The Psychotherapeutic Journey Towards a Mature Psyche: Melanie Klein’s Psychoanalytic Theory

Melanie Klein emphasises the role of unconscious defence mechanisms in shaping our perceptions of the world and ourselves. This essay will delve into the core tenets of Klein’s theory, focusing on the two primary phases of psychoanalytic development: the paranoid-schizoid position and the depressive reparative position. We will explore the characteristics of each phase, the defense mechanisms employed, and how the analyst facilitates the transition towards a more mature psyche.

The Paranoid-Schizoid Position: A World in Black and White

The initial phase of psychoanalytic development according to Klein is the paranoid-schizoid position (PS). This stage, encompassing the first few months of life, is characterized by an immature ego struggling to make sense of overwhelming emotions and fragmented sensory experiences. The infant perceives the world in extremes, categorizing everything as either “good” or “bad.” The good experiences are associated with the gratifying breast, which provides sustenance and comfort. Conversely, frustrating experiences, such as hunger or discomfort, are perceived as emanating from a bad breast.

This splitting defense mechanism serves as a psychological safeguard for the infant. By dividing the world into good and bad objects, the infant can manage the intense anxiety associated with negative emotions. However, this splitting also hinders the development of a more nuanced understanding of reality. People who remain fixated in the paranoid-schizoid position may exhibit black and white thinking, struggling to see the complexities of human relationships and situations.

Another prominent defense mechanism employed during the PS position is projection. The infant projects its negative feelings, such as rage and frustration, onto external objects, often the primary caregiver. This can lead to a distorted perception of the caregiver as a malevolent force, fueling feelings of paranoia and mistrust.

The Depressive Reparative Position: Towards a More Realistic View

As the infant matures and develops more sophisticated cognitive abilities, it gradually transitions into the depressive reparative position (DR). This phase, typically emerging around the end of the first year, is marked by a shift towards a more realistic view of the world. The infant begins to recognize that the caregiver is not simply a good or bad object but a whole person capable of offering both love and frustration.

This newfound understanding brings with it a wave of depressive anxieties. The infant grapples with the fear of having damaged or destroyed the good object through its projected aggression. To alleviate this anxiety, the infant employs the defense mechanism of reparation. Through reparation, the infant attempts to undo the harm it imagines it has caused to the loved object. This might manifest in behaviors like clinging or increased attentiveness to the caregiver.

The DR position also paves the way for the development of empathy and compassion. The infant starts to recognize the caregiver’s own feelings and experiences, marking a significant step towards emotional maturity.

The Role of the Analyst in Facilitating Development

The psychoanalyst plays a crucial role in supporting the patient’s journey through these developmental phases. By providing a safe and non-judgmental space, the analyst allows the patient to explore their unconscious fantasies and anxieties. Through techniques like free association and dream analysis, the analyst helps the patient unearth the roots of their emotional conflicts, often stemming from early childhood experiences.

As the patient confronts these unconscious thoughts and feelings, the analyst acts as a containing object. The analyst’s consistent and supportive presence helps the patient manage the overwhelming emotions that may arise during this process. By fostering a therapeutic alliance, the analyst creates a secure space where the patient can experiment with new ways of relating to themselves and others.

The Importance of Klein’s Theory

Klein’s theory of psychoanalytic development offers valuable insights into the complexities of human behavior. Her emphasis on unconscious defense mechanisms provides a framework for understanding how our early experiences shape our perceptions and emotional responses. By recognizing the influence of the paranoid-schizoid and depressive reparative positions, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the challenges and triumphs encountered on the path towards emotional maturity, which is the process of long term psychotherapy.

Limitations and Further Considerations

While Klein’s theory has been influential in the field of psychoanalysis, it is important to acknowledge its limitations. Gestalt therapy expands on the concept of development and maturity as a therapeutic path by considering the environment and how the infant creatively adjusts to that environment. Gestalt therapy also provides where analysis leaves behind, which is the facilitation of the therapeutic process, by which the practitioner brings the client beyond analysis towards experiencing the state of being in the paranoid-schizoid and depressive reparative positions during the therapy hour.

Despite these limitations, Klein’s work remains a valuable contribution to our understanding of early development and the unconscious mind, providing the foundation for psychotherapy. Her theory continues to inspire contemporary psychoanalytic thought and practice, and is also a wonderful resources for the gestalt therapist.


Gestalt Therapy: A Tapestry Woven from Psychoanalysis, Gestalt Psychology, and Field Theory

This passage explores the intellectual milieu of Frankfurt in the 1920s, highlighting the cross-pollination of ideas that significantly influenced the development of Gestalt therapy by Fritz Perls. Bocian’s book “Fritz Perls in Berlin” is a great resource for those who wish to fully grasp the theoretical foundations of Gestal therapy.

A Fertile Ground for Interdisciplinary Exchange

The Frankfurt Institute for Social Research (IfS) served as a central hub for intellectual exchange. Here, renowned figures like Gestalt psychologists Ademar Gelb and Kurt Goldstein, social philosopher Paul Tillich, and Marxist sociologists all interacted and debated. Both Lore Posner (later Perls) and Fritz Perls were deeply impacted by these thinkers, particularly Goldstein and his emphasis on the organism as a self-regulating whole.

Psychoanalysis and the South West German Working Group

In 1926, the South West German Working Group for Psychoanalysis was established. Key members like Karl Landauer and Erich Fromm fostered a space for critical engagement with psychoanalysis. Lore Perls underwent training analysis with Clara Happel, a member of the group, and later with Landauer, who Perls greatly respected. The Frankfurt Psychoanalytic Institute (FPI), founded in 1929, further solidified Frankfurt’s position as a center for psychoanalytic thought. Perls and Lore Posner attended lectures by prominent psychoanalysts like Anna Freud and Siegfried Bernfeld at the FPI.

Bridging the Gap Between Psychoanalysis and Gestalt Psychology

While both psychoanalysis and Gestalt psychology explored the human mind, they did so from distinct perspectives. Psychoanalysis focused on the unconscious mind and the role of past experiences, whereas Gestalt psychology emphasized present experience and the formation of meaningful wholes. However, there were attempts to bridge this gap.

  • Siegfried Bernfeld’s work in 1934 explored the relationship between these two schools of thought, highlighting the potential for Gestalt psychology’s holistic view of perception to inform psychoanalytic theory.
  • Psychoanalysts like Alfred Adler and Imre Hermann (Ferenczi’s student) saw connections between their work and Gestalt psychology. Adler’s individual psychology, whichwas already establishe, like Gestalt therapy, viewed humans as integrated wholes within social contexts.

  • Wilhelm Reich and Fritz Perls, who had both studied under Paul Schilder (who reviewed Kurt Koffka), believed Gestalt psychology could contribute to refining psychoanalytic concepts. Perls went on to be in analysis with Reich after having been with Karen Horney.
  • Georg Gero, who also was in analysis with Reich, reviewed and studied the work of Kurt Lewin (theory of the field) and Kurt Lewin’s colleague, Bluma Zeigarnik (unfinished business).
  • Thomas French introduced the concept of “insight” into psychoanalysis, which he had taken over from Wolfgang Köhler, attempting to create a synthesis of psychoanalysis and Lewin’s field theory.
  • Siegmund Fuchs (S.H. Foulkes) who worked with Perls as assistant to Goldstein employed Gestalt and Field theory to groups.
  • George Deveraux drew on gestalt psychology to explain how confrontation stimulate rudimentaty gestalts, while interpretation uncover repressed elements.
  • Wolfgang Hochheimer studied under Goldstein and Gelb published “on the analysis of the therapeutic field, investigating the application of analytical field theory. He acknowledged how the therapist and client’s respective “life fields” overlap has therapeutic significance.

