Category: Bristol Therapist Blog

Statue of Arjuna

The Golden Arrow: how to live a more or less fulfilling life

The Golden Arrow is a heuristic tool I’ve been thinking about for a while now to help frame my understanding of what is happening in therapy at a given time. Really, it’s an app running off the gestalt cycle api; the theoretical cycle of gestalt formation and destruction chunters away in the background, and gets expressed through the Golden Arrow.

I originally intended this to be a single blog post running through each element of the arrow, but the content exploded. I figure that means the process of writing this out is helping me integrate a bunch of stuff (what David Tennant’s Doctor (the best Doctor) might term gestalt-walty stuff), so I’ll let this emerge in its own time, then thread everything together once it’s complete.

The overall idea is simple. The cycle of gestalt formation and destruction describes how a gestalt comes into and out of being by breaking the process down into seven stages. This aids therapy by providing a diagnostic tool geared towards the mechanics of how we construct our experiences. But it can sometimes become too abstract.

So for me, keeping that theory close to practice is about asking what’s happening now within the active gestalt; what is the overall kind of action to which this current situation is geared?

That’s led me to describe four modes of gestalt functioning with a natural direction of travel:

Needing > Wanting > Choosing > Doing

The arrow metaphor is by no means original, and comes from the concept of karma being explained through the metaphor of archery. A blog post for another day perhaps, but I think karma has huge potential as a solid clinical concept in therapy. I think what we essentially work with in therapy is a person’s karma (a word whose meaning is to do with certain kinds of action).

For The Golden Arrow, I’m using the metaphor to describe the way an arrow points and flies from one point to another. This is to emphasise how needing leads to wanting which leads to choosing which leads to doing. This movement from one mode to another is the natural progression of a given gestalt. Left to our own devices in a relatively simple environment, we can mostly relax control and allow our arising needs to progress into actions.

But therapy exists because we aren’t left to our own devices in a relatively simple environment. We live in complicated environments, often subject to extreme frustrations and dangers, and usually subject to some degree of external imposition that opposes our own needs of the moment.

Many, maybe most, of these needs can just be dropped. But chronically frustrated needs and significant unmet needs create the classic unfinished business of gestalt therapy. And given severe frustration, and/or the need to survive environments characterised by intolerable and contradictory psychological pressures, entire modes of being can become problematic.

It’s possible to adapt ourselves to hostile environments to such an extent that we are unable to identify our own needs; be aware of what we need but feel no desire for it; be unable to decide things for ourselves; or consistently fail to follow through on our own decisions. Or all of the above in various combinations at various different times as we try to navigate our own personal hellscape.

For the purposes of doing therapy, The Golden Arrow is an attempt to frame therapeutic dialogue. It also provides a usable model for developing a background sense of feeling more or less fulfilled (whilst acknowledging that fulfilment in life can’t be reduced to a four step exercise!). Roughly speaking, the formula is this:

If you want what you need, choose what you want, do what you choose, and need what you do, then you will live a more or less fulfilling life.

But all those elements must be there, and the foundational work is being able to connect with a mostly accurate sense of what you need. Which involves developing an ability to return to the ultimate basics of gestalt therapy: what am I aware of now?

The main advantages of focusing on these four ideas are accessibility and action-orientation.

Needing, wanting, choosing, and doing are accessible themes for conversation because they are themes people struggle with. And those struggles are scalable, meaning you can do an experiment about needing easily in the therapy room, and it will be directly applicable to major needs outside of the therapy room. As above, so below.

Action-orientation relates to the words being verbs rather than nouns, and so already being rooted in directly experienced action. It’s tempting to talk about needs as if they are neatly packaged things we can pick up and examine. But our lived experience isn’t of picking up and putting down needs, it’s of need*ing*.

With both needing and wanting, there is a visceral experience of the absence of something. With choosing there is an often tortuous process of weighing up options and being pulled in different directions before having to actively commit to something over something else. And with doing there is a dazzling array of different actions and combinations of actions that go into fulfilling our intentions. For me at least, this helps with grounding theory in both practice and every day experience.

I’ll link here to each additional part as I get further posts written.

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Photo credit:Arjuna” by tbSMITH, shared under Creative Commons.

the gestalt cycle of figure formation and destruction

Rising and falling: the cycle of gestalt formation and destruction

My first encounter with what pre-gestalt Fritz Perls would have recognised as concentration therapy, came in the form of two exercises from a book called Concentration & Meditation. These were exercises designed to lead into wider Buddhist practice, but I was using them to still and focus my otherwise drastically scattered mind.

One of these exercises is the simple yet surprisingly trippy process of focusing on a simple object, and ignoring any other sensations, thoughts, objects etc. It was wild, but irrelevant to this post.

The other exercise is (eventually) beautiful in a hard to express way. It involved observing the rising and falling nature of experience and, by extension, reality itself. I was in the 3rd year of my undergraduate degree, sharing a house in a suburb near campus. Consequently, whilst there was a moderately busy road nearby, during the day there was regular but not incessant traffic passing by my bedroom window, which overlooked the road.

So the way I trained myself in observing the rising and falling nature of experience was to sit by my window and listen out for cars. If I construct a memory of it now, then I remember it going something like:

I am sitting and listening. I am hearing all sorts of sounds: now a bird singing, now someone yelling in the distance, now the traffic on the busy road further away. Now I am hearing the sound of a car starting to move towards me. I am focusing on this sound, and hearing it get louder and closer. I can also see the car now, and hear the whooshing noise it makes as it passes by me. I see it moving away from me, and hear the sound of it moving further away. I notice how it sounds different moving away than it did as it approached. I listen to the sound of the car fading away until I can no longer hear it.

That’s an idealised version that happened every now and again when the day was quiet and traffic at its least busy. More often than not, at some point, the sound of the car would be interrupted by another car. Maybe several cars would come past in quick succession, and my focus would change to the sound of the cars as a group, instead of just the one.

But the rising and falling of the sound stayed the same: the sound of cars got louder, then quieter. The sound of traffic began to remind me of the sound of sitting next to the Thames back in my hometown, listening to the waves crash when the tide was in, over and over.

Even now, this exercise brings me a level of peace and contentment that I can’t adequately describe. I gain, momentarily, a perspective on reality in which the inevitable rising and falling of all things implies an impermanence that speaks of freedom from suffering. It’s like the universe itself has popped into a social media exchange to declare, “and this too shall pass lol”.

All of which provides the basic experiential material for explaining the cycle of gestalt formation and destruction, which essentially attempts to map out the rising and falling of experience in a therapeutically useful way.

An overview of the gestalt cycle

The cycle of gestalt formation and destruction is generally broken down into seven stages: sensation; awareness; mobilisation; action; final contact; satisfaction; withdrawal.

