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Contact and creative adjustment


A critical concept in gestalt therapy is contact. This actually refers to a constant process rather than a specific state of being. At every moment of our lives, we are involved in the process of making contact with reality in some way. That can be other people, our environment, some aspect of ourselves. We don’t live in a vacuum; we live in a constantly changing situation in which we need to make and break contact with various things according to our needs at that point in time.

A second concept becomes critical at this point, so I will spend a paragraph describing that, then put the two together.

Creative adjustment

Creative adjustment is one of the primary activities of living. Because our situation is constantly changing, and because we are forever making and breaking contact with various aspects of our situation, it is necessary for survival that we creatively adjust to our present situation. Gestalt therapy uses the term creative adjustment to emphasise the active and spontaneous nature of this activity. Every second of every day, we are creatively adjusting to changes in our situation.

Creatively adjusting contact

These two ideas belong together because when we creatively adjust to our situation, what we are adjusting is our contact with that situation.

For example, suppose I’m in a meeting and I start to feel hungry. I now have two competing needs; one is to concentrate on my meeting, the other is to eat some food. My situation has changed, and I need to creatively adjust. I can choose to modify my contact with my hunger by ignoring or suppressing it until my meeting is over. I can choose to modify my contact with the meeting by eating something or break contact altogether by leaving to find food. I can also choose to make contact with both, splitting my available concentration between feeling hungry and the meeting.

Creative adjustment is all about maintaining a tolerable level of contact with the situation we are in at any given time. This process can cause us problems and suffering when the creative adjustments we make to one situation become fixed, stopping us from adapting to new situations.

For example, suppose I sprain my ankle. I will need to creatively adjust to my situation by changing how I walk. In order to minimise pain, I will take more weight on my good ankle. If this persists for a number of weeks or months, my entire balance will shift, the muscles taking the extra weight will develop, and the muscles I’ve taken the strain off will soften. My ankle heals, but when I try to walk, I have a limp simply because my body has adapted. Depending on how physically ingrained my adapted way of walking is, I might need physiotherapy to re-distribute how I carry my weight.

Our thoughts, emotions, sensations, and spirit are equally prone to being sprained, broken, and otherwise adapted to circumstances in ways that cause us problems when those circumstances change. And the point to using the term creative adjustment is to emphasise that those adaptations were and are really valuable. Because that was the most creative way you had of adapting given the situation you were in and the resources you had available.

But gestalt therapy isn’t about identifying creative adjustments and changing them. It’s about becoming aware of them and making choices. After all, if you’ve creatively adjusted to a loving upbringing and your open heart causes you pain when you find yourself in a more callous situation, is it you or the situation that needs to be changed?

This is an expression of gestalt therapy’s revolutionary spirit. Creative adjustment includes the possibility of reaching out to change the situation we are in. When you combine this with field theory, the question becomes: how much of this problem is mine, and how much of it belongs to society?