Archive for December, 2011

I want to get down more of the nuts and bolts of gestalt theory; I would like this theory to be more widely accessible and understood than it is currently. Gestalt therapy is more than Gestalt Therapy Verbatim and That Gloria Video. In some ways, the Perlsian gestalt of Verbatim is more a branch of psychoanalysis than the gestalt of Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. The essential difference being that it was Paul Goodman who articulated gestalt theory in Excitement and Growth, and Perls who demonstrated his own theatrical style in Verbatim.

Having already explored the meaning of ‘gestalt’, I think the next essential concepts are ‘contact’, ‘contact boundary’, and ‘awareness’. Given a good grounding in the concept of contact, the concept of the contact boundary that emerges from it, and the concept of awareness that allows us to navigate contact in the moment, it is possible to do a surprisingly huge amount of therapeutic work. Pretty much every clinical presentation can be described in terms of contact and the modification thereof.

As contact is something that each person actively does, it follows that the extent to which I can work with how a person makes, breaks, and modifies contact in a given therapeutic situation determines the extent to which I am able to offer effective therapy. It doesn’t matter how brilliant my interpretation of the root cause of a person’s current problem is if they are unable to make contact with what I’ve said; just like a joke is only funny if someone gets it. I give contact such a heavy focus because the only clinically useful material is that which both me and my client are able to make contact with.

Contact in a nutshell

A simple experiment for you:

1) Press the palms of both your hands together. They are now in contact with each other.

2) Pull your hands away from each other. They are now out of contact with each other.

3) Keep your left hand still and move your right hand until your palms are pressed together. Your right hand has made contact with your left hand.

4) Keep your right hand still and move your left hand away from your right hand. Your left hand has broken contact with your right hand.

That’s the gestalt concept of contact in a nutshell.

Contact with a bit more theoretical elaboration

Contact is the abstract equivalent of the experience of touching. It is impossible for anyone to ever not be in contact with something. I am enveloped by air. I am pulled to the ground by gravity. I am bombarded with light. My body’s central nervous system is in contact with the various parts of my body that it’s supposed to be in contact with. At least, I think so; I’m not that advanced with my anatomy so I don’t necessarily know. But I am in contact with my sense of not knowing at least.

The reason I prefer the term contact to the term touch is that the connotations of touch are more to do with contact with the skin. Contact encompasses this as well as the metaphorical idea of touch; such as being in touch with the zeitgeist, having the magic touch for repairing cars. And so on. Contact is when one thing touches another thing, in a literal physical sense or a metaphorical sense.

I will go into what this means for the gestalt concept of self in another post. For now, the basic sense of contact as the abstract equivalent of the experience of touch, and of contact being something that a person actively does, are most important.

The contact boundary in a nutshell

Continuing on from the experiment above:

1) Press the palms of both your hands together. The expanse where your palms are in contact with each other is the contact boundary.

2) Pull your hands away from each other. Your hands are no longer in contact with each other BUT each hand now has a contact boundary with the air.

The contact boundary with a bit more theoretical elaboration

The contact boundary is the theoretical borderline between one thing and all other things with which that thing is in contact at any given time. It kind of is but kind of isn’t an actual part of one thing or the other. There is no contact boundary without two separate things being in contact with each other.

Of course, we’re not talking about the contact boundary between inanimate objects here but between a person and their environment and/or other people. So, my contact boundary is the borderline between me and all other things with which I am in contact at any given time.

Now, referencing what I’ve said about contact above, the things I can be in contact with at any given time include thoughts, feelings, and abstract ideas. Not only is my contact boundary continuously changing moment to moment, my contact boundary is both physical and metaphysical.

So when I say that someone is invading my sense of personal space, I am referring to a metaphysical aspect of my contact boundary. If I am distracted from conversation with you because ‘my mind is on other things’ (say, a piece of research that is still ongoing) then while my contact boundary encompasses both physical aspects (my perception of you in this moment) and metaphysical aspects (my sense of the ongoing research project), I am adjusting my boundary to modify my contact with you so I can put energy into making contact with my sense of my ongoing research.

