On Gestalt Therapy

This article was published in Turkish language in 14th of December 2020 with the permission of Prof.Dr.Hanna Nita Scherler. Now translated to English for everyone who would like to learn about Gestalt.

The written version of the online talk with Prof. Dr. Hanna Nita Scherler & the Turkish Health Foundation, which took place on June 8th, 2020. Thanks to Prof. Dr. Hanna Nita for giving permission to publish.

When I finished my master’s degree in 1986, I started working voluntarily at Bakırköy Hospital. In the spring of 1988, a beloved professor of mine at Boğaziçi University told me, “Nita, I found a perfect place for you in Cleveland, you’re going there this summer.” In the summer of ’88, I decided to attend an intensive Gestalt training for the entire months of July and August, without knowing what I would find, simply because my professor had recommended it to me. That trip changed my life. That’s how I met Gestalt.

Moderator: Gestalt therapy has become one of the most curious approaches in Turkey. What is Gestalt therapy? How can we define it?

Of course, everyone will answer from their own perspective and subjectivity, so let me answer with that in mind. Because if you ask other Gestalt therapists, they will certainly give a different definition. For me, Gestalt is not a therapy method. For me, Gestalt is a philosophy of life, and if you ask what kind of philosophy of life, my concern is about the continuous development of the individual through contact with others and contact with oneself.

Moderator: You have a metaphor that you use, where you talk about 88 piano keys. What is the philosophical foundation of this therapy approach?

When Fritz Perls gave birth to Gestalt therapy, he collected many experiences from his own journey during the pregnancy period. Perhaps one of the most important was having a therapist who worked with an analytical approach. He used to go to an analyst and in his writings, he talked about how someone else could claim to know me better than myself. How can behaviors be interpreted from someone else’s subjectivity about my own subjectivity? This was the thing he reacted to the most, and he started from the assumption that no one could know a person better than themselves, but themselves, in developing his approach. He got this idea from Jung, who talked about the collective unconscious. Although Perls did not mention it explicitly, it can be found between the lines of his approach that one can move towards the consciousness of unity by saying that we can find ourselves in the other. He was very influenced by humanistic philosophy, which motivates people to realize their own potential. According to Perls, a person’s own potential is what I call 88 keys. So, we are all born with equal resources, but what we learn during the socialization process prevents us from using the whole resource. We can think of it this way: There is a stage, and I am the owner of the whole stage, but my parents, who hold the projectors, only illuminate a certain part of the stage, and as a child, I think that what I have is only what they have illuminated. However, I also have resources that they have not illuminated and remain in the dark, but which I possess. With Perls’ humanistic perspective in mind, what he meant was that discovering the dark keys that our parents did not illuminate would motivate us.

You may say, “How can I know that I have those unused parts (dark aspects)?” The struggles, difficulties, irritability, anxiety, sadness, and reactions outside of my daily life that I experience with others give me the message that there is something I cannot bear there. If I lean towards perceiving the message they convey, I set out on a journey of discovery of my dark side. So, from a Humanistic perspective, Perls takes the part that I am motivated to meet my undiscovered parts. He was also influenced by existential philosophy. It includes the facts he takes from existential philosophy, such as everyone being responsible for their own life, responsible for their own choices, and obligated to make choices and bear the consequences of their choices.

Speaking of philosophy, Perls has also been heavily influenced by Taoism. From Taoism, in a bird’s-eye view, he perceives life as a cycle, meaning that everything in life develops in a cycle of motion. Perls was inspired by this approach and talked about a cycle that he named “cycle of experience”, which I translated into Turkish as “yaşam döngüsü” (cycle of life).

Our life contains a cycle from birth to death, and each experience within that cycle has various stages. The most crucial point of the cycle is the point of contact. When the contact meets our current needs, the enjoyment of that cycle is endless. However, when the contact responds to an old need that we carry from the past rather than our current needs, the discomfort of that cycle is much greater. Because we are in a substitute satisfaction. In fact, the Gestalt approach contains the method of realizing the discomfort caused by substitute satisfactions and seeing that discomfort as an invitation to change.

