams. What are they? For those of us who know already, dreams are the windows to our unconscious. To fall asleep and dream is to let go of our outer world. In doing so, the life of our inner world takes shape. Since our innermost consciousness is in sleep separate from our senses that communicate with the outside world, the life of dreams seem to us mysterious: on the one hand there seem to have meaning in the dreams, and on the other hand the context is an amalgamation of experiences and emotions mixed together, and makes little sense. Most of our dreams are forgotten, and if we try to remember them, we cannot be sure if the memory of the dream is even accurate.
The unconscious material in dreams are useful and important for psychotherapeutic work. This is especially so when the dream is a recurring one. According to Fritz Perls (1969):
“(T)he most important dreams– the recurrent dreams. (…) If something comes up again and again, it means that a gestalt is not closed. There is a problem which has not been completed and finished and therefore can’t recede into the background.”
Another proof that dreams are the stuff of the unconscious, is the proof that in people who suffer sleep disorders, the problem are the result of the mind not being able to let go of the external world. This is a world of the senses, and of spiraling thoughts.
Dream work in Gestalt Therapy
Sigmund Freud has, in one of his most-read book, The Interpretation of Dreams, gives us an idea of how dreams are interpreted in psychoanalysis (Freud & Strachey, 1964) .
In this article, I focus on the dream work in Gestalt therapy. Gestalt therapy has a tradition of non-interpretation on the part of the therapist. So how does one work with dreams without interpretation? Much of the recorded dream work of Fritz Perls is found in this book, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim. Here are case studies of work conducted by Perls in front of a group. On reading this book alone, some colleagues of mine find Perls’ style brash and some even find it bullying. Before we judge, it is important to ask ourselves if the work that Perls demonstrated served the volunteer. Mostly it has. The members found greater self awareness, and many have experienced a closed gestalt, or an integration of their split parts. Also it is useful to note that Perls’ clients are actually mostly students of therapy themselves, and not “patients” in the true sense of the word.
Below is a video of Perls’ dream work. There is a lot of emotionality that arises from the client herself. Perls as a therapist merely supported her. He does not interpret (or at least that is the intention). What the meaning of the dream really was about is actually not verbalized. The patient derived her own sense of what it meant. She has also experienced the meaning and not only thought about it intellectually.
This non-interpretation is a different attitude from psychoanalysis. In Gestalt Therapy, the client is asked to play component parts of the dream. They may even play the dream itself. For example, the client says “I am my dream, and I am vague, and I am not there for you to remember me…” or “I am my dream, but I am incomplete.”
In the example below, the lady plays the water, “I am the water…”
This is called projection. It helps the client to feel the part of him/herself that he/she has disowned and has projected onto objects of the dream. Disowned parts of the self are in the unconscious, and integration is the work of therapy.
“Every dream or every story contains all the material we need. The difficulty is to understand the idea of fragmentation. All the different parts are distributed all over the place. A person, for instance who has lost his eyes — who has a hole instead of exes will always find the exes in the environment. He will always feel the world is looking at him.”
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This is a summary of Otto Kernberg’s lecture on Transference Analysis. Transference is an important term in psychodynamic therapies, and even dialogic therapies like Gestalt therapy.
Transference is defined by Kernberg as: the unconscious repetition in the here-and-now of a dominant pathogenic conflict of the past.
In Psychopathology this pathogenic conflict plays out in the individuals’ present style of relating with others. Kernberg explains the origins of this mode of relating to be from the attachment of an individual to his mother at infancy. Early relationships, environment and the psychosocial world affect the neuro-biological make-up of the individual.
The experiences of the past, good and bad, thus get activated in the here-and-now, and affect how the individual perceives current situations and how he/she reacts to this situations. How he/she perceives his/her role is also affected by these early experiences.
Negative affects that do not reflect current reality is seen as pathological. These get reinforced through misunderstandings and reaction to and of the environment. These fixated negative reactions become the character and reflect the personality of the individual.
11:00 Kernberg explains that a combination of past experiences (and these are distorted and play out together in the present, not just one event at a time. Although we all transfer our experience of the past to our present, it becomes noteworthy as a personality disorder when this experience was overwhelming to the person, and becomes distorted.
What is done in psychodynamic treatment?
To resolve the pathological conflicts of the past as they get activated in the present.
14:25 By setting up a “normal” situation in the treatment situation. To sit with the patient face to face, and allowing him/her to say whatever comes to mind without feeling in danger of being judged, and to listen attentively to the patient.
Invite the patient to speak openly, support the patient to feel safe in this interaction.
Therapist exhibits technical neutrality. This interaction activates a transference relationship. The therapist can then help the patient interpret this transference reaction to past experience. This is called transference analysis. The adult mind of the patient can then be supported in integrating his/her past experiences with the present situation, leading to normalization of affect in the present.
Significance to psychotherapy…
Paying attention to transference situation, or what we can understand as the relational events that occur between therapist and client in the therapeutic setting in the here-and-now is very important to working with clients because it works directly with the personality of the patient. This is usually the armor that stands in the way of the psychotherapeutic work. Kernberg’s lecture featured here is detailed, and he explains how relationship experiences of an individual in infancy has a role in the wiring of the brain. He also explains how with psychotherapy that works with transference, his/her affect incongruence can be “mentalized”, and integrated within the patient.
Borderline Personality Disorder Case Illustration
46:00 Kernberg cites a case study of a patient with borderline personality disorder.
22 years old female, suicidal attempts, overdose of medications and street drugs, frequent hospitalization. 3 previous therapies, unsuccessful. sexual promiscuity, antisocial and manipulative behavior, violent affect storms, attacking people emotionally.
Treatment started haltingly due to multiple suicidal attempts. Kernberg describes how he experienced her behavior towards him, which were violent and un-compromising. Kernberg explains how he reacted to her firmly, and in my opinion, authentically. He specified what he could tolerate and what he did not. He however kept focussed on the transference without trying to fix or analyze or advice.
The behavior towards the therapist in this case is what Kernberg describes as the transference. It is how the patient has learnt to behave towards others in a relationship.
What we can take from this, is that patients who have had severe trauma as children do play out their pathological relationships with the therapist. It is up to the therapist to be aware of this patterns of relation of the patient. Sticking to the focus of the transference, and reacting authentically (if you are angry, say so, if you do not accept the abuse, say so, and set limits while being firm and sympathetic).
Kernberg also says that therapist have to look at the treatment in the long term, and although we may be impatient to see change in the patient, we have to be patient.
Important points to protect the frame of treatment
* safety of the therapist.
* use common sense.
* be patient in the long run. session takes months and years.
* analysis of what is going on is essential.
* tolerance of transference analysis is variable.
Significance of transference in Gestalt Therapy
Gestalt therapists do not use the term transference. This is because of the traditional link this word has to traditional psychoanalysis that Kernberg speaks about. But the concept of using the interaction of the here-and-now is very much Gestalt therapy. Dialogical Gestalt therapist work with what we call the intersubjective or the in-between. This in-between is the transference.Gestalt Therapist who adopt the strict theory of the method, work with the following processes that is also present in transference analysis:
* working in here-and-now,
* attention to the dialogue between therapist and client.
* non-judgmental (we call this phenomenological) listening to the client, allowing the client to his freedom of speech.
* active listening to the client.
* reflecting back to the client how his/her behavior or way of interaction affects the therapist.
* supporting the client to understand his current way of relating to his/her past (often pathologic) experiences.
* allowing the patient to integrate this phenomena of his/her past into the present.
The dawn of Gestalt therapy was initiated by psychoanalysts like Wilhelm Reich’s “Character Analysis“ and Sándor Ferenczi. The writings of these men, have already addressed the issue of working with transference as a means of working through character.
Kernberg, O. (2016). 29 Otto Kernberg. Youtube.com. Accessed on 05/2017. https://youtu.be/-H9qZBIfjHM
Clarkin, J. F., Yeomans, F. E., & Kernberg, O. F. (2007). Psychotherapy for borderline personality: Focusing on object relations. American Psychiatric Pub.
Doering, S., Hörz, S., Rentrop, M., Fischer-Kern, M., Schuster, P., Benecke, C., … & Buchheim, P. (2010). Transference-focused psychotherapy v. treatment by community psychotherapists for borderline personality disorder: randomised controlled trial. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 196(5), 389-395.
