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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.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Case #99 - Disrobing oneself

Jasmine responded to the topic of Religious Wounding. This describes emotional traumas experienced in the context of religious settings.
She talked about being a young woman, and enthusiastically embracing Buddhism, joining a temple for a while, waking up early in the mornings to recite the sutras.
She was working as secretary for the Buddhist association, and came to witness many scenes which disturbed and distressed her - head teachers who showed a calm and holy face to the public, but in private they ranted and raved, yelled at meetings, and behaved in ways which did not evidence the spirituality they preached.
So she distanced herself from the group. Years later, when she was experiencing some significant life stresses, she came back to Buddhism, and joined some other groups. She attended some formal study, taught by nuns, and found them to show intolerance towards differences, suppressing questioning, and making disparaging remarks about other groups.
Over a period of a number of years, she witnessed many things which continued to disturb and shock her.
Eventually, she came to feel very angry and reactive, though she continued her practices on her own.
She did not feel the freedom to talk about this to anyone, so she had kept her pain inside for many years.
Now, with the opportunity to express herself, Jasmine was very angry, and very energised. She finally felt she could speak up, and speak out. I encouraged her, noting that in the therapy setting there was indeed freedom to talk about her experiences and her feelings.
So she became more energised. I brought out a pillow, and invited her to put the first person on it she would like to talk to.
She spoke to a monk who was the head of one of the organisations she was part of. She was very angry at him, giving him a list of the things that she was upset by. However, I had to interrupt her, to ask her to add 'and I am angry about that' to the end of each sentence. What often happens in such situations is the person has a big laundry list, but they may avoid including themselves, or articulating the feelings they have. This then becomes a diatribe, which is not generally that useful or healing. It builds up energy rather than releases it. And it keeps the person distanced from their strong feelings by just projecting them onto others. So its necessary to ensure they connect each critical statement with a feeling.
She found this hard to do. Often people who are involved with religion or spirituality for a long time are practiced at distancing from their feelings.
She said to the monk 'I would like to remove your robes, make you into an ordinary person'.
So I invited her to imagine doing that.
I also invited her to use some swear words that she thought of - this is another way someone can more fully express their frustration, especially for someone who normally doesnt swear.
We then moved through a succession of people whom she had unfinished business with, mostly religious authorities, but also included one group of religious people.
Finally, she felt a huge relief, a burden lifted from her shoulders, that she had been carrying a long time.
Then she was able to get to the statement - 'I am not a Buddhist anymore'. I suggested she make a statement to the effect 'I follow my own truth' (a phrase that she had previously used). This was the integrative statement - her owning of her own spirituality, no longer so dependant on others, and able to define what it meant for her.
Psychotherapy in general, and Gestalt in particular, can be used very effectively to deal with these type of religious wounds. Without such therapeutic support, they tend to simply be buried, with negative consequences both emotionally and spiritually.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Case #98 - The unthawing of relationship

Katie spoke about her relationship with her husband.
It had been very painful for a very long time. They had not had sex for 10 years. She felt towards him as sister and brother - 'a family' but with no sense of intimacy.
He had been pigheaded, selfish, insensitive, and domineering. The children had also distanced from him for those reasons.
She had spent the last number of years doing a lot of work on herself, finding her own happiness.
They had gone away on a family holiday. The kids, now older, were out for the night, and it was just the two of him.
He came over and gave her a hug. She was shocked, and scared, and very tense. She felt no warmth towards him on a physical level, and was very uncomfortable with her own reaction, as well as his action.
When they got home, he started changing. He dropped his belligerent attitude. He started doing nice things for her.
She was very wary, and held lots of fears. What if this was just a temporary change. What if he tried to get close to her again.
I pointed out that if she acted out of fear, this may indeed just be a temporary change, and her own actions would revert the system to its previous state. This was confronting her with her own choices and responsibility in maintaining the current system, and examining her investment in it, no matter how much she might complain.
This was a bigger subject, for ongoing work.
But in this moment, I suggested that she identify where and how she would be comfortable giving her husband a 'reward' for his changes.
This is related to the principle of give and take in relationship. Between marriage partners, its essential that there is some kind of systemic balance. In this case, she had clearly done more of the giving, and he more of the taking. Complain as she might about this situation, she had also been part of creating and maintaining the imbalance. By starting to do something different in recent times, she was having an impact on the systemic balance.
One result is that he started to give to her instead of just taking.
However, such an act on his part is more likely to continue if it starts a mutually 'virtuous' cycle, rather than the vicious cycle they had been caught in.
Her role in that would be to give something back, no matter how small.
This however confronted her with her bitterness and resentment, which she would have to find a way through, in order to meet allow something new to develop.
Her fear was that he would take any friendliness on her part 'the wrong way'. I pointed out that this was getting ahead of herself. The focus needed to be in the present - what she had the capacity to give, and her limits on what she was willing to receive from him, or how close she was ready to be. She needed to make it clear to him that she could only take one step at a time towards him, and needed him to move at the same pace.
When a relationship has been frozen for a very long time, it seems like it can never change. But Field Theory tells us that change is the essence of life, things change all the time. When we tap into that flow, then we start to recognise and feel just how quickly things can change. The issue then is how much support people have to integrate change.
In Gestalt we are more oriented towards small changes, than large dramatic ones. The issue is always, what step is there internal and external support for, where is the domain of choicefuleness able to be expressed, and how can a person find their own compass, rather than acting according to the expectation of others.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Case #97 - The integration of spiritual experience

