Introductions to Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality.
Dust Jacket from the First Edition of Gestalt Therapy by Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (1951)
The first edition of Perls, Hefferline and Goodman's classic Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality was published in hardcover in 1951 by the Julian Press. Dell Publishing issued a softcover reproduction of the original edition shortly thereafter. It remained unchanged until Bantam Press issued yet another paperback edition in 1971. With all the former editions out-of-print, The Gestalt Journal Press produced the definitive edition in 1994. In The Gestalt Journal Press edition, the two volumes included were returned to the order in which they appeared in the original manuscript. The were reversed by the publisher to put the "exercises" before the theory to hopefully take advantage of the self-help books popular at the time.
We know that many of you do not have copies of either the Bantam edition or The Gestalt Journal Press edition so we decided to offer you something of historical interest. Shortly before he died, Frederick Perls wrote an introductory note for the Bantam edition of Gestalt Therapy. As that edition is out-of-print, his note is now unavailable. We offer it here exactly as it appeared in the Bantam edition.
To offer even more perspective on this essential text of Gestalt therapy, we are also including the introduction to The Gestalt Journal Press edition. It is the result of a collaboration between Isadore From, the most respected trainer of Gestalt therapists ever, and Michael Vincent Miller, director of the Boston Gestalt Institute and a gifted writer best known for his book, Intimate Terrorism: The Deterioration of Erotic Life, published by W. W. Norton.
The introduction was completed shortly after From passed away in 1994.
Editor - The Gestalt Journal
From the 1971 Bantam edition of Gestalt Therapy by Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman.
Gestalt Therapy is now coming of age even though I wrote the original manuscript roughly twenty years ago. The years in between have produced many changes both social and psychological however, the Gestalt experiments included in this volume are as valid today as they proved to be the first time we conducted classes in awareness expansion.
The overall accent, however, has changed from the idea of therapy to a gestalt concept of growth. I now consider that neurosis is not a sickness but one of several symptoms of growth stagnation. Other symptoms of growth stagnation are the need to manipulate the world and control madness, character distortion, reduction of the human potential, and lack of "response- ability," and most important of all, the production of holes in a personality.
Maturation is a continuous process of transcending environmental support and developing self-support, which means an increasing reduction of dependencies,
The unborn baby is dependent in every respect upon the mother-for getting the material for physical growth, oxygen, warmth, transportation; immediately after birth he must provide his own oxygen. Soon he must contribute to his own food intake, by sucking the, milk and providing a considerable amount of warmth for himself. As time goes on, be becomes more and more self -supportive learns to communicate, to crawl and walk, to bite and chew, to accept and reject. So the development continues and the child realizes some part of his potential for existence. Unfortunately in our time the average person uses only about 10 to 15 percent of his potential; a person who uses 25 percent is already called a genius.
To mobilize his potential and to ensure proper maturation, the child has to overcome many frustrations. In !he healthy child these frustrations will mobilize the resources which are innately available.
When either the frustrations are too great for the child to cope with or he is, spoiled and deprived of the opportunity to "do for himself," he will develop his own individual brand of psychopathology. He will start to manipulate the environment by phony behavior (role playing or by taking control to ensure that these intolerable frustrations will not occur again. He will form a specific character and write a life-script that guarantees his survival. The most important frustrations occur of course when demands are made upon him from the environment at a stage when he cannot cope, when for instance he is spoken to in a language of concepts and abstractions at a time when lie can think only in concrete terms. At that time he may develop a feeling of ,utter stupidity. in a case like that his life-script will demand an overcompensation of omniscience. 'he basic principle underlying these disturbances is the environmental demand to be what he is not, the demand to actualize an ideal rather than to actualize himself. Re becomes lopsided. Some of his potential is then alienated, repressed, projected. Other characterize ties are put on as phony behavior, requiring strain with self -support, exhaustion without satisfaction.
Finally this deep split between our biological and our social existence leads to more and more conflicts and "holes-" The holes are the main characteristics of the incomplete personality Some, of us have no heart or no intuition, some have no legs to stand on, no genitals, to confidence, no eyes or ears.
If a person has a hole where other people have eyes, he finds that his eyes are projected into the environment and he -will load a life of self-consciousness, permanently persecuted by the idea that he is looked at, judged, admired, accused, etc. The worst hole I can think of is a person having no ears, This is usually found in people who talk and talk and expect the world to listen. They use other people's sentence& merely as jumping boards for repartee, if they listen that much. They certainly don't listen to the voices of their environment at best they abstract the content and stay on an empty intellectual level. We have a peculiar polarity in this world: listening versus fighting. People who listen don't fight, and people who fight don't listen. If the warring factions in our society-marriage Farmers, business dependencies -- would open their ears and listen to their opponents, the hostilities in our environment and among nations, would greatly diminish.
