This post has been moved to my new website, and can be found here: Simple questions, complex therapy.
We’re often admonished to, “think before you speak!”, and most people, most of the time, would probably agree there is wisdom to that statement. This gives rise to the problem of thinking for too long, and never speaking as a result. It also gives rise to the problem of waiting for one’s turn to speak at the sacrifice of listening. Dialogue can disappear.
One of the main ways trainee therapists prepare for practice is by practising on each other in small groups. A trio of trainees take turns to swap the roles Therapist, Client, and Observer. I remember being client in one skills practice session, and discussing the problem of thinking so much about what I wanted to say that I never got to say it. The person being therapist suggested an experiment: for the rest of the duration of the experiment, I could only take a maximum of 3 seconds to think before responding. They would hold the time boundary and demand I respond if it got to 3 seconds.
This was a very uncomfortable experiment for me, bringing me into contact with shame and anxiety. It also became very energising and liberating. Most importantly, it was an effective learning experience because it generated emotionally charged insights. This is gestalt at its most here and now, when the current moment is itself the power source driving the therapy session.
The lesson here isn’t that 3 second thinking is preferable. An experiment I’ve tried with people who talk a great deal to avoid uncomfortable silences is to sit in silence together until the discomfort starts to feel too great. This kind of experimentation has its roots in behavioural therapy, and usually has the aim of increasing the versatility of a person’s behavioural range. But even this isn’t the lesson for a gestalt therapist.
In gestalt therapy, the aim is awareness. What happens if? Where a behavioural therapy would say, “you are unable to respond in less than 3 seconds, so here’s an exercise for getting better at that”, gestalt therapy says, “you are unable to respond in less than 3 seconds, isn’t that curious? Let’s experiment with that and see what’s going on”.
It’s up to the client to create meaning out of what the experiment turns up. And that awareness is a powerful thing, because once I’m aware of something, I’m responsible for what I do with that awareness. I gain response-ability, and even if I shrug and let that awareness slip away again, that’s a choice I have made. Generally speaking, I find it to be good practice to spend some time contemplating what I need to do with what comes into my awareness; some discoveries come before their time and need to be let go.
Some people need more 3 second thinking. Some people need less 3 second thinking. In both cases, awareness is key.
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Recently, a number of things have come together, and I feel myself undergoing a developmental leap in my practice and professional identity. I am manifesting that change through two decisions: leasing my own therapy room, and rebranding my practice.
It is unlikely to be a coincidence that Generation Rent is a political topic of the day. The transience and rootlessness of renting therapy rooms by the hour is something I have begun to find unbearable. The experience is interesting. Renting a space means more than just renting a space that belongs to someone else. After all, I haven’t bought my own building; my new therapy room is still on a lease. But there is a substantial difference between hiring a space, and a hire-space.
My new room is in The Ethical Property Company‘s centre on Colston Street. It is “my” space in so much that I contract with Ethical Property for use of that space to be exclusively mine for the period of the lease. Importantly, this means that the shaping of that space is down to me. I am free to create, not simply a therapy space, but my therapy space. Every decision about shaping this therapy space becomes a consideration of how this space can express the possibilities of my practice.
Contrast that with the nature of a hire-space, a room whose function is to be hired. The decoration may range from magnolia boxes, to beautifully themed rooms. But the spirit of the room, its very structure, is one of transience. The room is hired by many therapists, but belongs to none. It is no one’s “home room”. I tend to feel this as a sense of emptiness in the room; it is missing the many, tiny, background cues that suggest there is one specific person using this space on a regular basis.
In terms of figure/ground formation, the ground doesn’t support the figure of a tangible therapist. On the one hand, this means that it supports a kind of everytherapist, which certainly maximises the utility of the room as a hire-space. But this invites the therapist using the room into an everytherapist role. Just as any therapist could be using that room, so too could the clients who come to the room be seeing any therapist. The effect for me now is similar to every town having an identical high street; the unique element of soul that arises from place goes missing.
This has been ok so far. Gestalt therapy can be practised anywhere, with the only requirement being that the environment in which the therapy is situated be explicitly included in the therapy. There isn’t a correct set-up for the therapy, there is only the co-created experience of the therapy session, in awareness. If the therapy takes place in a soul-less box, then the experience of being in a soul-less box can be invited into the foreground for exploration. It is simply that my needs have changed, and now I feel constrained by hire-space in a way that I haven’t before.
Consequently, I am in the process of setting up my new room, and will practice from there as of the beginning of September.