Shared Interests and the Rise of Gestalt Therapy

Fritz Perls, influenced by his exposure to both psychoanalysis and Gestalt psychology, sought to create a synthesis. He was likely further drawn to this path due to his background in Mynona’s polarity philosophy, which emphasized the interplay of opposing forces.

  • Later developments such as the work of René Spitz (a friend of Kurt Lewin who explored Zeigarnik’s unfinished business and their connection to dreams) and the contextualist psychoanalysts further demonstrate the ongoing dialogue between Gestalt therapy and psychoanalysis. Spit developed a concept called “action cycles” that are similar to Gestalt Therapy’s “contact cycle”.
  • This group of psychoanalysts sought to integrate Gestalt psychology and field theory into their practice, focussing attention to the world beyond the client’s inner psyche, the environment (the field) that reciprocates its influences.


Even before Gestalt psychology became a formalized school of thought, Freud, particularly in his Interpretation of Dreams, began to employ concepts that resonated with a Gestalt understanding of the mind. Perls and other Gestalt therapists would later draw on these elements as evidence of psychoanalysis’ latent acknowledgment of the role of wholes and patterns in mental life.

The intellectual ferment of Frankfurt in the 1920s provided a fertile ground for the birth of Gestalt therapy. Perls, drawing inspiration from psychoanalysis, Gestalt psychology, and other influences, wove these diverse threads into a unique therapeutic approach that emphasized present experience, self-awareness, and the organism’s capacity for self-regulation and growth.

Karen Horney’s Influence on Fritz Perls & Gestalt Therapy

Karen Horney (1885-1952) was a pioneering German-American psychoanalyst who challenged traditional Freudian views and made significant contributions to our understanding of personality, neurosis, and feminine psychology. Horney was also Fritz Perls’ analyst, who made an impact on him. Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy, was deeply influenced by various thinkers, including psychoanalysts Karen Horney and Wilhelm Reich. Karen Horney, a significant figure in the Berlin psychoanalytic scene during Perls’s formative years, left a profound imprint on his intellectual development and shaped his therapeutic approach. This article delves into Horney’s influence on Perls, examining the historical context of their interaction, the key theoretical tenets Horney espoused, and their lasting impact on Gestalt therapy.

Why Perls Chose Horney

Several factors likely drew Fritz Perls toward Karen Horney as a psychoanalytic trainer. Firstly, Horney embodied an accessible and less jargon-laden style of psychoanalysis compared to many of her contemporaries. Perls, with his rebellious spirit and disdain for intellectual abstractions, would have found her approach refreshing. Her emphasis on “human involvement without terminology” (Perls 1981, 50) would have resonated with him.

Secondly, Horney was a rare female voice in a field dominated by male theorists, particularly Freud. Her groundbreaking work on feminist psychology challenged the patriarchal biases prevalent in traditional psychoanalysis. This perspective offered Perls a counterpoint to the dominant Freudian discourse.

Thirdly, Horney’s interest in the impact of culture on the human psyche would have aligned with Perls’s later emphasis on the here-and-now and the individual’s interaction with their environment. This focus on social and cultural forces represented a shift away from the purely instinctual drives emphasized by classical Freudian theory.

The Nature of Their Relationship

The book by Bocian, Fritz Perls in Berlin, describes the relationship between Perls and Horney as positive and influential. Perls felt a “kind of love” for Horney and viewed her as one of the few trustworthy people in his life. He admired her warmth, pragmatism, and commitment to a human-centered psychoanalysis. They shared a passion for theatre. In Horney, Perls said that he found “human involvement without terminology” as opposed to most psychonalytic trainers.

Key Influences: Values and Concepts

Karen Horney’s impact on Fritz Perls can be distilled into several crucial points:

  • Growth-Oriented Therapy: Horney’s belief that analysis could not only treat illness but also foster personal growth became central to Perls’s work. She proposed that “analysis … can liberate a person … so that she is free to draw on her own resources again” (Olvedi 1992, 139). This focus on human potential and self-actualization is a key principle of Gestalt therapy.
  • Neurosis as a Coping Strategy: Horney viewed neurotic mechanisms less as inherent pathologies and more as resource-oriented attempts by the individual to navigate a challenging environment, believing they represented attempts “to find paths through a jungle full of unknown dangers” (Horney 1977, 9). This perspective contributed to Gestalt therapy’s focus on understanding how present behaviors, even maladaptive ones, serve the individual.
  • Challenging Freud on Female Psychology: Horney’s pioneering work on female psychology contested Freud’s theories of penis envy and female inferiority. She argued that envy centered on the social advantages granted to men in a patriarchal society, rather than anatomical differences. Horney’s insights into the social construction of gender likely sensitized Perls to the power imbalances that can shape individual experience.
  • Cultural Critique: Horney emphasized the role of culture in shaping individual psychology, rejecting Freud’s drive-based universalism. Her belief that “our whole civilization is a masculine civilization” (Horney 1926, 361) influenced Perls’s attention to the influence of environment and social context on human experience, a core tenet of Gestalt therapy.

Legacy: Horney’s Imprint on Gestalt Therapy

Excerpt from Bocian, 2015, which to contributes to Gestalt Theory of Creative adjustment:

Even her first publication in 1917, »The Technique of Psychoanalytic Therapy,« contains hints of her later independent development. Perls integrated Horney’s early idea that therapy entails not only the treatment of illness, but also helps people to grow. In the article mentioned, Horney writes:

Analysis … can liberate a person whose hands and feet have been bound so that she is free to draw on her own resources again, but it cannot provide her with new arms and legs. Nevertheless, experience has shown that many factors which analysis assumed to be constitutional are merely the results of impediments to growth and can be removed.

Karen Horney in Olvedi 1992, 139

For Horney, many symptoms did not appear to result from inner instinctual conflicts; instead, they were direct reactions to an unloving, hurtful environment and upbringing. Moreover, she viewed neurotic mechanisms as resource oriented as well, and not merely pathological, proceeding from the assumption that these mechanisms are the individual’s attempt »to find paths through a jungle full of unknown dangers« (Horney 1977, 9).

Karen Horney’s influence on Gestalt therapy manifests itself in several key areas:

  • The Here-and-Now Focus: Gestalt therapy prioritizes the client’s present experience, emphasizing the individual’s interaction with their current environment. This reflects Horney’s focus on the influence of current conflicts and social conditions, rather than solely focusing on past childhood experiences.
  • Emphasis on Awareness and Responsibility: Gestalt therapy encourages clients to become more aware of their thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations in the present moment. This emphasis on awareness fosters self-responsibility and the ability to make conscious choices, aligning with Horney’s view of analysis facilitating personal growth.
  • Holism: Gestalt therapy’s holistic perspective considers the individual as a complex interplay of mind, body, emotions, and their relationship to the environment. This holistic approach echoes Horney’s recognition of the intricate ways cultural and social factors shape individual experience.