Victor wanted to understand more about what spirituality was, but he was unclear. Gestalt can be used with any figure of interest, and it does not require the therapist to be some kind of spiritual expert to be able to help someone clarify their awareness, or make sense of their experience.
So I asked about his conceptual framework - his beliefs about spirituality - as his desire was 'understanding' which implies some mental content. This is the first way to help someone to articulate their own spirituality - in terms of their thinking. He reported being a Buddhist.
Next I asked him about his experience. This is a good place to start with spirituality, as it can easily become a heady and esoteric subject, and experience, even transcendent ones, are grounding in the self.
He talked about time when he had done a spiritual practice for 1 hour each day. This is the second definer of spirituality - practices.
I asked what kinds of spiritual experiences he had had as a result.
Victor said he didn't really know. He had noticed that he became more sensitive to others, and their feelings and states. He also noticed that with work clients,  he was able to tune into them more fully - again an increase in sensitivity.
He also felt more tuned into the natural environment, in this place of increased sensitivity.
Still, he didn't quite know what all this meant, or what exactly spirituality was.
I pointed out that these experiences were all in relation to others, to something outside of himself.
I asked about the impact that the practices had on his internal experience.
He reported a feeling of peace.
I pointed out that this was a good way to answer the question 'what is spirituality'. He understood this straight away, not just cognitively, but in his being. He had had a spiritual experience, but being invited to articulate it helped him to relate it cognitively: to make sense of it - as this was his original desire. However, this 'making sense' was now grounded in and related directly to his experience, rather than a theoretical framework he may have learned from someone else.
I then invited him to remember that feeling he had after the spiritual practice sessions.
He recalled it, and then I asked him to report his experience in the present. This is a standard Gestalt invitation. He reported feeling a small measure of that peace.
I then identified this to him as a spiritual practice he could do moment by moment, cultivating that sense of peace. This dropped it all into place for him.
He now had a way to connect up his experiences, his concepts, and his practices, in a present centred, alive way.
This is the kind of integration we generally seek in Gestalt, and its particularly potent when its done around the topic of spirituality.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Case #96 - Spiritual work with aggression

Brenda raised the topic of authenticity. But she named it as a spiritual practice that she wanted to be able to achieve, rather than just a psychological method.
I did not completely understand how she differentiated this, but was happy to work with her to find out.
She talked about a situation at work with a client, whom she felt she had to please, and not contradict, even though she knew his plans would not yield a benefit. Constrained by company pressure, notions of how to be with clients, and her own fear of confrontation and rejection, she found herself acting inauthentically with the client. It appeared that the issue underlying her lack of authenticity was fear.
Given the topic was spirituality, I wanted to find her practices on a spiritual level. She explained that she calmed herself, using a kind of meditation to do so, then she prayed for guidance.
I invited her into an experiment. Someone else in the group played the client, and Brenda supplied the words.
As I listened to what the 'client' said to her, I noted that this sounded like the client was pretty bossy and pushy - telling her that she had to do what they wanted.
I asked her feeling in response to this aggressive attitude. She reported 'not fair'. I pointed out this was a thought, not a feeling. Its important in therapy to differentiate thoughts and feelings, and in this case, her answer still did not tell me her feeling. With some help, she identified feeling frustrated.
So, the figure had shifted. In fact underneath the difficulty of being authentic was not just fear, but her own aggression. This is always useful to identify, as people tend to not identify with their aggression, identifying instead with a more victim type of position - in this case, her fear of rejection.
So its always valuable from a Gestalt point of view to locate aggression, as this represents useful energy for action, change.
In this case though, I took a cue from her - she did not want to work with the aggression psychologically, but spiritually. That suggested not directing her to 'feel and express' the anger, which would be the normal therapeutic formula. But instead, to find what it means to work with it spiritually.
So I asked her to use her spiritual practices, in the moment, to work with her frustration. She did this, silently. When she opened her eyes she said 'its gone'.
I believed this, and did not need to probe to 'make sure' that this wasn't a trick she was playing on herself. I had my own sense of her being right - the expression on her face was very open, and in contemporary Gestalt we generally do not want to 'confront' people, working instead with the subjectivity of their experience. I did not see anything to indicate a contradiction with what she reported, so I was happy to accept that.
If someone engages in a 'spiritual' process based on some kind of 'should', then it could certainly be possible that they would in fact use that to avoid feeling, or coming to terms with their feelings. But that did not seem to be the case here.
This represents a way of using a Gestalt process to work with an issue that is framed as spiritual.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Case #95 - Being intolerant to find spiritual tolerance