Another leg is Gestalt psychology. Gestalt psychology has nothing to do with Gestalt therapy. Gestalt psychology is entirely related to perception. I am in awe of Perls’ creativity in this regard.

If we show three dots to a person and ask what it is, they will say “triangle”, or if we show consecutive dots in a straight line, they will say “line”. Similarly, if we show four dots, they will say “square”. This is related to perception and interpretation, and it is a study in Gestalt psychology. Fritz Perls said, why should this be limited to only concrete perception and interpretation? I can adapt it to abstract perception and interpretation, which I think is a very creative leap! In our daily lives, we encounter various stimuli. We can think of these stimuli as three concrete dots. Just as we call three dots a triangle because we know what a triangle is, we load the meaning of the encountered stimulus with the pattern we have experienced in our life up to that point in the abstract sense. We load the expectation. For example, let’s say my father was a very dominant person. In my relationship with him, I learned and internalized certain patterns. As an adult, my boss at work is also dominant. How do I know he is dominant? Some of his behaviors and words remind me exactly of what my father did. These are stimuli. If I learned the triangle in my relationship with my father, I call it the triangle. If I learned the square, I call it the square.

Perls has incorporated the empty chair technique and role-playing technique from psychodrama. Wilhelm Reich focused on working with the body, arguing that all of a person’s abstract defenses are manifested concretely in the muscles of their body. Perls included this perspective in his approach and placed great importance on working with the body. Another concept that he included from an existentialist philosophical perspective is Martin Buber’s work on “I and Thou” or “I and my extension.”

Perls emphasizes the importance of establishing a “me and you” relationship between the client and therapist in Gestalt therapy. The psychoanalytic approach sees the relationship as “me and my extension,” not “me and you,” because if I claim to know you better than yourself and make judgments about you, then I am objectifying you. Perls strongly objects to this. Therefore, in Gestalt therapy, the therapist cannot make any interpretations about the client’s relationship. According to Perls, this would be a violation of the client’s autonomy.

Moderator: What does the Gestalt approach aim for?

The whole life is actually the unity created by the combination of parts. This subject has always fascinated me. Everything is the manifestation of knowledge processed by everything else. What does this mean? Let’s take our own body, for example. We talk about a body and consciousness, 2 eyes, 2 ears, 2 arms, 2 legs, and many systems that enable the functioning of the body. If we look at an institution, we can say that it has abstract eyes, ears, arms, legs, and some systems that enable its functioning. If we look at nature, we can perceive mountains as bones, oceans as blood, and forests as lungs. So, I went too abstract while answering the question, there is no superficial way to describe the purpose of Gestalt therapy as simply solving problems or helping individuals to meet their own capacity, as they are already in the melting pot. They are already in the box. In my opinion, the goal is much deeper, actually to improve one’s capacity to notice the abundance.

Moderator: What are the methods used to develop the capacity of the multiple selves and achieve other goals?

This capacity is present in all of us, so the 4 dimensions of our existence are present in all of us, it is in one side of the source, and on the other side is social software. What is social software? Everything we learn and internalize through learning. So why does this become the source? Because if this socialization process didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be able to call it a glass, we wouldn’t be able to call it a warm or cold glass when hot or cold liquid is put in it. If objects didn’t have names, we would have to describe them instead of saying “glass”. So the socialization process is very important in terms of practicality. The socialization process gives us our beliefs and values about life. None of us are independent of our values, we all have beliefs and values, and we should have them. How do we reconcile all of these words with the phenomenological methodology? Use social software in everyday life because it is necessary. But in Gestalt therapy, Perls says to leave social software outside the door. How to leave it outside the door? Look at everything about your client with the curiosity and excitement of a baby discovering everything for the first time. Look with the intention of describing and defining. Don’t look with the intention of labeling. If your male client has an earring in his ear, don’t open the folder of men with earrings. If you have a client in front of you whose yellow hair and many aesthetic surgeries suggest that they have had, don’t open the folder of blond, aesthetic clients. Explore them for yourself. The phenomenological methodology enables the therapist to do this, it opens this door.

