Weeds or flowers? How neurosis is all about context
One of the core concepts in gestalt psychotherapy is contact. Specifically, gestalt therapists are interested in what happens at the contact boundary; itself an emergent phenomenon that arises wherever self meets other.
In gestalt’s founding text, Perls Hefferline & Goodman’s Gestalt Therapy (PHG), the self is defined as “the system of contacts at a given time”. This is an idea of the self as an emergent, moment-to-moment, constantly created and re-created entity (a theme explored in broad terms in Philippson’s The Emergent Self).
But what is in contact with what?
In concise terms, this is the work of the ego, described in PHG as having the task of alienation and identification. It is the ego’s job to define me and not-me at any given time, for any given information. This is in contrast with the id, which can be taken to be the sum of all experiential information at any given time. And this is in further contrast to the personality, which can be taken to be the cumulative effect of our preferences over time; the story we tell ourselves about who we are to make the ego’s work easier.
Note: this outline of id, ego, and personality differs to the use of these terms in psychoanalysis, and is one of gestalt’s points of departure with that tradition.
Back to the contact boundary, and it’s fair to say that the ego’s main function is to determine where the contact boundary is by dividing experience into two sides: me and not-me, self and other, organism and environment.
The contact boundary mediates experience, and this is where the concept of modifications to contact comes in. I find two ways of thinking about this to be particularly useful: information, and experience.
The contact boundary serves an important information gathering function. I hear the world through my ears, but I don’t hear all the sound that comes into my ears. I can tune out background noise, just as I can suddenly tune in to a distant conversation if I hear my name. That is the work of the contact boundary, distinguishing between useful and useless information.
The contact boundary also serves an important experiential function. Some experiences are pleasant, some are neutral, some are unpleasant, some are painful, and some are overwhelming. Part of the contact boundary’s function could be understood as keeping experience within a tolerable range. Reflexively moving my hand away from a burning surface is part of the contact boundary’s work. So is moving to the beat in a satisfying way.
Modifying experience, modifying information
Modifications to contact become important when withdrawing from contact with something is difficult or not possible. Back to the sound example. If we’re having a conversation in the park on a busy day, I can’t simply withdraw from all that sound. But I can focus my awareness on the sound of your voice, and automatically relegate most other sound to background noise. That process involves a degree of desensitising to all or most other sound.
Alternatively, consider the flow of information, and the difficult job of taking in information in a meaningful way. Suppose I read something or someone tells me something. I need a certain amount of time and space to register that information, make sense of it, ensure I understand it. Now suppose someone is giving you a stream of information, rapidly, moving from one subject to the next without a moment’s notice. If you can’t get that person to stop and go slowly, then you might find yourself zoning out and trying to absorb as much of what’s being said as possible.
This is a merger strategy called confluence, where you try to lose the boundary between yourself and the other person and enter a we-state. Much of the information you take in during this state will likely be introjected, that is taken in uncritically and not given much reflection or contemplation.
The ego’s work of discriminating between me and not-me is bypassed by the temporary erasure of the contact boundary. Later, much of this information will come to feel alien because it hasn’t gone through the integration of being received, broken down, and re-created; it remains something someone else said that I pseudo-identify with, not something I broke down and reconstructed out of my own thoughts.
A plant in the wrong place
Gestalt therapists work with various defined modifications to contact. Their therapeutic value is in identifying how awareness of the here and now is being in some way impeded. They are somewhat like weeds in the sense that a weed is simply a plant in the wrong place. In other words, modifications to contact are only problems when they are problematic.
The initial therapeutic task is becoming aware of how contact is being modified. From there, it is sometimes appropriate to work with that modification (eg applying some critical thinking to the introjected views of parents that are holding you back from pursuing something important to you). It is also sometimes appropriate to leave things be (eg respecting that a memory fragment from a past trauma needs to stay desensitised because you don’t feel ready to go there yet).
Context is everything, and modifications to contact give gestalt therapists an important concept for exploring how and to what end a client adjusts to their present situation.
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