Yeomans, F. E., Levy, K. N., & Caligor, E. (2013). Transference-focused psychotherapy. Psychotherapy, 50(3), 449.
The therapy room has become a multi-dimensional space for creative play and experiments, for novel compositions, mixtures and new combinations. We are part of the equation. A creative elaboration of therapy is for the moment real and the game. One which is limited in time, but which has a lasting effect.
In the years post WWII, a German-born jewish psychotherapist & psychiatrist, Friedrich (Frederick) Salomon Perls, with his wife Laure, put together (perhaps gestalt-ed) the foundation of a therapeutic modality now known as Gestalt therapy. They were literally refugees in South Africa at that time. Perls drafted out gestalt therapy philosophy in his first book entitled, Ego, Hunger and Aggression (Perls, 1942/47). In this book, philosopher Salomo Friedländer‘s concept of Creative Indifference”.
Creative Indifference, in Gestalt therapy circles, is also given the terms the Fertile Void and the Zero Point. This is an essential aspect of Gestalt therapy. It is also an abstract concept that deserves attention. Therapists who take the time and space to chew on this concept actually grow as therapists. This is how relevant creative indifference is to our vocation. The very fact that Perls started his first book by explaining Friedländer’s work in its first chapter indicates its relevance.
It is my pleasure, with this blog post, to give highest esteem and admiration for Dr. Amendt-Lyon for this keynote lecture at the Gestalt Conference 2019 in Budapest. I was there, alongside about 800 participants, listening to this lecture. Little did we know at that time that this gathering of international gestalt therapists would precede the unfortunate COVID-19 pandemic that would upend the world we thought then we knew.
Below is a bunch of notes and the transcript of her lecture. I figure that this is necessary, lest the video goes astray.
Transcript (Key notes)
When Fritz Perls wrote Ego, Hunger and Aggression, he stated, “for a long period of my own life, I belong to those who, though interested, could not derive any benefit from the study of academic philosophy and psychology until I came across the writings of Sigmund Freud, who was then still completely outside academic science, and S. Friedländer’s philosophy of creative indifference.”
Perls had several reasons for finding the psychoanalytic system incomplete and faulty. First, for treating psychological facts as if they existed separately from the organism. Second, for using linear association psychology as the foundation for their forward dimensional system, and third, for neglecting an important phenomenon, differentiation.
To correct this third fault, Perls intended to apply differential thinking which is based on Friedländer’s theory of creative indifference.
Experimenting — A familiar approach to creative indifference and differential thinking
Experimenting allows us as therapists to be learners, to take risks, to bearing, but also humble and clumsy make mistakes and admit them, and especially to be able to attune ourselves to our patients while still remaining in touch with our own perceptions.
From this perspective, an experimental attitude is not only an antidote to narcissism but it also prevents us from producing premature answers to complex questions. It stops us from knowing it all. To me, this is the basis for working creatively. We take into account the patient’s experience as well as the therapist’s, and then we explore the situation they create together.
(A)n experimental attitude is not only an antidote to narcissism but it also prevents us from producing premature answers to complex questions. It stops us from knowing it all.
This makes the field more complex the patient and therapists are interacting each with their own polarities interests motivations experiences and needs.The patients polarities don’t exist in a vacuum. They aren’t the object of an examination, but rather emerge within the context of the therapeutic relationship within a joint situation. This experimental approach turns the therapeutic situation into the kind of fertile void from which the surprising and enriching interplay of polarities can emerge. Novel ways of meaning-making stimulating awareness and connecting to one another are supported. This is the light-footed calibration and balance of all aspects of ourselves in relation to one another being of the field; not digging in our heels in stubborn persistence in isolation and prefabricated assertions.
Embarassment is the boundary state par excellance
Part of the journey toward mutual meaning-making is experimenting with embarrassment. Embarrassment which Laura Pearl’s called the boundary state par excellence in which we have one foot in the familiar and one foot in the unknown; a fine example of balancing and calibrating polar opposites. It’s a little bit the way I feel now not really being able to see you, being mildly blinded but still talking and hoping that you’re staying with me.
If we can stay with our embarrassment, our clumsiness, our awkwardness, then we can make contact with what is different for the other, and as we allow ourselves to stay with this experience the boundary of what is accessible expands. We don’t acknowledge our embarrassment, but rather remain within our familiar structures, then we may have the feeling of security but the the price is costly. We won’t contact the novel, we won’t learn anything new, we won’t grow. If patients are struggling with leaving their comfort zones and reluctant to familiarize themselves with the unknown, I’ll often encourage them to embody their dilemma by standing up and playing around with the boundaries of the carpet in my office. Virtually with one room one foot on the carpet and,On the wooden floor, representing the familiar and the unknown. Standing up moving around physically embodying different stances often affords them better awareness of their inflexible polarities and entices them to try out new more satisfying calibrations.
What are exactly creative indifference and differential thinking, polarities, Zero point or pre-difference, degrees of differentiation.
In a chapter written by the German Gestalt therapist, Ludwig Frambach called the world of nothingness Salomon Friedlander’s creative indifference that I translated for the book […], Frambach put forth that Friedländer’s basic concepts. Creative indifference and polar differentiation mark the beginnings of Perls reflections on therapy theory. […]
Background of Friedländer’s life.
He was born in 1871 in Golans, which is now Poland. He was a German-Jewish philosopher and satirist. […]
With a good measure of black humor. Friedländer wrote, very absurd and popular. Avanga poetry and prose under the name Mynona, which is the German term for anonymous (anonym), written backwards. It seems that Mynona was Friedländer’s alter ego. His dissertation focused on Schopenhauer and Kant. In 1906, he moved to Berlin where he was very comfortable in expressionist bohemian circles among artists and intellectuals.
In 1933, he fled from the rising Nazi movement to Paris where he was very ill for many years and this ironically prevented him from being deported. He died in Paris in abject poverty in 1946.
As far as I can could determine except for two of his novels, none of his writing has been translated into English. So anything you read in English of his philosophy is been is in German or another language.
In Ego, Hunger and Aggression, Perls mentions that there’s no such thing as objective science, that all observations, including those made by scientists, are impacted by particular interests preconceptions and an attitude, largely unconscious, which proceeds selectively. He emphasizes that human beings are indifferent to and uninterested in what they subjectively experienced to be not differentiated.
“Indifferent” refers to being disinterested without prejudice or preference, impartial, unbiased.
“Indifferent” here refers to being disinterested without prejudice or preference, impartial, unbiased.
I’m using the term indifferent to mean not differentiated, capable of development in more than one direction. Being disinterested underlines the absence of prejudice or selfish interests, whereas being uninterested refers to aloofness. So disinterested and uninterested are not very good synonyms because uninterested rather means “I don’t care. I have no interest at all.”
The Zero point, null or naught, is both a beginning and a center like with positive and negative numbers. Perls finds that it’s natural for human beings to think in opposites.He says differentiation into opposites is an essential quality of our mentality and of life itself. Our systems revolve around the Zero point of normality or health. For example, differentiating into two opposites, such as plus and minus, or pleasure and pain.
The way we think in opposites is important and depends on the context. Opposites Perls says a more closely related to one another than each is related to other concepts, such as black and white within the context of color.
Differential thinking, which is a term that Perls coined is the insight into the working of such systems. We would have no concept for day if we didn’t have night as well.
Perls said instead of awareness sterile indifference would prevail. So in Friedländer’s theory it’s important to distinguish between a fertile void and an infertile one.
Creative indifference and being interested
Creative indifference must be distinguished from uninterested detachment from the “I don’t care” attitude. If we’re to perceive an appreciate a phenomenon, it must be different from something else. And as we try to disentangle thoughts into correlative pairs, the unity of polar differentiation, the middle point, or indifference, remains elusive.
We can’t grasp it.
Our focus lies, rather, on the poles than on the indifference.
In this indifference lies the real secret — the creative will, the polarizing one itself, which objectively is absolutely nothing. However, without indifference, there would be no world.
Friedländer says, “yet in this indifference lies the real secret — the creative will, the polarizing one itself, which objectively is absolutely nothing. However, without indifference, there would be no world.”