From the client’s perspective, phenomenological methodology teaches that every client has a story and it focuses on the client’s experience while telling that story rather than the story itself. The story is just a tool. It’s like the saying, “coffee is an excuse, conversation is great.” What’s important is the description of the experience. We will listen to each other, look into each other’s eyes, and create a shared “we space” between us. In Gestalt therapy, there is no therapist or client. There is a “we space” that they both create and deepen every day. Both the client and therapist entrust us with what they create together. I use the word “entrust” because phenomenological methodology is spontaneous. There is no “What am I going to do with my client today?” In that methodology, they are together in uncertainty. In the movie “Ghost,” they were making pottery together, giving it a body by feeling it together. Phenomenological methodology is lived in the moment, creating a shape by touching each other’s depths in mutual interaction.

Moderator: Can the same effect of Gestalt therapy be seen, the same satisfaction be reached in group work, aside from its impact on individual applications?

Let’s not say the same thing, both have their own taste. Gestalt group therapy offers a ground, an opportunity that can bring a person to a point that might take much longer in individual therapy and can provide the same satisfaction. Why? Because in a group, every person other than myself is a reflection of some of my triggers. I interact with these people, repeating the buttons I know how to play with some of them, but with others, I meet the sound of buttons I’ve never heard before. This may not always be fluid and pleasant, it can sometimes be challenging, and what will actually improve me is to see myself in the unknown mirrors and the mirrors I have not yet looked into. The group is different from individual therapy in terms of offering this richness to its participants. I can’t say it’s better or worse, it’s different.

Moderator: Can we talk about the common characteristics of clients who continue with Gestalt therapy?

We can talk about it. Clients don’t come knowing what they will find in Gestalt therapy. They don’t come saying “I want Gestalt therapy.” Some come to get rid of an acute problem, some come to find answers to questions about themselves or life without having an acute problem, some come for a relational problem, some come when they are at a stage of making an important decision in their life, with the expectation of making the decision with the therapist. There are those who are in mourning, those who have suffered from serious illnesses… anything related to being human can be a reason to come to therapy. To receive Gestalt therapy means to intend to embark on an inner journey and to be active in this regard. But when a person comes, they don’t come aware of this. I mostly start to inform and empower the person about the responsibility they are taking on as they embark on this path.

To empower someone means something like this: for example, they say, “this job is not bad, I’m satisfied but there is another company that offers a better package and I can earn more money and provide more benefits, but I’m stuck in between, should I switch or not?” My response to this is: The answer to this question is not in me.

But I don’t know either, if I knew I wouldn’t come and ask,” he says. For example, I say, let’s not search for an answer to the question, let’s just stay with the fact that we can’t find an answer, do you want that?

Then what do they begin to understand? They begin to understand that they need to work on themselves, that they need to embark on this journey. Those who realize that they cannot or do not intend to embark on this journey do not continue. I can say that they are a very small minority.

I won’t be too modest here, because for me, each new client is a new mirror, so I can feel equally excited about the “us” that we will create together, and I can convey this excitement well, even if people are hesitant to take on that responsibility.

Moderator: What are your suggestions for colleagues and prospective colleagues who want to improve themselves in this field?

To progress on this path, it is not necessary for them to find a Gestalt therapist right away. The first step is to intend to look at themselves as an observer, so starting by asking themselves, “What am I doing? How am I doing it?” Maybe some existential philosophy, like Eckhart Tolle for example, or many of Fritz Perls’ books can be a good starting point. Reading a little and, if possible, looking at how it is practiced and taught in different countries, such as Georgia or Macedonia, can be helpful. They don’t necessarily need to travel far to the US. They can also attend therapy and group therapy with a sense of curiosity, approaching themselves with self-compassion and mercy, without judgment.

Moderator: Can we take an example from a case to illustrate? For instance, if a client says “I feel like there’s an obstacle in front of me, I can’t lift it, and I’m suffocating.” How can we approach this with Gestalt therapy?

“I would start by asking, ‘What do you experience while telling me this? Could you describe it for me?’ Let’s say I don’t know what the word ‘obstacle’ means. ‘Could you describe the obstacle to me in a way that I can perceive it, like you do? Can you paint a picture of your experience with this obstacle, assuming that I don’t understand what you mean by “I can’t lift it” and that I need you to describe what you experienced while saying “I can’t lift it” in order for me to understand?'”