The "I'm telling you what' you need" would be replaced by "I'm listening for what you want," and the basis for rational discussion would be opened.
This applies as much to our inner conflicts as it applies to the world situation in general.
But how do we open the ears and the eyes of the world? I consider my work to be a small contribution to that problem which might contain the possibility of the survival of mankind.
F. S. Perls
Cowichan Lodge, B.C.
From the 1994 Gestalt Journal Press edition of Gestalt Therapy by Perls, Hefferline and Goodman.
Isadore From died on June 27, 1994 from complications during treatment for cancer. He was seventy-five years old. He had been through a period of increasingly serious illness and endured it with courage, ironical reserve, and a complete lack of self-pity. He had also remained in close touch with his numerous friends in the United States and Europe. For Isadore, friendship had always been the sine qua non of the good life.
As much as he loved literature and philosophy and paid careful attention to language in both his teaching and practice, Isadore refused to write. He profoundly influenced the theory and practice of Gestalt therapy through the medium of the spoken word through teaching and supervision. His few published pieces are transcripts of talks or interviews. So it will come as no surprise that he left the actual writing of this introduction to me. We did have a chance, though, to get together for some long conversations about an early draft before his illness and its treatment with chemotherapy fatigued him too much for further exchanges of that kind. I sent him the final version shortly before he died. I don't know whether he had an opportunity to read it all the way through.
So I am compelled to take full responsibility both for the quality of the writing and for any errors in what follows. However, Isadore so deeply shaped my own understanding of Gestalt therapy that what I have written is saturated with his thought. This introduction certainly belongs to him as much as it does to me. I also want to express my gratitude to Hunt Cole, Isadore From's companion for thirty-four years, for his skilled editorial scrutiny of the manuscript.
If the reception of this book when it first appeared in 1951, published by the Julian Press, had been based on the whole of what is between its covers, its influence on the subsequent history of psychological theory and psychotherapeutic practice might have been momentous.
The new outlook that the book presented began from a radical though by no means disrespectful examination of the limitations of psychoanalysis, and it thus anticipated by decades criticisms that have only begun to emerge fully (and not so respectfully) during the last few years. But it also went a good deal further than diagnosis of difficulties in psychoanalytic theory: it set forth a comprehensive foundation for a profoundly new approach to psychotherapy, one that did not so much scrap what had been learned from psychoanalysis as weave it into an altogether different view of human nature and its foibles. In place of the psychoanalyst's concentration on excavating the patient's past and interpreting the unconscious as primary sources for therapeutic discovery, it shifted the center of gravity to the patient's present experience. And rather than leave the therapist half-hidden in the wings in order to encourage regression and transference in the patient, the heart of psychoanalytic method, it brought therapist and patient onto center stage together in order to illuminate their actual relationship as clearly as possible.
Yet, more than forty years after its debut, Gestalt therapy still wanders down the back roads of contemporary psychology and psychotherapy. Almost everybody has heard of it, but relatively few people have any idea what it is really about, not even in the professional communities where psychotherapy is taught and practiced. Many factors, institutional and cultural, may have been involved in preventing Gestalt therapy, despite its original promise, from assuming a more significant place in the evolution of psychotherapy. But it cannot be denied that, almost from the start, Gestalt therapy has colluded in weakening its own voice amid the growing number of contemporary therapies clamoring for both public and professional attention.
That the official debut of Gestalt therapy took the form of a book is not surprising. In a similar fashion, psychoanalysis first began to attract general notice in the late nineteenth century with the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams. The first edition of Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality, however, was a strange concoction, consisting of two wildly dissimilar volumes bound together, a format that gave the book a split personality. This bibliographical idiosyncrasy was no accident, for there were real conflicts underlying the book's peculiar doubleness.
The second volume (Volume I in this edition), a theoretical work written in uncompromisingly difficult prose, set forth a highly original vision of human nature. It also reinterpreted the origin of neurotic troubles from a new perspective that took more account of the role of social and environmental forces than perhaps any preceding view. And it provided the foundation for an alternative approach to psychotherapy that made a decisive break with the dominant psychoanalytic model without overthrowing, as did behaviorism, for example, what was valuable in psychoanalysis.
