Archive for January, 2011

My eye was caught by a BBC article on email greeting etiquette on Friday. It strikes me as a nice way into the concept of introjection. Introjection is the process of taking in something uncritically; usually in the form of messages and rules about how things ‘should’ be. Introjection means swallowing something whole instead of chewing it over.

Fritz and Laura Perls were originally psychoanalysts. Through Laura’s experience of breast-feeding their children, she developed the theory of dental aggression. The central idea in this theory is that when children start growing teeth, they naturally develop the ability to bite and chew. This marks the transition from having to either swallow mother’s milk or regurgitate it (introjection and rejection), to being able to chew over food, swallow the nice bits, and spit out the unpleasant bits (selective assimilation). The point being that before developing teeth, the baby can only swallow whole or reject whole; with teeth comes a level of discrimination over what enters the digestive system.

In gestalt theory, this gets expressed in the idea of introjection. Without teeth, the baby can only introject. With teeth, baby can now chew things over. Laura Perls thought that this transition in the baby’s relationship with food brought about a correlating transition in its relationship with nourishment in general, ie knowledge, culture, information. Teeth become a metaphor for critical evaluation which is reflected in the English language; when we talk about chewing things over, we are referring to critical evaluation. In its simplest sense, critical evaluation is making up your own mind about something.

The question the BBC’s article forms around is the pressing issue of how one should open emails; a contemporary issue of concern to us all. How and why, you might think, would I make a connection between milk teeth and opening an email with ‘dear’, ‘hi’, or ‘hey’?

I think the article shows in microcosm the ways in which etiquette in macrocosm supports, controls and commits violence upon the individual in society. It’s an example of an individual’s developmental history playing itself out in the here-and-now.

When I consider the three ‘case study’ contributions, I have three very different responses. Experiment suggestion:

Read each of the contributions (Jean, Dan, and Katie) in turn. As you read them, be aware of your response to what they write. What emotional and physical responses do you have to what they communicate? Do you agree or disagree with their viewpoint? On what basis do you agree or disagree? Is there any split between the person you feel you want to agree with and the person you feel you should agree with?

For myself, I notice I feel restrained and controlled when I read Jean’s piece; I feel vaguely patronised by Dan’s piece; and I feel warm when I read Katie’s piece. Each approach manages to embody, in writing, something of the character of the writer. However, it isn’t that the character of Jean is restrained and controlled; Dan’s patronising; and Katie’s warm. It’s that my contact with that writer is restrained and controlled; patronising; warm. You might experience Jean as appropriate and respectful; Dan as friendly and business-like; Katie as overly affectionate.

My point being, contact is co-created between writer and reader; it doesn’t and isn’t caused by one or the other. In order for someone to come across as restraining or cold or respectful or boundaried, there has to be a person perceiving and a person perceived; both have to be present at the same time. It simply doesn’t make sense to say that it’s the writer causing me to perceive them in a certain way; it also doesn’t make sense to say that it’s purely my perception as a reader. It’s both of us creating that perception in relationship; in this case, mediated by text.

Notice that, whilst each of the three contributors take a different stance, they all present a rule for governing email interactions. My feeling is that in each case, an introject is being projected onto the activity of writing emails. The clue to the introjection-projection dynamic is the lack of relationship; it isn’t ‘I want people to do this’, it’s ‘people should do this’. The projection of an introject will often take the form of an appeal to some independent, objective, theoretical entity; etiquette is just such an entity.

Jean “If you’re sending a business e-mail you should begin “Dear…” – like a letter. You are presenting yourself. Politeness and etiquette are essential.”

Dan “In fact we have a policy about e-mails. “Don’t write anything that could be misunderstood.” Irony and sarcasm never work. And don’t think that adding a smiley and three trillion exclamation marks will help. It just makes people think you’re an idiot.”

Katie “The rule is, address your reader as you would in the context with which you are replacing the e-mail.”