Moderator: How is resistance addressed in Gestalt therapy?

In Gestalt therapy, resistance is a very valuable tool. Resistance means avoiding contact with the phenomenon I am about to contact at the boundary of contact. Instead of contacting it, I create something to keep myself from making contact with it. From a Gestalt perspective, avoiding contact with what one is about to contact is not something to be stuck or fought against. On the contrary, resistance is identified. As its function becomes clear, it realizes that it no longer needs to protect itself in this way. Resistance was developed in the past. The current conditions are different, and the individual is also different. It no longer needs to protect itself in the way it did in the past. The threat is not the same, and perhaps it has completely disappeared.

Moderator: What are the essential philosophical approach dimensions and therapeutic techniques during the counseling session that you find crucial in this approach?

In this approach, the essential philosophical approach that you find crucial is completely opposite to Gestalt philosophy. Because, as I said at the beginning, Gestalt is the whole formed by the combination of parts. There will always be more than one phenomenon that we are in contact with in our lives. Declaring one of them as more important than the others invites disruption in contact. Let’s imagine a board meeting. There is a board chairman and managers of different departments. If I always give more say to the manager of the same department as the chairman, over time other department managers will be filled with unexpressed energy. This leads to unfinished business. Therefore, no phenomenon in our life can be more or less important than the others. They are all equally important. This is a phenomenological stance. Therefore, my answer to the first part of the problem is that they are all important, and none of them are very important. It depends on the situation and the need. As for the second part of the problem, we are talking about techniques. I have the “I-language” technique. In other words, I support the client to always speak from their own perspective. Speaking in “I-language” is a very prominent technique that increases awareness.

Experiments are conducted. These experiments are divided into two types: awareness experiments and thematic experiments. For example, a person may say “I am very calm” while talking. They use language to say they are calm, but their entire face is moving, or they say they are not sad but tears are streaming from their eyes. In this case, an awareness experiment is used. You can say “I see tears streaming from your eyes, can you express them as tears? Can you speak as your tears?” This is an experiment. Or, “I see your eyes darting around when you say you are comfortable. Can you speak as your darting eyes?” This is an awareness experiment.

Thematic experiments consist of a conversation about the divided parts within the person. Fantasy work, dream work, and body expression work are all techniques that can be easily used in Gestalt therapy.

Moderator: Do differences occur in the therapy process in different psychopathologies? If so, what kind of differences are there?

When we talk about different psychopathologies, I understand two things. One is from the perspective of symptoms, and the other is from the perspective of where the person’s consciousness is located, independent of their symptoms. So, what I mean is that in terms of consciousness development, a person can be neurotic and obsessive or have borderline consciousness and be obsessive. The techniques used should be shaped according to the level of consciousness the person is in, rather than their symptoms.

Moderator: What does time mean in Gestalt?

Time is a resource. It is not something that needs to be consumed. It is 100% relative. For example, we do not ask the question “when will you do it?” but we use time to develop awareness. Time is very valuable in terms of the fact that we can die at any moment, and it also represents a process of living as if we will never die, enjoying life and intending to do what we want.

Moderator: How are behavior changes achieved in Gestalt therapy?

In Gestalt therapy, behavior change is never the aim. It does not concern itself with results. Results are judged events. Gestalt therapy does not dictate results; rather, it focuses on the process. Therefore, any behavior change is, at most, a result.

Moderator: Do we need a longer period compared to other approaches?”

The text translates to: “No, dancing requires two people, regardless of the music, the quality of the dance depends on the chemistry between the dancers. Some people come to therapy already very ready to become aware, and I tell them that they have already translated what needs to be translated, they just need to put the final period. Transformation happens quickly with such a person. Some people come to become aware, but it takes longer. However, it would be misleading to attribute this only to the client, as the therapist is also a partner in this dance and can determine the course. The same goes for the therapist. If an issue arises that the therapist has not yet discovered but that the client brings to the table, the process will take longer because each therapist can only take the client as far as the client can handle. They cannot take them beyond their limits.”

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