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I teach and practice Gestalt therapy, Career decision coaching, and Family Constellations work. As well as Australia, I teach workshops and training in China, Japan, Korea, the USA & Mexico. I am author of Understanding The Woman In Your Life, a book of advice for men about relationships with women. In my work as director of Lifeworks I provide therapy,  training and supervision. I am a Phd candidate, studying the interpersonal dynamics of power, and am currently director of an MA in Spiritual Psychology for Ryokan College, an accredited online institution based in LA.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Case #204 - In the best interests of the child

Fay had reached the end of her marriage. She had tried really hard to make it work. They had been so much in love at the start. Together now for 5 years, they had a 3 year old son. She was a competent professional; he had been the house husband. This worked very well for both of them. But the interpersonal dynamics had not worked. Her increasing confidence in the world was matched by his collapse. He did not contribute financially; and although he was caring for their child, she wanted him to be moving ahead towards a career, so she did not ultimately have to carry all the financial weight. He promised, but did nothing. She felt like she was the man in the relationship. He felt disempowered.
Part of the issue here was not an interpersonal one.
Thus, in the therapy, I pointed out that there was a social context - ideas about how men and women should be, that were influencing both of them in ways which were disruptive in their relationship. Rather than being able to be with each other as they were, they compared each other to an ideal of what a man or woman is 'supposed' to be - women, soft and caring/ men confident and successful.
Fay's response to challenges was to become more competent, to apply her intelligence, and figure out soltions. Her husbands response was to become timid, to make promises, and to pull back into himself.
This cycle had eventually undermined their marriage.
Now, at this time of separation, they had come to an agreement about parenting.
Fay, who had not done much of the daily care of her child, took custody (a traditional response in the culture in which she lived). She applied her intelligence and competence, and soon started feeling more confident about being able to care for their child as the main person, despite the fact she worked at a demanding job.
Her soon-to-be-x husband was relegated to seeing the child for no longer than a day a week, but he could come and bring him to school, or take the child when Fay had a business trip.
Gestalt is oriented towards finding the right balance of challenge and support. 'As much support as necessary and as little as possible' was Laura Perls' dictum.
This is the growth edge, and what we strive for in the Gestalt experiment.
In this case, I spent a whole session challenging Fay.
Firstly, she was operating from an assumption that she could set the frame on the discussions with her husband. She set up the paramaters for the childcare, and then gave him choices within that. He acquiesced.
She argued with me that she was acting in the best interests of their child -giving him a stable environment, the least disruption during the separation.
I pointed out to her that this was a conflict of interests. She was setting things up as she wanted them, and the lines between what the child needed and what she wanted were blurred.
She also took over entirely the child care, virtually pushing her husband to a peripheral role in the picture, where he had been the main carer. She had many rationales for doing so, but what was masked was her own need to be in control.
I also pointed out to her that as I listened to her talk about all this, I heard her brusque, business-like voice. I heard strength and resolve. Whilst those were good qualities, and understandable in terms of her marshalling herself to the care of her child, they were also the very things which had contributed to the breakdown of the marriage - her taking over, and not really giving space to her husband, on his own terms.
Thus, although they were separating, she was continuing that pattern. I pointed out that she had another two decades of co-parenting with him. And if she simply continued the same pattern they had in their marraige, it would be equally dysfunctional. In that sense, nothing would have changed except they were not living together, and she had taken over charge of child rearing.
This was all very challenging to her, and somewhat of a shock. She was coping as best she could in an uncertain situation, and this is how she knew best to do so. I acknowledged that, and also pointed her to the bigger picture -the next 20 years of coparenting, and how that might go.
This placed the larger content of the field into our discussion, not just focusing on here and now awareness. The future of the field is as important as the past of the field. And in both cases, we bring that into the present interaction.
I highlighted that there were many other choices available to her, other than either relinquishing control over child rearing to her husband, or taking it over entirely herself. And that each choice she made, had consequences. In Gestalt we respect choices, bring them into awareness, and direct people towards taking responsiblity for the consequences - all of them.
Fay realised that she was using the child as a way to hurt the husband - a common reaction. This insight was particularly important, as it clarifies the dynamic underlying all the rational reasons.
The session was very confronting for her. But she was up for it. And I, in good faith, could not just give her empathy in a place where I thought her actions were unconscious and potentially destructive in the long run.
Such confrontation needs to be done very sensitively, maintaining connection with the person. And it requires strength and clarity on the part of the therapist. And then the next session needed to be about support - going into depth about Fay's creative adjustment - her way of being in the world, in terms of needing to always be in control