‘Politeness and etiquette are essential’, ‘we have a policy’, ‘the rule is’; in all cases there is an abstract theoretical entity, external to the person, that acts as an authority in this case. So, the rule has been introjected, and the self now has alien material to contend with. Projection is the self’s attempt to eject the alien material; if that rule isn’t organically me, it must be coming from outside me. Yet when I apply some critical thought to this idea, it strikes me as odd to claim that something like a rule concerning the opening of emails can exist independently of the people sending those emails.

To bring out the projective part of the dynamic more, I’ve translated the above into subjective terms:

Jean “If I’m sending a business e-mail I should begin “Dear…” – like a letter. I am presenting myself. Politeness and etiquette are essential to me.”

Dan “In fact I have a policy about e-mails. “Don’t write anything that could be misunderstood.” Irony and sarcasm never work for me. And I don’t think that adding a smiley and three trillion exclamation marks helps. It just makes me think you’re an idiot.”

Katie “My rule is, address my reader as I would in the context with which I am replacing the e-mail.”

As a new experiment:

Compare the first statement by each person with the subjective version, and notice how you respond to each. Try reading each statement out loud; do you notice any bodily/emotional/thinking responses?

what I notice for myself is that I am much more engaged with the writer of the subjective statements than the projective statements. I disagree with all three of their positions, incidentally, but when they state them objectively, my hackles raise (‘don’t tell me what to do!’). When they are owned and stated subjectively, I become interested in the difference between our viewpoints (‘oh, that’s interesting, my opinion is…’). Contact is possible.

I titled this post ‘etiquette: support, control, and social violence’. What is etiquette? Etiquette in the Cambridge Online Dictionary is ‘the set of rules or customs which control accepted behaviour in particular social groups or social situations’. Though I prefer the more concise ‘prescribed behaviour’ of the Online Etymology Dictionary.

The prescription and control of behaviour can be supportive. The newborn baby drinks milk because that’s all it is equipped to deal with. What I feel often goes missing in gestalt discussion of introjects is that baby makes a transition from needing to introject to needing to chew. Carry that metaphor into new social situations and the potential support of etiquette becomes clearer; it answers those awkward first questions of ‘how do I do x, y and z?’. To a certain extent, we need to introject until we have sufficient knowledge (our metaphorical teeth) of the situation to begin chewing. It is at this point that etiquette becomes controlling if it is used to restrain the active questioning and experimentation of inquisitive individuals, rather than support the unfamiliar and unsure in becoming part of the whole. Etiquette becomes a force for social violence when it is used to actively exclude (etiquette can not exclude; only people can exclude).

Of course, maybe there are situations in which it is appropriate to use etiquette in these ways. Dan’s policy is an organisational attempt to control employees’ email communication for the greater good of the company maintaining a certain reputation. And ultimately, using etiquette to exclude could be just another way of describing anti-social behaviour, and express a need for society to protect itself by rejecting damaging behaviours.

At the heart of gestalt theory is a belief in organismic self-regulation; the belief that if we relax our attempts at self-controlling behaviour, we will spontaneously respond to our needs in a manner that is harmonious with our present situation. This isn’t incompatible with etiquette all the time etiquette represents an abstracted and owned version of ‘how things are usually done around here’; this is just an articulation of the acquired preferences of a particular field, a kind of communal personality. And it isn’t incompatible with an etiquette that states ‘this is how things must be done around here’ all the time each individual professing that rule is owning it as their own.

And that’s because all the time we own the rules we govern ourselves and others by – that is, we state them as ‘this is the rule I have chosen to live by, and I demand that you live by it too’ – contact between you and me is possible. I can say, ‘I disagree with your rule’ and we can have conflict about it (resolvable or otherwise). Or I can say ‘ok, I choose to obey that rule too’ and we can have agreement. But all the time I say ‘the rule is this and we must obey it’ I avoid contact with others because ‘the rule’ doesn’t exist; there’s nothing to make contact with, so I deflect your attempt to make contact with me onto a theoretical entity out there in the void. And if you say you agree or disagree with the rule, it has nothing to do with me; there is no connection between us.

