Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Cae #34 - Contact and authenticity

Nathan was a solidly built man, thoughtful, with a clear and strong presence.

His issue was authenticity. He didn't feel like he was really authentic with others.

He almost never fought or argued. He was cooperative at work and at home.

His family history was that of violence between his older brother and sister. Whereas in the family he took the place of the ‘good boy’. There were two occasions which impacted on him as a child. One where he was very angry at his older brother, and three a object at him that almost pierced his eye. The other when he hit a boy at school, who subsequently came to his home and scratched his face.

Since that time, he was contained and would not hit out.

He surprised me by telling me that he was not very confident about himself. I was surprised because he was clearly a powerful man, grounded in his body.

He did say that he had sharp judgements of others, and so tended to keep them to himself.

So I gave him an authenticity process, which I firstly did with him. 

There were three components - what he thought, what he felt, and what he wanted from the other.

I did that with him, and he with me. He was able to do it easily.

I defined this as an authentic meeting. Continuing would lead to an authentic dialogue, and this would eventually lead to an authentic relationship.

I then invited him to do it with three people in the group. The first was fairly straightforward. The second was a woman who gave him quite a complex response. He got lost, and so I told him to respond with a feeling statement. I have him a formula, especially when responding to women: after the intial authentic meeting statement, he was to make three feeling statements for every one thinking statement he made.

He then practiced this with one more person.

I asked him how he found it; easy he replied.

This indicated to me that all he had needed was a little direction, some guidelines, and support for practicing it.

As a man, he liked to have some clear instructions. As someone with a lot of latent power, he just needed a way to tap that, in a safe form.

He was confident about being able to continue practicing the process.

Of course, we could have worked with his family of origin situation, or his conflict avoidance. But this was an intervention that was present and future focused, and that gave him an immediate experience of success. This was important due to his flagging confidence. It also provided him a vehicle for experiential learning, so he could continue to explore for himself the process of authentic contact.

Contact is one of the key facets of Gestalt theory and practice, and that was the central theme of this session.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Case #33 - A full and authentic disclosure

James’ issue was that he worked hard all week, often flying to other cities, and then came home on a Friday. Having been away, he looked forward to returning. It was important to him that his wife and child were at home, and he could walk into the feeling of ‘home’. 

However, his wife was a high level HR manager, and she was not home more often then not. When pressed, she would point out that her career was also important, and that his feelings were his problem.

He had been with his wife for many years, and they were both interested in personal growth and astrology. He described himself as a cancer sign, signalling feelings.

Their relationship was deep and affectionate, but also had a lot of conflict, which he wanted to reduce and improve the relationship. 

This provided me with a context for the intervention.

I asked him something that was equally important for his wife, that she would like him to give her. He said when she gave a presentation at work, and shared that with him, she wanted his acknowlegement and appreciation.

I asked for a second thing. When she read a book (generally personal development), she wanted him to read it too and talk about it.

I asked whether he did either of those things. He said, to some degree… but not to her satsifaction.

So I suggested that he firstly take seriously these two requests from her, and do them both wholeheartedly.

After he had done so for a time, I suggested that he give her a full, complex and authentic statement about what it meant to him for her to be home on a Friday night.

I demonstrated what I meant by this with an example from my own life:

-> Growing up, birthdays had always been special times in our house. Whereas for my wife, they were hardly celebrated; and there were times when her sister’s birthday was celebrated, but not hers.

As a result she did not have a lot of enthusiasm for birthdays; she liked hers to be very private and simple.

I expected a special day, with a number of markers which were about it being ‘my day’. There were occaions on which she did not do this in the way I wanted, and I felt very hurt; something that was hard for her to really understand.


