Gestalt Therapy Verbatim (Perls, 1969): Book Review

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

Fritz Perls

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

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

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

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

Perls on “techniques”

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

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

Perls on Anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

Perls’ thoughts on trying to change oneself and others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perls on Character

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

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

On changing every question to a statement

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

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

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

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

Perls on Resentment

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

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

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

Perls on Nothingness and the Fertile Void

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

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

Perls on taking responsibility and blaming

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

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

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

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

Perls on Group therapy

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

Reference

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