Interestingly, I’ve noticed over the years that when I detect I’m projecting an introjected rule, if I state it as ‘my opinion is….’, I often discover that it isn’t my opinion after all; it’s an opinion I think I should have. Or I discover that I do agree with it, and suddenly feel less of a need for other people to agree with me.

The irony being, the less control I exert over myself, the less control I need to try and exert over others.


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This post has been moved to The Bristol Therapist: the psychopathology of boredom.

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I’m seeing lots of bigotry related comments flowing through my twitter feed in response to Baroness Warsi’s upcoming speech about Islamaphobia.

The interesting thing (for me at least) about the word bigot is that when I contemplate the meaning of the word, I stumble across a logical puzzle in which levelling an accusation of bigotry would itself make the accuser guilty of bigotry.

According to Cambridge Dictionaries Online, a bigot is: “a person who has strong, unreasonable beliefs and who thinks that anyone who does not have the same beliefs is wrong”.

Two things stand out in this definition for me. One is ‘unreasonable beliefs’, which necessitates a judgement against some criteria for what constitutes an unreasonable belief, and the other is the part about thinking ‘that anyone who does not have the same beliefs is wrong’.

One of the characteristics that I observe in accusations of bigotry (Gordon Brown’s infamous ‘bigoted woman’ jibe being a case in point) is that these accusations tend to include the implication that the bigoted person’s viewpoint is both ‘unreasonable’ and ‘wrong’.

I consider the term ‘unreasonable beliefs’ to be relative, begging the question, relative to what? When Baroness Warsi says she will use her position to fight an “ongoing battle against bigotry”, what criteria is she using to determine whose views are reasonable and whose are unreasonable? And, ironically, isn’t the launching of such a battle not its own form of bigotry?

Consider this phrase: “they also should face social rejection and alienation across society”. It is very easy to level condemnation like this at people when they are judged to be ‘wrong’. And considering the Baroness makes this comment in relation to people who have committed acts of terrorism, it seems hard to disagree with her without implying support for terrorist acts.

Yet this simply highlights what happens when we apply value-laden labels to people; we place a social construct between ourselves and the other, and relate to that construct instead of the person. In gestalt theory this would be a projection; we take an aspect of ourselves (eg our internalised template of what a terrorist is) and relate to that instead of the actual person before us. Dialogue disappears altogether, and we lose the valuable opportunity to create understanding between two polarised positions. This in turn entrenches the conflict, as the two warring viewpoints polarise further.

Is it possible to adopt a perspective that never judges the beliefs of another? I find that unlikely. Is it possible to refrain from ever thinking someone who disagrees with something I believe is wrong? As much as I’d like to think so, I suspect that to be unlikely too. In which case, the onus is really on me to discover the ways in which I am bigoted rather than accuse others of bigotry. This owning of my own forms of bigotry is the reversal of the projection process, allowing me to acknowledge and explore what Jung referred to as my personal shadow-self; those aspects of my self that I find unacceptable, the dark side of the force.

Today’s common sense is often tomorrow’s bigotry because the cultural norms that shape our criteria of ‘reasonable’ and ‘unreasonable’ change over time. That doesn’t stop me disagreeing with views I dislike. But it certainly suggests that I could benefit from taking my own values with a pinch of salt.

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One of the things that epitomises the character of the gestalt approach for me is the therapeutic use of experimentation. Before entering training, the word experiment for me held connotations of scientists in white coats getting rats to run around mazes for their general amusement (and benefit of mankind of course). This is, I think, a common image association in Western culture; we’re used to experiments being what scientists do. Consequently, when I explain gestalt to interested acquaintances, the ‘and I’ll often invite clients to try an experiment’ part can invoke some interesting looks.

An experiment is nothing more than trying something to see what happens. For the scientist, the purpose of an experiment is to test some hypothesis; if I carry out process x, I would expect to get result y. Plato thought experimentation was un-necessary, and that thinkers could discover the laws of nature through logical thought. Western science disagrees; a hypothesis describes what we think is the case, and the scientific experiment is the means by which we test the hypothesis.

