Tag: here and now

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.

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

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:

Dialogue

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:

Closing

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:

Adjudication

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 www.gq-magazine.co.uk How you should vote in the EU Referendum.

Simple questions, complex therapy

The most elaborate of complexities can arise from the most elegant of simplicities. In gestalt, simplicity is achieved and maintained through a rigorous attention to the present moment, the legendary here and now.

Simple questions, complex therapy

Gestalt therapy can be stripped back to three basic questions:

1. What are you aware of now?
2. What do you need now?
3. What does this mean to you now?

Really, if you wanted to strip right back to bare bones, you could stick to question one. The entire body of gestalt therapy literature is essentially an elaboration on the question, “what are you aware of now?”. And arguably so is human experience, which is why the question works.

There is a cyclical flow to human experience, driven by awareness and organised by need. The function of these three questions is to explore this cyclical flow in the context of this person who is in therapy with me in this place at this time. It isn’t about diagnosing what is wrong with the person I am asking these questions. It’s about using these questions to explore the contact possibilities that exist between us.

The common by-products of this exploration are insight, realisation, and healing.

~~~

Photo credit: Simplicity (1/52) by Rodger Evans, licenced 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 …

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 …