Key Facts (Bocian, 2015):

  • Psychoanalytic Training: Perls trained under Horney in Berlin (1925) (Bocian 1992a, Cavaleri 1992)
  • Theoretical and Therapeutic Influence: Perls valued Horney’s ideas and incorporated them into his approach (Perls 1977, 49).
  • Focus on Cultural Factors: Horney challenged Freud’s view on female development and emphasized cultural influences (Horney 1926, 361).
  • Concept of Growth: Perls adopted Horney’s view of therapy promoting growth, not just treating illness (Horney 1917).
  • Non-pathological Neurosis: Horney viewed neurotic mechanisms as coping strategies, not purely negative (Horney 1977, 9).
  • Humanistic Approach: Perls appreciated Horney’s focus on human connection over jargon (Perls 1981, 50).
  • Gender Equality: Horney’s influence may have contributed to Perls’ view of Lore Perls as an equal partner (Sreckovic 1999).

Note: Perls did not publicly acknowledge Horney’s work on female psychology.


Bocian, B. (2015). Fritz Perls in Berlin 1893-1933: Expressionism Psychoanalysis Judaism. EHP-Verlag Andreas Kohlhage.

Significance of Karen Horney’s Work

Here’s a breakdown of her significance, life, and influences:

  • Challenging Freud: Horney disagreed with Freud’s emphasis on biological drives, particularly the concept of penis envy. She believed that personality development was primarily shaped by social and environmental factors, not solely instinctual forces.
  • Neurosis as a Coping Mechanism: Horney viewed neurosis as the result of basic anxiety stemming from childhood experiences of neglect or lack of genuine love. To cope with this anxiety, she theorized that people develop neurotic needs (like needs for affection, power, or submission), which become problematic if overly rigid.
  • Feminine Psychology: Horney was a key figure in founding feminist psychology. She criticized the male-centric bias in traditional psychoanalysis and highlighted how cultural and societal factors shape women’s psychological experiences.
  • Emphasis on Self-Realization: Horney placed self-realization at the center of her theory. She believed that people have an innate drive for growth and self-actualization, which can be hampered by anxiety and the adoption of a false idealized self-image.

Life References

  • Early Life and Education: Born in Germany, Horney endured a difficult childhood marked by a distant father and a depressive mother. She excelled academically and became one of the first women in Germany to study medicine.
  • Psychoanalytic Training: Horney trained in psychoanalysis in Berlin, where she became a founding member of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute.
  • Move to the United States: In 1932, she emigrated to the United States, fleeing the rise of Nazism. She settled in New York City and became a prominent figure in the American psychoanalytic scene.
  • Founding the American Institute for Psychoanalysis: Disagreeing with some orthodox Freudian perspectives, Horney co-founded the American Institute for Psychoanalysis, which reflected her more socially-oriented theories.

Influences and Influence

  • Influences: Horney was initially influenced by Freud but later diverged from his views. She was also likely influenced by her personal experiences of gender discrimination and the social and political turmoil of her time. Alfred Adler’s ideas, with their emphasis on social factors, may have also resonated with her.
  • Those Influenced: Horney’s work has influenced numerous fields, including:
    • Neo-Freudians: Psychoanalysts like Erich Fromm and Harry Stack Sullivan were influenced by Horney’s emphasis on social and cultural factors in personality development.
    • Feminist Psychology: Horney is considered a foundational figure in feminist psychology, inspiring later writers and theorists.
    • Humanistic Psychology and Self-help: Horney’s theory of self-realization and the emphasis she placed on self-analysis resonate with approaches in humanistic psychology and the self-help movement.

Further Reading

Gestalt Therapy : Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (1951)

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

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

On Aggression Gestalt Therapy vs. Psychoanalysis

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

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

The Structure of Growth

1. The Contact Boundary

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

Interaction of Organism and Environment

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

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

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

Contact boundary connects and separates the organism and environment.

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

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

Creative and adjustment are polar and mutually necessary.

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

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

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

Chapter V: Maturing and the Recollection of Childhood

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

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

Chapter VI: Human Nature and the Anthropology of Neurosis

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

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

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

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

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

5: Erect Posture, Freedom of Hands and Head

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

6: Tools, Language, Sexual Differentiation, and Society

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

7: Differentiations of Sensory, Motoric, and Vegetative

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

8: Verbal Difficulties in this Exposition

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

9: Symbols

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

10: Neurotic Split

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

11: Golden Age, Civilization, and Introjections

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

Chapter VII: Verbalising and Poetry

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

1: Social, Interpersonal, and Personal

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

2: Contactful Speech and Poetry

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

3: Verbalizing and Poetry

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

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

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

5: Free-Association as an Experiment in Language

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

6: Philosophies of Language-Reform

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

Chapter VIII: The Antisocial and Aggression

The Social and the Antisocial

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

Changes in What’s Considered Antisocial

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

Unequal Progress and Social Reaction

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

The Antisocial is Presently the Aggressive

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

Annihilating and Destroying

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

Initiative and Anger

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

Fixations of the Above, and Sadomasochism

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

Modern War is Mass-Suicide Without Guiltiness

(Modern Violence and Discontent)

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

Freud’s Thanatos: A Critique

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


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

Chapter IX: Conflict and Self-Conquest

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

1: Conflict and Creative Disinterestedness

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

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

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

Meaning of “Conflict”


Self-Conquest: premature pacification

Self-Conquest: satisfactions of conquest

self-control and character

Relation of theory and method

what is inhibited in self conquest

Chapter XII: Creative Adjustment

1. Fore-contacting and Contacting

Physiology and Psychology

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

Fore-contact: Periodic and Aperiodic

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

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

First stages of Contact

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gratuitous Creativity

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

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

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

(Can this be interpreted as compulsions?)

Creativity / Adjustment

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excitement and Anxiety

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

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

Projection and Repression

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

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

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

Identifying and Alienating


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

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

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

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

Embracing Conflict vs. Anxiety

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

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

The Illusion of Security vs. The Power of Readiness

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

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

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

Final Contact and Post Contact

Unity of Figure and Ground

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

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

Book Reference

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

Integration through Experimentation in Gestalt Therapy: origins and theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I embed the pdf of this article here:



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

Self-Criticism: Adam Phillips

Adam Phillips, argues that self-criticism stems from our ambivalence towards ourselves. We all have mixed feelings about ourselves, but ambivalence goes beyond that. It’s about having opposing feelings that are dependent on each other. We might criticize ourselves because we’re frustrated with ourselves for not achieving something, but that frustration stems from a desire to succeed, which is a form of self-love.

I summarise here the lecture published on YouTube.

“Jacques Lacan famously remarked that there must surely be something ironic about Christ’s injunction to love thy neighbour as thyself, because actually people hate themselves.”

Christ’s Injunction and Self-Hate: Jacques Lacan observed the irony in Christ’s command to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” since people fundamentally struggle with self-love. This highlights the complex nature of our relationship with ourselves.

 Adam Phillips argues that self-criticism stems from ambivalence – holding opposing feelings about ourselves that are intertwined. For example, criticizing ourselves for not achieving something might be fueled by an underlying desire for success (a form of self-love).

What is Ambivalence?

Ambivalence goes beyond simply liking some things about yourself and disliking others. It’s the experience of holding two strongly opposing feelings or attitudes towards a single object, situation, or even yourself. These feelings are not merely mixed; they coexist simultaneously and can feel conflicting.

A classic example is the love-hate relationship. You might love someone deeply, yet at times experience strong feelings of dislike or frustration towards them. Ambivalence makes these seemingly contradictory emotions both exist at the same time

The Paradox of Self-Criticism

“Self-criticism can be our most sadomasochistic way of loving ourselves.”

Self-criticism can be harsh and unrelenting, preventing us from moving forward from our mistakes. The lecture uses the super-ego concept from Freudian psychoanalysis to illustrate this point. The super-ego acts as our moral conscience, and it can be very critical and judgmental. This constant criticism from the super-ego is excessive.