If Volume II is no easy read, it is not because its concepts are served up in a crust of obscure jargon, as is too often the case in our psychological and sociological literature. Although much of Volume II is based on the ideas of Frederick Perls, an expatriate German psychoanalyst, the actual expression, elaboration, and further development of them was left to Paul Goodman, one of the most important social critics and inventive psychological thinkers this country has produced, as well as a poet, novelist, and playwright. The difficulties have the feel of modern life itself, with its contradictoriness, its alienation and longings, its vacillation between inhibition and spontaneity. Goodman had no more wish to thin out human complexity in order to make his formulations easy to digest than did, say, T. S. Eliot or Henry James.
Volume I (Volume II in this edition), the product of collaboration between Perls and Ralph Hefferline, a professor of psychology at Columbia University, took the opposite tack: yielding to a trend in American publishing that was just beginning to gather momentum, it reduced difficult material to something approaching what we nowadays call pop psychology. It boiled down the theoretical conceptions of Gestalt therapy to a set of self-help exercises, derived from the sort of interventions Gestalt therapists sometimes make, and presented them accompanied by commentary in a style of exposition that fell somewhere between popularized versions of Zen Buddhism and The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale, complete with testimonials a staple of the self-help and human potential movements from students who had tried them.
Although the contrast between the two volumes reflected differences in the intellectual disposition of their authors, it also exemplified a basic division in American culture. In his essay, "Paleface and Redskin," the literary critic Philip Rahv claims that American writers have always tended to choose sides in a contest between two camps the result of "a dichotomy," as he put it, "between experience and consciousness...between energy and sensibility, between conduct and theories of conduct." Our best-selling novelists and our leaders of popular literary movements, from Walt Whitman to Hemingway to Jack Kerouac, number among the group Rahv called the redskins. They represent the restless frontier mentality, with its reverence for the sensual and intuitive over the intellect, its self-reliant individualism and enthusiasm for quick triumph over obstacles. The hero of a recent best seller, The Bridges of Madison County, with his pickup truck, his blue jeans and well-worn boots, his guitar lashed to a spare tire, could qualify as a card-carrying member of this camp.
While the redskins took to the open road, jotting down their adventures along the way, the palefaces tended to congregate in the cities, where they drew heavily on European literary and intellectual traditions. They put at least as much stock in the value of artistic transformation and intellectual reflection as they did in capturing the raw data of the emotions and senses for their portrayals of human experience. James and Eliot would be leading figures among the palefaces. Both of them eventually left America, a society that they came to regard as crude, to spend the balance of their lives in England.
Rahv was addressing a lack of integration in American literature, but his analysis also helps to explain a bifurcation in our schools of psychology and psychotherapy. By now we have seen enough of both an aloof analytic priesthood at one extreme, delivering oracular, arcane interpretations, and a crowd of John Wayne-like psychotherapists at the other, all blood and guts, to be just about jaded with the whole enterprise.
Not that the founders of Gestalt therapy exactly conformed to these stereotypes. Perls arrived in New York from a bourgeois European upbringing and a classical training in psychoanalysis. Yet no one could have joined forces with the redskins at least in their West Coast hippie version during the 1960s more readily than he did. Goodman was hardly a genteel literary Anglophile; his thinking was rooted in colloquial, pragmatic, and democratic currents of the American mainstream, and he led his life on the streets of New York, as well as on campuses in the thick of student rebellions. But he was also every inch an intellectual, thoroughly versed in both classical and contemporary European thought.
Although the authors of Gestalt Therapy intended to begin with a presentation of theory and then follow it with an exposition of technique, the publisher felt that reversing the order might make the book more commercially successful. Obviously the authors must have agreed to this arrangement. Redskinism had prevailed, if not in the writing, at least in the publication of Gestalt Therapy, as it would prevail shortly thereafter in the teaching of Frederick Perls. The book's radical import, contained in Volume II, which might have significantly influenced the history of modern psychology and psychotherapy, was largely lost. How many committed practitioners of psychotherapy, steeped in the intricate tradition of psychoanalytic thinking about human development and character, could be expected to slog their way through to page 227 where Volume II began?(1)
Thus the stage was set for Gestalt therapy's checkered career. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with the exercises in what is now Volume II. Their aim is to illustrate methods of heightening an individual's awareness of deadened feelings and sensations, of reawakening the knowledge of a person's agency in shaping what he or she takes for granted as a fixed reality, of rediscovering the rules planted in the psyche during childhood by custodial authorities and institutions that can perniciously inhibit adult behavior. The creation of experiments along these lines is an important activity in Gestalt therapy sessions; their purpose is to help the patient derive insights from immediate experience rather than the therapist's interpretations. Thus the patient is given a high degree of control over how and what he learns from psychotherapy (which by and large has been a rather authoritarian discipline).