So my full, complex and authentic statement went something like this:

I know that birthdays are fraught for you, and that you didnt have a great experience of them during your childhood. I know that you have also tried very hard to make my birthdays very nice occasions, and I am very grateful for that. And I have also experienced that there have been times when you have not felt in the right space for any variety of reasons, to put out an extra effort, or do more than a certain amount. I understand that for you this is related to how much you genuinely feel you have available to give, and that you dont expect more than that on your birthday. However, I am different to you. Birthdays are also a bit fraught for me, in a different way. Because I had a tradition of them being very special, I have an underlying expectation and hope that I get to be ‘first’ on that day. And that even if you are not in such a great mood, that you would set that aside, just for that day, so that I could feel I am getting some kind of special treatment. That would mean a lot to me, and even more so, because I know its not always easy for you. I feel a little on edge saying this to you, because its important to me, and because its a difficult subject for you. I appreciate you considering what I am asking, and you can think about it if you need to and we can talk about it another time.


By giving James this personal example from my own life, he could understand how to construct a complex authentic personal statement for this issue of his own.

Gestalt is about bringing depth and authenticity to relationship, and in furthering connection and intimacy. This is an example of one way that we would do it for a client who already knows more than the basics of communication.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Case #32 - Authentic resources

Diane had two issues. The first was that her first son, 12 was not studying as hard as she would have liked him to.

I asked on a scale, how well was he doing, and she replied 6 or 7. Did he do his homework? Yes. But the fact is to get into a top school a child had to have top scores, and so the pressure was on. 

Firstly, I responded from my own ground - my beliefs in parent-centred child raising, my beliefs about the importance of balanced life for a child, and my values around academic achievement not always being the ultimate goal.

This was important, to make my own position explicit, feel out any boundaries of difference, and find where and how my willingness to support (and the limitations of that) could meet where she was at.

She was conflicted, as she had read many parenting books prior to this, and had tried to create some space for him, but she was worried about his future, and didnt know how to effectively motivate him.

So my proposal was this: she would sit down with him, firstly telling him what was important to her in his growing up.

Then she would paint the picture that he faced - a society and school system that was highly competitive, and which required certain grades to achieve entry into certain institutions. She would map out the different instituttions, their requirements, and the plus and minus of attending them.

She would then support him to decide what his own goals were, where he wanted to end up, and what he needed to do in order for that to happen. 

In this way, she could be completely authentic, while at the same time supporting him to find his own ground. Her willingness and desire to support him could then be directed in a way that backed up his choices, rather than chose for him.

Her second issue was in relationship to her husband. He would come home, have a beer, read the paper, write his blog, and completely ignore her and the children.

Obviously, she was unhappy with this situation, but had not been able to find a way around it.

In other respects, he participated in family life, planned family outings, spent time with the family on them, and often cooked meals. 

He had never been a big communicator, so this was not something new. 

It was clear to me that nagging him, demanding from him, or even suggesting that she give some kind of authentic communication would not be effective. 

I asked about his blog. She said it was very articulate, funny and he included pictures with interesting comments beneath them. She just wished he could talk to her like that.

The direction was clear to me. She was not going to change him, but she could join him. I asked if he had an ipad. She said she had hidden it.

I instructed her to immediately give him the ipad, and buy one herself. She could then communicate with him in writing. She could respond to his blog (he would write back to people who did so), she could send him notes, letters, little one liners. While he was sitting with the newspaper she could send him little comments. She could write letters, print them out, and mail them to him, or put them under his pillow. 

In this way I was utilising what was available. This was not working on her intrapsychic dynamics, and I refused to reinforce her notion that there must be something wrong with her, as he was not paying her attention. Instead I looked for where the resources where, and how she could creatively make contact with him in a way which stepped outside the settled box of their relationship.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Case #31 - Trading sex for intimacy

Louise said she wanted more passion in her relationship. 

Her husband had an affair 5 years ago. It had lasted about a year. He confessed, went down on his knees and begged forgiveness, and finished it.

Since then things had slowly been improving, but theres still some issues outstanding for Louise.

When he first told her about the affiar she responded quite rationally, asking about whether he was going to leave the marriage or not. Her immediate way of coping was to assess the situation, and work out where she and he stood. That was a good initial survival strategy.