Indifference, or the naught zero of the difference, is the center of creativity. The original source, the subjective heart of the world, according to Friedländer. External and objective is what can be differentiated into polarities, but the internal part is the indifferent, weighty world of nothingness.
Originally in German, das Weltenschwangerenichts, which means literally, the nothingness that gives birth to worlds.
…The nothingness that gives birth to worlds.
This picture is a Zen calligraphy of the word “mu” which incidentally refers to the same concept of nothingness.
Friedländer emphasizes the lively creative center by referring to it with a multitude of terms ,ego or ego heliocentre, self, being, subject, individual identity, person, mind, soul, absoluteness, the symbol for infinity insistence will or freedom. […] Perls used in writing Ego, Hunger and Aggression, center, zero point, equilibrium, naught, void, pre-difference, holes, balance and so forth.
Friedländer won’t be restricted to one term for what is indescribable and perhaps this joy in circumscribing a definition influence Perls’ diverse descriptions of the concept of self. Because in Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (1951), he refers to it as the artist of life, the function of contacting, the actual transient present, the system of present contacts, and the agent of growth, the complex system of contacts necessary for adjustment in the field.
Friedländer are found indifferentiation to be liberating, for it allowed a person to become centered, able to integrate a variety of experiences and contents, to tolerate ambiguity and ambivalence, and to find what he called, their heart. By embracing a diversity of possible phenomena, we can actively engage in creative production because creative indifference tends toward creative development.
In more simple terms, arising from an indifferent middle point, we can embrace and balance both polar opposites and calibrate our actions, depending on what the situation calls for, demand characteristics of the situation; Gestalt psychologists would say.
Polarities are mutually related, not contradictions
Polarities shouldn’t be treated as mutually exclusive contradictions, but rather as polarly differentiated units of opposites. They are mutually related and can be flexibly centered according to their zero point. Between the polarities there’s a tension, a kind of magnetism an appropriate Gestalt therapy example of this is what we call, present-centeredness.
According to Perls, the present is the ever-moving zero point of the opposite’s past and future. It’s not static, or absolute, but a constant plane with relativity, a balancing, a back-and-forth of meaning-making.
The Field, the Context
Opposites emerge from the pre-different. Differentiation begins at the zero point, and in choosing a zero point, the field is a pivotal factor.
Creative indifference is full of interest, extending towards both sides of the differentiation. It’s by no means identical with the absolute zero point but will always have an aspect of balance. Thus by having the field, the context, we can determine the opposites, and by having the opposites, we can determine the specific field.
[CASE STUDY at timestamp 19:56]
Ludwig Frambach also finds evidence for Friedländer’s differential thinking in such gestalt concepts as as self and middle mode. In Perls, Hefferline and Goodman you’ll read self is spontaneous middle and mode as the ground of action and passion and engaged with its situation as you, I and it. The spontaneous is both active and passive both willing and done to, or better, it is middle in mode, a creative impartiality, a disinterest, not in the sense of being not excited or not creative, for spontaneity is eminently these but as the unity prior and posterior to activity and passivity containing both.
In the English language there hardly exists any middle mode, it doesn’t imply any action on the self such as retroflection. The middle mode means rather that whether the self does or is done to. It refers to the process to itself as a totality. It feels it as its own, and is engaged in it. So perhaps it in the English expression, “to address oneself to”.
The fertile void, the impasse
The fertile void, which Perls seems to often use almost interchangeably with creative indifference, also appears in his five-layer model of neurosis. Following the phony and phobic layer there’s an impasse, a kind of blockade in which former foreground-background differentiation dissolves into chaotic disarray. The fourth layer, resembling a vacuum, is referred to as the death layer, also the fertile void or implosion.
Here the indifference of nothingness, the creative ground can be experienced affording a person the opportunity to readjust a one-sided identification to discover unknown aspects of himself or herself, to experiment with calibrations of extremes, and basically recovery mode.Then the self can be spontaneous in its agency integrating previously rejected or undiscovered aspects of the personality, balancing them appropriately with what a person already accepts and identifies with. This is the emergence of the explosion layer.
Is working with creative indifference a methodological question an approach that gestalt therapists adopt today?
It’s often the case that people who seek psychotherapeutic help find themselves off balance, out of touch with their emotions, caught in a rut of routine that’s limiting and frustrating… and a person who’s suffering from an urgent problem will most likely not be ready and willing to immediately begin the search for aspects of their perception that have been avoided, overlooked, devaluated or which are potentially shameful. They may say, “This is who I am. This is how I am. I’ll never be able to change.”
Therefore a trusting mutually appreciative therapeutic basis is important before we embark on the adventure of exploring unknown territory. As usual, we’re accompanying our patients, not forcing our insights and interpretations down their throats. We all know that the need to change and grow is often as strong as the need to hold onto our familiar ways of dealing with life.
A part of our task is to stimulate our patients’ curiosity and help them complete the picture between the familiar pole and the unknown one taking the many small steps in between. And this is involves what I often call, “rewinding their film”.
Not being aware of things that might shed light on our situation is one way of avoiding a decision that could bring about change. So with our job to keep the dominant pole in awareness while helping the patient to realize that there’s a polar opposite out there that’s being neglected, and the that these polar opposites are parts of a whole aspect of the same reality. We can help them to realize that restricting themselves to one pole not only keeps them in an unsatisfying situation, but also robs them of the opportunity to test more enjoyable and satisfying ways of being. A part of our task is to stimulate our patients’ curiosity and help them complete the picture between the familiar pole and the unknown one taking the many small steps in between. And this is involves what I often call, “rewinding their film”.
Not knowing for sure, is helpful
To this effect, an indifferent attitude and approach of not knowing for sure is helpful. Not knowing for sure implies that there are countless ways of dealing with a problem not just one. This takes into account the uniqueness of each patient and each therapist and unique this of the way they work together.
Moreover, the rest of the field — the current context — must be considered, such as life circumstances, the social, financial, political situation.
Friedländer’s equilibration of polar opposites certainly influenced pearls work with polarities, as well as the gestalt therapy concept that human beings create their own reality. Equilibriating or centering implies appropriate adjustment to a situation. Balancing the predominant with the neglected aspects, transforming a feudal struggle into productive cooperation. Turning a standoff into enjoyable interplay and enriching recombination.
[…] Instead of rigid and isolated dualities, we have flexible and related polar opposites.
The fertile void is insistent, and it only becomes existent through the will of a person.
If the center, self, zero point or fertile void is indifferent or undifferentiated and everything possibly human is a priori contained in this, then the fertile void can be considered to be an inexhaustible source of energy and possibilities. Friedlander calls this fertile void insistent, and it only becomes existent through the will of a person.
The distance from the zerp point of one’s decision corresponds to a distance from the same zero point in the direction of what this person is avoiding or not embodying. From this perspective, if one’s very essence is considered to be invulnerable, all movements away from the center are seem to be relative differentiations.
Then all the decisions one makes, all the undesirable developments, all the injuries and traumata can be worked through in light of an opposite force that can be accessed. To me, this is a very life affirming position and it’s vital for our work as gestalt therapists and appeals to me on the one hand — but on the other hand, I must admit, that I sometimes feel restricted by Friedländer’s elusive concepts.
In my perspective, a contemporary gestalt therapeutic concept of the fertile void is not just about concentrating on a patient’s polarities and calibrating them because this reflects the one person psychology of the past. Contemporary perspective is multidimensional and highly relational. I tend to envision a three-dimensional conglomerate of related parts that can be jointly reconfigured many times over. Rather a sculpture and installation or a group of items placed together, meaningfully then a drawing because the parts need to be movable. So let’s not just limit ourselves to focusing on the calibration of polarities, but also on the additional dimensions of what we as therapists bring into the equation. The relational present of the patient as well, the dimension of time and many other influences on the present situation.
Contemporary perspectives of Gestalt therapists
I’d like to mention the work of several gestalt therapists on who’s concepts are drawn and reflecting on the fertile void Joseph Zinker (1977) on polarities and experiments, Franz Staemmler on cultivated uncertainty, Laura Perls on meaning making and embarrassment, Richard Wallin on Gestalt theoretical principles and Jean-Marie Robine, on intentionality and the situation.