Case #204 - In the best interests of the child

Fay had reached the end of her marriage. She had tried really hard to make it work. They had been so much in love at the start. Together now for 5 years, they had a 3 year old son. She was a competent professional; he had been the house husband. This worked very well for both of them. But the interpersonal dynamics had not worked. Her increasing confidence in the world was matched by his collapse. He did not contribute financially; and although he was caring for their child, she wanted him to be moving ahead towards a career, so she did not ultimately have to carry all the financial weight. He promised, but did nothing. She felt like she was the man in the relationship. He felt disempowered.
Part of the issue here was not an interpersonal one.
Thus, in the therapy, I pointed out that there was a social context - ideas about how men and women should be, that were influencing both of them in ways which were disruptive in their relationship. Rather than being able to be with each other as they were, they compared each other to an ideal of what a man or woman is 'supposed' to be - women, soft and caring/ men confident and successful.
Fay's response to challenges was to become more competent, to apply her intelligence, and figure out soltions. Her husbands response was to become timid, to make promises, and to pull back into himself.
This cycle had eventually undermined their marriage.
Now, at this time of separation, they had come to an agreement about parenting.
Fay, who had not done much of the daily care of her child, took custody (a traditional response in the culture in which she lived). She applied her intelligence and competence, and soon started feeling more confident about being able to care for their child as the main person, despite the fact she worked at a demanding job.
Her soon-to-be-x husband was relegated to seeing the child for no longer than a day a week, but he could come and bring him to school, or take the child when Fay had a business trip.
Gestalt is oriented towards finding the right balance of challenge and support. 'As much support as necessary and as little as possible' was Laura Perls' dictum.
This is the growth edge, and what we strive for in the Gestalt experiment.
In this case, I spent a whole session challenging Fay.
Firstly, she was operating from an assumption that she could set the frame on the discussions with her husband. She set up the paramaters for the childcare, and then gave him choices within that. He acquiesced.
She argued with me that she was acting in the best interests of their child -giving him a stable environment, the least disruption during the separation.
I pointed out to her that this was a conflict of interests. She was setting things up as she wanted them, and the lines between what the child needed and what she wanted were blurred.
She also took over entirely the child care, virtually pushing her husband to a peripheral role in the picture, where he had been the main carer. She had many rationales for doing so, but what was masked was her own need to be in control.
I also pointed out to her that as I listened to her talk about all this, I heard her brusque, business-like voice. I heard strength and resolve. Whilst those were good qualities, and understandable in terms of her marshalling herself to the care of her child, they were also the very things which had contributed to the breakdown of the marriage - her taking over, and not really giving space to her husband, on his own terms.
Thus, although they were separating, she was continuing that pattern. I pointed out that she had another two decades of co-parenting with him. And if she simply continued the same pattern they had in their marraige, it would be equally dysfunctional. In that sense, nothing would have changed except they were not living together, and she had taken over charge of child rearing.
This was all very challenging to her, and somewhat of a shock. She was coping as best she could in an uncertain situation, and this is how she knew best to do so. I acknowledged that, and also pointed her to the bigger picture -the next 20 years of coparenting, and how that might go.
This placed the larger content of the field into our discussion, not just focusing on here and now awareness. The future of the field is as important as the past of the field. And in both cases, we bring that into the present interaction.
I highlighted that there were many other choices available to her, other than either relinquishing control over child rearing to her husband, or taking it over entirely herself. And that each choice she made, had consequences. In Gestalt we respect choices, bring them into awareness, and direct people towards taking responsiblity for the consequences - all of them.
Fay realised that she was using the child as a way to hurt the husband - a common reaction. This insight was particularly important, as it clarifies the dynamic underlying all the rational reasons.
The session was very confronting for her. But she was up for it. And I, in good faith, could not just give her empathy in a place where I thought her actions were unconscious and potentially destructive in the long run.
Such confrontation needs to be done very sensitively, maintaining connection with the person. And it requires strength and clarity on the part of the therapist. And then the next session needed to be about support - going into depth about Fay's creative adjustment - her way of being in the world, in terms of needing to always be in control

