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Written by: Nicole Chew-Helbig on 15 June 2017 in Vienna, Austria.
This case study is an abstract from a therapeutic work. It is a demonstration how a recall of the client’s favorite novel as a teenager develops into a psychotherapeutic session that is meaningful to the clients identification of himself. This is a technique usually used for working with dreams in Gestalt therapy, in which the client plays the parts (makes projections) of his dream. In this case it is not the dream, but the novel.
Case study: CL’s Novel
CL works in a publishing company. He reports having problems with procrastination. Although quite successful at his job, he struggles making datelines. He finds himself delaying getting things done till the last minute, which sees himself sitting up till early hours of the morning smoking cigarettes. This is an excerpt of a Gestalt Therapy Session. Throughout this article, the principles of Gestalt Therapy adopted in this session are also explained in this color.
NC: Now can you bring to mind a moment in which the word “procrastination” feels familiar?
CL: (Contemplates…) Yes. I had to write a short article for the company’s blog. It was in morning, I took out the PC, but then I did instead some online shopping.
NC: Stay with the feeling of the moment before you switch to online shopping.
“Staying with the feeling” is an approach in GT where the narrative (which is usually an intellectual process) is embodied into experience.
CL: I feel anxious.
NC: This familiar to you?… stay with it. Can you remember a time in your childhood when you felt something like this?
CL: In school. It was Math, and I had homework. The teacher wasn’t pleased, I made mistakes I did not understand…
This narrative goes on, and we talked about anxiety about what he considered “small criticism”. This recall of the past is a “free association”. The experienced client knows how to take memories or images that pop up in the moment and vocalize them. Sometimes these associations do not seem to make sense at the moment, but these usually do.
NC: Stay with this anxiety again… much earlier… maybe at home…
CL: Nothing special, really, I am just having a picture of a dirty bicycle. I was 8 or 9, it is my bicycle. I was supposed to clean it, but I didn’t want to do it.
NC: You had to do it, but you do not want to do it now?
CL had used the present tense, and I felt it is a good thing, so I followed with the present tense. This is a good opportunity to work with past experiences as if it were in the present. Actually this is how we live, with occurrences of our past popping up in the present.
NC: What would you rather have done?
CL: Read a book.
NC: Have you a book in mind?
CL: Yes. (mentioned a title of a book).
NC: Where would you go to read this book?
CL: In my bedroom.
NC: How does it feel to be in your bedroom reading this book?
CL: Relaxed, comfortable… safe.
Notice that he said “safe”. It seems to correlate with the “anxiety” behind the procrastination. This is an indication that sitting in the room, and reading that book is a way out of anxiety. At this point I could have gone back to the anxiety, and tried to work on it. My interest of the moment, however, took me to the curiosity about the book (which I will explain later why). This is working in the here-and-now. The therapist is following her own feelings of curiosity, and being present. This means that we may, at this juncture abandon trying to sort the problem of procrastination. In Gestalt, we work on what is present. The present is always changing. We do not try to force goals into the present or force the client to concentrate or dwell on issues that are not there at the moment.
NC: The title of this book got my interest, I have not heard of it before.
CL: (laughs). It is a very old novel. German novel about German brothers coming back from the 2nd World War, and the Russians came.
NC: You mentioned this book was comforting to you, a 9 year old.
CL: for some reason, yes.
The backstory here is, like many of his generation, CL’s estranged father was a soldier in the German NS. CL himself is a liberal (kind of left-wing writer). This information in background, now got my interest to this book preference CL as a child. The background is very important to the Gestalt therapist because we are interested in the foreground. The foreground is made clearer only when the background is complete.
NC: Tell me about the book…
CL: (laughs, a little more shakily. He goes to his phone, and searches this book on an online site. Makes some association:)
NC: What comes to mind…
CL: Two scenes. This guy talks to his buddy in prison about the time he was taken from his home by the Russians. He was in the garden of his parent’s home, and his mother had baked a cake. Then they came to take him away. (laughs) He tells his buddy that he wished now that he had taken the cake along with him. The other scene is that he tells his buddy, “now I hope the Americans come, and gets rid of the Russians, so that they can free us”).