Zinker sketched his notions of a healthy and a pathological self-concept in terms of polar opposites and aware versus unaware experiences. This is a sketch of his of the healthy self-concept where. The aware part is white and shows the the polarities that are accessible to an individual and the shaded area are his blind spots. So the shaded area is rather small.
The pathological self-concept is here. It shows a rather large shaded area of blind spots things that aren’t accessible. It shows inflexibility and and unawareness.
Despite the fact that many of us today deal with categories of healthy and pathological as being on a much more fluid the spectrum and rather founded on relationally-based aesthetic criteria than individual pathology Zinker’s sketches enable us to understand that embracing contradictions ambivalence and ambiguity and the ability to experience relationships between these internal aspects, help to keep us balanced.
Here he shows that if we stretch the polarities in one direction it automatically stretches also in the other direction.
When Frank Staemmler refers to cultivated uncertainty as an attitude for Gestalt therapists, that reflects the dialogical approach, it implies that we must be aware of our uncertainty regarding our own attribution of meanings to patients. Looking closely, we also find it in what Laura Perls called the three E’s of therapy: existential, experiential and experimental. According to Laura Pearl’s we’re constantly creating out of nothingness psychotherapeutically, artistically, or scientifically with insights and realizations, with the re-configuration of chaos and ugliness into something new and meaningful.
Following the thoughts of Laura Perls and Paul Goodman about aesthetic qualities being inherent to human experience, Michael Vincent Miller (2003), in a beautiful article called Notes on Art and Symptoms, reminds us that Gestalt therapy theory reflects concepts where familiar with in the field of art. Good contact can be seen as an aesthetic activity and these activities demonstrate good form and others beautiful, in the sense of being meaningfully organized and integrated.
It’s precisely the integration of seemingly incompatible and disparate experiences, the ability to deal with the challenges of ambiguity and complexity, the skill of being able to embrace differing perspectives and contradictory alternatives with ease and comfort, that’s our goal and therapy, for they afford us meaning in a sense of being one with ourselves in relation to others. Such ongoing gestalt formation belongs to the essential goals of therapy.
Both art and psychotherapy thus reflect the human tendency to form and transform familiar elements and thus bring about new information to transform one’s own experience in a world in a way that allows for integration by creating something unique and meaningful. Form is given to human experience. It’s precisely the integration of seemingly incompatible and disparate experiences, the ability to deal with the challenges of ambiguity and complexity, the skill of being able to embrace differing perspectives and contradictory alternatives with ease and comfort, that’s our goal and therapy, for they afford us meaning in a sense of being one with ourselves in relation to others. Such ongoing gestalt formation belongs to the essential goals of therapy.
To Laura Perls, we human beings are always involved in the polarities of being unique and being mortal. The first gives us the impression of incredible significance. The second the feeling of fear and frustration and the human condition is a continuous balancing of the tension between these poles.
Richard Wallen convincingly tied gestalt psychological principles in particular gestalt destructuring and formation to the effect of practice of herself therapy. He suggested ways of interest intervening, that would de-stabilize a blocked unsatisfying life situation and support the patient in reconfiguring the field into a meaningful whole. He gave great attention here to bodily awareness and careful experimentation with perception of and movement. Although he doesn’t speak in terms of fertile voids or polarities, he does focus on deconstructing an imbalanced field and reassembling it beginning fresh to allow a meaningful stop to emerge and this brings me to Jean-Marie Robine profound work on taking shape.
In an article published in 2003 or being focused is his attention on the therapeutic situation and the importance of the unoriginal pre-differentiated phase the vague, confused, diffuse or chaotic phase of four contact before a figure clearly emerges. He states what we call the “social situation” is a structure of possibilities that I create with the other, and which in turn creates us respectively. Clearly the therapeutic situation defines my presence and my intention as a psychotherapist just as it defines the presence and expression of my client.
The concept of the self in gestalt therapy tends to focus on someone’s I am, a narrative identity. Which is one of the possible declensions of the personality mode of the self. A result of experience in a certain situation.
Contrary to gestalt’s temporalized and delocalized way of approaching the concept of self narrative identity tends to be static perceived as a structure or character. It gives us the impression of fixity, suggesting that the self is something permanent or stable. So this need for stability and continuity forecloses access to the novelty of situations and opens us to the repetition of experiences, including the most painful ones. So if a patient has some presuppositions about themselves or us as a therapist, then it prevents this person from sensing in the situation, what’s really going on. They aren’t of the situation. So, this might suit their comfort zone and need for security and certainty, but instead of staying in contact with their immediate sensations and perceptions, however vague, confusing or contradictory, we often tend toward what Robine calls premature differentiation, which is based on a similar premature individuation.
So Robine compels us to linger in this phase of four contact or skillfully return to it with our patients. So we can enable them to access novel aspects of our meeting and to avoid these over-hasty assertions or premature intentionality, because intentionality proceeds, what forms a person’s conscious intent.
We can seek it in the therapeutic situation by expressing how we, as another in the presence of our patient, are mostly impacted by this encounter how we resonate and experience it. We begin with experience with what is sensed and perceived in the moment as opposed to our assumptions of the other.
What I sense and intuit when together with someone helps me to understand what’s in the field. The way I’m affected by a patient gives me information about their intentionality, and how I act on this, can support its differentiation and open the person to new possibilities. Here, now, next tells us that in the present moment there’s an orientation, an imminent direction, an implied future.
Robine talks about the metaphoric construction site, which is reopened by each encounter giving us novelty surprises and touching the unknown. And it appears to me that it’s just this metaphoric construction site –I love that expression — Is the rich source of all possibilities creative indifference.
This view has implications for the effective practice of gestalt therapy. Robine reminds us to attend more carefully to the phase of the process of construction and deconstruction of gestalts. The emergence of figures against the background. As he said at the fertile exit from the void, that according to Perls, defines the zero point, the before and after of every gestalt.
So instead of taking our patients presenting problem, or the figure they decided to work on it face value, it’s our task to introduce a measure of uncertainty or doubt, maybe irritate them. Interventions are called for that enhance the vagueness. They can help to work back to the id of the situation, to an undifferentiated state from which together we can allow gestalt construction and deconstruction to an unfold.
As Robine says, this complexifies intentionality by amplifying confusion. This is one of the gold nuggets in this article, it’s wonderful. So we joined the revisit the elements that contributed to the emerging figure. We disentangle the material, we try to reconnect it, we restructure it, through the presence of another in a way that takes our own situation or present and our presence into account. We afford the patient different information adding complexity and the reorganization. The process of reconstruction allows for novelty and the reorganization of a dysfunctional situation. So this redistributes the excitation. It reorients the direction of meaning. We extend an invitation to play. We play with the situation until work becomes played.
Therefore our interventions are aimed at enabling possibilities. We collectively disconnect deconstruct de-autonomized we reshuffle and then we reconstruct. We stand by our patients during upheaval and temporary chaos. We contain confusion and seeming incompatibilities. We assist the new configuration of figure and background we maintain mobility and flexibility. Our task is not a matter of substituting dysfunctional connections with new more appropriate ones. But it’s much more matter of introducing mobility in such a way that nation’s experience can modify if you can modulate its available and accessible materials into creative configurations themselves, unceasingly renewed. As an old saying goes, “if you give someone a fish then he has food for one day, but if you teach him how to fish then they’ll have food for lifetime”.
Our patients’ difficulties in living their symptoms and suffering can be seen as the production of figures from the available materials in their backgrounds, it’s a process of gestaltung, of taking shape giving form to something. So we’re engaged in the structuring of the situation. Often we’ll have to interrupt a patient’s prepared narrative or insist on rewinding the film so that we can benefit from the possibilities of an undifferentiated starting point and continuously engaged in the aesthetic creation of meaningful forms.
It’s this undifferentiated location, this vague phase of fore contact, that I relate to creative indifference, it’s the deep well of all possibilities the metaphoric construction site. So my perspective can be summed up as a decidedly relational multidimensional approach our tasks are to intervene in such a way that the rigid patterns of our patients can be softened, their age-old assumptions are reassessed as to their appropriateness to the current situation over hasty narratives are slowed down and explored step by step. A prefabricated solution to a problem is put on hold and the focus is placed on collaborative meaning-making based on aesthetic experiences.