However, later on, she felt much sadness.

More recently, she had also been feeling her anger.

But its not something she brought up. He indicated that if she was really angry, he would be willing to leave her (out of his guilt). So she was afraid that he would still do that if she expressed just how she feels.

But its eating away at her. And although there is a lot of good in their relationship, she has not fully opened up to him again, including on a sexual level - she holds back a bit. I asked how often they had sex - around 4 times a month.

I asked how much they talked - about half an hour a day on average.

I asked her to rate his emotional intelligence level. She said, a 3. It was clear to me that she was not going to get the kind of hearing she wanted from him under these circumstances. To work with her on her expressing her feelings was not much use; it could get out some of her anger, but it was not really going to increase their intimacy, because nothing further would have actually come from him. And without talking to him about what was happening for her, their relationship would stay on a somewhat superficial level. 

Gestalt does not work towards ‘forgiveness’, though it does emphasise the ‘what is’. But in this case, there were a range of other choices that she was not aware of. 

Louise was a teacher, and reported having changed her teaching style over recent years to let go of ‘shoulds and should nots’, and she found a gradual and very signfiicant change in her classroom. She had  concurrently been on a ‘journey to find herself’.

So I knew she had resources herself, and had clearly been working on her own growth. 

But this had not really spilled into the couple relationship.

My focus was to work with the couple relationship issue, rather than just intrapsychically with Louise, or even interpersonally with me.

So I proposed some homework.

This involved basically a deal: more sex for more intimacy.

I suggested that she tell her husband she wanted more sex with him, and more closeness. And that for her to do so, she needed more intimacy.

So to achieve that, they would spend ½ hour together each day, developing intimacy in their relationship. I suggested a range of options - practicing speaking authentically with each other about small things; reading a book together and discussing it; practicing some exercises together like listening, or emotional expression; creating space to hear each others resentment; or just doing things together in that time which increased their sense of bonding and closeness.

I agreed with her this was completely unfair. She was in a way playing the teacher, orchestrating this, and bringing him up to speed, just so she could express her anger safely to him. It wasnt fair, as she was doing twice the work in that sense.

However, there would be other side benefits in numerous ways, and it would also achieve her own goals to bring more passion into their relationship. 

The result would be they would be closer to being on the same page, rather than the personal awareness journey only belonging to her.

This approach utilised what is called ‘working with a couple relationship with one person’. That is, we keep the relationship in the forefront when working with a client. Rather than focus on them only, we look at how we can strengthen the relationship. 

Many feelings, identities and stories are an product of the couple relationship. So one way towards change is to make a signficant shift in the relationship, rather than focusing on the individual’s experience. This is utilsing a field approach, working with the whole, rather than the parts.

It sounded very mercenary to talk about trading sex for changed behaviour - but people do this anyway unconsciously. To own what one does, to bring it upfront into the relationship, then really does give the other person choices. In that way, such a proposal is not manipulative, but rather, honest. And such an exchange in this context is for something that will enhance the couples relationship.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Case #30 - A good reason not to feel sexual

Bridgit reported having a ‘frozen’ feeling in her lower back and genital area. She was divorced 5 years and had not been able to find another relationship.

She said that she had been hurt by her husband. She had never been very responsive to him sexually, even though he tried hard in many ways, and the relationship had many good aspects.

I asked her how specificaly he had hurt her, but she found it hard to pinpoint this. She said she had felt closed to him, so that was where she experienced the hurt.

But it seemed that he had not particularly done anything harmful. So the arrows pointed elsewhere.

She then reported that she didnt really have that much feeling in her body full stop. 

I brought myself in, and told her my own experience of dissociation, and of finding it hard to be fully in my body.

She said she suspected that for her it stemmed from witnessing her brother being badly beat up by her parents from the ages of 8-16. After that he was stolen by people smugglers, and it was 5 years before he was able to write a letter, and get rescused from there. However, after that, he wandered the streets with other beggars, stole, was in jail several times and even stole from her when she tried to help him. 

