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Organismic self-regulation

Gestalt therapy focuses on organismic need. The founders of gestalt therapy spoke about people as organisms in order to get across the holistic nature of a person. Mental activity and physical activity aren’t separate, they are just two different ways of looking at the same organism.

Self-regulation refers to the range of choices and creative adjustments we make from moment to moment as we adapt to changing circumstances. We regulate ourselves according to need. Organismic self-regulation is when we regulate ourselves according to needs that arise from our natural organsimic functioning.

Good basic examples include going to sleep because we feel sleepy; going to the toilet when we feel our bladder is full; eating something when we feel hungry. More complicated examples include defending ourselves from physical attack; disagreeing with viewpoints we object to; leaving an unfulfilling job; expressing ourselves through some form of art when we feel creative.

Organismic need is a spontaneous impulse that comes from our whole self. Often, these impulses will contradict each other or not all be fulfillable at the same time, requiring us to make choices between them based on our priorities and environmental support. Organismic self-regulation is simply the process of making choiceful responses to our needs.

This process tends to get interfered with by upbringing, schooling, social forces, and environments that are hostile or offer limited support. Re-consider the examples I gave above:

I feel sleepy but I’m told I can’t go to sleep because I’m at school and have to pay attention. I want to go to the toilet but I feel my boss will get angry if I leave the meeting I’m in before it ends. I feel hungry but my family make intrusive comments about my eating habits. I want to defend myself against physical attack but I’ve been brought up to believe all physical violence is unacceptable. I want to disagree with an offensive viewpoint but I’ve always had my own viewpoints undermined by others. I want to leave my unfulfilling job but it’s secure and there’s a recession. I want to express myself creatively but my family always mocked me for it when I was growing up.

In each example, organismic self-regulation is interrupted by an encounter with my wider situation. The formula for each of these is ‘I want to do x but I can’t because y’. This is very different to ‘I want to do x but I choose not to because y’. The kind of regulation I’ve just described is what Gary Yontef would call ‘shouldistic regulation’. That is, doing something or not doing something because you should or shouldn’t.

Gestalt therapy actively supports a return to organismic self-regulation by identifying and exploring the shoulds and shouldn’ts that you’ve acquired, and the ways in which they disrupt your organismic self-regulation. We call these introjects; rules and ideas that have been swallowed whole (introjected) without critical evaluation, often because we’ve been force-fed them.

That doesn’t mean you have to throw away all the rules you’ve ever been brought up with! That would just be swallowing another set of introjects. Instead, gestalt therapy takes a philosophical stance where we chew over and critically evaluate those rules. Then, you can choose to fully take them in, and they will become part of your natural functioning. The main point is that all the time the rules are introjected, they are essentially alien to your self, causing an internal split that divides you against your self.

There are three main ways of healing those splits: reject the introjected rule by chewing it over and spitting it out; assimilate the rule by chewing it over and swallowing; or reach a compromise by chewing it over and choosing which bits to spit out and which bits to swallow.

The key to that process is having support for making your own choices in relation to how you regulate your self.