I don’t necessarily feel like this is choiceful activity because much of the operation of my contact boundary is automated. However, the automated activity of my contact boundary is a kind of delegated authority that nonetheless is a choice I have made at some point, or the consequence of a choice I have made at some point.

Awareness in a nutshell

One more experiment:

Answer this question as immediately and honestly as you can:

What are you aware of right now?

Awareness with a bit more theoretical elaboration

Just as contact is the abstract equivalent of the experience of touching, awareness is the abstract equivalent of the experience of seeing.

Awareness is the internal light I use to see what I am in contact with. Without awareness, I am fumbling around in the dark, impacting and being impacted without a full sense of what it is I am encountering. I feel sad suddenly with no idea what has made me sad. I feel frightened with no idea what has made me frightened. My thoughts dwell on this or that and I have no idea what this or that is doing in my thoughts.

So I switch the light on and bring these things into awareness. And that’s not easy because awareness is actually an ability that I need to discover and train. Do I spread a dim light widely to catch a broad sense of the landscape, or focus a bright light thinly to pierce into the very nature of something?

In the experiment above, I ask what you are aware of right now. Your response to that question will let you know what is in the light for you. Essentially, there is so much occurring at my contact boundary at any given time that I would go mad if I was aware of all of that activity at once. The next time you see a tree full of leaves, try becoming aware of every single leaf as an individual leaf rather than being aware of ‘a treeful of leaves’. Or indeed, try hearing each and every word spoken in a room full of people speaking at the same time.

Awareness is the experience that I know I am experiencing. Experience in awareness is what gestalt therapists tend to call ‘good contact’. This can lead to some conflation of contact and awareness; for example, someone might be said to be ‘out of contact with her sadness’ when what is meant is ‘her sadness is out of her awareness’.

So, when I see a client’s eyes well with tears, I might say, ‘I notice your eyes look watery to me’. It may or may not be that this water signifies sadness; I can probably guess given the context. But I don’t need to guess; I just share what is in my awareness. Suppose my client then cries; it may be that my observation has brought her sadness into her awareness.

Now we can say that the fact that she was already in contact with that sadness is evident by her tears; what my observation supports is the ‘good contact’ of being in contact with sadness with awareness. I find this an important distinction because the difference between contact and awareness is the difference between the existential fact of my actual situation (my contact boundary) and my subjective experiential knowing of my situation (that part of my contact boundary that is in my awareness).

So, parts of my contact boundary can be in awareness at the same time as other parts of my contact boundary being out of awareness; contact is a pre-requisite for awareness; and ‘good contact’ is contact with awareness.


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I have an irrational and visceral dislike for list based blog posts. Every time I see a blog post title that goes “ten reasons why…” or “the seven principles of…” etc, a little piece of me dies and reincarnates as a berserker with a nasty case of blood lust.

Gestalt itself seems particularly fond of the number five for this sort of thing; hence Perls’ five layers of neurosis; Parlett’s five principles of field theory; and Clarkson’s five levels of relationship. I mean seriously, at least try some different numbers people!

Anyway, one of the things that makes me a gestalt therapist is my pre-disposition towards noticing what gets my hackles up, having an internalised therapist/supervisor/trainer jump up and declare ‘projection!’, and then crossing over to my dark side for a bit to see what it’s all about.

So here’s a festively themed list-based post about my irrational and visceral dislike for everyone’s favourite mince pie munching bearded reindeer abuser.

Four reasons I set man traps for Santa:

1) he is a patriarchal symbol of parental tyranny

2) he is a capitalist symbol of social control

3) he is an agent provocateur for the Coca Cola corporation

4) … this one’s a secret, shhhhhh!