15 years ago her their father died, and she reported that ever since then her brother has been fine, happy, and is leading a good life.

Nevertheless, she still feels much pain and guilt at not being able to do anything about the beatings.

I pointed out that she never had any support at all during that time - no one to talk to, no one to comfort her.

I suggested that, given the pain was still very present for her, I sit next to her, and put my arm around her, so she could feel the support she never had. To get the feeling, as if I was there, at the time with her.

As I did this, she started sobbing with extremely profound pain, gasping for air. I held her, and breathed, staying very present, listening to the terrible pain in her cries.

After quite some time her crying subsided, and she became still and quiet. I spoke acknowledging words.

Then, she sat up and looked at me. She said ‘now I want to give you something’. I could feel the shift in her, and my energy. I said, I can feel that, I feel warmed. She reported feeling warmer herself, throughout her body. 

I asked her what she wanted to give me, but she struggled for some time for words.

Then she said ‘I would like to kiss your eyes with my eyes’. I could feel her openess and the flow of energy between us. I said, now you are in your body, and ready for a relationship. She nodded.

I did not pick up on the first figure she raised (frozen feelings), nor the second (lack of feelings generally in the body). I responded dialogically and waited until something else emerged, which was her unfinished business from the family field.

Witnessing such trauma left a deep mark on her, and despite her brother having finally recovered his life, she was still holding onto the pain and guilt. She could not move on herself until she was really seen in her place of pain, and supported fully there.

Providing that experience triggered a profoundly healing experience, allowing her to spontaneously let go of the pain and guilt, come into her body, and be available for her sexual feelings.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Case #29 - Growing up the angry little girl

Cathy brought the issue of ‘resentment towards father’. I asked what she resented, she replied, that he had divorced with her mother when she was 4.

I explored the nature of her field. That was 20 years ago, and she had only seen her father 10 times since then. She knew very little about him.

She believed her mother to be the victim - her father had an affair, and then remarried. 

She had not made any effort in her adult life to contact him. When I asked why, she replied that previously he had brought his daughter from his second marriage along, and Mary had felt extremely jealous to see the affection he gave to her half sister.

I told her I would not work with the issue of her parents divorce, or her resentment about that (due to it not being really centred in her issues). Instead, I was only willing to work with her as an adult, and find out what she needed to do in the present.

She was reluctant, but my boundaries were clear.

I told her a story about my own divorce, and the conversation I had with my eldest daughter when she was grown up, and the misinformation she harboured.

I told her that I was willing to support her in finding her own conversations with her father, but not to stay in any helpless, victim, or disempowered role.

She had inherited her mother’s stories, and been coloured by them. As an adult she had her own choices she could exercise, and could find out directly from her father as to his side of the story. She had not done so as yet, so my focus was on moving towards this in the future, rather than trying to rake over the past.

Furthermore, as we talked about this, Mary had a little girl voice  and mannerisms. I told her that I understood and felt compassionate that she had missed out on so much with her father, but that was now water under the bridge and no amount of therapy, or interaction with him could restore those lost years. 

We had to be with the tragedy of it, as it was, and find her resources from this point.

This was a hard line, but to do otherwise would have been to aid and abet her being stuck in a helpless place, forever wanting something which she had missed out on.

Sometimes extended empathy can help people, but other times they need a clear boundary, and a way to move forward rather than looking constantly backward. In her little-girl self, she had no choices, no capacity to move towards him.

She reported how when she had seen him as as small child she would hit him. Clearly, she was angry, and I normalised this. But she hadnt found any other way to relate to him, and was still angry in the same little girl way.

So I proposed an experiment: to start from a position in the room that she designated as next to her mother, and walk across the room towards her father. Perhaps to have a conversation with him or perhaps to just stand with him.