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Case #203 - Trying to please and impress


Renee was very frank. She said that her underlying motivation was to impress the group, and, to please me as teacher.
I was also frank to her - I said 'I dont need you to please or impress me; and, there's a part of me which would like you to please me.'
Gestalt invites us to be honest about our underlying motivations, our selfish or aggressive impulses, and to recognise and own our contradictions. Its especially important as therapist not to be too 'good', too understanding too perfect.
I asked Renee what she was feeling - tense in the stomach.
Straight away, she recalled a memory from when she was 5 years old.
She described being put through an IQ test. There were two containers, and she had to pick the right answer. She was a very smart kid. But it took her 40 minutes, sweating it, and she still hadnt worked out the answer.
Then a boy came in, sweating from the playground; a boy who was not the smartest in the class. He was able to choose, straight away, the correct answer.
Renee felt stupid at the time. She wanted to impress every one. And everyone expected her to do well, they were watching her.
This was clearly an incident that contained shame, trauma, and a mix of strong expectations, at the same time as a failure to meet those expectations.
I asked Renee what she felt in the present. This is a common form of shuttling awareness in Gestalt - if we go to the Field - a contextual experience, then we bring it back into the present.
She said she felt cold - an understandable reaction to that experience.
I told her that I wanted to give her some warmth - a novel experience in the place where she was used to contracting into herself, and a restorative experience in terms of what she probably needed at the time.
She agreed, so I sat next to her, put my hand on her back, and invited her to breathe, and take in the support.
Renee reported that she felt relaxed after a while.
But she said her hands were still feeling cold. So, with her permission, I sat in front of her and held her hands.
Straight away she recalled some experiences with her first boyfriend, where he had commented on her sweaty hands. I reassured her that I was ok with her hands in any condition.
Her hands warmed up, and she reported feeling more relaxed.
She had her eyes shut. I invited her to open her eyes, look at me, and try the sentence 'I am enough, just for myself'. I asked her to breathe deeply, and repeat the sentence, or change it.
We often give a suggested sentence to a client, for them to try. In Hakomi this is called a 'probe'. It allows them to 'try out' a new idea, with the flexibility to change it, and with checking in as to how it feels. This prevents it simply being an imposition from the therapist.
Renee reported feeling good saying it.
She then reported feeling tense in her hips. So then, with permission, I put a hand on the side of one hip. She then relaxed after a while. I invited her to repeat that sentence.
Renee started crayig, deeply, and said she felt her chest opening up.
This indicated that she was able to feel the deeper feelings from that particular incident, without tensing up, or pushing anything away.
After some time, Renee was completly relaxed. She looked at one of the women in the group, made a comment, and they both laughed.
This represented a full circle - she was able to be herself, in the group, without having to impress or please, but simply be herself.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Case #202 - Integrating warmth and cold