Zinker gives a pretty good walk through of the cycle from sensation to satisfaction. I’ve used square brackets to annotate his description with stages of the cycle:

“The power of this description is that it gave greater depth and understanding to figure/ground formation. The figure would surface during sensation, [sensation] where the individual experiences something happening that disturbs the steady state. If the sensation holds sufficient attention of the individual, awareness [awareness] of a need would sharpen. Awareness begins to develop through a mixture of feelings, thoughts, perceptions that seek to interpret the sensation. Energy mobilizes [mobilisation] in response to this awareness of a specific need that is seeking satisfaction. The energy is released [action] and Contact is made with that which will satisfy the need [final contact]. During contact, whatever is other than the self is digested by destructuring to find what is new or different and assimilating (or integrating) it. When what is new or different has been satisfactorily destructured and assimilated, change occurs within the organism (individual) [satisfaction]. Once the original need has been satisfied, the individual returns to a steady state by withdrawing from the experience and closing the cycle [withdrawal]. When the cycle has been completed, the individual would return to sensation and wait for a new figure to emerge from the fertile ground of the individual.” (Zinker, 1977, 90-91; quote lovingly snaffled from Cleveland Consulting Group)

When I talk about “a gestalt”, I am talking about a clear figure/ground composition, an experience in which a clear focus for attention stands out from a background of other elements of experience. What’s interesting about the rising and falling exercise with passing cars is that when the figure of interest is the passing of a car, the whole experience holds up a mirror to the inherently rising and falling nature of the gestalt cycle itself.

Each of these stages is more appropriately thought of as a descriptive element of a good enough gestalt, ie the more or less smooth arrangement of experience into a figure of interest, clearly differentiated from a broader experiential background, that enables meaningful action in pursuit of the dominant need of the moment.

Withdrawal – Imagine you’ve just woken up from a deep sleep, opened your eyes, and are in a state of calm that feels empty but in a good way. Or imagine you’ve just finished a big task, sat down, and are just taking a minute before doing anything else. That’s more or less the withdrawal stage, characterised by not just a lack of any clear figure, but a lack of potential figures, and little to no sense of emerging feelings or background sensations.

Sensation – In my rising and falling example, “I am sitting and listening. I am hearing all sorts of sounds: now a bird singing, now someone yelling in the distance, now the traffic on the busy road further away”, is an example of the sensation stage. There are various proto-figures bumping up against my awareness, but I don’t invest much energy in them. Nothing “disturbs the steady state” as Zinker puts it. Maybe fuzzy thoughts, memories, or images pass briefly through my mind without sticking or commanding much attention.

Awareness – It helps to think of awareness as a light. In the sensation stage, there is a very soft, low level light, tricksy like moonlight. In the awareness stage, something has captured enough interest to begin developing into a fully fledged figure. That low level light intensifies into something more like sunlight, centred on the developing figure of interest. This is where the overall gestalt starts to dramatically re-arrange, as the figure of interest primes consciousness by pulling relevant associations into the background.

Mobilisation – A pithy gestalt saying I like is “awareness supports response-ability”. As a figure of interest develops in awareness, we mobilise ourselves in preparation to respond to the active situation. If I am aware of a glass of water, am I mobilising to drink it or pour it on a stray ember or clean my paintbrush in it? The context of the active situation influences how I mobilise, which is why in gestalt meaning is formulated as a figure considered against its ground. It isn’t the figure of interest alone that mobilises me, it is the relationship between the emerging figure of interest and its immediate context.

Action – “The energy is released”, as Zinker puts it. Action in the context of the gestalt cycle refers to whatever moment of release you have mobilised towards. It’s easy to identify the action stage of, say, swatting a fly. But looking at my example of listening to passing cars, it’s less immediately obvious, and this leads to possible objections of gestalt being overly action-oriented. In my rising and falling exercises, the key action is the passing of the car: “I can also see the car now, and hear the whooshing noise it makes as it passes by me”.

One of the things that quickly became apparent to me in observing the rising and falling of experience, was the occurrence of a peak moment. In listening to cars passing, mobilisation is covered well by the anticipation of the whooshing of the car as it passes. The action is *hearing*, which requires the action of putting energy into focusing concentration into that sense at the expense of others. It may not come with obvious bodily movements, but it remains a movement of the self, and an action of the contact boundary.

Final contact – “Contact is made with that which will satisfy the need”. Final contact can be hard to describe because it is heavily experiential and without much obvious objective manifestation. Try remembering a time you had a really insistent itch, one that needed a good few seconds of scratching. Maybe you were scratching around the area for a bit before really hitting the satisfying bit that makes you go “ahhhhhh, that’s the spot”. That, “ahhhhhhh”, is the moment of final contact; it’s the combination of the release of mobilised energy in the action stage with the experiential target of that action. It’s when you finish writing and checking an email and finally click send (ahhhhhh), or drink some water to quench your thirst (ahhhhh). It’s also the point where you get smacked in the face after bracing for impact (paf!), or when you open that bill you’ve been dreading and finally have a concrete number of £££s you can’t afford (oooof). Final contact is the gestalt’s flavour; it is fully experiencing the taste of the food of experience before you swallow it.

Satisfaction – The after glow of final contact is satisfaction. If a really good itch scratch has a final contact of “ahhhhhh”, then satisfaction is the pleasing sense of “mmmmm” afterwards, when you can still enjoy the absence of the itch. Satisfaction carries a positive value judgement, usually referring to a good thing, so it can be harder to apply it to getting smacked in the face or opening a horrific bill. But even here, there is a “sinking in” feeling that follows final contact (though with unpleasant experiences, we’re least likely to want to spend time in satisfaction, and are more prone to skipping straight into withdrawal or jumping into some kind of action to avoid those feelings). The satisfaction stage of a smack in the face is the relief of the act of violence having passed. The satisfaction stage of finding out what the damage is for a hefty bill could be a kind of resigned “well at least now I know”. If I was to rename the satisfaction stage with a more neutral word, I’d use resolution or completion, possibly even demobilisation. It is simply the feeling of the aftermath of something having happened as it falls away.

I personally think the gestalt cycle focuses more on gestalt formation than gestalt destruction, so think there’s work to be done on describing how a completed gestalt breaks down. This is potentially a side-effect of the early gestalt focus on the analogy of chewing and swallowing food. It’s fairly easy to map the process of putting food in your mouth, chewing it, then swallowing it, onto the gestalt cycle as it stands. But if satisfaction is the stage that follows swallowing, and sensation leads us into our next mouthful, where is the cycle describing the food’s journey through the rest of the digestive tract?

The gestalt cycle in practice

At this point, I am required by ancient gestalt custom to mention how Kurt Lewin once said, “there’s nothing so practical as good theory”, because the gestalt cycle is ultimately a practical tool. It’s useful for understanding what is going on with someone’s process, and pointing the way towards what to do about it.

The main function of a gestalt is to organise experience in a coherent way to allow situationally appropriate action. To this end, the gestalt cycle describes more or less how a gestalt comes into and out of being.

A common occurrence in therapy is for someone to talk about a problem they have had for a while, and experience a sudden rush of emotion. One of the most common phrases I’ve heard from clients when this happens is, “saying it out loud makes it more real”. Often, this simple experience is enough to start shifting a person out of an inner conflict and into action to rectify the situation.

The reason things feel more real when they’re spoken out loud to another person is because the process of that deliberate, purposeful communication supports contact with the content of what is being said. In terms of the gestalt cycle, we’re working with “final contact” here. There is already a sense of something being problematic (sensation), which is in the clients thoughts (awareness), and which they want to talk about (mobilisation).

The act of talking about it (action) then supports final contact with the entire gestalt, hence the rush of emotion and sudden sense of it being more real. Typically, this is then followed by a sense of calm as the tensions caught up in the problem are (for now at least) released (satisfaction).

This doesn’t mean that everyone needs to talk about something before they can make it real, just that this seems to often be the case for significant personal issues.

In the therapy session itself, the gestalt cycle offers me a way of thinking about what is happening in the therapeutic encounter at a given time, especially when things feel stuck or repetitive. It also gives me a kind of road map for a “good” gestalt. This needs to be applied gently, as otherwise all I’m doing is enforcing a different kind of shouldistic regulation: you should be forming better gestalts! You haven’t done the cycle properly!