CL, has made associations again. This I found to be interesting. The scenes have irony and are a bit funny. Freud in his writings, “Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewußten” or “Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious” , tell us that there is significant repressed unconscious material in jokes. We’ll see how this plays out…
NC: Could you play out the scene? Try. You are this guy talking to your buddy in prison. Say “I am in the garden of my parents, and my mother had baked a cake…”
Unlike psychoanalysis, where the therapist takes on the task of analyzing the joke for the client, in Gestalt Therapy, the client tells us his/her version of the story. This method is usually used in Dream analysis (or dream work) in Gestalt therapy. The client is invited to take a role in his dream (or in this case, story). His task is to talk in the first person. By this time, there was actually resistance on the part of the client. There were points in the session when CL started to intellectualizing, either by stepping out of the scene, or to make judgment of the scene, even though he was quite agreeable to doing this experiment of playing the part of the characters in his associations. Playing part in associations and dreams is usually uncomfortable for many people because they feel awkward, or they do not trust what they say or feel in this kind of work. My experience is that the client is seldom ever wrong in this sense.
CL: I am in the garden of my home. My parents are there. Mother has baked a cake.
NC: Tell me about the cake.
CL: Delicious. She baked it often.
NC: then what happened.
CL: Soldiers came to the gate, and took me away. Then I am in the prison talking…
NC: Slow down. What happened as they took you away…
CL: That is not in the book.
NC: They are at the gate, they ask you to come with them.
NC: What’s going on.
CL: I feel scared, I suppose.
NC: I can imagine.
CL: In I am not sure if I would ever come back.
NC: Yes. Now, come back here with me. Have you an understanding what is going on with this character in prison as told his buddy that he should have taken the cake along?
CL: He is scared, he wished his mother was there, he’s afraid he would never see her again.
NC: Would you like to work on the next scene?
NC: I am in prison and I hope…?
CL: I am in prison, I tell my buddy, I hope that the Americans come soon and drop bombs on the Russians.
NC: What is the purpose of that?
CL: to save us.
CL: We are trapped in prison.
NC: What does it mean to be in prison?
This part took a bit of time. We stayed with it together… Staying with the client’s pause is good point of contact. Contact is a very essential part of Gestalt therapy. It usually comes when the client touches something emotionally significant, and when the therapist is able to give support.
CL: No freedom… I am in danger… I am guilty… I feel hopeless… I feel helpless…
NC: in prison, no freedom, in danger, guilty…
The client, in his association, has come to contact with some deep feelings. These are unconscious until now. We can ask “what are you feeling guilty about…?”, but this might lead the client to intellectualizing. The cleaner path is to bring the client back to the present situation, the here-and-now.
NC: Tell me about what’s happening now. You being here with me now, we are talking now…
NC: are you in danger?
CL: no. I am safe.
CL: No… not hopeless nor helpless. (Takes a deep breath.)
Note that this is a condensed version of the dialogue. CL had a bit of difficulty with the associations at first, and this is normal. Why we worked these scenes is because they were freely associated, and my guess was that they had significance. The other clue that this was significant was the resistance of the client along the way of this experiment.
At the end of the dialogue, CL took a really deep breath reflexively. He looked calm, and said “I feel good”. “Fine,” I said, and we ended there.
This short session demonstrated a closing of a gestalt. The client had anxiety-related procrastination issues, and that led to a memory. This memory led to a group of unconscious feelings, which took solace is a kind of joke or wit, or an entitled way of thinking “I hope the Americans bombs the Russians..” These were also not fully owned by the client, since he attributes it to a story book. However, the client was really interested in the experiment, because he realized, too, that there was some kind of association between this story and his relationship to his father. The beauty of Gestalt therapy is that we help the client come to his own meanings and understanding through his experiencing and embodiment of the experience. The therapist’s work here was that of supporting, and not of prying.
In the following sessions we discussed this dialogue again in relation to CL’s relationship to his parents. There was even clearer understanding to the cultural significance of “jokes” or “making light” in tough situations. Also, there was a discussion about how we deal with anxiety and fear.
The rest of the associations with regards to this dialogue, I’ll leave it to you, the reader.