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Sequence of Contacting/Contact Continuum

One of the early contributions of Gestalt therapy theory was a phenomenological description of the sequence of contacting, from earliest arousal through action, through resolution. As with everything theoretical, there has been dispute and controversy regarding the details of this description. But I am less interested in the details of this formulation, and more interested in the frame that it gives us when looking at healthy behavior, and therefore at unhealthy behavior. Contact is the basic and essential experience of being aware of some element of the field (whether internal or external). It includes awareness of and behavior toward, and it is essential to consciousness, survival, and being human. So any awareness of some-thing is consciousness. And it is what allows us to be engaged with the world that is our de facto and life sustaining context. Contact tends to be organized around needs, whether the needs are biological, relational, intellectual, or whatever. We become aware of needs, whether through contact with a growling sensation in our stomach, which becomes hunger; or a pulsing sensation in our groin, which becomes lust; or a dryness in the mouth, which becomes thirst; or an open and whimsical feeling, which becomes playfulness, or… We start with a sensation that “catches” our awareness. This sensation, when noticed, becomes an expression of a need. So, dryness in the mouth and throat may be “figural”. But when we notice the dryness, it leads us to the need – so “thirst” becomes figural. And in noticing our thirst, we begin to “organize the field” around sources of quenching our thirst – so the bottle of water...

When the Right thing Is the Hard Thing

Life faces us with difficulties. Some difficulties are situational, where we live with danger or scarcity. Some difficulties are relational, where we deal with conflict or loss or loneliness. Some difficulties are physical, where we deal with injury or illness. Some difficulties are existential, where we are faced with our questions about what matters, about the meaning or meaningless we see in life. All of these difficulties require something of us. They require us to face, accept, and engage with the very thing that is causing us pain, fear, or hopelessness. And they require that we do so with faith in the possibility of moving through and past our painful present. We all have been faced with these experiences, most of us many times. Or we are faced with the possibility of pain should we assert our needs when the world seems unaccommodating. We often seek to avoid the possibility of being fully alive in order to avoid having to endure loss or shame or conflict. And when we avoid this, we avoid our vital selves, and seek to survive rather than to live. Or faced with a painful circumstance we may collapse or prematurely accommodate a diminished life. We often see these things, these circumstances, these experiences as the limits of our lives. They are barriers that are implanted and permanent. And, we think, who we are is determined and defined by them. So life becomes dull, or hopeless, or we accept that the emptiness we feel is “just how it is”. Patients often tell me of their unhappy marriages and conclude with letting me know that “nobody...

What Do You Want In A Therapist?

If you have arrived here, you probably are searching on the internet for a therapist. Many people search with some particular ideas in mind: they want a man, or a woman; older or younger; takes my insurance; is kind, wise, strong; shares my philosophy about life… And the good news is that many therapists have spent a good deal of time constructing web sites to let you know that they are out there and care about you and your well being. That is, if they knew you. They let you know that they can help people with anxiety, depression, relationship issues, eating disorders, work/career problems, sexual identity issues, and on. They have trained in CBT, DBT, Somatic Processing, EMDR, Imago, NLP, and any other new formulation that they can get credentialed in. They are of good will, and you are in need. But, what do you want in a therapist, really, that will make this a useful and growthful experience, that will not only rid you of the stuckness and symptoms that you are plagued with, but will also open up a deeper sense of who you are as a person, a richer sense of the world that you live in, and a possibility of a deeper more meaningful life? A compelling life that you are glad, yet challenged to wake up to every day? Is that CBT? DBT? EMDR? No, it is a person, who is interested, and trained to pay attention to who you are. A person who can enjoy your uniqueness, and how you connect to the world. And who can help you notice how you...

Aliveness

I spend the day sitting with patients. These are people who come to see me because they are aware (sometimes vaguely, sometimes acutely) that something is missing in their lives. These are intelligent people, educated, creative, moral, but missing something. They often blame themselves for feeling this nagging dissatisfaction. Or they mistake what they’re missing for some thing that they try to acquire – a shiny toy, a new geographical location, a new lover…But, these fixes are short lived. In their extreme, they become addictions which give brief moments of excitement or pleasure, followed by a heightened sense of loss and missing. And so, the need for repetition. What are people looking for? And what do many others trade away for the security of sameness? As I see it, it is the experience of aliveness – the feeling of energy and engagement, of this moment being a hallmark of the miracle of our time on this planet. It is the experience of each moment being fresh, of our relationship with the world being engaging, and of the experience of the inherent, compelling value of our being here. We learn to avoid this in order to maintain safety and familiarity. I often hear people tell me that they fear that if they open to this experience, their constructed world will shatter – marriages will dissolve, jobs and careers will explode, they will go crazy or die. The world will descend into chaos. Why do they think this? In part because of historical learning: because of real dangers or prohibitions that they have lived with, because of hurts that they have...

Comparing Basic Assumptions of Different Approaches to Psychotherapy

When we look at different approaches to psychotherapy, we are actually not looking at interchangeable strategies, techniques, or interventions. Each approach has its own set of theoretical, ethical, relational, and structural assumptions. And each set of assumptions leads to and even dictates the role of the therapist and the nature of the relationship between the therapist and the client. First, let’s look at the basic premise of some common approaches – Gestalt therapy, Psychoanalysis, Behavior therapy, Cognitive Behavioral therapy, and EMDR. We need to consider what is their way of looking at what people are, what their view of health is, and what their view of the nature of problems is: GT: Gestalt therapists see the field as constantly emergent, as are people. That means that people are not static, but are constantly developing, needing, responding. The Self is the purely emergent expression of the person/organism. But self and organism do not exist without an on-going contact with the field (the world around us). Problems come to exist when the fluid contact between the person and the “field” is interrupted in a chronic and unaware manner. PA: In classical psychoanalysis, people are seen as being a function of their past, and are determined by a history that they do not remember as they experienced it. Painful experiences and forbidden aspects of the person are repressed and exiled to the “unconscious” mind, where they control the person’s feelings and behavior. Symptoms and neurosis therefore result from excessive deposits in that repository. BT: Behavior therapy sees people as largely a complex set of stimulus/response circuits. Some are set improperly, and need...

Layers of the Neurotic Personality

In the late 1960’s Fritz Perls spoke about something he called “the layers of the neurotic personality”. It was essentially a phenomenological description of the experience, identifications, and behaviors of people who have substituted what he referred to as “character” for the fluid self. Perls saw “character” as being a product of adaptation to the expectations and requirements of the external world. This adaptation then becomes frozen, or reified, so that it is not a temporary adaptation, but rather a “self concept” which the person believes is who s/he “is”. So, while Perls (and Gestalt theory) saw a healthy “self” as that which is always forming, changing, and creatively adjusting with that which is new, “character” is stale, unchanging, and persistent. And, Perls believed, character is primarily responsible for people’s need to come to therapy – since their unchanging view of self and world interferes with their capacity to fluidly engage the changing world in the most optimal manner currently possible. So, Perls’ focus turned to looking at how people experience themselves and others in this rigidified way; how they tend to act, feel, think of themselves, effect others, and satisfy (or even know) their needs. Unfortunately, when he spoke of this, he was not particularly consistent when speaking of the particulars of his schema. Perls was not someone who was able (or perhaps interested) in focusing on details, but rather was taken with large, paradigm changing ideas. (Thus most of the writing of the original text “Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality” was done by Paul Goodman – to whom Perls gave his ideas for...