A second need that arose as I made the decision to lease a room, was the need to attend to my professional identity. I feel like I have outgrown Silver Cat Psychotherapy, that this particular image no longer represents my practice. So, over the next few weeks, I will be transforming into the bristol therapist, a practice name that is more rooted in place, and reflects my sense of gestalt therapy as a particularly Bristol-ish approach. If psychotherapy was the UK, gestalt would definitely be Bristol!
And just to make that transformation process suitably challenging, I’ll be moving this blog to a new website, the very definition of growing pains!
I feel a mixture of excitement and trepidation. I wonder if my room will fulfil my expectations, or if I’ll discover that it’s no different to hire-space when it comes right down to it. I notice how applicable the cycle of gestalt formation and destruction is to specific projects like setting up a new therapy room and rebranding a practice.
Expect some updates. In the meantime, here is a work in progress shot of a painted corner of the room (first coat!):
This weekend, I set some time aside to complete my tax return. I have a patchy relationship with paperwork, especially paperwork mediated by online systems. And badly designed online systems the Government tells me I have to use by a certain date? Well I don’t like being told what to do either, so mandatory paperwork is on my list of Least Favourite Things Ever.
Anyway, I was moderately well behaved this year. I set aside time to do the tax return, and I sat down to do it. Sure, it took me an hour or so to log in because I had to hunt down my user ID. But once I’m logged in, my return is actually relatively simple to complete.
Except for: The Missing Document.
I work part-time for an employer, so I need to include information from my P60 on the tax return. But after much searching, I had to admit defeat: I’d lost it, and would have to request a replacement on Monday. Not the worst case scenario, but frustrating in that “if only I had done x” way unique to theoretically avoidable self-created obstacles.
That night, I had an immensely disgusting dream about shit. I took a massive shit that blocked the toilet. But my defecatory needs were so great that I had to finish shitting in a bucket. Then, having unblocked the toilet, I proceeded to empty the bucket of shit into the toilet. With a dessert spoon.
To be honest, just typing that out is making my gag reflex a bit twitchy. Ugh, much disgust.
Move to Sunday, and I’m starting to feel quite shitty. My son is down for an early afternoon nap, as is my wife. I’m wandering around with this shitty sensation, and I start to think about my dream. I mean, this one’s quite obvious, right? I need to clear up my shit. Except the shit in the dream is a metaphor for stuff I experience as shit in waking life.
In this case, that’s paperwork. After twenty months of being a dad, I can safely say I prefer changing shitty nappies to dealing with paperwork. By several orders of magnitude. (In fact, newborn babies’ shit smells like freshly baked biscuits for the first few weeks, so those nappy changing experiences were out and out enjoyable in their own right). Consequently, three things happen:
First, I need to dump a particularly large paperwork job (my tax return is the equivalent of taking one of those massive shits that isn’t even particularly enjoyable from a satisfaction point of view, just really messy and horrible).
Second, I block the toilet (paperwork is an ongoing process requiring background actions of filing useful stuff, and throwing out non-useful & expired stuff; suddenly needing to complete a bigger than usual piece of paperwork aggravates any incomplete background actions, blocking completion of the task in hand).
Third, I need to shit in buckets to complete my bowel voiding (to complete the tax return, I need to rely on ad hoc processes to find the information I need because I’ve blocked the easy route).
All of this adds up to a nice lesson to myself from myself on the importance of creating and maintaining a fit-for-purpose public sanitation system in the form of good paperwork practices. So I’m feeling shitty because I need to clear my shit. I sigh with resignation, and set about sorting out my accumulated paperwork blockage (a pile of metaphorical shit on my desk).
And no more than sixty seconds later, I’m holding the P60 I couldn’t find.
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One of my interests is the interplay between group culture and individual experience. In gestalt terms, this would be field theory. It isn’t just that there is a relationship between group culture and individual experience. Group culture actively organises individual behaviour, and this organisation of the individual by the group can be experienced in a wide variety of ways, ranging from a sense of communion to a sense of dominion.
Christmas is a good (and topical, have you noticed?) example of this process in action. I don’t think it’s possible to not be organised by Christmas in Britain or in the West generally. It is possible to make decisions about how one responds to Christmas, but the existential position of having no choice but to choose still remains.
This year, I would like to use the twelve days of Christmas as an exercise in exploring twelve different perspectives on, and experiences of, Christmas. I’m going to outline an awareness experiment below, and my invitation is for you to send me the result (email@example.com). I’ll then publish submissions as blog posts on each of the twelve days of Christmas.
And of course, if you don’t want to blog your experience, you can still give the experiment a try. Though by way of a self-care warning, if this exercise takes you towards trauma memories, I advise not revisiting them unless you know that you’ll be able to soothe yourself afterwards.