She was extremely challenged by this invitation, and very scared. I did everything I could to encourage her, but also gave her choice. I reminded her frequently that she was 24. I asked her move out of the little girl voice, to straighten her back rather than slump (she reported having regular back aches), and to move from to a place of adulthood and choicefulness.

Slowly, she agreed to the experiment. She moved one step at a time, needing a lot of support at each step, not to collapse. Finally she reached her father’s position, and I asked someone to step into role as her father.

She found it impossible to speak to him. So I asked her what she was feeling, and put that into sentences she could use. I did this for a half dozen feelings, so she had a range of things she could say. She needed more encouragement to be able to her her words out. In fact, she made small sharp breathing noises, which when identified, contained her ‘grievance’ about his attention to her half-sister.

She wanted to ask him questions, but I directed her only to make statements. I pointed out the manipulation of the questions, and brought her back to the reasons she wanted to move towards him.

Finally she spoke to him, telling him that she was angry, hurt, and also pleased to see him. Mostly she spoke of her upsetness and her fears. The representative’s response was he was glad to see her; this was not what she was expecting. 

The whole process was very difficult for her. I had to keep making the experiment easier, by for instance telling her that this was just a therapy group, it wasnt her actual father and mother there, and she was just walking across a bamboo floor, nothing more. This reduced the emotional valence, just slightly. I accompanied her at each step, coaching, supporting, and challenging her to stay in her adult.

This was an example of the ‘safe emergency’ of the Gestalt experiment, where we step into territory that is normally too hard, yet do so with as much support as is necessary. 

The allows the person to have a new experience.

However, such experiments are not prescriptive, and clients are encouraged not to make them into new ‘shoulds’, but rather to see them as explorations of awareness and choicefulness.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Case #28 - The talking pants

Nancy covered the gammut of issues. She felt there was a gap between being authentic, and her behaviour. She had a child from a first marriage; there had been very little real substance in the relationship,  rarely living together. 

She talked about her second marriage, having several abortions, then her husband wanted another child, but she didnt really. She talked about being very happy with her second husband, but sometimes hiding her attendance at workshops from him. She talked about not being physically strong, and wanting to change this.

I pointed out that one issue led to the next, and none seemed to stick, to deepen, to be amenable to focusing. In fact, she said other therapists had problems with pinning her down. 

I asked what she wanted from me: ‘to be rescued’ she replied. I explained that there was a part of me that would be delighted to try to rescue her, but that so far didnt seem to be working very well; and another part of me that wanted to empower her, but that didnt seem to be working either.

At the start of the session I had noticed her pants - a very colourful and complex design. Several times I returned to noticing them. I also noticed her mouth - she had many expressions, and often bit her lip, or showed her teeth in a particular way. 
I remarked on both. She had no awareness of her mouth, and was uninterested in her pants.

After more discussion, I returned to her pants, and suggested we find out if they could help us determine what issue to work with.

I asked her what aspect of them she really liked. She showed a small area around the ankle, and pointed to three different colours, describing them as warm tones and cold tones.

So I asked her to ‘be’ each colour, and describe herself. She spoke of a warm, sunny, enthusiastic and glowing self. Then a cool, reflective self, who liked to be alone. Then a freezing, calculating, rational self. 

I told her my responses to each in turn. When it came to the last one, she reacted immediately, preemptively stating that this part was not ok, and she blamed herself. 

It emerged that she had many shoulds, making that part wrong. I asked where they came from - her mother. So we set up a pillow for her mother, and she spoke to her mother, stating her connection, but also her boundaries around the list of shoulds. 

Then there was her previous mother in law, who had been ‘ideal’ in some ways, but even more full of shoulds. I asked her to place this mother in law on the pillow, and again, she stated her connection, but also her limits.

I returned each time to the freezing/calculating part of herself, attempting to validate it. Every time she started putting it down, I would ask whether she wanted to let the should’s rule her, and she replied ‘no’.