What is the Superego?

In Freudian psychoanalysis, the superego is one of three parts of the personality (along with the id and the ego). The superego represents our internalized sense of morality, social rules, and ideals. It houses our conscience.

The superego develops during childhood as we internalize the rules, values, and expectations of our parents and society. It acts as a kind of watchful eye, constantly monitoring our behavior and thoughts against those ideals.

The Superego and Our Inner Critic

The superego, our internalized moral compass, is often the source of unrelenting self-criticism. Its constant judgments and unrealistic expectations fuel negativity.

“The super-ego is, like all propagandists, relentlessly repetitive.” The self-critical part of ourselves is incredibly narrowminded, with an impoverished vocabulary, and cruelly intimidating. It is the stuck record from the past, unimaginative.

  • Freudian Breakdown: In psychoanalysis, the superego has two parts:
    • The Ego Ideal: Our aspirations and positive self-image.
    • The Conscience: Source of guilt and shame when we violate internalized rules.
  • Unrealistic Critic: The superego’s ideals are often unattainable, leading to perpetual self-criticism. “The super-ego is, like all propagandists, relentlessly repetitive.”
  • Source of Our Inner Critic: Recognizing this helps us see our self-critical thoughts not as objective reality, but as the superego’s exaggerations.
  • The Never-Satisfied Voice: The superego is rarely satisfied, even when we achieve our goals. It constantly moves the goalpost, fueling an endless sense of inadequacy and the need for further self-critique.

Hamlet: A Case Study in Self-Doubt

  • Paralysis of Conscience: Phillips analyzes Hamlet’s relentless self-scrutiny and struggle with revenge to illustrate the destructive power of the inner critic. Hamlet’s conscience, fear, and desire for honor become obstacles to action.
  • “Conscience Does Make Cowards of Us All”: This famous line showcases how internal conflict can hinder decisive action, even when morally motivated.
  • The Superego at Work: Hamlet’s harsh self-judgment mirrors the superego’s exaggerated demands and constant punishment.

Limits of Being & Unforbidden Pleasures

Self-criticism is nothing if it does not define and over define the limits of being (Brian Cummings).

“Self-criticism is not a reliable way to understand ourselves.” While self-criticism may be negative, it also stems from a kind of self-love. Our critiques arise from the standards of conduct we have internalised, showing a twisted desire to improve ourselves.

Conscience makes something out of us. The superego claims to know the consequences of our actions.

“Self-criticism is an unforbidden pleasure.” Unlike many pleasures which are explicitly condemned by society (like certain desires or indulgences), self-criticism is readily available and even encouraged in some contexts. We are told to be humble, to always strive for improvement, and not to be overly self-satisfied.

While seemingly negative, Phillips suggests that self-criticism carries a perverse sort of pleasure. It can make us feel morally superior and provides a false sense of control over our shortcomings. There’s a satisfaction in wallowing in self-critique.

Our ambivalence towards ourselves can make even painful emotions feel familiar and comforting in their own way. Self-criticism, because it’s often a long-standing habit, can offer a distorted sense of safety.

While painful, our superego’s harsh pronouncements become intertwined with our sense of self. We might derive a strange pleasure from its constant critiques, even while wishing to silence them.

  • Self-Criticism Misleads: “Self-criticism is not a reliable way to understand ourselves.”
  • Twisted Self-Love: Ironically, our negativity stems from internalized standards, showing a desire to improve ourselves.
  • Pleasure in Pain: “Self-criticism is an unforbidden pleasure.” It’s readily available, morally acceptable, and offers a false sense of control and superiority.
  • The Superego as Narcissist: Our inner critic, with its repetitive critiques, focuses narrowly on our flaws, ignoring the bigger picture.


Hamlet, while contemplating suicide in his “To be or not to be” soliloquy, asks the pivotal question:

“Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,/ Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,/ And by opposing, end them?”

In essence, Hamlet is questioning whether it is braver to endure the pain and suffering life inevitably brings or to end his own life.

Cowardice as a Theme

  • Fear of the Unknown: Hamlet’s fear isn’t physical pain but a deeper fear of the unknown – of death and potential suffering in the afterlife. This fear of what lies beyond life leads to inaction, which he associates with cowardice.
  • Conscience and Moral Cowardice: Hamlet’s conscience weighs heavily upon him. He sees inaction against his father’s murderer as a moral failing, a different kind of cowardice. His conscience, fueled by his desire to uphold his father’s memory and ideals, prevents him from rash action but also tortures him.
  • The Cowardice of Overthinking: Phillips might also suggest that Hamlet is trapped in a paralysis of excessive contemplation. Overthinking, questioning every motivation and potential outcome, becomes another form of cowardice, preventing him from taking decisive action.

“Conscience makes cowards of us all.” The cowardly part of ourselves is like a person who must not have a new experience.\

Self-criticism is a judgment without a jury. The self-criticism, if it weren’t useful for self correcting, is self-hypnosis. It is an order not a recommendation.

The superego is the supreme narcissist; it is a boring soliloquist with an audience of one.

What is self-criticism for?

  • Alternatives to self-criticism: The lecture suggests self-praise as an alternative to self-criticism. Instead of dwelling on our shortcomings, we should focus on celebrating our accomplishments. This can help us develop a more positive self-image. By praising ourselves, we challenge the negative judgments of our super-ego and cultivate a more compassionate inner voice.
  • Lacan’s view on self-criticism: The lecture also mentions Jacques Lacan, a Freudian psychoanalyst, who believed that people misunderstand Freud’s concept of love. According to Lacan, Freud saw stories about love, like the story of Christ, as a way to cover up our ambivalence. This ambivalence can manifest as self-criticism; we criticize ourselves out of a complex mix of love and hate for ourselves.
  • Befriending Our Conscience: He proposes: “If only we could catch our conscience like a fish or a criminal, and then befriend that part of ourselves…”
  • Alternative Selves within Us: He suggests psychoanalysis can help us realize, “…that fragmented, fragmentary repository of alternative selves that are like a troupe of actors. Not so much to get rid of any of them, but to see them for who they possibly are.”
  • The Limits of Traditional Psychoanalysis: Phillips acknowledges that not all psychoanalytic approaches are suitable. He critiques forms of psychoanalysis focused solely on uncovering a singular, hidden truth about ourselves, as this can sometimes reinforce a self-critical narrative.


Phillips’s viewpoint on psychoanalysis in addressing self-criticism:

  1. Understanding, not Eradicating, Our Inner Critic: Phillips advocates understanding the origin and function of our harsh inner critic rather than trying to simply eliminate it. By “befriending” our conscience, we can lessen its power over us.
  2. Discovering Inner Complexity: Central to his argument is that we are not a monolith. Psychoanalysis should help us discover multiple “selves” within us with varying motivations. This challenges the relentless narrative of our inner critic, leading to a more nuanced self-understanding.
  3. The Importance of Approach: Phillips highlights that choosing the right type of psychoanalysis matters. He favors approaches that value multiplicity and interpretation over uncovering a singular “real” self which the superego might latch onto in its critiques.

How This Connects to Self-Criticism

Phillips suggests psychoanalysis can help us:

  • Gain Agency: By understanding the origins of our inner critic, we realize it’s not an objective truth but a construct influenced by our past and unconscious dynamics. This knowledge gives us power to choose whether to listen to it or not.
  • Develop Self-Compassion: Recognizing the complexity of our inner world, including both positive and negative aspects, allows us to be gentler towards ourselves. We no longer see ourselves purely through the lens of the critical superego.
  • Shift Our Narrative: Psychoanalysis, when done well, offers alternative interpretations of our actions and motivations. This helps us develop a new, less self-critical story about ourselves.