Gently applied, it’s fairly easy to avoid that danger. The stages of the cycle simply offer one way (and a good way to avoid reification of a concept is to remember it is only one possible useful concept) of describing how to create and destroy an experience; it is primarily descriptive not prescriptive.

So in-session, it is a reflective tool that sits in the background of my attention, ideally only becoming a figure of interest to me when I spontaneously connect some aspect of the cycle with what is currently happening in the therapy. I’ve found that applying the cycle analytically just disrupts the flow of the therapy and becomes confusing. The most valuable application is when I’m talking with a client, and suddenly think, “there is mobilisation here but no action”. This is an optimal time to talk about what needs to be done and support someone in planning for action. Better yet, that mobilisation can be channelled into an experiment that rehearses or otherwise prepares for appropriate action.

On the other hand, if a client makes a huge breakthrough in therapy, and then quickly starts talking about a new topic, a kind of satisfaction klaxon goes off because we’re now skipping straight from final contact in one gestalt to sensation in another. It is rarely possible (in the beginning) with these examples to make someone “do satisfaction” (nor would it be desirable if it could), but I can at least draw attention to the process of moving quickly from one experience ending to another beginning.

Incidentally, I think the use of “satisfaction” to name this stage is exemplary, as the most effective way to live a dis-satisfying life is to never bask in the glow of being at rest between two tasks. And of course, the most effective way to become overly self-satisfied is to spend too much time resting on your laurels!

What hopefully stands out from the above is that the gestalt cycle works best as a meditation on the nature of processing experience. The more I contemplate the experiential nature of each stage, and of the progression from one stage to another, and the felt sense of what it is to spend too little or too much time in each stage, the more I assimilate the overall concept. This makes it more available to me in practice spontaneously as needed.

Recursive spiral clocks.

Timing is everything. I repeat, timing is everything!

the bristol therapist facebook page digest – january 2018

Quite a while back, I got excited and over-committed myself to an in-depth process of chewing over everything I read online that would culminate in a weekly digest. The two main outcomes of that experiment were an inability to get beyond week two, and a consequent reduction in how much online content I read.

The original point was to reduce the risk of introjecting ideas and values by ensuring that what I was reading was subjected to at least some degree of critical thought. As I couldn’t keep up with what I was reading, I was forced to question the behaviour as it started to seem compulsive. The end result was of becoming more discerning about what and how much online content I read; the unforeseen and welcome side effect of a gestalt experiment.

I still like the core idea though, so am resurrecting it in amended form for this therapy blog. I’ll aim to make it monthly rather than weekly, and focus on the articles I share through my facebook page. This also opens more possibility for dialogue, as I’m open to being sent links to interesting articles in a broadly therapy/psychology/being-human kind of vibe.

January was a quiet month for me on the facebook page, so I can overview everything here instead of choosing a top few articles. I imagine that in months where I post more, I’ll likely stick to a top five to stop this spiralling out of control.

I’m also going to err on the side of sloppy as this is meant to be about initial responses and chewing things over, so feel free to have at me in the comments.

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If It’s Important, Learn It Repeatedly.

This blog post is a reflection on Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, which seems to be all about practices for focusing on in-depth pieces of work and not getting distracted. (I’ll let you know if I ever manage to read it!)

Reflecting on the inspiration he felt whilst reading the book, and how even by the end of the book that feeling was disippating, Ben says:

“The window to act on a timely idea is very small. The heat of inspiration only lasts a few days, or even hours, and if it runs out before you’ve formed and implemented a plan, you’re essentially back at the status quo.”

This resonates greatly for me in my work as a therapist (and reflecting on my own time in therapy as a client). The problem with breakthrough moments in therapy, the insights and the ah-ha of realisation, is that these moments by themselves aren’t usually enough to shift actual behaviour.

As therapists, we kind of rely on a naive assumption that, following such a breakthrough experience in the therapy session, the client will then automatically go out and change things in their everyday lives. But even a brief reflection on my own process reveals that I’m more likely to lose the “heat of inspiration” than turn it into tangible action.

This is in part why gestalt therapists assimilated the behavioural therapy practice of setting homework tasks to be carried out between sessions. This practice also lives on in modern day Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

Then again, what we alos find in therapy is that the insights that are most important and driven by organismic need tend to recur. So at least part of the point of being in therapy long-term is to allow the repetition of gaining the same insight several times to take place in order to reinforce the necessary changes.

So when Ben talks about re-reading books:

“If you’ve ever read a book a second time, you may have noticed that it’s an entirely different experience from the first time. It doesn’t feel redundant or repetitive. Instead, it feels like gaps are being filled in. Different details strike you as important. The points you do remember now have the benefit of context, and much of it seems entirely new.”

He’s also summarising why the same insights need to be discovered and talked over in therapy. The analagy is with chewing food. Most mouthfuls of food need to be chewed several times before they are ready for swallowing. The same is true of insights in therapy; talking them over, then rediscovering them later and talking them over again allows us to assimilate the lessons and the changes more effectively.

TL;DR: “If it’s worth learning, it’s worth learning repeatedly.”

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Antidepressants: Please, PLEASE, do not just abandon your meds!

This article is part of a continuing backlash against erstwhile journalist Johann Hari’s new book, Lost Connections: Uncovering the real causes of depression – and the unexpected solutions.

In short, Johann’s book seems to rely heavily on a simplistic medication = bad formulation that gives the impression people should abandon anti-depressants in pursuit of real “cures” for depression. This particularly article is a simple plea that people wanting to come off any kind of medication for depression, anxiety etc don’t just stop their meds, and at least go talk to their GP about it.

As for the wider issues with Johann’s book, well I’ve not read it so can’t comment directly on the text. However, one of the reasons I haven’t read it, and am wary of reading it, is that the very title contains two huge red flags. One is “real causes of depression”, and the other is “solutions”. The very idea that depression can be reduced to something that has identifiable causes and solutions is facile, and flies in the face of what most people discover about depression for themselves, both in and out of therapy.

I don’t mean that reasons for being depressed can’t be found, or that ways out of being depressed can’t be found. Just that, for the most part, you can’t say to someone, “your depression is caused by x, and if you do y, you will be cured”. Depression isn’t a disease to be cured.

Johann also doesn’t seem to be aware that there is a decades long tradition in psychotherapy of challenging the reductive idea of depression as a problem of brain chemistry. And performs a classic throwing out of the baby with the bathwater by seeming to conclude that medication can simply be jettisoned. Many people need to work on their depression through both medication and therapy.

So in part I shared this article to siugnal that I’m not in the “medication is inherently bad” camp. I’m still skeptical about the extent to which medication like antidepressants are prescribed, and think that a society that took depression seriously would be able to support most cases of depression without medication. But then, almost by definition, such a society would most likely experience very low levels of depression in the first place, such is the problem with any “in an ideal world” formulation!

In our current society, very little room is made for people to work through depression in the ways they need and in their own time. I get the sense that Johann Hari is arguing more or less the same thing, but presents it as a unique idea that has only just been stumbled on, and gives the impression that it’s possible to simply throw away the meds and kickstart that world right now.

TL;DR: It’s ok if you need meds. If you want to stop your meds, always work out a plan with your prescriber first.

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This Is The Best Time To Do Anything: 4 Powerful Secrets From Research.