Accordingly the original situation and materials from which these figures emerge can be jointly perceived, experienced, reconnected in a novel way, thanks to the sensory experience, immediate emotional reaction and insights of the therapist within the therapeutic situation.
Typical interventions to this effect are:
“I feel as if you’re giving me the answer to a question I haven’t posed yet.” “Let’s rewind the film to the beginning and proceed slowly.” “Tell me more about what you were experiencing before you came to this conclusion.” “How else could we perceive this situation?” “What might we have overlooked?” “Describe your bodily sensations and impulses.” “Do any images arise?” ” What do you smell or taste?” “Who or what might have played a role when this difficulty first arose?” “What’s the opposite of your fearing powerless and being at your partner’s mercy?” “My breathing becomes shallow as I listen to you.” “I feel angry when I hear what you’re telling me.” “I start to feel hypnotized when I listen to you talking without interruption.” “I feel out of touch with you when you talk about yourself in terms of clinical diagnosis.”
Clearly this implies that we’re not working solely with a patient’s polarities, but also with what emerges is figural from the context of our experiences, with our immediate sensory and emotional reactions, our fantasies, with our reflections on the therapeutic relationship and dynamics.
The therapy room has become a multi-dimensional space for creative play and experiments, for novel compositions mixtures and new combinations. We are part of the equation. A creative elaboration of therapy is for the moment real and the game. One which is limited in time, but which has a lasting effect.
We have extended an invitation to play. As psychotherapist we can assume that if people have learned one-sided view of themselves and others, they can also learn to balance these misperceptions or premature assertions. At times we’re like good parents. We’re attentive to their needs. We offer them a safe space to explore what might feel threatening and encourage them to restructure and reconnect their interpersonal fields. We encourage them to take stock of their current assumptions and models of the world, to test novel ways of construing and discover what’s appropriate to their life here-and-now with a view to what comes next. Thank you for your attention.
Ament-Lyon, N. (2019). How can a void be fertile? EAGT Gestalt Conference 2019, Budapest, Hungary. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kXMw7h5WWds
Miller, M. V. (2003). The aesthetics of commitment: What gestalt therapists can learn from Cezanne and Miles Davis. In Creative License (pp. 153-161). Springer, Vienna.
The DSM describes main feature of dissociation as a disruption of memory, consciousness and identity or perception. Dissociation is a protective mechanism. Human beings have at their disposal to survive traumatic events.
Abusive painful experiences and memories are put away into isolated compartments in the mind, and separated from regular memories.
Dissociation is a way the mind organizes information
Dissociation refers to a compartmentalization of experience: elements of an experience are not integrated into a unitary whole but are stored in isolated fragments (van der Hart et.al., 1998).
Exposed to trauma, the mind splits. The part of the brain that continues with the daily functioning of life (the left brain), and the emotional part of the self that holds the traumatic memories (the right brain) and its survival impulses of the moment of trauma becomes unintegrated with each other. This leaves the person with a split sense of self.
Experiencing a split sense of self can be disturbing. To notice the phenomenon as it happens is to gain agency.
The disruption of integration of the hemispheres of the brain leads to the experience of feeling something and “not making sense” of the feelings. The feelings come in the form of emotions, perceptions or physical pain.
The experience of not making sense of what one feels, can be disturbing. As human beings we need to make meaning and understand things about ourselves to feel safe. When such splitting occurs, the trauma survivor experiences blankness and confusion. This contributes to more insecurity. Oftentimes the need to make meaning results in thoughts that are paranoid in nature, intrusive and/or obsessive.
In therapy, clients are guided to 1. first identify the feelings and sensations that make no sense, 2. accept these feelings without making meaning. 3. observe the nature of thoughts that arise from attempt to make meaning, and 4. allowing these sensations to pass (through relaxation or somatic exercises). Each of these steps are tedious and challenging, needing full attention of both therapist and client. This is also solid mindfulness work. The result is the client gaining of agency of the self.
Splitting leaves the client fragmented into parts of personality. As different times the person’s right brain may trigger experience in him/herself a part that is raging and wants to fight or take revenge, a part that is terrified, a part that is ashamed, a part that is needy and/or a part that wants to run away. When these parts are traumatized, they feel out of control.
The left brain engages the other parts of the person that wants agency. These parts manage daily function, the part that is sociable, and the part that is responsible.
Noticing split-off and traumatized parts
One can notice that splitting has occurred through phenomena like experiencing chronic inability to make decisions, continually relapsing into addictive behavior, having intrusive emotions that seem to arise out of nowhere, intrusive thoughts, shifts in mood or behavior, going numb, getting hyper-aroused, collapsing, feeling suicidal, hearing voices, loss of ability to connect with others, difficulty communicating, withdrawal from society, feelings in the body and somatic symptoms that are not based on medical logic.
There are different severity levels of dissociation
Dissociative symptoms can be severe in some people to a point of rendering them incapacitated. Many individuals, however, experience dissociative symptoms, and are still able function and be successful in life.
Treatment of dissociative symptoms with therapy in functioning individuals is a measure to keep the person healthy and functioning. While we can cope with dissociative symptoms, these symptoms do not disappear on their own. Symptoms get worse with age, and are exacerbated by crises in life. This is why and how some seemingly functioning people experience sudden psychological breakdown.
Signs to look out for in functioning individuals
It is clear that severe dissociative symptoms require professional attention. Less obvious or hidden signs of dissociation are worth noticing: 1. difficulties putting things together, not being able to remember conversations, forgetting appointments, or inability to recount coherently what happened in certain situations, 2. experience of doing things that does not seem to add up, like having sexual relationship with someone one finds unattractive, 3. having unexplained chronic pain or somatic symptoms, 4. chronic experience of stuck in life, 5. experience of identity confusion, 5. experience of self-harming or suicidal thoughts.
Therapy that focusses on mindful observation of these symptoms, its triggers and the trauma underlying lead to successful outcome in providing clients with agency over his/her life.
van der Hart, O., van der Kolk, B. A., & Boon, S. (1998). Treatment of dissociative disorders.
Psychological trauma is a person’s experience of one or more events that is too overwhelming for the person to emotionally, physically and intellectually react to, and integrate into his/her memory and sense of self. The experience is that of as sense of threat to life, integrity or sanity.
Psychological Trauma is not only PTSD
Traumatic events are varied. It can be one major event (as in the case of PTSD), a series of events or living conditions that persists. In traumatic events the person is vulnerable and loses sense of agency or control. Since vulnerability is the feeling, young children and babies are more prone to being traumatized than healthy adults.
Symptoms of Psychological Trauma
Sufferers of PTSD tend to be more aware that they suffer from trauma than individuals who suffer developmental trauma or complex trauma.
Symptoms of trauma are often experienced as: irritability, depression, numbness, fogginess, lack of concentration, sleeping disorders, nervousness, panic disorder, chronic pain, addictions and addictive behavior, self-harm and suicidality, and eating disorders.
Trauma-focussed psychotherapists would check childhood experiences of individuals with these symptoms for sources of traumatic experiences.
It is not unusual for such clients who are not suffering PTSD but complex or developmental trauma to be baffled at the idea that they are manifesting symptoms of trauma, since these experiences are either forgotten, or because the memories in themselves are not recorded as traumatic.
Traumatic experiences that happen in infancy and early childhood lead to what is termed developmental trauma.
The younger the child, the more dependent they are on their caretakers for survival. Children get traumatized by neglect, separation and abandonment, exposure to domestic violence, parents fighting, witnessing violence, fearful caregiving, threats to them (meant or not), medical crises and accidents, death in the family, especially of parents and siblings.
Developmental trauma are more insidious than adult onset trauma because young children are not able to process the memories of the event(s) fully.
These memories are not integrated into learning experience, and remains out of awareness. As the child develops these memories become physiological and psychological symptoms.
Developmental Trauma presents itself also as generalized symptoms. Patients experience difficulties in areas like : 1) affect dys-regulation, 2) having a deep sense of self devaluation, 3) having difficulties forming relationships, and 4) dissociating from experiences.