Finally, she was able to listen to me, as I told her about my own calculating self. I told her if I was in work/business mode, or feeling very grounded, I could comfortably be with that part of her. Or if I was in my own freezing/calculating mode, I woudl also be ok with it. But if I was feeling vulnerable or needy, I could get hurt by it.

She was able to hear me without contracting, and to take in my acknowledgement. She said ‘but this is a part I want to change, as it could hurt people’. I replied ‘I am more interested in your acknowledging that this is actually a part of you, and when you are in that place - thats what makes me feel safe with you’.

She understood that it was not a matter of getting rid of that part, or even reforming it, but simply acknowledging its existence.

In this session, it was hard to get a start. Everytime she started with a clear figure, it shifted. This in itself was worthy of attention - her shifting focus. I chose not to focus on that, as there wasnt enough ground between us. I played a bit with the ‘rescuer’ possiblity, but decided not to continue down that route, as again, it didnt take hold.

So rather than continue playing ‘cat and mouse’ with finding a clear theme, I returned to what was figural for me - the pants. The fact she had no significance on them meant we could find something in them that emerged, despite her resistance to coming up with figures. Straight away she clearly named three important parts of herself.

I then explored them in relationship - my response to each.

Her resistance to the third part surfaced, and that clearly pointed to the work to be done: deal with the shoulds, and their source.

After doing this, she was able to bring that part of her into relationship with me, and with herself.

The result was the outcome we are after in a Gestalt process: integration.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Case #27 - Moral rectitude

ohn ran a small company. His concern was that he was a very morally upright man. In a marketplace in which ‘anything goes’, he had strong principles, and he stuck to them. He was the same with his family - taking his duties seriously, respecting his parents, and following traditions.

He felt heavy and burdened though, and questioned if perhaps his moral rectitude was really a good thing, or if in fact his business might fail in the end because he was not willing to employ the dishonest tricks his competitors used (like industrial spying).

I firstly sought to recognise the strengths in his way of being in the world, but this didnt move him much. He was concerned that in the real world, it wasnt going to serve him, but at the same time, he wanted to stay with his strict moral framework.

So I asked him to identify two polarities - a character from history who represented the morally upright man, and then someone who represented an ‘anything goes’ character.

He selected two, and I asked him to step into each place in turn, and have a dialogue between them. He found this extremely difficult, and kept wanting to step out of role. He asked ‘cant I just unite the two’? But integration doesnt come so easily…

When in the upright role, he said that he was following a deep and long tradition of being Chinese, whilst the other role was compromising those values.

So it was clear - the degree of importance to him in honouring tradition, a profound ethic of Chinese culture.

So I suggested he step out of both roles, sit back in his seat, and talk to each side. He acknowledged tradition, and then he also acknowledged that perhaps he could learn something useful from the other side.

This was a major step for him.

I suggested that he was in the position of Emporer, having two advisors instead of just one, and that in the end, it was his decision.

He felt much better on hearing this, and could recognise the value of the ‘new’ advisor.

He mentioned there was a dimension of this in his personal life, where he took things so seriously, that he never felt that he got a break.

So we identified another two advisors, one who reminded him of his responsiblities, the other was more irreverant, irresponsible, and fun-oriented.

Again, he felt relieved to have two advisors, but be able to make the final decision. I asked him to identify an actual person in the fun-role, and he mentioned his cousin. Previously, he had seen the cousin in a negative light, but he could now see him appreciativly, and would consider spending some time with him

We used the Gestalt orientation towards polarities, which recognises that for any one quality, there is always implied an opposite one. The over identification with one side produces a split. The Gestalt process is oriented towards integration, which must occur through an actual process, being fully in contact with both sides, rather than a simply intellectual understanding. 

He was not amenable to the usual form of the experiment (direct dialogue), so we always need to be willing to be flexible in redesigning an experiment on the spot, in response to the client’s willingess and feedback.

© 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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Touching pain and anger: (40m)

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