Such experiments, properly understood, are part of the collaborative give-and-take between patient and therapist in a psychotherapy session. To use them oneself for self-improvement may be valuable, but that is almost beside the point with respect to their use in Gestalt therapy, where they are guided by the relationship between the patient and the therapist. One can also interpret one's own dreams in the psychoanalytic manner Freud himself did it in the Interpretation of Dreams; what other choice did he have? which is not the same thing as psychoanalytic psychotherapy, in which the transference plays such a key part. The loss of precisely this kind of distinction helped feed a reductive tendency, both in the world of mental health and in American life generally. What became known as Gestalt therapy was a version stripped of its theoretical context and readily debased into slogans for living. The use of the present moment for therapeutic leverage became an imperative to live in the "here and now." The attempt to discriminate between what one had learned that was crucial to one's growth and what one had simply absorbed by fiat became an inverted puritanism, a moral imperative to get rid of all "shoulds."
These tendencies were supported by Perls, whose clinical showmanship dominated the subsequent development of Gestalt therapy. Freud, who was no fan of America, worried about the fate of his discoveries in the hands of Americans, who were initially much more enthusiastic about psychoanalysis than his own countrymen. He feared that the voracious American appetite for novelty and progress, indeed for anything that promised a better life, would vulgarize the discoveries he so jealously (and sometimes tyrannically) guarded. Perls had no such misgivings. Through his peripatetic teaching and his career as a guru at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, he liberally sprinkled his audiences and trainees with slogans and made up new techniques on the fly, presenting the latest ones as the essence of Gestalt therapy, even while he spoke out in almost the same breath against reliance on gimmicks and shortcuts in therapy. By virtue of his influence, Gestalt therapy presented itself during the 1960s and 1970s as a set of techniques resembling psychodrama, overlaid with a thin patina of existentialist philosophy, to induce emotional release in the name of the freedom from restrictions. Many people, both with and without previous training and credentials in psychotherapy, thus felt encouraged to hang out their shingles as Gestalt therapists after taking a couple of weekend workshops at Esalen or at one of Perls's watering holes along the road. Or they bid for larger market share and this practice still goes on by offering the public a combination plate called "Gestalt and " (fill in the blank with any one of the countless therapies that have bloomed during the last few decades), whether the combination involved views of human functioning that were philosophically compatible or not. The best-known version of Gestalt therapy during this period was a way of life called simply "Gestalt." Pure redskinism. The paleface term "therapy" wound up in the wastebasket.
Perls's later books were for the most part directly transcribed from tapes of his lectures and demonstrations, which further supported the impression that there was little coherent theory behind Gestalt therapy. After he moved to Esalen, he rarely referred again to the book that resulted from his collaboration with Hefferline and Goodman. Nevertheless,the book stayed in print for many years, in two paperback editions that reproduced the Julian Press format. You could hardly peruse a hip person's bookshelves two or three decades ago without coming across a copy of the Delta Press edition of Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman buried between books by Herbert Marcuse and Baba Ram Das.
Whether the book was read or not, Gestalt therapy gained popularity in the countercultural climate of the times. The content of Volume II was still taught carefully in some quarters, notably in New York, where the training institute founded by the Perlses continued to flourish under the stewardship of Laura Perls, and to some extent at training centers in Cleveland, Los Angeles, San Diego, Boston, and elsewhere. But even this small legacy became increasingly hard to maintain once Gestalt Therapy by Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman had vanished from the bookstores, as the last residues of the countercultural mood that kept it in print dried up. Moreover, the quality of teaching and practice in many of these institutes had been contaminated by the mixed-grill approach that combines "Gestalt" and whatever else is au courant. Obviously one should learn as much as one can from many sources, but not at the expense of intellectual integrity about the materials one deploys when engaged in so sensitive and urgent an enterprise as intervening in other people's suffering.
To raise questions about the impact of Perls's later career on the reception of Gestalt therapy is not to make light of the inventiveness or originality of his earlier achievements. Gestalt therapy had its first stirrings when Perls wrote a paper in the mid-1930s concluding that the so-called "resistances" the psychological means of saying no to oneself or others were oral in origin. The import of this consideration is not shatteringly revolutionary it represented a small change in a traditional psychoanalytic emphasis but its ramifications were subversive nevertheless. Apparently the analysts recognized this immediately: Perls mentions in his writings that the paper, which he presented at a Freudian congress in 1936, met with disapproval.