Gestalt is less concerned with testing hypotheses. The purpose for an experiment in gestalt therapy is to move from talking about something to experiencing something. Think of the last time someone told you about how annoyed they are with someone else. A classic gestalt experiment would be, ‘imagine that person is sitting in that chair over there and say all this to them’. The purpose of the experiment is to move from telling me about anger to expressing anger. Telling me about anger involves being one or two steps removed from the emotion itself. By contrast, it isn’t possible to express anger to someone, real or imagined, without being angry.

The aim is to attempt to make contact with those angry feelings and see what happens. A whole host of things can happen at this point. Angry feelings might be too overwhelming, so the person shuts down or cries. The experiment might collapse because the person becomes self-conscious, or feels silly talking to an empty chair. Reading about this example, you might exclaim ‘but it’s not real, there’s no one there!’ which is perfectly true. Then again, when someone tells me about how angry at so and so they are, it strikes me that so and so isn’t there in that example either. Which is another point of the experiment; the original, external target of that person’s anger isn’t available to receive it, so they create a substitute. I’m not willing to be that substitute, so I offer an alternative, equally non-existent alternative; the imaginary person in the empty chair.

The gestalt therapist doesn’t know what is going to happen when they suggest an experiment. All they know is that they’ve had an idea for a way of exploring the material at hand more directly. The experiment is also a novel situation, ie a situation that is new and therefore hasn’t been adapted to. That means we get the chance to witness, first hand, the process of creative adjustment; we get to see the process of adapting to one’s life situation taking place right in front of our eyes. And because that process is now in awareness, rather than taking place automatically in the background without us noticing, we learn something important about how we tick.

Fritz Perls called this the ‘safe emergency’; we feel a state of emergency because we’re doing something that pushes us out of our comfort zone, but it’s safe because we are supported by a compassionate therapist who doesn’t need us to fail or succeed. Gestalt therapists adopt an attitude of creative indifference. When I suggest an experiment, I’m just putting an idea out there; my client can choose to give it a go or not. And because the purpose of the experiment is to see what happens, I’m not concerned with the experiment succeeding or failing. It can’t succeed or fail, it can only be whatever it is. An experiment that seems to fall flat on its face is providing just as much information as one that seems to fly.

When Perls, Hefferline and Goodman first published ‘Gestalt therapy: excitement and growth in the human personality’, the first half of the book was a series of experiments any reader could use to explore the ideas and claims of gestalt for themselves. Self-verification is very important to gestalt therapists. This runs against the grain of our contemporary scientific culture in which validity is associated with being able to demonstrate an evidence base.

There is probably a future blog post in this topic, but for the time being my main point is that an evidence base represents what other people tell you is the case, whereas self-verification is what you have experienced to be the case. The scientists who carried out the experiment they then write a paper about have self-verified; they actually did the experiment. The person who cites their paper as part of an evidence base for such and such a claim hasn’t self-verified. The evidence base is nothing more than a series of claims used by someone to lend weight to an argument or proposition.

Gestalt therapy emphasises self-verification because it is a more vigorous process to try something for oneself than to take someone else’s word for it. A vigorous scientist replicates the experiment they’ve read about to satisfy themselves that the methodology is appropriate and that the process works. Consequently, in the tradition of Perls and co, I will include suggestions for experiments that will help make what I write about in this blog more directly accessible. You are then welcome to try out what I suggest or not. If you’d like to feed back your experience of any experiments then feel free to comment on the post, anonymously or otherwise.

And remember to exercise some self-care in relation to any experiment; the idea is to move from a general talking about something to a direct experiencing of something, so it’s hard to predict who might have strong responses to what. If you feel uneasy about an experiment, just remember that it’s your choice what you do; you don’t have to do an experiment just because I suggest it. And I’m not your therapist, so I won’t be available to support you in exploring whatever comes up. That said, I’m happy to point you in the direction of a gestalt therapist, wherever you happen to be, if something comes up and you feel you need that kind of support; just email me.

Gestalt experimentation is a kind of permission to get back some of that child-like inquisitiveness that too often gets drummed out of people as they adjust to the demands of their life situation. I personally believe that the more outcome-focused a culture becomes, the more inhibited its people become because of the pressure to ‘get results’ ie results judged to be valuable.