I’m a sucker for “secrets from research” type posts, even though the secrets have clearly been published in books and journals, so aren’t that much of a secret.

In the context of gestalt therapy, stuff like this plays to the idea that you’re better off tuning in to your own experience and working out what you need (organismic self-regulation) than adapting yourself to externally imposed ideas about what you should need (introjective or shouldistic self-regulation).

Which of course immediately throws up the objection that following our own needs is largely impossible given the consistent demands of school timetables and the workplace. But therapy doesn’t end at individual behavioural changes. To me, one of the signs of effective therapy, is getting people to the point at which they are able to challenge their own society and take political action.

Yes, school timetables are often rigid and tend to prioritise the needs of the school over the needs of the children and parents. So find parents who agree and channel that frustration into political pressure. Yes, the workplace grinds people into dust. So join a union, organise politically, negotiate explicit demands with other workers, and be prepared to engage in long-term political action.

Practically every course of therapy hits the boundary between individual need and social demands. These conflicts can’t be solved in one to one therapy. But they can be brought into awareness, explored, and a subsequent movement into political action can be supported.

TL;DR: Highlights from Dan Pink’s book When: the scientific secrets of perfect timing, especially for larks, night owls, and third birds.

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Here’s what the evidence shows about the links between creativity and depression.

I really enjoy the British Psychological Society’s research digest. It’s a really good example of using blogging to make academic research accessible to a wider audience.

This post is based on a meta-analysis looking at the link between creativity and mental illness, prinipally mood disorders as this seems to be where the most research focuses. It suggests that a fruitful focus for further research would be into how creativity links to mood disorder.

Interestingly, in considering possible explanatons, Alex suggests creative lifestyle and the possibility that creativity simply expresses in a way that is more likely to match the symptomology of mood disorders eg:

“many aspects of the “flow state” – extended bursts of activity, disregarding the need for sleep or food, absorption or attentional wandering, rapidly flowing thoughts – are also treated as markers of bipolar disorder”

Working regularly with creative people in therapy, I’d suggest that highly creative people tend to also be more sensitive and emotionally oriented, and this opens them up to being more easily hurt by a society that tends not to value creatvity. The arts tend to be undervalued in education for example, and many of the creative clients I’ve worked with have reported feeling like they were a square peg being hammered into a round hole.

So yes, the lifestyles of creative industries likely contribute to the development of mood disorders, but the way creative people experience their world might be more casutive. Especially if you’re going to reference “the profligate substance misuse” as a given aspect of the creative lifestyle without asking from where the need for substance misuse arises.

TL;DR: Creative people are more likely than average to have a mood disorder, but people with mood disorders are not more likely than average to be creative.

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Want to take your psychotherapy to the next level? Ask for what you want.

As will become clear as I unfold The Golden Arrow, wanting offers a major in-road into understanding what we need. What I like about this post is that it encourages clients to ask for what they want from their therapist.

I’d extend that to most relationships. It’s useful to ask yourself every now and then, “what do I want from this relationship?”. This is often hard for people because it feels like a very selfish or transactional thing to ask of a relationship. But ultimately, healthy relationships develop out of some kind of mutual need, and it’s ok to ask if the relationship is still mutually needful.

Asking for what you want is a way into that, not necessarily an end in itself. And in therapy at least, it can make for really interesting sessions that can redefine where the therapy is going.

TL;DR: It’s ok, and actively good, to tell your therapist what you want.

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Photo credit: “…Time…” by Darren Tunnicliff, shared under Creative Commons.

What is the purpose of emotion?

Every theoretical system has its biases, and gestalt is no exception. Along with gestalt’s bias towards here and now experience, gestalt also has a bias towards emotion and feeling.

There is a general wisdom in gestalt that emotions are Good Things, and that feeling one’s emotions is better than not feeling them. Whilst I agree with this outlook, I had tended to be fairly vague on why I agree with this outlook. So a while back I explored my thoughts about the nature of emotion in order to arrive at a better understanding of my stance on the matter as distinct from what I’ve simply picked up (ie introjected) through training, practice, supervision, and my own therapy.

What I arrived at is a relatively simple maxim: emotions mobilise situations for action.

A simple maxim, but one that requires some unpacking.

Let’s start with another foray into my good friend, the Online Etymology Dictionary:

Emotion: 1570s, “a (social) moving, stirring, agitation,” from M.Fr. émotion (16c.), from O.Fr. emouvoir “stir up” (12c.), from L. emovere “move out, remove, agitate,” from ex- “out” (see ex-) + movere “to move” (see move). Sense of “strong feeling” is first recorded 1650s; extended to any feeling by 1808.

And compare with Cambridge Dictionaries Online:

Emotion: a strong feeling such as love or anger, or strong feelings in general.

Emotions are active forces. Whilst the dictionary definition above captures the sense of strong feelings, it loses much of the background sense of emotional activity. All emotion is bodily activity. That doesn’t mean I reduce emotion to mere ‘chemical imabalance’, only that I recognise the physical basis for the experience of emotion. All emotion involves physical, bodily activity. Hence the background sense of agitation and outward movement expressed in its etymology.

Given that any mobilisation of the body involves a significant investment of energy and resource, the kinds of activity that emotions support deserve attention. This is where simple here and now description of what actually happens comes into its own. What actually happens when someone doesn’t just feel sad but emotes sadly? What happens when someone emotes angrily or expresses fear or hate or love?

What happens is that the situation they are part of responds.

At the heart of gestalt sits field theory, the observation that behaviour is a function of an organism in an environment. In crude terms, my issues are the result of my interactions with my environment, making my behaviour as much an expression of my environment as an expression of myself. I cannot be separated from my environment; at all times, I must exist in some situation or other.

Emotions are distinct from feelings in that where feelings are sensations, emotions are actions that arise out of feelings. There is a notable difference between feeling angry and being angry. That difference is physical activity. Feeling angry is becoming aware of a certain range of sensations that make a range of activity possible. Being angry is an elevation of those potentials into actual bodily expression.

The end result, if a feeling is allowed to grow into an emotion, is that some outward movement is made. Expressions of anger tend to involve raised voices, growling noises, and hitting things. Expressions of sadness tend to involve fallen faces, shedding tears and softer voices. And both have different effects on the situation a person exists within.

When someone cries with sadness, the most common supportive responses tend to be to offer comfort and to ask what’s wrong. The emotion of sadness mobilises the situation for supportive action. When someone growls with anger, again a common response is to find out what’s going on, what’s got that person mad. Where there’s a clear physical threat, the situation can then divide into support for physical violence and peacemaking. Anger mobilises the situation for conflictive action and resolution.

These are simplified examples but my general point is that emotion isn’t just about feeling something in a private internal world. Emotion is physical activity that gets responded to; British culture may be commonly described as generally repressive of emotional expression but even that is clearly a response. And a very instructive response. Where emotional expression meets with hostility and repression the lesson is clear: there is no support for your feelings here, this situation will not mobilise to support you. Other strategies then have to be found for dealing with forbidden feelings without emoting them.

So, how does this underpin my opinion that emotions are Good Things?

Because emotional expression allows for an open and honest expression of need. The result of suppressing emotion isn’t that the feelings out of which emotions arise go away (though we may block our awareness of them); the result is that we find different ways of coping with them that, to a greater or lesser extent, result in our genuine needs being frustrated. And repeatedly frustrated needs become cravings that continue to seek completion in the present out of our awareness.

