Tag: etymology

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. √©motion (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.

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

boredom

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.

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 …

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 …

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 …