Stick with me while I elaborate, it might just change your life…

1) he is a patriarchal symbol of parental tyranny

It’s Father Christmas, not Mother Christmas. Ok, so lip-service gets paid to gender equality by a number of films that do cast a Mother Christmas. But that actually serves to highlight the underlying patriarchal assumptions; Mother Christmas is always cut from the long-suffering-wife-whose-husband-is-a-really-important-public-figure cloth. It is Father Christmas who holds the power, and the power he holds is incredibly sinister.

You better watch out
You better not cry
You better not pout
I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town

Now, try (and unless you don’t recognise the song it’ll be hard) to read this as a threat. Because it is a threat. Try reading it out loud through gritted teeth. A bit extreme maybe, but the point is clear: you, child, had better start behaving in a manner that I consider to be good because an extremely powerful man is about to arrive.

He’s making a list,
Checking it twice;
Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.
Santa Claus is coming to town

That’s right kid, you’re going on a list. And this is a black and white kind of affair; you’ve either been naughty, or you’ve been nice. There is no in-between. There is no process of appeal. There is only Santa’s judgment. Oh, and just in case you thought you had any way of hiding from the man with the big white beard:

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake

That’s right; every second of every day, Santa is watching you. So be good for the sake of being good, because that is behaviour that Santa has been created to reward; actions that appear to be good. Niceness, that bland little alias for obedience to status quo.

And here’s what you get if you’ve been naughty (NB Tony is one of my cats. Yes, it’s a ridiculous name for a cat).

I labour this point because I consider it the principle point. Every time a parent tells their child ‘carry on like that and Father Christmas won’t be visiting this year’ to get them to obey, a vital message about society is being conveyed: obedience is good, disobedience is bad. Yet so often the people who hold social power and demand obedience are not people whose motivations and actions are all that good.

And of course, Father Christmas grants parents the vital tactic of deferred authority. It’s not me, it’s him; I’m just the messenger. Because the kids need to know how to get on the good list right? And they can’t ask Santa directly, so they need parental cues on what counts as good and what counts as bad. So the parents get to enjoy the authority conveyed by service to a higher power, at the same time as the comfort of delegated responsibility; it’s easier to implement a higher authority’s rules than to own and assert one’s own needs.

Remember, young kids think this stuff is real. They literally think that actual Father Christmas will punish them for being on the naughty list by withholding presents and only reward them with presents if they get on the nice list. Doesn’t that directly assert from day one that the child’s own nature is to some degree inherently unacceptable?

So, Father Christmas is a patriarchal symbol because he perpetuates male dominance of power. He is a symbol of parental tyranny because his function is to give parents an unaccountable deferred authority with which to condition children into obedience.

2) he is a capitalist symbol of social control

If you have kids, and do the Father Christmas thing, I’ve possibly just offended you deeply by implying that you are a tyrant. Soz. Most parents aren’t tyrants, and don’t use Father Christmas as an overt tool of tyrannical control. Unfortunately though, the effect remains the same; however benevolently Father Christmas is presented, he is still the arbiter of the getting of presents.

And there is one very good reason why Santa retains this power: commerce. The christmas shopping period is the retail occasion of the year. There are shops whose existence throughout the year depends on Christmas trade. That is, the profit they make in the run up to Christmas offsets the losses they make in the rest of the year. Watch in the New Year for businesses going into administration as a result of holding out for the Christmas revenues that didn’t come.

That’s a pretty powerful social pressure. Christmas is a vital economic stimulus; profits have always been at stake, meaning the interests of powerful people (it’s that 1% again!) are at stake, meaning a powerful controlling symbol is needed. That’s right, Father Christmas is in the pay of the corporate elite. This makes absolute sense; only multinational corporations can rival Santa’s ability to deliver presents worldwide in a single night without falling prey to the contradiction of timezones.

The point here is this: the vested interests that give the symbol of Father Christmas its power are corporate and motivated by profit. Just look at where the activity is focused; people queue to get into shops, empty the shelves of food, and fight each other to make sure their kid gets the must-have present of the year.