Classical analysis considered the source of resistance to be anal the anus being the seat, if you will, of a dark, frequently hostile refusal, an early childhood form of which is captured in our phrase "the terrible twos," when children say no to everything they are asked or told to do. Some schools of psychoanalytic theory, following Klein, for instance, regard all this as among the evidence of the child's inherently barbaric nature, in need of taming in order to shape it into civilized behavior. Eric Erikson put the anal stage in a more benign light: he considered the child's development of willful control over the sphincter muscle to be important evidence of autonomy. Parents may also intuitively recognize the signs that their child is becoming more of an individual even in its irrational refusals, but they will usually see to it that for its own good and often well beyond that the child is compelled to obey their will.
The psychoanalytic term for the child's receptiveness to parental imperatives a term which Gestalt therapy was to retain is "introjection," which means learning by taking in values, rules, and modes of conduct from the environment, in this case the environment of parental authority, without questioning the information or its source. Psychoanalytic theory suggests that children must continue to learn chiefly through introjection at least until the Oedipal stage, around five or six years of age, if they are to be properly socialized.
The shift from anal to oral refusal implies a different possibility. It lifts the capacity to no as freely as yes, to rebel as well as to accommodate, from where it lies buried in a lower chamber to the mouth, the locale of eating, chewing, tasting, but also of language and sometimes of loving. In other words, to a more obvious meeting place between the individual and the world. Perls had not yet formulated a concept of the "contact boundary," so fundamental to Gestalt therapy; that remained to be done in his collaboration with Goodman. But the first seeds of the idea were already planted here. Certain implications of orality were more fully elaborated in Perls's first book, Ego, Hunger, and Aggression, published in 1947. Here he made what was perhaps his most important contribution to an alternative view of human development: he used the emergence of teeth in an infant of eight or nine months as an encompassing metaphor for the steadily growing complexity and refinement of the motoric abilities, senses, and mental equipment in general. Perls proposed that just as the infant, now armed with teeth which enable it to chew food rather than merely swallow it, begins to develop its own sense of taste about what it likes or wants and doesn't like or want, it can also begin to discriminate and select from what it swallows psychologically from the environment. In becoming a critic of experience, the child forms an individual personality.
Thus the need to learn primarily through introjection through identifying with and modeling oneself after the caretaking and disciplining adults can start to be replaced by self-determination much sooner than the Freudians claimed. In Perls's view, to support a child's tendency to go beyond introjection early is not to consign the child to barbarism; it is to respect a natural, self-regulating process of healthy growth. If there is anything barbaric in the picture, it is the attempts of anxious or overbearing parents and educators to interfere unnecessarily with nature.
It follows from this line of thinking that Gestalt therapy came to regard the function of aggression in a very distinctive way. In Ego, Hunger, and Aggression, Perls described its origins in what he called "dental aggression," the biting off and chewing up of one's experience in order to absorb the parts of it one needs and get rid of what one doesn't. This emphasis puts aggression in a positive light, bringing out its role in both preserving a sense of oneself and reaching out to contact the environment. Aggression enables one to risk having impact on one's world, and it frees one to be creative or productive. This, of course, is virtually the opposite tack from that taken by Freud, who linked aggression to anal sadism and the death instinct. For Gestalt therapy, aggression is by nature healthy and in the service of life. The healthy personality is shaped by a child's own idiosyncratic sequences of yeses and noes; as Jakob Boehme, the German mystic who so influenced Hegel, put it, "In Yea and Nay all things consist." When people can't say no as readily as yes, they tend to accept uncritically a view of reality or a way of life dictated by others. Perls took the absence of no to be caused by repression of dental aggression, due to fear of conflict, which he regarded as a fundamental source of neurotic pathology. It's not aggression but the inhibition of it in the personality that produces impotence, explosions into violence, or desensitization and deadness.
Every method of psychotherapy presupposes, whether it makes it explicit or not, a view of human development. Whereas psychoanalysis encourages the patient to regress and reintroduces introjection through interpretation, a very different approach springs from Perls's claim that the capacity for self-determination and self-support develops early. As it subsequently evolved, Gestalt therapy didn't so much throw out interpretation all psychotherapists make interpretations as it offered in addition experiments that enable patients to discover for themselves. Included importantly among these experiments are those generated by the therapist's obligation to make sure that the patient retains or frees up the ability to resist and criticize the therapist's interpretations.