What Is Self-Criticism For?

  • Alternatives Exist: Phillips promotes self-praise to counter negativity, cultivating a kinder inner voice.
  • Lacan on Love: Lacan saw stories of love as masking deeper ambivalence, which can manifest as self-criticism.
  • Psychoanalytic Solutions
    • Befriending the Critic: “If only we could catch our conscience like a fish or a criminal, and then befriend that part of ourselves…” Understanding the origins of our inner critic lessens its power.
    • Inner Complexity: “…that fragmented, fragmentary repository of alternative selves…” Psychoanalysis helps us see the multiple facets of ourselves, not just the flaws.
    • Choosing Wisely: Not all psychoanalytic approaches are helpful. Look for those that emphasize multiple perspectives rather than uncovering a singular negative truth.

My Comments

Maybe it’s my self-critic, and I am taking a bit of time to digest the contents of this lecture, before adding my input. I love Phillips’ writing and thoughts on the topic of self-criticism. The self-critic is a phenomenon in the therapy room that has got me feeling oftentimes stuck as a practitioner… What with two punishing super-egos in the therapeutic dyad! Listening to his lecture is like untangling a bunch of wires. I do, however, have evolving thoughts on this, and will write more in time… watch this space.


Phillips, A. (2014, May 13). Against self-criticism [Video]. YouTube.

Decoding Envy: Carveth

A Look at the Destructive and Creative Sides

Envy, a complex emotion often shrouded in secrecy, takes center stage in this video by Don Carveth. Carveth, a prominent figure in the field of psychoanalysis, delves into the nature of envy, exploring its destructive and constructive potential. By drawing on the works of Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein, he sheds light on the dynamics of this powerful emotion.

Defining Envy: Desire and the Other

Carveth opens the video with a straightforward definition of envy: “Envy is the wish to have something that you lack that another person seems to possess.” This definition highlights the core element of envy – a yearning for something another possesses, coupled with a sense of lack within oneself. Carveth emphasizes the presence of another person in the equation, differentiating envy from jealousy. “[Envy] involves two people,” he clarifies, “whereas jealousy involves three.”

Carveth illustrates the distinction using the Freudian concept of the Oedipus complex. In this complex, a young boy develops an unconscious desire for his mother and jealousy towards his father, whom he perceives as a rival for her affection. This scenario exemplifies the triangular dynamic of jealousy, where the envious person desires something (the mother’s love) that another person (the father) possesses.

The Two Faces of Envy: Destruction and Growth

Carveth then delves into the work of Melanie Klein, a prominent psychoanalyst who explored the dynamics of early childhood development. Klein proposed a fascinating, albeit controversial, perspective on envy. According to Carveth, Klein believed that “envy can be destructive and can lead to spoiling the envied person or object.” This destructive aspect of envy manifests when the envious individual, consumed by their desire, seeks to damage or diminish the envied person or object.

However, Klein also recognized a constructive side to envy. Carveth explains, “She [Klein] also acknowledged that envy can be constructive and can motivate people to improve themselves.” In this scenario, envy serves as a catalyst for personal growth. The desire to possess something another has can propel the individual to strive for improvement, to bridge the gap between their current state and the desired state.

The Cycle of Envy and Hate: A Controversial View

Carveth then delves into a contentious aspect of Kleinian theory. Klein suggested that when a person feels threatened by a “bad object” (something or someone perceived as harmful), they might turn to a “good object” (someone perceived as safe and loving) for comfort. However, according to Klein, this seeking of comfort can paradoxically lead to hatred directed at the good object. Carveth explains this concept: “They [the person] may also start to hate the good object because of its goodness.” This potentially creates a vicious cycle where the individual, trapped between envy and hatred, struggles to find solace.

Reframing the Narrative: Envy and Withholding

Carveth challenges Klein’s explanation for hating the good object. He proposes an alternative perspective: “They [the person] may hate the good object not because of its goodness, but because they perceive it as withholding something from them.” This reframing suggests that the hatred stems not from the good object’s inherent qualities, but from a perceived lack of fulfillment. The individual feels the good object is not providing them with what they desire, leading to frustration and resentment.

Carveth’s alternative explanation resonates with the idea of envy as a desire for something lacking. If the good object is perceived as withholding the desired object, it becomes a target for the envious person’s negative emotions. This perspective underscores the importance of clear communication and addressing underlying needs within relationships to prevent the buildup of envy and resentment.

The Antidote to Envy: Cultivating Gratitude

Carveth concludes the video on a hopeful note, introducing the concept of gratitude as a potential antidote to envy. He emphasizes, “Gratitude can be a helpful antidote to envy. If we can be grateful for what we have, we will be less likely to envy others.” By cultivating an attitude of gratitude, we shift our focus from what we lack to appreciating what we possess. This shift in perspective can foster contentment and reduce the sting of envy.

Carveth’s video offers a thought-provoking exploration of envy, highlighting its destructive and constructive potential. By understanding the dynamics of envy, we can learn to manage this complex emotion and cultivate a more fulfilling and grateful approach to life.

Carveth: Psychoanalytic Perspective of Anxiety

This blog post is based on a video by Don Carveth titled “ANXIETY” uploaded on August 7th, 2018. In the video, Carveth discusses anxiety from a psychoanalytic perspective, drawing on the works of Sigmund Freud, Melanie Klein, and other prominent figures in the field.

Unrecognized and Repressed Anger: A Common Thread in Anxiety

Carveth begins by highlighting the prevalence of anger among individuals struggling with anxiety, which often goes unrecognized and repressed. He argues that therapists often misinterpret anxiety as stemming from past trauma, overlooking the possibility that it might be a defense mechanism against unwanted anger.

Freud’s Evolving Theories of Anxiety

Carveth then delves into Freud’s early theory of anxiety, which he calls the “toxicological theory.” This theory proposes that anxiety arises from dammed-up libido, or sexual energy. Carveth explains that Freud later abandoned this theory and instead came to view anxiety as a product of repressed emotions, specifically focusing on two types of anxiety:

  • Traumatic anxiety (or automatic anxiety): This type of anxiety stems from feelings of helplessness and overwhelm in the face of a traumatic situation. Carveth uses the example of a newborn experiencing the trauma of birth.

“According to Freud’s ‘toxicological theory,’ anxiety arises from dammed-up libido, or sexual energy,” Carveth explains. “However, he later abandoned this theory and instead came to view anxiety as a product of repressed emotions.”

  • Signal anxiety: This type of anxiety serves as a warning signal of an impending danger, prompting the individual to take action to avoid it.

Challenging the Notion of Birth Trauma as the Sole Cause of Anxiety

Carveth critiques the work of Otto Rank, who believed that all anxiety could be traced back to the trauma of birth. Carveth argues against this notion, emphasizing that while the birth experience may be a prototype for anxiety, it is not the sole cause.

“While the birth experience may be a prototype for anxiety, it is not the sole cause,” Carveth argues.

The Superego’s Role in Anxiety and Guilt

The video then explores the concept of the superego and its role in generating anxiety and guilt. Carveth distinguishes between the superego and the conscience, explaining that the superego is punitive and judgmental, while the conscience fosters concern for others. He argues that repressing anger can lead to the development of a harsh superego, which manifests as persecutory anxiety and guilt.