Now stop, breathe, and ask yourself: why does this happen? I’m serious, what’s the motivation here? Wasn’t the 25th December Christ’s official birthday last time I checked? For the record, I’m neither Christian nor driven by the need to labour the ‘but the Christians stole it from the pagans’ angle. All of that is somewhat irrelevant when we take gestalt’s here and now perspective and ask:

What is the need that mobilises all this action now?

My conclusion is that profit drives this action. Generally speaking, I do not observe families benefiting from Christmas. I do observe parents feeling an immense pressure to give their kids what they want for Christmas. I observe advertising telling kids what they should want for Christmas. I observe a level of activity that can only be described as manic taking place in retail centres; not a rush to attend church, not a desperate flailing to go home and play board games with family, but a frenetic stampede to buy stuff. And it’s all stuff that is largely not needed other than to live up to a collective idea of what Christmas should look like.

And Father Christmas is the lynch-pin. For one thing, he’s the symbol that many of us grew up with, so he now sits active in the psyche of many adults wanting to give their children the kind of Christmas they wanted and didn’t get (or worse, the sentimentalised Christmas they remember but that never actually happened). More importantly, he ensures that no parent is in any doubt that Christmas is about giving your children presents.

When your kids go back to school, the question will be: ‘what did you get for Christmas?’. Not, ‘don’t you think it’s ironic that our Government is forcing another 100,000 children into poverty at a time of year when we celebrate Christ being born in a stable?’. Not, ‘did you enjoy spending time with your family over the holiday period?’. But, ‘what did you get for Christmas?’. Because kids are authentic (that is, they respond to the actual situation) and they know what Christmas is really about.

So, Father Christmas is a capitalist symbol because he is the jolly bearded face that demands you shop like a maniac for the benefit of the wealthy few. He is a symbol of social control because his image demands action that is hard to disobey without attracting social disapproval.

3) he is an agent provocateur for the Coca Cola corporation

Holidays are coming, holidays are coming, holidays are coming…

There’s a nice overview of the history of Santa Claus on wikipedia. A brief synopsis of this would be:

Father Christmas started out life as a pagan symbol of the coming of spring. In time, this merged with the legend of a Christian Saint famed for making anonymous gifts to the poor. Under the influence of Victorian sentimentalism, the erstwhile variable form of Father Christmas crytsallised into the kindly old sleigh riding, present bearing bearded one we know today. Finally, Coca Cola popularised the red version.

Coca Cola say: “though some people believe the Coca-Cola Santa wears red because that is the Coke® color, the red suit comes from Nast’s interpretation of St. Nick”. A more accurate way of putting that would be: “some people believe the Coca-Cola Santa wears red because that is the Coke® color; this is true”. After all, the decision to use Nast’s interpretation of St. Nick will have included the rationale “it matches our corporate colour”.

And in the spirit of the imperialistic urges of multinationals, this corporately sponsored Father Christmas has so homogenised the celebration of Christmas, that a natural abundance of diversity in portraying the spirit of mid-winter has been largely wiped out. That’s right, Santa Claus is also a genocidal maniac.

He’s probably not really an actual agent provocateur though, I just put that bit in because it sounded good.

And finally…


Even ignoring the fact that our entire society collectively puts effort into lying to children, forcing inquisitive children to remain in the lie, and using social pressure to force parents into maintaining the lie, we are left with an undeniable truth:

The guy in the red suit sneaking around my home in the middle of the night is a burglar.

Upstanding pillar of the community, Secretary of State for Justice Ken Clarke says I can stab people for being burglars. In the light of the level of menace this man represents to society at large (Santa Claus, not Ken Clarke, though I’ll leave you to make your own judgment in the latter’s case), I am therefore justified in ensnaring him in jaws of merciless steel should he cross the threshold of my humble abode.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I set man traps for Santa.


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