Gestalt Revival

This summer I participated in a Gestalt Retreat. The kind of many years ago. Gestalt had its hey day in the 1970’s and seems to have faded to the background.. an influence of many modern day therapeutic models, but in itself, largely unrecognized.

I am grateful to have this foundational influence in my experiential tool belt. It brought about much deep inner work and healing. The experience of doing 7 days of Gestalt in nature with a group of 15 people I had spent a year with, was extraordinary. On the 7th day a wounded deer came to the tent where I camped. It was as though it visited from a dream… I had a very powerful dream and did Gestalt dreamwork on it the night before.

That morning this deer visited my tent and scratched its hoof near my head. It remained in one position near me for hours. I got IONS staff to call the humane society and he was taken away for care. Later released into the wilds, he touched my heart forever, reminding me of gentleness and inviting a woundedness into my home and heart with acceptance. 

Gestalt is fundamentally relational. Relationship is based on contact and is inherently sought by mostly everyone. Gestalt views neurosis and pathology as a result of an inability for sufficient contact or organized withdrawal. Boundary disturbances are symptoms of this distortion of the point of contact. Human beings seek contact and connection, and it is at the point of contact that we can find how our boundaries work or fail to serve our wholeness.

Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt, maintains that neuroses occur at this contact boundary. Gestalt therapy regards neuroses as disturbances of the contact boundary. The self arises in contact and is largely defined by relational contact.

When our boundaries are disturbed we develop ways of coping to survive and survival becomes paramount sometimes trumping real contact. We shut down, withdraw, disassociate, project, merge all in the name of protecting our selves. Through Gestalt therapy we explore these mechanisms to bring more awareness to our patterning. Boundary disturbance impairs our ability to accurately perceive the present moment and it is this present moment that holds awareness and the key to healing. It is believed that with awareness of this, real change and growth can occur.

The awareness of boundary disturbances brings us to a closer awareness of how we operate in relationship and allows us to take more responsibility

This cancels out the need to blame. Blame is about the most destructive force possible, not only in relationship but in self growth. Awareness of projection, introjection, confluence and retrojection has helped me see through how I, and others, blame.

I distort my contact with another through blaming myself and others, thus bypassing responsibility. This can happen both subtly and overtly. Perls likens boundaries to metabolic processes.  When we metabolize our experience, we create opportunities for a deeper contact. This happens when boundary disturbances are resolved.  Healthy metabolism can give us energy and space to take in appropriately, digest and assimilate, and responsibility is a byproduct of this nourishment.

Perls talks about this process of metabolism like an organism consuming it’s experience. The healthy regulation of self happens at the contact boundary where the individual maintains awareness and discernment of their metabolism. We experience constant change and impermanence. We must metabolize this change through regulation. The boundary between ourselves and our environments must be permeable enough to allow exchanges, yet firm enough for autonomy. It seems there can be a balance between overly permeable (confluence) and rigid in our boundaries (retrojection).

Through introjection, foreign material is absorbed without discriminating or assimilating. It is known as“swallowing whole” (Perls, 1973, p. 32). Introjection is fully assimilating and absorbing everything without discretion. Perls describes this as: “.. what we swallow whole, what we accept indiscriminately, what we ingest and do not digest, is a foreign body, a parasite that is making its home in us. It is not part of us, even though it may look as if it is.” (Perls, 1973, p. 32) He likens this process to a student who crams the night before a test. There is a purpose to this indiscriminate swallowing whole, but it is not real learning.

We do not exercise our intelligence and whole self by blindly accepting whatever is given to us. It takes discrimination to really learn and use environmental influences to cultivate wholeness. An intervention that helps with this boundary disturbance would be for a client to learn how to assimilate what is needed and reject what is not.
The opposite of introjection, according to Perls, is Projection.  Projection is a confusion of self and other. It comes about from attributing to the outside something that is truly our self.

Projection is the tendency to make the environment responsible for what originates in the self. (Perls, 1973, p. 35). Perls likens this to paranoia.  When we are unable to take responsibility for our feelings and desires, we attach ourselves to objects in our environment. We are convinced that these objects seek to do to us what we want to do to them. When we become aware of projection we can begin to accept responsibility for that which is projected. Perls links introjection to projection: “It is our introjects that lead us to the feelings of self contempt and self-alienation that produce projection.” (Perls, 1973, p. 37).

When the individual feels no boundary at all between himself and his environment, when he feels that he and it are one, he is in confluence with it. Parts and whole are indistinguishable from one another. (Perls, 1973, p. 38). Here the boundary is not only too permeable as in introjection, but it hardly exists at all.

Here emmeshment and merger take place. “As he is unaware of the boundary between himself and others, he cannot make good contact with them. Nor can he withdraw from them. Indeed, he cannot even make contact with himself.” (Perls, 1973, p. 38). When our parts are too porous they are not able to perform their jobs properly. We are an undifferentiated mass, unknown to ourselves and others. There is no creative conflict, no catalyst for growth, and this need for sameness breeds total stagnation or impasse.

Retroflection, or “turning sharply against” (Perls, 1973, p. 40). Is the most rigid of boundaries. “The introjector does as others would like him to do, the projector does onto others what he accuses them of doing to him, the man in pathological confluence doesn’t know who is doing what to whom, and the reflector does to himself what he would like to do to others.” (Perls, 1973, p. 41).

The retroflector stops directing energy outward, redirecting it inward. This seems to me like passive aggression at best and suicide at worst; my environment is so out of control, the only control I can have is to harm myself. I cannot kill my environment so I try to kill myself. This mechanism leads to isolation. The illusion of self-sufficiency is one example of retroflection as it substitutes self connection for relational contact.

We can spiritually bypass our way into retroflection.

As I learned more about confluence and it’s sick familiarity in the Gestalt retreat, I saw how it provided a temporary antidote to the risk of differentiation.

There is anxiety around wanting something and my needs not being met. I would rather change or give up my needs than risk being different and breaking contact. Confluence can give a sense of making contact.  I loose myself by adapting my needs to fit with my significant other’s needs, hoping for contact. However, it is not real contact according Gestalt.  This giving up disempowers me and my wholeness is sacrificed for maintaing an illusionary status quo.

We can catch glimpses of wholeness, but as Buckminster Fuller said, we cannot solve the problem by using the system that created it. We must create a new system to make the old one outmoded. “In order to change an existing paradigm you do not struggle to try and change the problematic model. You create a new model and make the old one obsolete” (Buckminster Fuller).

Gestalt does provide an effective new system, but if appropriated through the old paradigm of individualism and reductionism, can run the risk of keeping us stuck in using our minds to get out of our problems. It depends on how we use awareness and address our limitations. The insights I have gained by exploring my own boundary disturbances have been profound. But I will not close the Gestalt here. I will continue exploring my shadow and look to fields that attempt to understand and reprogram the unconscious. I will study Gestalt further to use awareness as an integrated discipline to becoming more whole.

Works Cited:

Perls, Fritz. (1973). The Gestalt Approach. Science and Behavior Books. USA.

Buber, Martin. (1970). I and Thou. Touchstone. New York.

Fuller, Buckminster.


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