I invited Sandy to notice her present awareness.  
I declared my own awareness - firstly of her - my experience of her warmth, her smile, and then at the same time, her tears, and at the same time, some tension she had mentioned feeling.
I also offered my own awareness of myself - feeling touched by her openess, and my feeling of peacefulness, openess, and being happy and connected.
In Gestalt, its not just about starting with the client's awareness, like an interrogation - its equally valuable to start with one's own experience as therapist - it opens up the way for the client to feel comfortable to share themselves.
So then I asked her what her current experience was.  
Sandy said she felt fear…and then some terror.
I asked how those feelings may be connected to me. In Gestalt we want to take generalised experiences, bring them into the here and how, I and thou. This enables us to focus awareness, and work with it directly, and immediately.
Sandy said she was afraid of my coldness, she wanted to see me smile.
I acknowledged the validity of her perception: I said, 'yes, you see my coldness, and its truly, I do have some within me'.
Its important to recognise the grain of truth in what the client sees.
Sandy talked about her feeling of a 'cold wind'. So asked her to personify that, and 'be the cold wind'.  
At the same time, I drew her attention to the fact that outside of the room, there was in fact a strong wind blowing - we could hear it! This was the perfect setting for what was happening in the room. This utilises 'outer zone' awareness - sensory awareness, of the environment.  
Sandy said she wanted to feel the warmth again, to see my smile.
Her hands were raised when she said this. So I offered to reach out, and touch her hands - offering her contact, but not smiling 'for her'.
She said her hands felt numb. This indicated that as much as she wanted contact, she was not fully available for it.
I asked her to tell me about being cold.
She said her father was warm and understanding, but her mother was cold, and still is, even 50 years later.
I suggested that she try a new experience, with her mother.  
I invited her to imagine I was her mother; I reached out to touch her hands again, and we moved our hands together. I checked her experience as we did this. She went from feeilng warm, to cold, and back and forth.  
Finally the warm feelings stayed steady.  
There was a great sense of connection between us.  
We hugged - the natural culmination for both of us to this experience.  
I said 'I embrace both coldness and warmth, in you as well as me'.  
In making this statement I wanted to underline the integration of the elements that had previously been polarised - coldness and warmth. At this point, it was not simply an interpretation, or insight I was offering her. It was an echo of the integration that she now felt in her body.   

Friday, February 17, 2017

Case #201 - The dizzy woman

Abagail said she felt a pain in her heart. She wanted to know why it was there, and what she could do about it.
I explained to her that the Gestalt approach neither attempted to answer 'why', nor was I going to give her some sage advice. I would however work with her to go into the experience to understand it more deeply.
So I asked her to pay attention to the pain, and describe it to me. She said she felt a movement, and indicated with her hands in an upwards spiralling direction.
I asked how she felt, and she said 'dizzy'.
Now, knowing something about Abagail, I had encountered previously her tendency to get dizzy. I remarked on this, and asked what would happen if the spiralling kept moving up. She told me she would faint.
Now, given this was a familiar tendency of hers, it indicated a basic 'creative adjustment' - her way of coping with a difficult situation. Clearly, this had historical antecedents, but I did not want to go into those on this occasion. I was more interested in staying close to the process.
I remarked on this, her way of 'coping' with whatever the pain was, by distancing/dissociating.
Rather than try to bring her closer to the pain, the Gestalt way is to 'go with' what the person is doing, but with awareness.
So I asked Abagail how far away she would need to be from the pain to be able to look at it.
She said 'well it could be on the moon'.
I invited her to look at it on the moon then. But she said it was too public, others could see it.
So then she looked at a little arrangement of flowers, with a snowman in the middle. It was about 3 metres away. She said she could look at it there.
I remarked that was relatively close, and a lot closer than the moon.
Abagail said - 'its hard to face it on my own'.
So I told her I would accompany her, sitting next to her and supporting her so she didnt have to do it on her own.
Going *with* the distancing, then finding the right distance so she could look at it (rather than spiral off and faint), allowed her to consider the possibility of safely being in the proximity of the pain. Offering to sit with her provided the support to be able to take the next step.
So I sat next to her, and then asked her to pick something in the arrangement of flowers, to represent the pain. She chose the snowman. I invited her to talk to the pain.
She said 'I can see you'.
This of course was a very big step.
I aksed her to imagine she was the snowman/pain, and to describe her experience. She said 'I need to be released'.
I asked her to come back to herself, while she looked at the pain, and asked what she felt. She touched her throat, and said she felt pain and constriction. I asked what else she wanted to say to the pain.
Abagail started burping, and continued to do so for several minutes. This is a very good sign, and I encouraged her to continue to allow this to happen. Its an incation that the body is releasing, deep on an emotional level, things that have been held back.
Abagail felt very calm and centred, fully came into her body, and was able to be much more present in the connection. This was a new experience for her - to be able to feel internally, and stay with that experience, in relationship.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Case #200 - An ordinary pair of jeans reveals all