Sit and be still for a few moments. Take a few deep breaths, let your thoughts settle. Let the idea of Christmas emerge. Notice what thoughts and feelings arise in response. Notice what memories and anticipations arise. What sensations do you most strongly associate with Christmas? What bodily sensations are you experiencing now? Sit with all these responses for a few moments, then consider what Christmas means to you now.
That’s it! It’s a fairly simple experiment, though it can seem a bizarre thing to do for people who don’t already have some experience of therapy/meditation/mindfulness. It also contains most of the glue that holds my therapy practice together: asking people what they are thinking, experiencing, remembering, anticipating. Asking people what something means to them now (the now is important, as meanings change over time). In a word, reflexivity.
Now, if you’re interested in sharing your experience as a blog post, then my request is that you write it in the first person, present tense to maintain the sense of now-ness. Other than that, any length of post is fine. I’m happy to post submissions anonymously, or with a link to your blog, twitter, or whatever.
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I’m aiming this at Bristol’s many freshers (the fair city is home to both University of the West of England and the University of Bristol) but it’s just as applicable to returning students, and students at other Universities. It’s a really simple message: if you start struggling, ask for therapy.
As far as I’m aware, every University has a student counselling department these days. Better still, they tend to have websites too, so students in Bristol can check out the University of Bristol Student Counselling Service or the UWE Student Counselling Service as appropriate. These sites will have the information you need about what’s available and how to access the service.
If you can’t get what you need through your University, and you can afford private fees, then Counselling Directory is a good location-based directory. It’s also worth bearing in mind that counsellors and therapists often offer low-cost spaces, or know someone who does, or know local organisations who offer low-cost or free therapy. So ask!
Back to Bristol again, and Bristol Mind have a handy information page about local counselling/mental health services.
And if you do need to access counselling/therapy, remember to familiarise yourself with your University’s procedures around mitigating circumstances (your Students’ Union can advise you on this). Something that impacts negatively on your studies needs to be taken into account by your Board of Studies, but they need to be told about it before the academic assessment in question.
Aside from being a psychotherapist, I have personal experience of needing therapy at University. In my own case, I didn’t contact the counselling service. I didn’t have much of an understanding of what counselling or psychotherapy was. I feared that if I shared what I was experiencing with a professional, I would be required to take medication and/or sectioned. This was an expression of the kind of upbringing I’d had. My associations were that the police locked people up, social services took people’s kids away, mental health professionals put people in padded cells. This was not conducive to reaching out for support.
I also had a belief that seeking counselling was an admission of personal failure, and that I needed to pull myself together. I’ve flagged up the mitigating circumstances in particular because I specifically didn’t use this process. I had the notion that my results wouldn’t be real if they were adjusted to reflect anything I was struggling with. These ideas stemmed from a narrow idea of personal strength and weakness, and of what I was supposed to be able to achieve by myself.
The impact on my studies was pretty severe. I started having panic attacks in my second year, and stopped attending lectures and seminars. My Board of Studies noticed my poor attendance record and warned me I was at risk of disciplinary action; I could be failed on modules, or, in the extreme, kicked off the programme. That was a (partial) wake up call for me, and I forced myself to attend classes again. I discovered some breathing exercises that kept my anxiety low enough for me to stay in the room, and some concentration/meditation exercises that helped bring down my propensity to anxiety.
My grades improved dramatically. I was scraping 2:2s in my second year; in my third year I started getting solid 2:1s and 1s. Not because meditation gave me super powers, but just because addressing the blocks to my studies allowed me to start fulfilling some of my potential. Years later, in actual therapy, I exclaimed to my therapist, “if only I’d known back then that this is what therapy was!”.
Now, I share this experience because I think there are elements of what I experienced that are common in students generally. In people generally, in fact. The “I should be able to manage by myself” rule is something I hear often from people who come to see me for therapy. The experience of shame at seeking therapy in the first place because it means “there’s something wrong with me” or represents a personal failing is also a common theme. And, as a student, I often heard from friends/acquaintances that mitigating circumstances felt like asking for special treatment, and that if they got an improved grade as a result, it wouldn’t feel real.
Looking back, I feel a sense of remorse that I went through suffering that could have been alleviated if I’d felt able to seek counselling. I think there’s some good to be found in sharing that experience if it means someone can recognise themselves in my narrative and use that as a support for getting what they need now.
Maybe that’s you, or maybe that’s a friend of yours. Either way, whilst asking for help might feel hard, doing so might just save you a great deal of pain.
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