In other respects, Ego, Hunger, and Aggression did not stray very far from the psychoanalytic camp, particularly on one fundamental point: Despite its critique of Freud's focus on the sexual instinct and its references to Hegelian dialectic, Marx, and a smattering of minor neo-Hegelians and Nietzscheans, semantic theorists, Gestalt psychologists (not Gestalt therapists), and other holistic thinkers, it put forward a view of human nature that still kept the encapsulated individual at its center. The full coming of age of Gestalt therapy had to wait for Paul Goodman's proclamation at the beginning of Volume II of Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman that "experience occurs at the boundary between the organism and its environment....We speak of the organism contacting the environment, but it is the contact that is the simplest and first reality."
With that definition in place, Gestalt therapy was formally launched on waters remote from those where psychoanalysis, behaviorism, and every other theory during that period fished for its truths. A radical shift in the observation post for psychological understanding is proposed in this passage. The looming, self-regarding self of psychoanalysis is no longer the sole object of psychotherapy; indeed, it often diminishes in size and nearly fades from view, becoming part of the background, from which it can be brought forward, however, when needed. The primary site of psychological experience, where psychotherapeutic theory and practice are to direct their attention, is the contact itself, the place where self and environment stage their meetings and become involved with each other.
By now the term "contact," having been filtered through the encounter groups and human potential movement therapies of twenty years ago, has made its way into the drawing rooms and bedrooms of middle-class culture. People in certain circles nowadays are likely to tell each other such things as "I want more contact with you," as though contact always had to do with furthering communication or intimacy, along with hugs and kisses. But whereas the popular expression means something akin to closeness or simply spending time together, that is hardly what the authors of Gestalt Therapy had in mind. They introduced the term "contact" as an abstract formal concept (in the sense that all theoretical concepts are abstract, though not mathematically rigorous, in psychological theory i.e., at a similar level of abstraction as, say, "unconscious" or "libido" or, for that matter, "the self") to order to distinguish their fundamental premises from those of virtually all the other clinical theories of their times. In their view, to the extent that psychology has limited its interest to the isolated individual, it distorts how life is lived.
Gestalt therapy, especially as it is spelled out by Goodman, takes for its starting point something so obvious that our human and social sciences usually seem to overlook it: the exchange that goes on unceasingly between the human organism and its surrounding environment in all areas of life ties person and world inextricably to one another. Breathing means absorbing oxygen and returning it in changed form, and this minimal give-and-take must continue even when one is asleep; eating entails seizing parts of nature and converting them "destroying" them, Gestalt therapy would say, in order to bring out the aggressiveness required into something digestible; laboring suggests usefully reshaping a portion of the environment, but also having one's activity in this regard organized by the resistance that the environment puts up or the limits it establishes; talking means talking to someone, who in general is likely to reply; making love means that two people have consented to the deepest use of each other's bodies. The world of Gestalt therapy is a busy world fairly humming with constant action and transaction, a place in continual flux. Within this flux, the experience of the "self" changes in size and scope depending on what's going on. It may be very small, almost negligible, when one is lost in contemplation of a work of art or absorbed in love; it can take over the entire foreground of awareness, however, when one is in pain, for example, during which time the self, in effect, becomes the pain.
Even cognition is not merely receptive: Gestalt therapy draws on classical Gestalt psychology's notion that the unending, inchoate mass of data presented to us by the environment is organized and shaped by the perceiver into "wholes," which typically have form and structure, and that it is these subjectively structured wholes, not the ultimately unknowable raw data, that compose a person's experience. The particular way in which the wholes of experience, called "Gestalts," are made is influenced by a person's needs, appetites, impulses, interests, and so forth. Thus Gestalt therapy re-introduced the nineteenth-century romantic poets' idea that we half-create what we perceive and gave it a new motivational impetus. And if one assumes that there is this subjective element in all human experience, it follows that no two people experience exactly the same reality.
All the activities of contacting the environment (or being contacted by it) occur across an experiential and by no means necessarily physical demarcation between what the organism takes to be itself, what it has already domesticated, so to speak, to its purposes, and the wilderness, as yet unknown, that is the inexhaustible otherness of the world. To this fluctuating edge where self and other meet and something happens, Gestalt therapy gives the name "contact boundary."