Aaron, a young man in the audience,  asked me to describe the phenomenological approach of Gestalt. I explained to him that its based on the use of awareness, involves attending to the obvious, and bracketing preconceptions. But this sounds theoretical, whereas the practice is always focused on direct experience.
So I invited him to come up and I would demonstrate it to him.
I suggested that I woudl start with something he was wearing - and I would purposely pick the item of clothing that seemed to have the least meaning - give the least clues, and be the most ordinary.
So I settled on his jeans. They were standard blue jeans, looking identical to the blue jeans that many young people wear. People would hardly think that this would reveal, in a short space of time, something unique and deeply personal.
So I simply commented on what I say - blue jeans, a seam visible on the inside, the seam on the outside with an invisible seam.
Aaron looked at me expectantly -and asked 'so what does that mean'. I replied 'I dont know, and dont want to try to make meaning. I am interested in you, your uniqueness, your individual experience'.
Aaron commented, 'I like slim jeans, and I like them simple, not having to choose everyday'.  
I said, 'Ok, so I have learned something about you already - you are a person who likes things simple.'
Aaron added, 'yes, when I focus on something I want to achieve, I dont want to be distracted, so I dont want to have to think about what to wear'.  
I told him that I could relate to that - I was less interested in what I wore, and more focused on what was of interest to me. This was a relational statement - connecting with him by bringing who I am into the contact.
I said, 'so I also know this about you'.  
Aaron then shared, 'I am focused on my own world, and not so outgoing'. I shared with him that I was different - more extroverted. Again, this provides a point of contact to his sharing.
I think asked him a feeling question - 'how do you feel about being about being more inwardly focused?'. He replied, 'I am a quiet person, and I am happy with being that way'.
So, I have learned some key things about him.  
I then asked him a contextual question - 'tell me about who in your family is quiet, and who is not'.
Aaron described his mother as quiet also, and his father as outgoing. He felt much more comfortable with his mother, and quite uncomfortable with his father, who would pressure him to be more expressive and louder. Aaron also spoke in a quiet voice.
I told him that I actually enjoyed his slow pace, and quiet thoughtful manner - another relational statement, so that his self relevantions did not just occur in a vacuum.
I think invited him into  an awareness experiment - to imagine I was his father, and see what he would like to say to me about being quiet.
He said 'You are always criticising me and the way I am'.
I pointed out this was a critical statement on Aaron's part, and did not really share who he was as a personal statement.
He tried again and said, 'You should be more tolerant of other ways of expression'. I pointed out this was a 'God' statement - telling his father how he should behave, what was correct. Again, I invited him to make a personal statement. Aaron was blank.
I explained this involved the word 'I' and the statement of a feeling.
For instance, 'I feel hurt when you dont accept my quietness'.
Aaron was at first reluctant - he said 'but that will hurt him'. I explained to him the difference between a personal, boundaried statement, which described his own experience and was therefore not 'hurtful' in terms of stepping over a boundary, and a critical or 'God' statement, such as he first made, that might. If we make such clear personal statements, then we are minimising our harm - and any reaction is then truly the other persons 'stuff', and indicates that they are not really interested in who we are or what we feel.
So Aaron said, 'I feel uncomfortable when you push me, and tell me I should be different'.  
I checked how he felt - he said, more comfortable - but he said 'I would find it difficult to say this to my father'. I explained that he may need more practice, or more support in a variety of ways before he might be ready to do so. However, what had shifted was his awareness, his skill in make an authentic statement, and his clarity about how he really liked being a quiet person.  
If we were to continue therapy, these would be very valuable themes to explore. We arrived at quite a core place, from an ordinary pair of jeans!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Case #199 - Taking in being of value

