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.