I say open and honest because I’m not suggesting that emotional expression should always result in a meeting of needs. Rather, it allows for open and honest negotiation, based on the complex needs of other people, and the range of support available at the time. Emotional expression simply allows people to be aware of the range of need in a given situation. When emotions are suppressed, the underlying needs continue to seek completion but secretly and manipulatively.

Feeling one’s emotions instead of not feeling one’s emotions means knowing what one needs instead of not knowing what one needs. Furthermore, being able to express emotions means that when what you need is available, you will be able to get it. When emotions are suppressed to the point that feelings give rise to an automatic shutting down of emotive activity, it becomes impossible for the original need to be met. Think of your need as sitting in a room with a locked door; it isn’t enough to know intellectually what’s behind the door and what it needs. At some point, to be truly satisfied, the door has to be opened to allow what’s needed to get through. Feeling is becoming aware of the need behind the door; emotion is opening the door.

In order to enjoy the taste of your food, you need to chew it and savour it; physical activity that takes effort. Likewise, in order to enjoy human interaction, to be truly satisfied as a social animal, you need to engage in another physical activity that takes effort; emoting.

So, emotions are Good Things, and their purpose is to mobilise situations for action.

~ ~ ~

Photo credit: Emotion by Peter Dutton.

Resistance is fertile

Resistance is fertile

At the heart of every course of therapy sits a struggle between change and resistance.

Traditionally, the therapist is seen as an agent of change. In this view, it is the therapist’s job to help bring about change, be that the explicitly desired change of the client, or an unwanted albeit necessary change.

In gestalt therapy, this agent of change view of the therapist is rejected as a barrier to organismic self-regulation. By positioning myself as an agent of change for the client, I encourage a conflict between two sides of the client to play out as a conflict between the client and me.

Which in traditional psychoanalysis is the whole point of the analysis; to evoke the core transference that is taken to be the root of the problem, and resolve it. This sets the scene for successful therapy (the transference is resolved by change winning over resistance), and unsuccessful therapy (resistance overcomes change, and the transference stays in place).

That’s why in gestalt we talk about working with resistance by understanding the environmental context that demonstrates its necessity. And we approach that work with an openness to the range of possibilities that work entails: maybe change will win out over resistance, maybe resistance will win out over change.

Of course, the gestalt therapist smiles wryly about all this because the very act of exploring the struggle between change and resistance is in itself a change to the previous situation of keeping the conflict out of awareness. So whatever happens, the paradoxical theory of change wins out because just to contemplate one’s struggles is to act from organismic need.

The difference is that the gestalt therapist introduces awareness into the conflict. And our observation is that awareness supports response-ability. Resistance is no longer a kind of abstract disembodied force. It is me, resisting. “I can’t” becomes “I won’t”. I won’t because I don’t want to. I don’t want to because you’re asking too much of me, it’s hard, I’m afraid. Whatever is in there, awareness draws it out.

And that isn’t a magic cure; it’s not a trick. I don’t for a second think that, once we draw out the difficult thoughts and feelings and memories and fantasies that generate a resistance to some otherwise desired change, a sunbeam will break through the clouds and my client will see the light and rise up a different person. That’s not how it works; that’s not what this is all about.

Much of the time (maybe even most of the time), the end result of bringing that conflict into awareness is returning to the comfort of the starting point, of not changing.

But the power of changing I can’t into I won’t mustn’t be underestimated (and it is a therapist’s duty to explore in good faith whether that “I can’t” is in fact true; a blind person isn’t resisting sight).

It plants a seed. Maybe that’s a seed that never germinates because the end result of that conflict is a choice to give up on that previously desired change. In which case, rejoice! The gestalt is complete! Or maybe that conflict demands further rounds of struggle. In which case, “I won’t” becomes a question of motivation and support. What do you need to make this change possible? How can you get that support? Who could you turn to? What’s missing?

In the course of that exploration, the past must be contended with as unfinished business in the present. So someone told you years ago that you could never do it? How do you keep that memory active now? What is their hold over you now? It’s shocking, actually, to realise that a great number of disembodied voices holding us back turn out to be children. We introject them at a formative age, then keep the message alive as a conviction of truth. Then one day, you put that message back into context, and you’re a grown up dealing with the memory of a 7 year old child.

Resistance is also a deeply political phenomenon. When protests spring up, it’s usually an attempt to resist people in power. The French resistance against Nazi occupation stands out in Europe as an archetype of resistance. And as we’ve seen with police sending undercover operatives to infiltrate campaign groups, and the use of agent provocateurs to disrupt popular movements, the State often responds to resistance with both overt and covert violence.

This is not metaphorical. This is actual resistance in the form of one set of human beings exerting their will against another set of human beings. The hellscape that is the ongoing civil war in Syria began with resistance.

Resistance is ultimately about a clash of wills, and a loss of dialogue. The gestalt therapist’s aim is to bring that clash of wills into awareness, where it has the opportunity to develop into a conversation. Maybe that eventually supports a negotiated settlement, maybe it doesn’t.

Whatever happens, the principle objective is awareness.

~ ~ ~

Photo credit: featured image is “resistance is fertile” by Nicolas Nova.

What is gestalt psychotherapy?

From time to time, I like to return to first principles to remind myself of what I’m doing, and to what end. I haven’t written a “what is gestalt therapy?” post for a while, so here we go.

“What is gestalt psychotherapy?” is really three questions in one. And I think those questions are best approached through a consideration of the words we’ve decided to use to refer to what it is we (as gestalt psychotherapists) are doing. It’s a different way of explaining gestalt to the inside-out way of starting with how I’ve been trained to do gestalt therapy.

What is psychotherapy?

I think psychotherapy is best understood by reference to its etymology. Psychotherapy is a word with two roots.

The first, psycho, is a common prefix generally taken as relating to anything to do with the mind. Its own origin is in psyche, which refers to soul in the sense of “animating spirit”. Within the context of what psychotherapy *does*, it is this sense of the soul as animating spirit that offers a better fit than the more cognitively-weighted sense of mind.

The second, therapy, has its origin in the Greek therapeia, concerned with curing and attending to in a medical sense. It can be used to mean healing in the widest possible sense, but I particularly like the description “attend, do service, take care of”. If I ground myself in the lowest common denominator for what I do in actual therapy sessions, “attending” stands out as the most basic theme. To the point that, for some, literally feeling able to attend the therapy session in the first place is the primary therapeutic issue.

Overall then, I take psychotherapy to mean something like, attending to the animating spirit. If I lean into my more mystic side, this can become soul healing. If I lean into my more rationalist side, this can become treating the mind. But right there in the middle, I think “attending to the animating spirit” points towards the range of activity that is covered by the term psychotherapy.

What is gestalt?

In the most basic sense, gestalt is a German word that seems to get translated into English most roughly as “shape” or “form”. More descriptively, a gestalt can be called a configuration or structure that is more than the sum of its parts. Neither of these quite captures the sense of gestalt that comes from the consideration of gestalt psychology that inspired the original naming of gestalt therapy.

For me the gestalt concept is the sense of an overall meaning that emerges out of, and then organises the ongoing experience of, a combination of elements. It’s about how we come to perceive something as a recognisable object by breaking it down into specific features that combine in a certain way.

Suppose you take a load of lego blocks and make a dinosaur. Then you take the dinosaur to pieces and use the exact same blocks to make a spaceship. The parts you are using are the same in both, but the way they are arranged is different. And, crucially, the starting point for both is the final whole; it is the meaning of dinosaur or spaceship that organises my arrangement of the lego blocks into a shape.