I asked Nathan what he felt - he said he was tired. He wanted to close his eyes - a heavy feeling on his eyes.
I  noticed his face - there was clear tension showing, and small movements related to the tension. Again, I asked him about his feelings - he said he was excited - a kind of tense anxiety.
I also noticed his eyes flickering.
I asked him about that - he said he found the light in the room too bright, and just wanted to close his eyes. So I invited him to do that for a while.
In Gestalt we want to find ways to go with whatever the phenomena is.
After some time he opened his eyes. I used this as a metaphor - and asked him what did he want to see in his life. He was not clear, so I invited him to stand up, and asked him to look into the distance and tell me what he saw.  
'Ambition' he replied.
At the same time, he felt his tiredness. He also made a particular sound, something like 'whoosh'. I pointed out this sond had energy in it.  
Nathan felt embarassed, so I asked him to down again.  
I asked him what he was tired of in his life - he replied that he was tired of all the duties he had, tired of being lonely, and tired on not having enough money.
Again, I invited him to stand - I wanted to help him mobilise his energy. I asked him again to look towards his life, and see what it was doing, what it was saying to him.  
Nathan said that it was saying 'you can do better', 'you are trying hard'.
I pointed out that this was future oriented, I wanted to see what was in the present.
In Gestalt we catch people's tendencies to jump ahead of themselves, and focus instead on 'who are you' in the here and now.
So Nathan said that now his life was saing to him that he should be so much more,  and that he was really like a woman'. He was embarassed by this.
It was clear that the messages he was receiving were part of his low motivation.
So I asked him to step into that other position, representing his life. I instructed 'I want you to be with Nathan, just as he is', and asked how he felt. He found it hard to answer. So I suggested - imagine you are Nathan's best friend, what do you want to say.  
In this position, Nathan still found it hard to speak, or to really feel deeply.  
He was clearly struggling to have compassion for himself, and 'be with what is', including all this limits.  
So I put a hand on his shoulder to support him.  
Again, he felt embarassed.
This reocurrng experience of embarassment indicated that shame was just below the surface.
A key factor in dealing with shame is the provision of support. His indication of loneliness, his escape into the future, his tiredness, all point to a lack of ability to really be in the present, and pay attention to where is life energy is leading him.
So we spent some time with me standing next to him, my hand on his shoulder, and Nathan just breathing, coming into the present, relaxing, and letting something positive and nourishing in. I invited people in the group to come up and tell him what they liked or appreciated about him, and his task was to just breathe it in, and accept it.
This was difficult for him, but as he did so, he reported feeling the tireness lifting. His face looked more peaceful, and the twitching had stopped.
It was clear that what he needed was a sense of being valued, and it was hard for him to take this in, to feel it. So we continued for a while, his instructions to be present, and allow the support in.  
Sometimes things that seem very small, are actually enormously difficult for some people. So, this requires patience, and finding just how support the person needs and where possible, offering it to them. What matters is the integration the person feels, not how 'big' or dramatic the work is

© Lifeworks 2012

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Who is this blog for?

These case examples are for therapists, students and those working in the helping professions. The purpose is to show how the Gestalt approach works in practice, linking theory with clinical challenges.

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Gestalt therapy demonstration sessions

Touching pain and anger: https://youtu.be/3r-lsBhfzqY (40m)

Permission to feel: https://youtu.be/2rSNpLBAqj0 (54m)

Marriage after 50: https://youtu.be/JRb1mhmtIVQ (1h 17m)

Serafina - Angel wings: https://youtu.be/iY_FeviFRGQ (45m)

Barb Wire Tattoo: https://youtu.be/WlA9Xfgv6NM (37m)

A natural empath; vibrating with joy: https://youtu.be/tZCHRUrjJ7Y (39m)

Dealing with a metal spider: https://youtu.be/3Z9905IhYBA (51m)

Interactive group: https://youtu.be/G0DVb81X2tY (1h 57m)