“Repressing anger can lead to the development of a harsh superego, which manifests as persecutory anxiety and guilt,” Carveth argues.

Existential Anxiety: The Burden of Freedom

Carveth concludes the video by discussing the existential perspective on anxiety. He acknowledges the burden of freedom and the inherent anxieties associated with it. He argues that attempting to escape these anxieties through various means, such as seeking external guidance or numbing oneself through medication, is ultimately counterproductive. Instead, he emphasizes the importance of facing and accepting existential anxieties as part of the human condition.

“Existential anxiety is a product of the burden of freedom,” Carveth concludes. “Attempting to escape these anxieties is counterproductive. Instead, we must face and accept them as part of the human condition.”

A Thought-Provoking Exploration of Anxiety

Overall, Carveth’s video offers a thought-provoking exploration of anxiety from a psychoanalytic lens. He challenges traditional interpretations of anxiety and emphasizes the significance of recognizing and processing repressed emotions, particularly anger, in the therapeutic process.

It is important to note that this blog post summarizes the key points from the video but does not substitute for watching the entire video, which provides a more nuanced and detailed discussion of the topic.

I hope this blog post summary provides a helpful introduction to the key ideas explored in Don Carveth’s video on anxiety. If you want to learn more about this topic, I encourage you to watch the entire video.

Unconscious feelings and countertransference within the Therapeutic Alliance 

To illustrate how a therapist’s emotions towards client, though brought to awareness and allowed to be revealed, can also be mistaken for authentic reaction to the client’s process, a mentor of mine, in a private lecture on experiences of unconscious effects on a therapist in therapy sessions, narrated a rather simple story he entitled, Chanel No. 5: the client, a middle-aged woman had come to therapy to work on very traumatic and emotionally tragic experiences in her life. The therapist found himself deeply moved by her experiences, and would find himself in tears each time she entered his practice. He questioned his emotionality towards the client only weeks later because he, like many would have, assumed that he was naturally moved by the client’s plight. He subsequent­ly noticed the client’s perfume as she entered the office and asked her what she was wearing. ”Chanel No. 5”, she replied, which was the same perfume his beloved mother had worn for most part of her life. 

In the story, the client instilled emotions in the therapist in which the therapist was unaware of. This gets interpreted somewhat inaccurately at first until the therapist was able to come to a self-awareness. This kind of experience faced by therapists is termed by Freud in a 7 June 1909 letter to Carl Jung, as countertransference, to which Freud explains, “(s)uch experiences, though painful, are necessary and hard to avoid. (…) (W)e need to dominate ‘countertransference’, which is after all a permanent prob­lem for us; they teach us to displace our own affects to best advantage. They are a ‘blessing in disguise’” (Freud, 1909). The unconscious nature of countertransference makes it difficult for the analyst to differentiate between the analyst’s own unresolved difficulties and emotional reactions and impressions that come to the the therapist’s consciousness that are activated by the projective identification of the client. 

While unlike Freud and Klein who considered strong countertransference feelings to have negative affect on analysis and something analysts should work on by gaining more insight into themselves instead, many analysts like Bion have found usefulness in the phenomena. Therapists of the intersubjective and relational schools share counter­transference that they have (and are aware of) as a means to bring authentic contact to the alliance. 

Awareness of therapist’s countertransference is supportive to the therapeutic process 

Countertransference, with awareness, supports rather than interferes with the therapist’s work. Freud’s mention of the need to “dominate” countertransference, can be taken as a call to be aware of dealing with the emotions within the alliance rather than rejecting them and becoming emotionally detached. Heinmann (1950, p. 81) considers this use of countertransference as “one of the most important tools for his/her work. The analyst’s counter-transference is an instrument of research into the patient’s unconscious” as a means of bringing to consciousness of the client what he/she does (consciously or un­consciously) to “get under the analyst’s skin”. How can the awareness of countertrans­ference experienced by the therapist be an advantage to the therapeutic alliance?

“(T)he analysis of the transference, i.e., that part of it which deals with the breaking down of the resistances, constitutes the most im­portant piece of analytic work.”

Wilhelm Reich, 1945/1984, p. 5

The answer is explained by Racker (1953) who acknowledged that the therapist may react emotionally to a patient’s enactments or behavior or personality, but he/she is not prevented from “identifying him/(her)self intellectually with his/(her) defense mecha­nisms and object images”. When the therapist is aware of his/her own emotional reac­tion, this countertransference is actually instrumental into “bringing to his notice a psy­chological fact about the patient” for the feelings helps the therapist to detect the pres­ence of the client’s psychological games. Even though the countertransference feelings are neurotic, the therapist who is aware of this is able to react with understanding. For this understanding to be possible, Racker adds, the therapist has to first analyze and overcome his/her own situation and be able to identify him/herself with the patient’s ego. Within the therapeutic alliance and hour, the patient reenacts and recreates situa­tions that are recurrent in his/her daily situations. These undisclosed and undetected activities, is an unconscious means of avoiding the therapeutic process, and thus “prompted by a desire to retain a defensive organization and probably to recruit the ana­lyst into its personnel” (Britton, 2003, p. 77). In order for the impasse to be broken and the “enactments” to discontinue and therapeutic work can progress, Britton suggests that “until the enactment is recognized and described, the belief system that lies behind it cannot be disclosed, but, at the same time, until the patient’s beliefs that drive it are disclosed the enactment will continue” (Mawson, 2011, p. 4-15). 

Transference and countertransference is a phenomenon in the therapeutic alli­ance, Racker’s comment— quoted also in Britton (2003, p. 55)— highlights the attitude towards acceptance of this human condition and working with it’s existence in psycho­therapeutic relationship: “The neurotic (obsessive) ideal of objectivity leads to repres­sion and blocking of subjectivity and so to the myth of the … ‘analyst without anxiety or anger’ The other neurotic extreme is that of drowning in countertransference. True objectivity is based upon a form of internal division that enables the analyst to make himself (his own countertransference and subjectivity) the object of his continuous ob­servation and analysis” (Racker H. , 1968, p. 132). Objectivity, in many respects, is the priced commodity in psychotherapy. If the therapist is caught up in countertransference and is unaware of the fact, his/her endeavors to work with the clients in an objective manner would be unproductive. 

Objectivity as a concept itself needs some careful consideration. For this we can turn to Maturana & Varela (1980): “(O)bjective knowledge seems possible and through objective knowledge the universe appears systematic and predictable”. Objective knowledge, according to the authors, seems possible. It is prized for the very fact that it gives the impression of predictability. When things are systematic and predictable, we feel safe. The authors go on to explain: “Yet knowledge as an experience is something personal and private that cannot be transferred.” The explanation for this is that objec­tive knowledge must be created by the listener. The listener understands and the objec-tive knowledge appears to be transferred (p. 5). The therapist therefore needs to be aware of this phenomenon: that the information being shared between him/herself and the client is experienced and mentally processed by both parties. The reality is, howev­er, that the assumption that common understanding is achieved is only apparent. 

The benefit of keeping this in mind to the therapist is that he/she will be constant­ly on guard and self reflective of his role as observer. The therapist as an observer is part of the system (in this case the client) in which he/she is observing. Since he/she communicates with the client and the client communicates back, and the client is also the observer in return. “Anything said is said by an observer” (p. 8). The observer can­not but interact with the system; the observer is also observed. 