So gestalt isn’t just about meaning in a general sense; it is about a meaningful whole organising perception. It’s about context shaping meaning. Gestalt Therapy could just as well be called Context Therapy and not lose much in the translation.

Overall then, I take gestalt to mean something like a meaningful context. So when we talk about the gestalt of something, we are talking about the contextual qualities that give that thing its meaning, the key features. We’re describing the perceptual cues that explain how we know that this something is the something this is. And we are also describing how, once the overall context is established, it shapes how we understand the things that arise within it.

What is gestalt psychotherapy?

Putting the above together, gestalt psychotherapy emerges as a way of attending to the animating spirit by investigating the meaningful context from which that spirit emerges.

This is core to viewing what might otherwise be called neuroses, issues, or behavioural problems, as creative adjustments. Rather than work in the spirit of solving problems, gestalt therapy involves working in the spirit of seeking out the meaning of behaviour and experience. That is, I ask myself, “what is the context that makes sense of this?”.

This in turn connects two important aspects of gestalt therapy theory: field theory and the here and now. My starting point for understanding field theory is the phrase, “behaviour is a function of an organism in an environment”. Not only does this emphasise contextualising what is happening, it also emphasises the need to work in the here and now, on what is happening right now.

Overall then, I take gestalt psychotherapy to mean something like attending to the meaningful context from which the animating spirit emerges. Which in practice is about attending to the relationship between the animating spirit and that context.

I’m still not sure what that should sound like as an elevator pitch; I’m not sure that, “I investigate the relationship between a person’s animating spirit and the meaningful context from which it emerges” is going to be cutting much mustard.

For now though, something like, “make sense of troubling experiences by putting them in context”, might work as an ice-breaker for what gestalt therapists actually do in practice.

~ ~ ~

Photo credit: Context is King by Rebecca Jackson

Chewing digital food in my pocket

An enduring metaphor in gestalt therapy is to imagine experiences as food. Whilst this was a concern of the founders back in the 1950s, social media has given emphasis to its appropriateness. We regularly refer to what’s appearing in our feeds, mostly without pursuing the hint that the information delivered by our feeds is a form of sustenance.

One of the ideas this leads to in gestalt therapy, is a concern with the process of chewing food. This relates to the critical examination of what we are experiencing / have experienced in order to aid the process of digestion (ie, to assimilate our experiences as fully as possible), and to be more choiceful about what we take in (swallow) and reject (spit out).

Most appropriate to our information rich age of social media, is the observation that if we take in too much information, too quickly, we don’t have time to critically evaluate that information, and are more prone to simply absorb other peoples’ views/biases/prejudices (introjection in gestalt therapy). This is by no means an observation unique to gestaltists; it’s a staple warning of anyone who values critical thinking and independent thought.

A while back, I decided I wanted to keep track of what I read online and started using pocket. You sign up for an account, then download the plug-in for any browsers you’re using, and the app for your smartphone. It’s then possible to save any link in pocket, and assign tags to make the links searchable by keyword. As the pocket account is in the cloud, links saved can be accessed from any machine that has the plug-in / app installed.

Since November, I’ve kept track of my online reading using a weekly tag (wc for week-commencing, then the date that week started) in addition to relevant keywords. This has already made it easier for me to track down articles I vaguely remember having read. I’ll either remember the main keyword and scroll the articles under that tag, or remember roughly how long ago I read it and scroll back to that week.

I’ve also become more discerning about which articles I read; the minor hassle of tagging something in pocket is enough to make me do an initial assessment of whether reading the article is going to be worth the hassle of tagging it afterwards. My eyes are no longer bigger than my stomach!

More recently, I’ve decided to experiment with more of a chewing process. Each week, I keep a pocket scratchpad in my email drafts. My aim is to record the thoughts that come up in relation to what I’m reading. At the very least, this consists of a TL;DR of a couple of sentences, usually with some notes on basic responses (thoughts, feelings, images, associations etc).

I’m finding that with some links, a commentary emerges, which might only be a more detailed reaction than just notes, or may turn into a blog post in its own right. Where a blog post emerges, I’ll be publishing it as a separate post, and keeping just the TL;DR and a link to the blog post in the scratchpad.

Which is all an elaborate way of describing the production of a weekly digest, but the fact we call it a digest in the first place helps reinforce the point. I’m using Medium to publish the digests. It feels kind of like Livejournal: The Next Generation.

To extend the food metaphor, the weekly digest itself could be the equivalent of chewing and swallowing. What happens to that blog post in the wilds of the internet is maybe more akin to food’s journey through the intestinal tract. Maybe other people read the post and leave comments that help me consider what I’ve taken in from new perspectives, like gut bacteria breaking food down into useful nutrients.

It’s also a good way of putting into practice this article’s advice on using systems not goals. I tend to want to write more blog posts than I get round to writing, and can go a long time between ruminating on something and actually getting it out there.

By doing little bits of writing on a regular basis, without worrying much about quality or putting together commentary (some of my responses simply involve typing “welp”), I’m at least chewing stuff over and making a discipline of a really basic blogging skill: picking out figures of interest from articles and responding to them.

Follow me on Medium if you want to see how it pans out. And if you use a system of your own for keeping track of and processing your online reading, tell me all about it in the comments!

~ ~ ~

Photo credit: Chewing the cud by robdownunder

Resentments and regrets: working with unfinished business.

Any incomplete gestalt is unfinished business demanding resolution. Usually this takes the form of unresolved and incompletely expressed feelings. Patients are encouraged to experiment with finishing business which heretofore was unfinished… Gestalt therapists have found that resentments are the most frequent and meaningful unexpressed feeling, and often deal with this with a game in which communication is limited to statements beginning with the words “I resent…” Gary Yontef – Awareness, Dialogue & Process (1993; p79)

When the environment fails in some emotionally significant way, disappointment is a natural organismic response. When that disappointment is not acknowledged, is not expressed, or is held onto, it grows bitter and transmutes into resentment.

Maybe I come to resent someone for not living up to my expectations, or for not doing something I wanted them to do, or for doing something I didn’t want them to do. Maybe I come to resent some aspect of my self for not being the way I want it to be. This part of my self then becomes other to me; I resent my body for not fitting a social ideal, or I resent my intellect for not being sharp enough, etc.

On the other hand, when it is I who fails in some emotionally significant way, that disappointment transmutes into regret. These regrets become particularly poignant and important towards the end of life; important enough that a palliative nurse wrote a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.

Just as with environmental failures, regrets can arise both from what I have or haven’t done. The main difference seems to be that regret focuses on actions I have or have not taken, whereas resentment arises from something being other than I want it to be.

Yontef’s experiment above is designed to focus awareness in order to create a clear series of figures. This is an exploration of figure/ground formation by taking a feeling as figure (resentment), then fixing it in place as a stable background, from which a series of other figures are invited to emerge (“I resent x; I resent y”).

This is particularly useful for people who defend against a specific feeling with deflection; changing topic, becoming tangential, or otherwise trying to prevent me from retaining a focus on the difficult feeling. Consequently, I have used variations on this experiment that include, “I am angry…”, “I am afraid…”, “I am sad…”. It effectively prevents avoidance by fixing the avoided feeling in place, in awareness. Though it’s important that the person I’m working with retains the power to end this experiment to prevent it being something I do to them.