“Getting Triggered” in the present as sign trauma
Since memories of traumatic experiences are not adequately integrated, the body remembers the traumatic experiences without the brain understanding what they are about. Such memories of traumatic past experiences are called implicit memories, or memories without language.
Implicit memories are sensed. These are memories of the past. However, in the present, harmless events can happen that are similar in feeling to these traumatic past memories. The body reacts to these harmless present events like it did during the traumatic event. The individual is unaware of the past memory hijacking the present moment and gets triggered.
When the dust settles, the sufferer and those around him/her cannot understand how or why the person over-reacted to the present event in such an exaggerated manner.
We may all be familiar to getting triggered or witnessing someone being triggered. It can be disturbing and sometimes destructive.
Understanding that these triggered states of emotionality, fear or rage are rooted in past traumatic experiences can provide for some relief to all involved, because this condition can be treated with psychotherapy.
Psychotherapeutic Treatment of Psychological Trauma
Psychotherapeutic treatment for trauma is an individual process. The condition of the patient and the extent of trauma first needs to be understood. Since traumatic experiences involve a deep sense of threat to life, the therapist needs to create a safe secure setting for the patient.
Trauma therapy can take months to years, depending on the condition of the patient and the trauma. There are five main phases involved:
The first phase of trauma therapy is to establish security for the patient in the session as well as in the patient’s daily life outside therapy.
The second phase would be to work with the client to build resilience, self support, orientation and self awareness. This phase requires the moment-to moment tracking of sensations and emotions that occur in the body before, during and after triggers.
This third step includes psycho-education in which the client learns the nature of his/her traumatic experiences and how his/her symptoms align with the theory underlining. Though this learning he/she learns to dis-identify from his/her symptoms.
The fourth phase is trauma memory processing. This step is only done when the patient has his/her agency and can see his/her triggers as they happen. EMDR is a technique that can be applied in this this phase.
The fifth phase is about integrating the memories and experiences. The patient learns to move on, make new affirmations and begin to live a life that is more in the present and not held back by the trauma symptoms.
Trauma therapy has its contra-indications. Patients can get re-traumatized if the groundwork of phases 1 and 2 are not adequate. The building of the therapist-client working alliance is thus very important to ensure safe, effective trauma treatment.
EMDR is a form of psychotherapy originally designed for trauma therapy. EMDR provides a here-and-now stimulus as the client recounts his/her traumatic memories. Tapping or eye movements keeps the client in the present and in the observer position. This keeps the client stable, so that he/she can remember stressful experiences without being re-traumatized.
EMDR is very much a relational-therapy application which I find very useful for integrating into my work.
EMDR is founded by Francine Shapiro. Here are 2 lectures of EMDR by Shapiro herself.
About Shapiro’s Way with EMDR
History and research history on EMDR
Commonly administered EMDR Process
EMDR process has a structure. The actual procedure administered is unique to each individual. The therapist, during the session, has to remain focus on the phenomenology of the patient. Keep in mind that simply following the steps alone is not therapy.
1. EMDR therapy begins with a clarification of a trauma-specific case history. The client reveals a traumatic event(s), it’s symptoms and these are to be worked on. The treatment process is also explained to the client.
2. The effectiveness depends on the choice of the outcome situation, and the unveiling of the cause of the traumatic situation.
3. Stabilization of the current situation of the client is important. The client is also prepared internally for the exercise. e.g. the client is asked to use a stop signal if he/she feels too uncomfortable. The client also gets to describe a safe place. In other words, the client is asked to consider the resources he/she has.
4. Estimation of the degree of severity of the experience. The client is ask to rate the degree of feeling felt at the moment about an event. The client is asked to describe and rate a negative aspect of the event (e.g. feelings of fear or guilt). The client is also asked to describe and rate a positive outcome of the event (e.g. feeling of freedom from guilt).
5. The client is asked to estimate how strong the feelings of stress at the moment is.
6. The client is asked to describe how he/she feels in the body.
7. Pre-processing step: to ask the client to relax and recount the event. Allowing the client to creatively enter into the scene. The therapists begins to lightly tap on the client’s wrists or knees, or guides the client with eye-movements, and encourages the client to describe the situation(s) as they arise to consciousness.
8. The weaving in of the here-and-now situation with past situation. The client gets to see the traumatic experience as a more mature person (as opposed to a child when he/she suffered a trauma). The client also gets to view the situation from a vantage point of a safer present.
9. Re-evaluation of the feelings of the traumatic events.
10. Anchoring: the client is asked to recite what he/she has learnt from the experience (the positive experience) as the therapists taps the client’s wrist a little more.
11. Body scan test: to check how the feelings in the body. And to find out what else that is stressful that is felt in the body.
12. Closing conversation and dialogue: something light hearted, breathing, relaying.
13. Next session, the previous treatment is rated again to see how the treatment is integrated. If the stress is still there, therapy can be repeated, if it is successful, anchoring work can be done.
Sometimes the client does stabilize after the therapeutic work. It is useful to be patient and listen to the patient’s current experience. The goal of the therapy is not to completely resolve every stress in one sitting, but to bring stability week to week, until the client learns to integrate the treatment.
Often the client feels permanent relief of a certain degree of stress.
Own work experience
I decided to use the tapping technique with a client who mentioned a car accident in which she was a driver that happened 20 years before. She is a successful businesswoman in her 50s, and had never mentioned this incident prior. This incident came to light as a result of a dream recollection.
The client had left a going-away party with some friends, had some drinks. It was also midnight, which was the day of her birthday. As she drove home, she collided with a drunk pedestrian, who got severely injured and died.
During the therapy, the client expressed fear and guilt which she had shut off all the years. She never had a chance to talk about her trauma to anyone and felt lonely.
The tapping allowed the client to see the event as if it were a movie. She could experience the emotions and was able (with hesitation) to vocalize the feelings. Her arms began to sweat. She began to remember more details of the night after the accident when she went home, and the morning after, how she felt like it was a nightmare, but it was for real.
At the end of the session, the client felt her loneliness, but was relieved about being able to share. Her fear level regarding the event went from a high 10 to 0. She still processes sadness and guilt about the event, which was later our work-in-progress.
Gestalt therapy is an effective an efficacious form of psychotherapy (Roubal, 2016). Gestalt psychotherapy is practiced by certified psychotherapists trained and supervised in the modality. Anyone who is interested in having gestalt therapy as a treatment for psychological and psycho-somatic stress or pain, or for the treatment of systemic issues regarding relationships in families or organizations, should seek a gestalt therapist who is actually trained and licensed as one.
Gestalt therapy is often described as a humanistic and holistic form of therapy. What this means, is that when a client comes to a gestalt therapist, he/she can expect to be met with a trained person who has been treated with gestalt therapy him/herself. Here I emphasize the person as an instrument of treatment, as opposed to other instruments like medication, techniques, advise or exercises.
Established gestalt therapists have identified observable behaviors that one can expect of gestalt therapists at work. This is documented within the gestalt therapy fidelity scale, or GTFS (Fogarty et al., 2016).
So, what do Gestalt therapists really do in the session?
Developing awareness. It is said that “knowledge is power”. Awareness, however, takes the client way beyond empowerment. It leads towards self-agency and healing. When a client approaches therapy, he/she is really looking for healing answers. This knowledge is given to the client through newly acquired self-awareness. Gestalt therapy acknowledges awareness as encompassing 1) inner emotions feelings, 2) behavior, speech and actions, and 3) thoughts, judgements, beliefs. Developing awareness is not what the therapist does per se. Its intent is, however, central to the work.
Working relationally. Clients usually come for therapy with a target complaint. This complaint is very valid to the goal of the therapy. It is not unlike going to the doctor with a health complaint. Gestalt therapists, however, handle the complaint differently from doctors. The therapist pays attention to the client’s interaction with the therapist in the session and the therapist pays attention to his/her own resonance with the client in the session. The therapist has no pre-determined agenda. For example, a client comes in with complaints of insomnia. The therapist focusses on the client interaction with the therapist in the session. There is no judgement on part of the therapist. She allows the client to freely express himself. She pays attention to the differences between them. She notices how the client talks quickly with flat affect. She notices also how she feels “heavy in the head” as the client speaks. Giving attention to this dialogical interaction, the therapist and client gain awareness of the client’s mode of being in the world. The client learns of the psychological burdens that keeps him up at night.