For me, being is valuable in and of itself, and that makes life the greatest experiment of all.

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Welcome to 2011. The noughties, a term that has caused me irritation for an entire decade, is over, and the serious business of working out what to call its successor comes to the fore. My money is on ‘the tweenies’.

For me, New Year invariably brings up the context of beginnings and fresh starts. Some years, I have rejected the idea of resolutions, curtly observing that any day can provide a fresh start to anyone in need of one, it’s just a matter of will. Other years, I have appreciated the contextual springboard, and made and broken well meaning aspirations with the best of them.

This year feels like another springboard year. In the midst of my habits and time commitments, many a creative or well intentioned seed has failed to be planted, watered, and grown. What I enjoy about New Year is that it’s a point in the year where my wider social context is geared towards the idea of planting just those seeds that have been hitherto neglected.

The seed currently in question is this blog. For a while now, I’ve been holding ‘psychotherapy’ and ‘blogging’ in my thoughts, feeling something spark between them, and wanting to unleash it upon an unsuspecting world. However, like many, I am at times afflicted with the common vice of thinking too much about a thing and so not getting stuck in and doing it.

In gestalt terms, this blocking process is down to two modifications to contact called egotism and retroflection.

The gestalt concept of contact is ultimately about connection; with other people, the world around us, ourselves. To check what you’re in contact with right now, answer this question: what are you aware of right now? As you read this blog entry, do you stay focused on and interested in what you’re reading? Or have you started scratching an itch, daydreaming about something else entirely, or noticed how hungry you are? As you experience each of these things, you make contact with them; contact is an active process and you do it every second of every day.

Modifying contact is about exerting a degree of control over what we make contact with. This can be a healthy process. Sometimes, I feel like visiting violence upon my laptop when it crashes at an inopportune moment. However, I choose to modify how much contact I make with that destructive urge in order to save myself having to buy a new laptop and potentially losing useful data.

Modifying contact can also be a very limiting process. What happens is that a naturally arising impulse is unable to reach fulfilment. Consequently, the extent to which a person modifies their contact making determines the extent to which that person limits their fulfilment. Back to my egotism and retroflection for a worked example:

Egotism means to think about doing something rather than experience doing something. For example, do I really need to think to myself ‘this orange juice is really tasty’ to enjoy how tasty the orange juice I’m drinking is? No. What I do in that moment is make contact with the thought, which necessitates breaking contact with experiencing the tasty orange juice.

Healthy egotism is taking time to reflect in order to better consider the wider implications of an action. I had good reason to think about my blog instead of starting one on impulse; what about the ethical considerations? What if a client of mine started reading my blog? What if someone read my blog for a while and then contacted me for therapy? What are my motivations for starting a blog? These were valuable questions to chew over. Eventually, however, egotism exhausts the energy of the original impulse (which is, of course, the whole point of the modification) and the end result is… no action.

One of the things therapy has helped me learn about myself is that if I think about something too much, I’ll start imagining doing it instead of actually doing it, and be unlikely to do it at all. Imagining doing something instead of actually doing it is a form of retroflection, the process of doing to yourself what you want to do to the environment.

We visited healthy retroflection earlier when I chose not to attack my crashing laptop. Instead of throwing the laptop out of the window, running into the street, and jumping up and down on it repeatedly Basil Fawlty style, I imagined doing that instead. Just like with egotism, far less satisfying than fully going into and experiencing the original impulse, but in this case saving me from further frustration and incurred expense. Eventually, however, retroflection also exhausts the energy of the original impulse (equally the whole point of the modification) and the end result is… no action.

Imagine living a life in which most of your energy goes into contemplating the issues surrounding what you’re interested in doing, and then only ever daydreaming about what it would be like to do it. This is what I mean by saying the extent to which a person modifies their contact making determines the extent to which that person limits their fulfilment.

So I’m taking the opportunity of New Year to springboard my blog out of contemplation and daydreams, and into full and vibrant action.

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