Thus in Gestalt therapy, the space between the self and the other is no vacuum, as it is in most other psychological theories. Experience unfolds in a field, rather like an electrical field, charged with urgency will, needs, preferences, longings, wishes, judgments, and other expressions or manifestations of being. Contact between two persons, for example, is not a collision between two atomic particles each of which is filled up with interior neurobiological plumbing or conditioned habits and beliefs or an ego, id, and superego. Gestalt therapy neither has to assume nor to reject any of these constructions; it can even allow for all of them because its concern is solely with the activity at the contact boundary, where what is going on can be observed.
If all this is not too far from common sense, and some of it even self-evident, it was nevertheless a highly innovative way of reformulating psychological theory in a manner that called for an entirely new way of practicing psychotherapy. Gestalt therapy argues that it is precisely at the contact boundary, the site of meetings between self and other and of withdrawals from them, that psychology can best explain, and psychotherapists best witness and reflect back to patients, the responsibility that people have in shaping their own experience. Moreover, the contact boundary is where growth occurs which, after all, is what psychotherapy is about because it is where a person's next need and what in the environment is available to satisfy it join up or cross swords, depending on whether the meeting is friendly or unfriendly. Growth comes from metabolizing the unknown, which is taken in from the environment, and making it known, which transforms it into an aspect of the self. For example, a child mounts a bicycle for the first time and goes wobbling off fearfully. She does not yet experience this activity as an integral expression of herself. By the tenth or twelfth ride, she may announce proudly that she is a bicycle-rider, an attribute that can now begin to number among those that make up her identity. One can spend a certain amount of time lording it over one's real estate: Up to a point, as the poet Wallace Stevens put it, "Everything comes to him/From the middle of his field." But on the whole, one grows by traveling out to the fences and perimeters where one's ownership dwindles and one begins to approach the wilds of human contact.
Because contact and withdrawal go on tirelessly as long as life does, changing from moment to moment as a need is met or an interest pursued and others allowed to arise, what follows in Gestalt therapy is a translation from interpretation of traumatic events in a patient's past to an intimate examination of how the patient goes about creating his or her experience (including replicating the responses to past trauma) in the present. Gestalt therapy is not so interested in questions of where development may have been arrested in a patient's childhood as in helping the patient identify and work through the present anxieties and blocks, perhaps better called disturbances of contact than resistances, that prevent the next imminent act of growth (for example, ending therapy) from taking place.
From this perspective comes the therapeutic value in Gestalt therapy of paying close attention to the present moment, which means that in a therapy session, observation of the changing contact boundary between the therapist and the patient becomes of paramount importance. Then both can learn exactly how and where the contact becomes disturbed. It is a crucial correction of the record to stress that the idea of the present moment the famous "here and now" of Gestalt therapy is a way of notifying the therapist and the patient where to concentrate their attention while doing Gestalt therapy. The present moment was introduced in Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman as the most effective therapeutic methodology, not as the best way of life. Gestalt therapists were not supposed to behave like Buddhistic spiritual masters, preaching the ethical value or the pleasures of living in the moment, even though it may have come to seem that way given the legacy derived from the later work of Perls and the mood of the 1960s. If a person decides to conduct himself or herself in accord with some notion of living in the moment, that's fine, but it has less to do with therapy than it does with one's personal conception of the good life. If, on the other hand, a person makes a free and considered choice to live a life of nostalgia, Gestalt therapy would have no objection. Would Proust have been better off living more Zennishly in the here and now?
Perhaps the most important reason for resurrecting this book and urging that it be widely read is that it may help provide much of what is needed to rehabilitate the deeply troubled foundations of psychotherapy.
Freud's imposing edifice, which for so long dominated the landscape of psychotherapy, is foundering under heavy critical bombardment. No doubt this was bound to happen, given that our historical situation and cultural imperatives have undergone profound transformation since the late nineteenth century. Psychoanalysis rested its case on two fundamental assumptions: infantile sexuality and unconscious motivation. Both were radical inventions in their day that enabled us to make sense of behavior that had seemed incomprehensible. Both, however, require a leap of faith, a belief that the roots of all adult conduct are planted in vague or invisible primitive mental events during early childhood that give rise to irreconcilable conflicts in every individual's inner life. This conception has provided a rich tradition of outlooks and insights for all the humanistic disciplines, as well as for psychotherapy, but the widespread conviction from within the tradition that psychoanalysis constitutes a science has left it vulnerable to a great many questions. As a result, the entire psychoanalytic approach is currently being pulled apart from several directions at once.