Working in the here and now. The therapist asks the client about his immediate experience. If the client mentions a disappointing day at work, the therapist would notice his facial expressions and tone of voice as he recounts his experiences.
Phenomenological practice. The therapist would bring these feelings to awareness of the present moment, thereby helping the client to describe and deepen his sense of theses experiences and gain better understanding of the presenting issue.
Working with embodied awareness. The client is encouraged to observe his emotions and bodily sensations. The therapist may notice the client’s shallow breathing, for example, and mention it. Through this deep embodied understanding the client is encouraged to try new movements. He realizes that he has choices.
Observance of the resonance in the relationship. The therapist is sensitive to the context in which the dialogue takes shape. Themes emerge. Emotions emerge. The therapist shares with the client her experience of what emerges. The client is empowered, with this awareness which is otherwise unconscious to him. He is provided with the new learning of his role in his past, present and future relationships.
Working with client’s mode of relating. The therapist acknowledges the client’s relationship pattern as these emerge during the session. In gestalt therapy, both therapist and client co-create the space in which they reside. They explore how they impact each other in the relationship.
Adopting a spirit of experimentation. Like in a kaleidoscope, small changes in movements lead to complete change in form of the pattern. The therapy session is like a crucible of life. The client is encouraged to experiment with new ways of being: simple moves within a session like a movement of the hand or uttering a sentence to somebody on an empty chair. The therapist supports the client with these experiments. They explore ways in which he can integrate these experiences in the world outside the therapy session.
The client leaves therapy with new awareness and is armed with choice. In the case of the client who has had insomnia, work with a therapist in the gestalt modality can be effective. The client works on his self as a whole, rather than only with his sleeping problems. The client is not his illness. He is a person who has feelings and relationships. Working on his self-awareness, the client gains agency over himself. In therapy, he experiments with ways of being. He finds answers to questions that affect his life. He gains better understanding of his past, present and future. He gains self-compassion. He learns to let his body rest at night.
Fogarty, M., Bhar, S., Theiler, S., & O’Shea, L. (2016). What do Gestalt therapists do in the clinic? The expert consensus. British Gestalt Journal, 25(1), 32-41.
Roubal, J. (Ed.). (2016). Towards a research tradition in Gestalt therapy. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Contact for gestalt therapy in Singapore or recommendations internationally
Children do suffer much when parents separate or divorce. Read how couples therapy can help reduce the emotional stress and confusion in children who have to face their parents separation.
Children are wired to be ultra-sensitive to changes in their parents’ relationship.
Some children are so tuned-in that they pick up unhappiness within the couple long before the couple even acknowledge the gravity of their problems. How do we know this?
Family therapists have long understood — through working with parents and their children — how children’s developing symptoms can emerge out of anxiety over their parent’s state of mind or relationship. This is a known phenomenon from the field of the family system.
Secure parental bonds are important to children.
The younger and more vulnerable the child, the more important to them are the parental bonds. Stable bonds mean safety. When there is a threat to this stability, children get anxious. This anxiety can amount to panic. From the experience of working with adult clients, I have learnt how even older children in their late teens get affected by their parent’s separation.
Children face anxiety and panic when parents separate
“What will happen to my home?”,”who will take care of me?”,”will mommy or daddy leave me?” These questions speak the language of a child’s fears of being abandoned and left exposed to the environment. The resultant “symptom” is anxiety and panic.
Children blame themselves for their parents’ divorce
Older children and teenagers develop an added strategy to withstand this kind of anxiety. They blame themselves. Blaming is a way of assigning power to the object of blame. If being abandoned makes one feel vulnerable, the way to overcome vulnerability is to assign power to the self. The unconscious tendency is to assign blame to the self for what has happened.
There is a tendency for children to blame themselves for their parents’ marriage breakdown.
In their adult years, children of parents in conflict can bear symptoms such as depression, mood swings and anxiety. Many have difficulty with intimate relationships themselves and some even adopt self- harming behaviors. Psychotherapy sessions in my practice has uncovered oftentimes this link.
What can divorcing parents do to minimize harm to their children?
Be open and reassuring with your children. Even very small children can grasp parental conflict. This does not mean that you should fight in front of the children. To be open about conflict is to acknowledge that there is one, without explaining why, or who is at fault.
Be careful not to use the child to take sides.
Reassure the children that their parents love them, no matter what happens. Reassure them that they are good children.
Engage a professional whom the child can regularly talk to. This could be a counselor or psychotherapist.
Engage a marriage counselor or couple’s therapist to help you and your spouse separate with mutual understanding and respect. Psychotherapists provide the supportive environment for the couple to deal with the emotional pain that arises from the separation process. This relieves the child from being the incidental bearer of this pain.
The last point is worth taking seriously. We know that causing pain to our children is the last thing we want happen in the separation process. Unfortunately, without professional support, the unconscious takes over. In high conflict and stressful situations like divorce, people become unaware of themselves and oblivious to what happens.
In this video, we learn what couples therapy can look like, what gestalt couples therapy is focussed on. Here is an interview with the Resnicks on their perspective on couples therapy in the psychotherapeutic practice.
How does psychotherapy work? What is the difference between psychotherapy, psychiatry and CBT?
Here is useful information for those interested in engaging a psychotherapist.
Transcript of this video:
Psychiatry, CBT and Psychotherapy
When one is in a bad place in one’s head the modern world offers three main sources of help: Psychiatric meditation, CBT and psychotherapy. Each one of these advantages and drawbacks. Medication can be exemplary in a crisis that points when the mind is so under siege from fear, anxiety or despair that thinking things through cannot be an option. Correctly administered without requiring any conscious cooperation from us, pills play around with our brain chemistry in a way that helps us get through to the next day and the one after we may get very sleepy, a bit nauseous or rather foggy in the process, but at least we’re still around, more or less. Then there is cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT. Normally administered by psychologists and psychiatrists in six to ten hour-long sessions which teaches techniques for arguing rationally with and with any luck at points controlling the ghoulish certainties thrown up by our internal persecutors: paranoia, low self-esteem, shame and panic.
Lastly, there is psychotherapy, which from a distance looks like it has only drawbacks. Psychotherapy has a very hard time showing its efficacy and scientific trials and it has to plead that its results too singular neatly to fit the models offered by statisticians. Also, it takes up a large amount of time demanding perhaps two sessions a week for a couple of years and it’s therefore by far the most expensive option on the menu.
Finally, psychotherapy requires active engagement from its patients and sustained emotional effort. One can’t simply allow chemistry to do the work and yet psychotherapy is a hugely effective choice which properly alleviates pain not by magic or chance, but for three solidly founded reasons.
Our unconscious feelings become conscious with psychotherapy
A founding idea of psychotherapy is that we get mentally unwell have a breakdown or develop phobias because we are not sufficiently aware of the difficulties we’ve been through. Somewhere in the past we’ve endured certain situations that were so troubling or sad, they outstripped our rational faculties and had to be pushed out of day-to-day awareness. For example, we can’t remember the real dynamics of our relationship with a parent. We can’t see what we do every time someone tries to get close to us. Nor trace the origins of our self-sabotage or panic around sex. Victims of our unconscious, we cannot grasp what we long for or a terrified by. In such cases, we cannot be healed simply through rational discussion, as proponents of CBT implicitly proposed, because we can’t fathom what is powering our distress in the first place.
Psychotherapy is a tool for correcting our self-ignorance in the most profound ways. It provides us with a space in which we can in safety say whatever comes into our heads. The therapist won’t be disgusted or surprised or bored. They’ve seen everything already. In their company we can feel acceptable and our secrets sympathetically unpacked as a result crucial ideas and feelings bubble up from the unconscious and are healed through exposure interpretation and contextualization we cry about incidents we didn’t even know before the session. The ghosts of the past are seen in daylight and a laid to rest.