Sylvia brought a complex issue. She wanted to be able to take more responsibility for herself, as a kind of spiritual practice, but when faced with certain people, she would push them away, and create distance. Further, she would pressure herself, so taking more responsibility felt like choking herself. I asked what she was feeling in the present, and she reported turmoil.
In Gestalt, we always want specifics, as general issues are not going to yield a focused awareness. So I asked her for a specific example.
She talked about a previous friend that she had gone into business with. Problems had come up, and they ended up falling out, going their separate ways. She named some of the differences that they had, and her frustrations with her friend.
My interest, as is usually the case in Gestalt, was not on the content, but on the dynamic in relationship.
She explained that she had not talked about this to anyone, as she put pressure on herself, as a coach, that she should not have these kind of struggles, and secondly that she did not want to fuel gossip.
So firstly I responded with a relational statement, recognising her vulnerability in sharing this issue. This is an important acknowledgement of support as it exists between us.
I asked what would be different if she took more responsibility. She replied that she would be more tolerant.
So this is what we call a 'new figure' emerging. In a Gestalt process we pay attention to the figures of interest, and sometimes the one we start with is not the most important one.
So I asked about tolerance. Sylvia said - 'I should be tolerant and not push her away'.
In Gestalt, 'should' is always a flag word - representing a level of not taking responsibility (attributing motivation to an external source), and indicating some kind of universal injunction which has been swallowed. So there are a number of ways we work with this.
Firstly, there is the identification of the source of the should. So I said - 'more tolerant, according to whom?'. This grounds the seemingly absoluteness of the injunction in a relationship.
Sylvia named four sources - ideals of spiritual perfection, her family beliefs, cultural beliefs, and her own drive to be better than the circumstances she was raised in. We could have worked specifically with any one of these, and they would be good for future work on what we term as introjects - beliefs that were swallowed.
But I wanted to keep on track.
I asked her to represent the four sources of shoulds as objects…which she placed in front of her.
I asked her what she felt. She said she felt a dark feeling.
I suggested that where there is a desire to be tolerant, there is probably the need to recognise intolerance first. This is the Gestalt approach to polarities.
So I asked her to place tolerance in one hand, and intolerance in the other, then to tell each of the four sources of shoulds that she in fact was both tolerant and intolerant. This allows her to name and own the complexity of her experience, in the face of the pressure of the introjects to simply be one thing.
Next I placed an object in front of her to represent her former friend, and invited Sylvia to tell her the same thing.
Again, to focus the figure, I asked her to be specific in telling her friend what she was not willing to tolerate.
She made some clear statements.
I shared that I had a positive judgement - that her unwillingness to tolerate certain behaviours was a psychologically healthy action.
Sometimes in therapy it is appropriate to share a judgement, as long as it is fully owned, and is a very specific intervention. In this case, i wanted to offer my authoritative support for her owning of her intolerance, and also to recognise that this was in fact a way she was taking responsibility.
What was left then? She was interested in applied spirituality, so I suggested that now we could look at what it might mean to be spiritually tolerant in this place, after having drawn a healthy psychological boundary.
Having been able to own her intolerance now freed her up to find where and how much she was willing and able to be tolerant - not out of a should, but because that was a genuine stretching she wanted to do.
I gave an example of where I struggled with the same thing, and acknowledged the challenge of this.
By bringing myself in, I made this a relational process, rather than just a facilitated one. I also 'did some of the work' by looking to my own self reflection, rather than asking her to do all the work of figuring it out.
This is part of the I-thou process of Gestalt.
By joining her in this place I was able to offer her some interpersonal support, and recognise the difficulty of locating a genuinely spiritual capacity for tolerance, in a way that was real, and involved a personal stretch.
Sylvia had gained a sense of what she needed to do, how to do it, and had the clarity and ground now to be able to practice tolerance as a spiritual practice, having taken care of the psychological.
This is an example of the integration of psychotherapy and spirituality.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Case #94 - To be known, to know oneself