For one thing, not only psychoanalysis, but all psychotherapy is being elbowed aside to some extent by a resurgence of an older biological determinism. The return to biology, of course, both leads and follows the widening acceptance of drugs in the psychiatric community as the best answer to depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and psychosis. Meanwhile, Freud's metapsychology and interpretative method are taking a beating from philosophical critics who argue that claims of psychoanalysis to causal truth are unscientific because there is no means for subjecting them to empirical verification for example, there is no way to prove that childhood repression produces adult symptoms.
Even Freud's character, alas, is being bludgeoned by lapsed analysts and disillusioned literary critics who consider his false starts, changes of mind, and tendency to belittle opposition as resistance to be ample justification for calling him a liar, coward, and opportunist. Such name-calling is in keeping with our current epidemic of biographical muckraking, a kind of renewed puritanism, seemingly dedicated to the proposition that exposing enough questionable conduct in the life of a revered innovator invalidates the art or achievement, or renders the theory and practice unworthy of serious regard. One can imagine that psychoanalysis may eventually wind up dismantled and tossed without so much as a departing wave of gratitude on the scrap heap of Eurocentric, male-chauvinistic history. This is a strategy of moving on by savaging where we came from that we euphemistically call "deconstruction."
If Gestalt therapy may still contain some promise of bringing fresh perspective to this increasingly raucous debate, it is because the theory of Gestalt therapy has given up altogether the model of natural science, and it has done so without turning to mysticism. The theoretical half of the book by Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman, instead of attempting to describe health and pathology in terms drawn from causal science, presents a phenomenonological understanding, based on observable and immediately reportable experience, of how a person goes about creating and keeps on creating a healthy or neurotic reality. This represents a fundamental switch of paradigms for psychotherapy, one that suggests that Gestalt therapy need not become mired in claims and counter-claims about whether psychology or neurophysiology represents the truer science of human suffering.
In its quest for an objective empirical reality, a physical world that could be described by the laws of logic and mathematics, modern science, which originated in the late sixteenth century in the thought of Galileo, Descartes, and Francis Bacon, created a split between the subject, the knowing mind, and the object, that which is known. Virtually all subsequent western thought has maintained this dualism, which gives rise to all sorts of problems about the relation of mind to matter. The phenomenological movement in philosophy, initiated by Edmund Husserl in the early years of this century, can perhaps be best understood as an attempt to restore the unity of subject and object. Phenomenology is, above all, an alternative method to the dominant scientific method: It neither affirms nor rejects the existence of an "external" physical world; it simply insists that philosophical investigation begin with the world in the only terms we can know it as it is presented to consciousness. Therefore, philosophy is to be the study of the structure of immediate subjective experience.
Gestalt therapy is applied phenomenology. As conceived by Gestalt therapy, the contact boundary is a phenomenological construct. So is the receding and advancing self, and so is the dawning and dying away of the present moment. None of these conceptions represents a fixed entity, one that pauses long enough to be reified or quantitatively measured. If we do in fact fix them briefly in time and space in order to discuss them or illustrate a point or make a diagnosis, that is simply another level of sometimes useful abstraction. Chronic and unaware fixation treated as reality is evidence of neurosis in a theory as well as in a person.
Phenomenological philosophy, like the academic Gestalt psychology of Wertheimer, Koehler, and Koffka, to which it is closely related in certain respects, concerns itself mainly with problems of perception and cognition. As a theory for psychotherapy, Gestalt therapy takes on the willful, active, emotional, and anxiety-ridden features of human existence as well. One can capture the particular flavor of Gestalt therapy by borrowing a formulation of Arnold Toynbee's formulation. Toynbee claimed that history cannot be based on the model of natural science because human actions are not a cause but a challenge, and their consequences are not an effect but a response. The response to a challenge is not invariable, so history is inherently unpredictable.
In a similar way, Gestalt therapy views the course of human development and, for that matter, the therapy session itself as challenge and response, rather than cause and effect. Where there is challenge rather than mere causality, there is anxiety that cannot be eradicated. But it can be transformed into something more productive than symptoms or neurotic character. Gestalt therapy, taken seriously, offers no cure for all the problems that humans fall prey to by the simple fact of inheriting the human condition. It offers no passage back through the gates of Eden. But, as psychoanalysis had once promised, it can help one learn to live better in a fallen world.
-- Isadore From
-- Michael Vincent Miller
1We are grateful to Joe Wysong and the Gestalt Journal Press, not only for reviving Gestalt Therapy in a new edition after it has been out of print for nearly four years but also for reversing the two volumes once again in accord with the authors' original intent.
Return to The Gestalt Therapy Home Page