The observer, if self-reflective, is also able to observe him/herself. So in the ther­apeutic setting, the therapist has the work of observing two individuals: the client and himself. What is achieved is a hermeneutic and cyclical process of understanding. This is discussed later in the paper. Maturana & Varela explains this as such: “If an organism can generate a communicative description and then interact with its own state of activity that represents this description, generating another such description that orients towards this representation…, the process can in principle be carried on in a potentially infinite recursive manner” (p. 29). 

This back-forth movement of allowing experiences (via emotions) to occur and then stepping away from the self in acknowledgment and understanding of what has arisen. This acknowledgment of “what-is” happening at the moment describes what Gestalt therapy literature describes as the paradoxical theory of change (Beisser, 1970), whereby healing change happens not by forcefully eliciting change itself (in this case, by repression or ignorance), but by understanding and acknowledging what is happen­ing to the self at the moment. Through assimilation of the situation, in the case of a countertransference effect encountered by the therapist, the therapist is able to under­stand what is going on in him/her. The clarity of this self awareness and acceptance empowers the therapist to overcome and make informed choices. Self-awareness has much to do with being in contact with the self, existentially, in the here-and-now. This is a phenomenological attitude in observing what-is in the present in contact with the client, while being conscious of one’s own biases. 

With the awareness of the self as observer, there will also be an awareness that the other person is different; the other person actually processes his/her own objective knowledge. We will be able to appreciate that there is room for questioning and discuss­ing the ‘facts’ and ‘truisms’, and to investigate the differences between the self and the other. Resnick (2016) tells us that it is the differences between two individuals that ini­tiate the contact. Without awareness and acceptance of these differences—as often hap­pens when people operate in confluent relationships— there is no sense of the other person for who he/she is. Confluent relationships result in the feeling of loneliness in the presence of others, because there is a push for consensus and the authentic presence of persons are thereby not felt. In therapy, this kind of relationship happens when client tries to please therapist and therapist tries to help client. Both try to find compliancy without first looking at the differences. The result is often an alliance without real con­tact.


Beisser, A. (1970). The paradoxical theory of change. In Gestalt therapy now (pp. 77-80).

Britton, R. (2003). Sex, death, and the superego: Experiences in psychoanalysis. Karnac Books.

Freud, S. (1909). Letter to Jung. The Freud-Jung Letters. Princeton University Press.

Heimann, P. (1950). On counter-transference. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis.

Maturana, H. R., & Varela, F. J. (1980). Autopoiesis and cognition: The realization of the living. London, England: D. Reidel Publishing.

Mawson, C. (2011). Introduction: Bion today—Thinking in the field. In Bion Today.

Racker, H. (1968). Transference and Countertransference . London: Karnac.

Reich, W. (1945/1984). Character Analysis (3rd ed.). (M. H. Raphael, Ed., & V. R. Carfagno, Trans.) NY: Farrar, Straus and Girouy.

Resnick, R. (2016). New Contemporary Gestalt Therapy Demonstration Films. Vimeo.

Reich’s Case Examples: Process vs. content in the psychotherapeutic dialogue

Wilhelm Reich, in Character Analysis (1945/1984), illustrates the importance of working on the process of the therapeutic relationship – i.e. what is going on between therapist and client— before jumping into analytical work. Reich points out that neurotic character traits— being symptoms as the result of the failure of the individual to resolve the unconscious conflict between repressed instinctual demands and the ego forces that work against these instinctual demands— need to be worked with first before the client is able to benefit from any analytical work. Reich explains that interpretation is the process of bringing that which is unconscious into consciousness. However, the problem lay in “counter-cathexes”— which can be explained as strict censor of thoughts and desires in the preconscious— that critically selects the thought process of the client, rendering it difficult for the client to freely associate. At the same time, it is the need of the patient’s unconscious to find release for this conflict through contact with the analyst (as it is a need for an individual to contact any other individual or situation). The result is an establishment of a relationship with the therapist that is prompted by love, hate or fear— what is known as transference. This can come in two main forms: 1) positive transference, whereby there is cooperation/compliance by the client due to positive feelings and 2) negative transference, where the treatment is impeded due to ill feelings the client has toward the alliance.

Reich points out that while negative transference is easier to detect – since it works against and irritates the therapist’s intentions— as something to work on, positive transference is as important – or even more important.

Positive transference often gets mistaken for progress until the positive feelings ultimately transform into disappointment. For this reason, it is observed that the tendency of the therapist to begin analyzing every material that the client presents prematurely, to rely on the routine passage of therapy sessions, without considering the effects of transference, is not effective in bringing about a resolution to unconscious conflicts and does not make for a successful healing alliance.

Reich writes, “If the analyst interprets the material in the sequence in which it appears in each case, whether or not the patient is deceiving, using the material as a camouflage, concealing an attitude of hate, laughing up his sleeve, is emotionally blocked, etc., he (the analyst) will be sure to run into hopeless situations. Proceeding in such a way, the analyst is caught in a scheme which is imposed on all cases, without regard to the individual requirements of the case, with respect to the timing and depth of the necessary interpretations” (p. 8). In other words, it is almost impossible for the therapist to distinguish authentic, useful narrated content from, perhaps, words that are used to manipulate the therapeutic situation or relationship, unless the underlying situation of the relationship itself is understood. It could be difficult to be sure of what goes on in a relationship of which one is part. For the therapist, time, together with an attitude of patient, phenomenological observation, allows the therapist to gain experience of being with the client. Setting aside this time helps the therapist to understand what is in between them and the patient.

Reich’s case examples

In the third chapter of Character Analysis entitled On the Technique of Interpretation and of Resistance (p. 21-38), Reich provides snippets of case studies. These examples help us to understand what Reich means by working on what Freud calls the forces of “resistance and transferences” that interfere with the attempt at analysis before jumping into analyzing the content of the client’s narratives— and the “chaotic situation” that can happen when attention to this is not observed. The case examples cited revealed instances where therapy sessions did not help the patient because the therapist failed to notice and observe resistances due to transference— and character— but instead delved into (or attempted to delve into) interpretation right away, without preparing the client – and therapist himself— for the analytical work first. I shall discuss some of the cases, and briefly discuss what kind of questions could have been asked by the therapist in the situations.

Case 1

“A patient who suffered from an inferiority complex and self-consciousness enacted his impotence by adopting an apathetic attitude (“What’s the use?”). Instead of divining the nature of this resistance, clarifying it, and making conscious the deprecatory tendency concealed behind it, I told him again and again that he did not want to cooperate and had no desire to get well. I was not entirely unjustified in this, but the analysis was not successful because I failed to probe further into his “not wanting” because I did not make an effort to understand the reasons for his “not being able to.” Instead, I allowed myself to be trapped into futile reproaches by my own inability” (ibid. p. 23).

The therapist, frustrated at the client’s perceived non-cooperation failed to acknowledge the process of how the client was unconsciously avoiding the work; by resigning to the belief that there was “no use”. This resignation in itself is the defense mechanism and the ripe material for the work. In trying to fish for cooperation from the client, the therapist missed what was present that could be worked on, as the therapist himself points out: (see above: to probe further into his “not wanting” because I did not make an effort to understand the reasons for his “not being able to.”). The therapist, when unaware of his own need to get cooperation, was in danger of re-enforcing the resignation and breaking contact with the client. Working on the here-and-now, the therapist in such a situation may ask the following questions that address the client’s resignation, and perhaps his lack of will to even try. These questions may lead the therapist and client to a deeper understanding of phenomena in the alliance itself: “what does it mean for you when you say ‘what’s the use’?”, “what would you imagine could happen if you tried?”, “what would it mean if you tried and failed?”, “I am interested to know if would you like to try for a couple of minutes and see how?” “If not, what can I do/not do to help you work this out?”.