My aims here include: developing self-support for the feeling under exploration by assimilating the realisation that episodes of experiencing that feeling are tolerable; developing the capacity to choicefully move towards and away from the feeling under exploration; general awareness raising (this is always in fact the primary objective of a gestalt therapy experiment, and a necessary condition for an experiment qualifying as “gestalt”).

Resentment and regret seem to be two important skeleton keys with the potential to unlock doors into a wide variety of unfinished business. Resentments will bring environmental failures into view; a landscape of disappointment. Regrets will bring organismic failures into view; the disappointed self. In both cases, the therapeutic task is discovering that which is necessary for completion.

~ ~ ~
Photo credit: Regrets by Magali M.


The psychopathology of boredom

Psychopathology is a great word. It has three parts: ‘psyche’ (the soul), ‘pathos’ (suffering), and the suffix ‘ology’ (the study of). If you’re ever writing about something in the context of its impact on human suffering, you can’t go far wrong by dropping in psychopathology (incidentally, given those meanings, that makes the meaning of ‘psychopath’ something like ‘suffering soul’). I digress.

As is perhaps becoming clear, I enjoy contemplating etymology; the origin and historical development of words. Not just their current meaning, but their historical origin and development over time. In the gestalt approach to therapy, we work with the present situation, and appropriate aspects of the person’s historical field come into awareness in relation to the material under consideration.

The reason I’m fascinated by etymology is because language creatively adjusts over time, and I think the history of a word has some bearing on its present meaning. In gestalt terms, I’d say that the present dictionary definition is in awareness, whereas the etymology is out of awareness (roughly correlating to the more analytic ideas of conscious and unconscious).

Consider the majority of the words you use every day: how did you learn those words? We don’t learn language from the dictionary, we learn language from people. The dictionary may fix an agreed definition for a given word, based on research into its current usage, but that makes the dictionary more like a camera taking linguistic snapshots than the actual source of a word’s meaning. I’m fascinated by etymology because it is the lived, relational story of the life and times of language. I suspect that etymology gives us a better idea of a word’s full meaning than the dictionary.

So, boredom.

Unfortunately, Cambridge Dictionaries Online define boredom as ‘when you are bored’ committing the cardinal sin of dictionaries by defining a word through reference to the word being defined. This vexes me. Fortunately, it defines bored slightly better: feeling tired and unhappy because something is not interesting or because you have nothing to do.

Now, ironically, my interest perks. How often have you been in or witnessed the situation in which one person (let’s call him Agamemnon) complains about being bored, and another person (say, Trixi) comes up with ideas for things Agamemnon could do, only for him to reject all of these ideas. There is never, incidentally, nothing to do; at the very least you can daydream.

From a gestalt perspective, a person is a process not a thing, so when I contemplate boredom, I look for the process. What is happening to bring about the feeling of boredom. The etymology of boredom gives us the process; boredom is the state (-dom) of being drilled into (bore). The word boring is a verb that has become used as an adjective; so the original sense is that if something is boring, then that something is actively doing something, it is boring into something.

The reason our dear Agamemnon ends up frustrating Trixi with his lack of interest in any of the available options is that it’s those very options that are boring into him. It isn’t simply that he lacks interest in his situation; it’s that his situation has become incredibly fixed and is starting to bore/drill/perforate into him, slowly and relentlessly.

So what is the psychopathology of boredom?

Agamemnon’s situation is one in which a number of the possible figures of interest have become fixed. Usually, when we lose interest in one figure, it recedes into the background and something else comes into the foreground. The shifting process of figure/ground is one ever-flowing dance of things moving from background to foreground to background according to the shifting needs of the person. Agamemnon is suffering because this process has stalled; whatever his needs are in this moment, he is unable to re-configure his immediate field around that need. If Trixi asked him in this moment ‘what do you need right now?’, it’s quite possible he’d only be able to answer ‘I don’t know’. Boredom is the state of being impaled on one’s current situation, and a (temporary) loss of the ability to create a new one.

So what’s to be done about this?

Trixi makes the critical error of suggesting possibilities to Agamemnon. Either the options Trixi offers are ones that he is already aware of (in which case, they are the very spikes on which he is already impaled), or they are possibilities he hasn’t been aware of, in which case he is largely unable to reach them on account of being impaled on his current situation. The trouble with being offered a new situation when one is impaled on the existing situation is that unimpaling onself is more painful than remaining impaled.

Remember: it isn’t possible to exhaust the possibilities of any given situation because the possibilities are infinite; it is only what one is aware of at any given time that is finite. Boredom is a state that we create for ourselves, without being aware of what we are doing or how (the clue here being the feeling that it is our situation that is doing something to us, which immediately points to a projection of some disowned aspect of ourselves). Consequently, there is the high likelihood that if Trixi succeeds in getting Agamemnon engaged in a possibility he is unaware of, he will most likely simply become impaled on the new situation once its novelty has worn off.

Ironically, the cure for boredom is to become interested in being bored.

There is a saying in gestalt, ‘work with the resistance’. Resistance is when I make a suggestion as a therapist and my client pushes back against it in some way. A classic example would be me asking ‘what are you feeling right now?’ (directing awareness towards emotion) and my client answering ‘oh I’m just thinking about…’ (deflecting awareness from feeling onto thinking). My client in this example is resistant to being aware of feelings. Working with the resistance means observing this process and becoming interested in it because that is where my client’s energy and interest is focused; in resisting the awareness of feelings. I’m not interested in overcoming resistance; I’m interested in directing awareness towards resistance because that is the fast-track to how my client has creatively adjusted. If someone deflects from feeling to thinking, they have good reason; my job is to support those reasons in becoming explicit rather than implicit.

Agamemnon isn’t simply impaled on his situation. Agamemnon is impaling himself on his situation. He is also frustrating Trixi’s attempts at creating a new situation. Boredom, then, can be seen as a resistance to two important things: first, the creation of a new/unfamiliar situation; second, the destruction (in the sense of de-structuring) of the old/familiar situation. Human experience is a constant process of structuring, destructuring, and restructuring.

I said the cure for boredom is to become interested in being bored, which I realise implies that I think boredom needs to be cured; I don’t. I think boredom expresses an important struggle between remaining in a familiar situation and entering an unfamiliar situation. In gestalt terms, this is an impasse, a deadlocked situation in which there is both potential for transition and resistance to that transition. Honouring this struggle means staying with the impasse and all the uncomfortable feelings that entails.

To that end, I suggest the following experiment for the next time you find yourself suffering from boredom:

Exaggerate your boredom and become as bored as you can be. What about your situation is boring? Make a list: x is boring, y is boring, z is boring. Tell each of those things in turn that they are boring you: ‘x, you are boring me; y, you are boring me; z, you are boring me’. You might find you want to say more to them: ‘x, you are boring me, and while I think about it, I also want to say…..’. If you find it difficult to say ‘x, you are boring me’ then what about saying that is difficult? Wherever you find yourself resisting, become interested in exploring how you resist, what you resist, why you resist.

Resistance is one of humanity’s most creative and beautiful processes. Even under the most crushing of tyrannies, still human beings are able to find ways of resisting apparently overwhelming force. Considering that the possibilities in any given moment of life are infinite, the sheer creativity involved in holding oneself in a state of boredom is astounding.

In fact, when I consider what it would be like to be cast adrift on that sea of infinite possibilities, what Milan Kundera would call the unbearable lightness of being, boredom suddenly seems fundamental to survival.