Louisa had been involved in personal growth work for over 10 years. She had not done a full professional training, but she had attended a lot of workshops, done her own study, and was committed to her own growth.
She was recognised by her friends as a very strong woman.
As I came to know her, I also agreed - I could see a deep strength in her.
Of course, she knew this about herself as well, although she was also focused on what she needed to learn, her weak areas, and the places she was not as successful as she would like.
I suggested to her - why not teach others how to find the strength you have.
Louisa firstly through she was not externally successful enough - she didnt make a lot of money from what she was doing.
I pointed out that it was her inner success that mattered - no matter what happened to her, she did not allow herself to be daunted, to give up. She carried that inner strength with her, and just because she hadnt turned it to making a lot of money, didnt mean so much except in very superficial terms.
She then said she didnt know how to teach others what she knew - it was just natural to her.
I then took her through an awareness process, stepping back from herself, and observing what she did in a number of circumstances to access her strength. She talked about her self talk, her attitude, and I also asked about what she did on a somatic level.
I pointed out that this kind of self reflection was the basis on then being able to teach others what she knew.
The Gestalt principles here are firstly feedback - giving the client something of my experience of them. That could be 'positive' or 'negative', but thats somewhat irrelevant. The point is that its about how I experience, them, and the impact that has on me.
That kind of feedback is very valuable for someone - to be really seen. Its confirming, its acknowledging, and it provides some solid ground for therapeutic conversation. It also helps people identify their unique style in the world - which is really what they have to offer in relationship, and by extension, in their work.
Secondly, I helped her go through an awareness process to deconstruct her internal workings. This is very useful in many circumstances - its a question of 'how' we each do what we do. By opening this up, then more choice becomes available - in this case, to then be able to teach it.
Thirdly, as therapists, we can do our own awareness deconstruction process, allowing us to describe to clients what we know and understand. This is the necessity for our own self reflection, and getting quality feedback ourselves.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Case #93 - Depression is in the relationship

Terry was at a loss. He had been in a relationship with Dianne for several years. They clearly loved each other. They were both interested in the inner life, and had a strong bond.
But Dianne was depressed. She variously took medication. She had tried to do some therapy, but it hadnt helped much. She had a demanding career, which kept her busy, and stressed.
Somehow, they fought a lot when together (she travelled quite a lot, and they didnt live together). They would always work things out, but it was quite exhausting. Dianne was extremely critical, whereas Terry was easy going.
Dianne would occasionally break off the relationship, but then after some time, would make contact again, saying she missed Terry.
Terry had been quite patient, had tried hard to make it work, but was at his wits end. He found it stressful rather than nourishing, and it seemed that the two of them just couldnt find a way to be together that was healthy for them.
I explained to Terry that in fact, it was just that Dianne was depressed. The depression was 'in the relationship', and in that sense, he was also depressed by what was happening. He might not have her black and white thinking (that tends to accompany depression), but from a systemic point of view, he was somehow caught up in a depressive field.
What was his role? To be helpful, to make suggestions, to try to find solutions, to try to talk about things rationally. This all seems harmless, and what else can one do? But in systemic terms, both people co-create their field. What is obvious is how Dianne contributes. What is not obvious is how Terry contributes.
His helpfulness, or patience for instance, become part of the problem.
So the solution is for him to find ways to step out of the co-created system - by finding his limits, stating them non-reactively, being proactive in declining invitations to rescue, and to stop being so helpful.
This is a big ask, but it empower him, as instead of being dependant on Dianne to change - which is not happening- he can work on himself.
We talked about how when he could adopt a sense of humour, the dynamic changed completely. We explored how he needed to support himself, to find ways to find his own centre and happiness, in order not to get drawn down into negativity. We practied ways he could step back from being so helpful, and be more boundaried instead - recognising his own needs, and drawing limits about what he was capable of handling.
Terry felt much stronger, clearer, and could see what he could work on. Whatever happened with the relationship, this would be useful learning for him.

© Lifeworks 2012


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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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