Case 2:

“In still another case, it happened that in a dream during the second week of treatment the incest fantasy appeared quite clearly and the patient himself recognized its true meaning. For a whole year, I heard nothing more about it; consequently, there was no real success. However, I had learned that at times material that is emerging too rapidly has to be suppressed until the ego is strong enough to assimilate it” (ibid. p. 24).
What appears to be material, in this case, a narration of a dream may be a way of resistance from being seen through story-telling. It is an example of a therapist focusing on “content”, which is the dream story, and not noticing the “process” which is the fact that the client is telling the story in the first place. The content is enticing. The process is invisible. Unawares, the therapist missed the resistance because it is embedded in the process of what is being said. It would be helpful to ask the client questions that bring him back to the alliance: “I’m hearing your dream and it is really interesting to me that you are so clear about it, and my instinct is to ask you more about it. I’m just curious, what is it you want me to know from this?” “What is important right now for us to work on with regard to what you just said?” or “What is it like for you to tell me this?” With these questions, the client will have a choice to either work deeper into what is really disturbing him about the dream (if at all), or, he may reveal his need to impress or help the therapist by being unduly cooperative as in positive transference (as will be discussed later).

Case 3:

“A case of erythrophobia failed because I pursued the material which the patient offered in every direction, interpreting it indiscriminately, without first having clearly eliminat- ed the resistances. They eventually appeared, of course, but much too strongly and cha- otically; I had used up my ammunition; my explanations were without effect; it was no longer possible to restore order” (ibid. p. 24).
In this case it is an example of the therapist focusing on content, and unsystemat- ically using this content for analysis. The therapist probably failed to notice the process that was going on, i.e. the fact that there is so much unsystematic work in progress with- in the alliance itself. Possible way to make good the “chaos” is to stop and acknowledge the chaos ensuing. “I notice that we are doing much here and it feels chaotic. I am inter- ested to know what you are experiencing right now.” It may be also useful to check out how not interpreting can help the client. In this case, where a symptom “erythrophobia” is clearly acknowledged, the alliance could be a place for experimentation in the here- and-now— like inviting the client to blush “for a moment”, or what would the client think if he saw the therapist blush— to help the client gain confidence within the alliance.

Case 4:

“Another patient, in the course of three years of analysis, had recalled the primal scene together with all material pertaining to it, but not once had there been any loosening of his affect-paralysis, not once had he accused the analyst of those feelings which- however, emotionless-he harboured toward his father. He was not cured” (ibid. p. 23).
This case is representative of situations whereby the patient seems to have the full acknowledgement of the unconscious material. The therapist is satisfied, but the client is not helped even after 3 years. Reich highlights the importance of the patient embody- ing the experience— feeling the emotions and physical reactions as if reliving the past— rather than simply intellectualizing the recall. Intellectualizing memories, which is easily observed because there is a lot of “talking about” without affect, is really aform of resistance; a way to satisfy the therapeutic process while escaping pain. In ge- stalt therapy, this defense strategy is called “egotism”. Egotism is characterized by the individual stepping out of himself, acting as a spectator or commentator of himself and his relationship with the environment (Clarkson, 2014, p. 65). This is what is happening to the client is this case. This resistance often gets overlooked by therapist because they are sidetracked by “interesting” client narratives. Noticing the interruption is a way to slow down the narratives and show the client that he/she is avoiding something poten- tially difficult to deal with.

Case 5:

“A patient with a number of perversions had been under analysis for eight months, dur- ing which time he had rattled on incessantly and had yielded material from the deepest layers of his unconscious. This material had been continuously interpreted. The more it was interpreted, the more copiously flowed the stream of his associations. Finally, the analysis had to be broken off for external reasons, and the patient came to me… It struck me that the patient uninterruptedly produced unconscious material, that he knew, for instance, how to give an exact description of the most intricate mechanisms of the simple and double Oedipus complex. I asked the patient whether he really believed what he was saying and what he had heard. “Are you kidding!” he exclaimed. “I really have to contain myself not to burst out laughing at all this” (ibid. S.26).

Here, Reich gives another example of a “knowledgeable” and “cooperative” cli- ent whose knowledge and cooperativeness was the resistance itself. Reich explains this behavior to be of narcissistic defense. The therapist is unaware of what Reich describes as “latent resistance”, which he explains are “attitudes on the part of the patient which are not expressed directly and immediately”, but expressed indirectly. The patient’s negative regard towards the therapy (i.e. feelings of doubt, apathy, distrust, etc.) is disguised under the cloak of exceptional docility, or complete cooperation. Reich says that this is “more dangerous” than passive resistance, and the way to handle such situations is to tackle it as it happens, without hesitating to interrupt the flow of communication. Our challenge as therapist is to first notice that such-like phenomena are taking place. It is from this vantage point that Reich emphasizes the topic of character.

Reich’s advice on avoiding “chaotic situations”

Reich tells us that through this process, can we avoid what he terms “chaotic situations” which occurs as the result of:

Premature interpretation and work on unconscious materials, and symbols. Resistance to the therapy itself, when not yet exposed, prevents the patient from assimilating the work. The client ends up “going in circles completely untouched” (p. 26): This phenomenon can be explained as egotism in gestalt therapy. Egotism is a defense strategy whereby the client’s ego distances it- self from the experience, and sees the self from a distance, as if he/she is look at another person. This situation of the client going in circles may help to explain why some clients, though compliant, do not seem to get better.

“Interpretation of the material in the sequence in which it yields itself, without due consideration to the structure of the neurosis and the stratification of the material” (p. 27): The mistake happens in interpretation, because the ma- terial is not worked through in it’s full context, but worked on in unsystemat- ic fragments, leading to loss of meaning.

“The analysis is embroiled not only because interpretations are pursued in every direction but also because this is done before the cardinal resistance has been worked through” (p. 27): The main problem here is due to the re- sistance not being acknowledged and worked through before interpretation is done. The situation becomes confused when the work is entangled with the relationship to the analyst. The unsystematic interpretation works in a vi- cious circle to affect the transference relationship further.

“The interpretation of the transference resistances is not only unsystematic but also inconsistent“ (p. 27): When there is a lack of acknowledgment of the power of the client’s resistance (and latent transference resistances) to need to conceal resistances. These resistances are also masked behind “ster- ile accomplishments or acute reaction formations” i.e. the client may seem to be cooperative, show signs that there is the change in direction expected, or the client may react to analysis in a way so as to deflect from getting to the authentic unconscious material. Therapists may tend to shy away from developing and following up consistently on these resistances in whatever form, due to their own feelings of discomfort (their own resistances) in dealing with the transference resistances in a consistent manner.

It is from the understanding of the effect of transference, that we may be able to appreciate the challenge of being aware of how the interpersonal feelings in the alliance get in the way of therapeutic work.

Click to access Helbig_2017_Bachelor_Thesis-nh-s-p.pdf


Chew-Helbig, N. (2017). The Psychotherapeutic Alliance and Change: A discussion on the healing aspects in a psychotherapeutic relationship. Bachelor Thesis.

Chew-Helbig, N. Analyzing a Gestalt Psychotherapy Session Using the Helbig Method of Dialogue Analysis (HELDA). URL:

Clarkson, P. (2003). The Therapeutic Relationship. London: Whurr Publishers.

Reich, W. (1945/1984). Character Analysis (3rd ed.). (M. H. Raphael, Ed., & V. R. Carfagno, Trans.) NY: Farrar, Straus and Girouy.