~ ~ ~

Photo credit: “boredom” by jean olahus. This post first appeared on my old blog, le chat d’argent.

eu referendum

EU Referendum: 3 gestalt therapy exercises for undecided voters

Tomorrow (Thursday 23rd June 2016), millions of us will go to a polling station, and decide the fate of our nation by putting a cross in one of two boxes in the much anticipated EU Referendum. Polling puts the result on a knife-edge, which means that the votes of undecided voters will decide the result.

I’ve had enough involvement in electoral politics now to know that a large proportion of undecided voters don’t make up their minds until they’re in the polling booth. So it could well be that the referendum result is ultimately decided in the quiet and dusty musk of the act of voting itself.

Which could be anything from terrifying to exhilarating depending on your disposition. Either way, I’ve made up my mind already so unfortunately, as an undecided voter, it’s your problem not mine!

Now, you will find any number of arguments for Leave and Remain, so if you’re still undecided at this point then the chances are that those arguments haven’t been helpful. I would like to offer a couple of exercises that might help you decide which way to go, and another for if you wake up tomorrow and still have no idea.

These are exercises I use in my therapy practice, and they mostly help people, so give them a try.

Exercise 1: get your Leave and Remain sides to talk to each other.

Sometimes, the best way to solve a dilemma is to intensify the discomfort of the dilemma until it resolves itself spontaneously. To use the popular gestalt therapy analogy of chewing, a dilemma is a particularly chewy mouthful of food that can simply need an epic amount of chewing before it’s broken down enough to be swallowed.

Take two chairs and position them. One will be the Remain chair, one will be the Leave chair. Keep a notebook to hand, and write down any thoughts/feelings/memories/fantasies that come up as you’re speaking (as therapist, I would normally interject at various points to ask “what are you aware of now?”, so think of the notebook as a therapist stand-in). The basic process is:

Opening up 

1. Decide which chair you want to start in.

2. Adopt a posture and voice that feels most appropriate to the side you’re embodying.

3. Take about 90 seconds to make an opening statement that overviews the case for your side.

4. Move into the other chair, and repeat steps 2 and 3.

Take some time to review any notes you’ve made, or just to mull over the exercise so far (do this in a new, 3rd position, not either of the Leave/Remain chairs). Start to get a sense of what each side means to you at this point. Then, when you’re ready:


1. Decide which chair you want to start in.

2. As Leave/Remain, what do you want to say to the other side? Take up to 60 seconds, focusing your awareness especially on what you feel as you speak.

3. Move into the other chair, and take up to 60 seconds to respond. Keep focusing your awareness on what you feel as you speak.

4. Keep repeating step 3 until you feel like there is nothing more to say.

Take some time to review any notes you’ve made / mull over this part of the exercise. Consider again what each side means to you now. Then, when you’re ready:


1. Decide which chair you want to start in.

2. Take about 60 seconds to make a closing statement that overviews the case for your side, incorporating any changes that might have arisen as a result of the dialogue.

3. Move into the other chair and repeat step 2.

Take some time to review any notes you’ve made / mull over this part of the exercise. Consider again what each side means to you now. Then, when you’re ready:


1. Now adopt a 3rd position where you are entirely you again.

2. Thank both Leave and Remain for their contributions and for an interesting discussion.

3. Now weigh up both the cases you’ve just made, and ask yourself the important question: which side did you find most convincing? That’s the way you need to vote.

Quite often, the drawn out process of this exercise will exhaust the energy you’ve invested in one side of the argument, revealing that the dilemma is relatively surface level. It can be hard to resolve this kind of dilemma by listening to other people, because other people will have a lot of energy invested in their favoured side, and that energy will invigorate that side of your dilemma.

You can also discover that both sides of the dilemma have equal energy but gain an insight into where the energy for each side comes from. You may well discover that one side comes from what you believe and are excited by, and another comes from an internalisation of someone important to you. Or that each side of the dilemma comes from very different motivations within you. The process of figuring this out often leads naturally to a conclusion that favours one side over the other.

Or not! In which case…

Exercise 2: sleep on it.

One of the many useful findings of sleep and dream research is the observation that dreams are heavily influenced by our preoccupations from the day. It’s even possible to train yourself to lucid dream (wake up within your dream and know that you’re dreaming) to the point of deciding when to lucid dream and what to lucid dream about (see Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming).

One function of dreaming appears to be resolving incomplete situations from the very recent past (ie, the past couple of days). It’s possible to play with this function to help solve personal conundrums and dilemmas. Try this:

1. Write down a clear question on a small piece of paper, eg “how should I vote in the referendum?”.

2. Carry it around with you for the rest of the day, taking it out to look at it frequently.

3. Think about your dilemma as much as you can. Run through all the arguments for each side, over and over again.

4. When it’s time for bed, read something that summarises the dilemma well. If you’ve tried Exercise 1 and not reached a conclusion, then read through everything you’ve written down.

5. Put the piece of paper with your question on it under your pillow (seriously).

6. Go to sleep.

7. When you wake up in the morning, take the piece of paper out from the pillow and answer the question.

Your dreaming tonight is highly likely to be influenced by your referendum dilemma simply by virtue of it being an emotionally charged preoccupation. By directing this energy into a specific focus, and prompting yourself to contemplate it regularly, you’re seting up a temporary habit that stands a decent chance of repeating otself in your dreams.

Best case scenario, you wake with a resolution on how to vote. Possibly, you might wake up remembering a dream that is either obviously relevant (you dream about the referendum) or just feels relevant. Fortunately, I have already blogged about doing your own dreamwork, so for a bonus exercise, see: dream a little dream of me.

Alternatively, you may well work through both excercises, and find yourself still at an impasse on Thursday morning. In which case…

Exercise 3: trust the process.

You don’t have to know which way to vote until you’re in the polling booth, and even then you could just draw a massive penis on your voting paper or write Votey McVoteface in block capitals across the top instead. It’s a secret ballot, no one will know how or if you voted, and it’s the height of bad manners to demand to know how someone voted. If you’re ok with letting everyone else decide for you, then actually you don’t have a problem at all.

Maybe you’re stuck because, actually, you don’t want to vote. Did you ask for an EU Referendum? Did you want it? Probably not if you’re undecided at this point. It’s entirely possible that you’re caught in Sartre’s existential trap whereby the one choice you don’t have is not choosing. You didn’t ask to be born but you must decide what to do with your life now you have it. As with life, so with this referendum.

Maybe you’re stuck because you don’t think it makes much of a difference either way. And then people like me who favour one side over the other come along to tell you that absolutely everything depends on how you vote, and you start to doubt yourself. Well on the one hand, that’s democracy, so tough. On the other hand, forget us, we have no idea what’s going to happen either, not in the long run.

Ultimately, we’re making this decision because David Cameron decided an EU Referendum was the best way to answer the threat of UKIP and keep his backbenchers onside. It’s the worst possible reason to hold a referendum about anything, so if it all goes horribly wrong, it’s his responsibility, not yours.

Whatever’s going on for you, just roll with it. Don’t worry about being undecided, become curious about it instead. How often will the future of a continent rest on your shoulders? Surely that’s an experience worth savouring? Notice what you feel in your body. Notice what this decision means to you. Be as in these moments as you can be because right now is all there is and ever will be, and this particular right now will never be again.

And if after all of the above you’re still stuck, pencil in hand, and you don’t want to spoil your ballot paper? Toss a coin and enjoy the looks on everyone’s faces when you tell them that’s what you did.

Happy voting!

~ ~ ~

Image credit: photography by Istock, snaffled from How you should vote in the EU Referendum.
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