The importance of working with one’s transference relationships in psychotherapy
There’s a second reason why psychotherapy can work so well. Transference. Transference is a technical term that describes the way once therapy develops a patient will start to behave towards the therapist in ways that echo aspects of their most important and most traumatic past relationships. A patient with a punitive parent might for example develop a strong feeling that the therapist must find them revolting or boring a patient who needed to keep a depressed parent cheerful when they were small might feel compelled to put up a jokey facade whenever dangerously sad topics come into view. We transfer like this outside therapy all the time but there what we’re doing doesn’t get noticed or properly dealt with. Psychotherapy is a controlled experiment that can teach us to observe what we’re up to, to understand where our impulses come from and then adjust our behavior in less unfortunate directions . A therapist might gently ask a patient why they’re so convinced they must be disgusting or they might lead them to see how they use of jokey sarcasm is covering up underlying sadness and terror. The patient thereby starts to spot the distortions in their expectations set up by their history and develops less self-defeating ways of interacting with people in their lives going forward
Psychotherapy provides “the first good relationship”.
The third reason why psychotherapy works it is the first good relationship. We are many of us critically damaged by the legacy of past bad relationships. When we were defenseless and small we didn’t have the luxury of experiencing people who were reliable who listened to us who set the right boundaries and helped us to feel legitimate and worthy. However when things go well the therapist is experienced as the first truly supportive and reliable person we’ve yet encountered. They become the “good parent ” we so needed and maybe never had. In their company we can regress the stages of development that went wrong and relive them with a better ending now we can express need we can be properly angry and entirely devastated and they will take it, thereby making good years of pain.
One good relationship becomes the model for relationships outside the therapy room. Some moderate, intelligent voice becomes part of our own in a dialogue.
We are cured through continuous repeated exposure to sanity and kindness.
Psychotherapy won’t work for everyone. What has to be in the right place in one’s mind?
One has to stumble on a good therapist and be in a position to give the process due time and care. But all that said with a fair wind psychotherapy also has the chance to be the best thing we ever get around to doing.
Anxiety and panic disorders are getting increasingly common among young adults. This is a phenomenon observed and mentioned by mental health professionals who work in Europe, Asia and America. There are several hypothesis to this observation. The logic that resonates most with me is the one by a psychiatrist colleague from Italy, Gianni Francesetti.
Francesetti attributes panic disorder to “an acute attack on solitude (loneliness)”. This actually implies that the symptoms of panic and anxiety attacks, while observed to be affecting an individual person, is in fact contributed by this person’s relationship to the world around him/her. Why? Because we cannot be lonely if we are in contact with some other persons in the environment. Hence to be lonely is to be left in the cold with on one for company.
The word panic is descriptive of the state of being left exposed in the wilderness. It is said to have been derived from the name of the Greek god, Pan. Reading the characteristics of Pan one would derive the keywords, all-encompassing, wilderness, solitude, rejection, stomach-churning cry and death. The word panorama describes the wide open field space. A young animal separated suddenly from its mother and exposed to the cold environment would panic. In its panic it would cry out.
Neuroscientist Panksepp’s lecture explains to us how the panic pathway in the brain is wired up. He also tells us in the video below that the baby animal in panic would be quiet again once it is held warmly. If it were not held, it cries would ultimately stop, and the animal would fall into a state of what looks like depression in humans. The panic system generates loneliness and sadness, and it is observed to be the gateway to depression.
The panic system is related in mammals (including humans) to separation distress and over exposure. Human suffers experience the onset of panic disorder usually as young adults, the age when one leaves the parental home.
Most clients who complain of panic attacks are independent and forward-looking people. Feelings of being exposed or separated are not part of their conscious awareness. These experiences belong to the client as toddlers or babies, and are overwhelming. Many clients manage to uncover this hidden past experience after months of psychotherapy.
Psychotherapy for Anxiety or Panic Attacks – A case study
Clarise, 26 years old, a student who holds also a job as a medical receptionist. She had her first panic attack when she was 20 and had just left her family home and moved to another country, Vienna. She explained that the onset of subsequent panic attacks happen when she is about to leave the family home when she is on holiday there. Strangely, this is also related to her leaving her younger brother, Mike.
Proud of being an independent worker, she came to therapy often talking dryly about happenings at work, talking about panic attacks and medication, and avoiding topics about her relationships. I could perceive her avoiding experiencing her emotions, and her intense fear of going there. Sessions in the first 4 months felt slow. I soon had difficulty remembering her among the other clients.
The slow, almost deadening atmosphere in the sessions soon became clear to me. I felt like I was in conversation with someone who was trying to make herself invisible to me. Yet I felt a longing between us for contact. Clarise came every week for therapy faithfully. I decided on several experiments during the sessions. The most useful of which was very simple: to walk around the room as we spoke. Clarise, while walking, became more animated. It seemed as if in order to make herself invisible, she kept her body still. When she had to walk around, her energy flowed. She appeared then more alive and open to being in conversation with me.
Over time, Clarise was able to talk about her childhood. Keywords were: Unwanted child. Emotionally abusive mother who was devaluing, abandoning, de-validating of her feelings, denying, contradicting. Her mother favors her younger half-brothers. As a child she had to look after the boys. She was also competitive with mother with regard to the brothers. She became overtly responsible for Mike.
Her childhood memories were fragmented, indicating a kind of trauma, perhaps from neglect. Only mother’s feelings of those days could be recalled by Clarise. In the therapy room, it felt to me as if her mother always present. Sometimes I would use the mother’s “presence” as an intervention.
Clarise admits to be constantly yearning for attention. This is a paradox, because of the way she unconsciously makes herself invisible. She admits to flattening her voice to control emotions. Clarise has little body awareness, which she became aware of as we walked around the room.
Gestalt Psychotherapeutic intervention for panic attack symptoms
Clarise’s case shed light on the polarities that emerged during our work.
Fear vs. Curiosity,
Attention yearning vs. Self-hiding
Being forgettable vs. Forgetting
“I must be afraid so that mother can feel good about herself.”
“When my boyfriend is not at home, I am not in danger of having a panic attack.”
“I make my breathing shallow to press against my chest, so that I won’t cry here.”
Clarise also exhibited tendency for Self-ISOLATION, even if it were unconscious to her. One of her strategies was to dissociate. To disappear. To forget. She admitted that as a child, it was “Safer to be unseen.” If her mother was at home, she would not be able to predict if she would be treated with kindness or anger.
Clarise realised that she could use illness and lately the panic symptoms to garner support from people around her. “When I’m in dire straits, people will come to me and they won’t harm me.”
Looking at PSYCHOPATHOLOGY from the perspective of the relationship between client and therapist.
In the therapeutic alliance, suffering is not located only within the client, but is an emergent phenomenon. This means that we as therapist can feel, perceive ourselves as being part of the symptom. We are impacted by the symptom.
When I am able to acknowledge how being with this client impacts me– in this case the feeling of stagnating stillness and forgetting– I am able to adjust my being with her. In so doing, the atmosphere changes. In gestalt therapy we acknowledge this the as the field.
3 levels of observing anxiety disorder symptoms based on this case study
Single person Level
Dyadic Interaction Level
Aesthetic Field Level
“My client has panic attacks.”
“I forget the client. I overlook her. She seems to make herself invisible to me.”
“There is stillness and monotony in the air. I can hear the clock tick. The room feels empty. I feel tingly. There is a sense of longing.”
What I attempt to present here is a cutting-edge perspective of treating symptoms of panic disorder in a patient in the clearest way possible in a blog. Medication and quick therapies have not managed to effect lasting relief for most patients of anxiety. This is why we, as gestalt therapists, look to the broader field. We look beyond the person. We have found useful to see the client in context of the socio-cultural environment. We use this field during the session. We move ourselves in the field. We allow ourselves to be impacted. In this way we make small adjustments. These work as tender changes within the psyche of the client.
Remembering the hypothesis that panic is an acute attack of loneliness, the work with Clarise revealed it to be so. Although Clarise never admitted that she was lonely, she revealed her natural tendency for self-isolation. In making herself forgettable, it was I who ended up feeling left alone in the therapy room. Noticing this and sensing our longing for contact, I could affect the field around us. When the field changed, the client eventually changed. Clarise learned to cry. This was a relief to her. It was a relief to feel safe and be vulnerable. It was a relief to her that she did not have to go into a state of panic to afford company.
Francesetti, G. (Ed.). (2007). Panic Attacks and Postmodernity. Gestalt therapy between clinical and social perspectives. FrancoAngeli.