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Archive for January, 2013

A post over on Mind Hacks (Back to the Old Skool) has drawn my attention to a New York Magazine article (Why You Truly Never Leave High School, Jennifer Senior) that explores the psychological impact of high school. Whilst the experience of secondary school here in the UK will be very different, the psychological territory will be similar.

As Mind Hacks says:

It’s a fascinating subject because so much of developmental psychology has focused on childhood and yet our adolescent school years are probably the most formative for our view of the social world.

There is a tension in gestalt therapy between those who think gestalt needs a model of child development, and those who don’t. Personally, I think this is the wrong focus entirely. I think a much more valuable question to ask is something like: what would a cradle to grave model of human development look like?

The here and now focus of gestalt is underpinned by field theory, and any developmental model needs to be field theoretical if it is to be recognisable as gestalt. There is a crucial difference between this kind of outlook and models that emphasise childhood development. Namely, field theory in gestalt defines behaviour as a function of the current situation.

What this means in practice is that a human being is seen as a dynamic, ever-changing entity. Yes, childhood experiences might play an important part in, say, difficulties at work. But difficulties at work are not determined by childhood experiences. If I have beef with my manager and see him as a cold hearted tyrant, am I caught in a transference where I project my cold hearted tyrant father onto my manager? Or is my manager actually just a cold hearted tyrant?

Gestalt therapists don’t work primarily with transference, but with contact. The shift in focus is from a history-oriented approach (historical situations determine present experiences), to a present-oriented approach (present situations determine present experiences).

This doesn’t mean that childhood experiences are invalid or unimportant. Instead, the focus is on situations that are incomplete in some significant way. Good experiences do not haunt us, they fall away and become part of our background sense of goodness. A gestalt definition of confidence could be the performing of some task considered as figure against a supportive ground of successful-enough previously performed tasks. That is, the more I do well at something, the more confident I feel at doing that same thing again; provided I am able to assimilate my experience of doing that thing well that is!

Incomplete situations do haunt us. We review them. If only I’d said x. If only I’d done y. Incomplete situations, by definition, remain active in the present. By putting energy into imagining how I could have handled a situation differently, or replaying an unsatisfactory situation, I am keeping that situation alive as an active part of my present reality. Regret is the photo album I fill with snapshots of what I didn’t do but wish I had. A person can spend a lifetime pouring over that album.

In a way, then, gestalt therapy already has a proto-model of human development (a theme Bruce Kenofer explores in his British Gestalt Journal article Paradoxical themes of development: the case of developmental theory in Gestalt therapy). A human being develops by discovering new situations, and becoming increasingly sophisticated at navigating familiar situations.

One of my objections to developmental models is that they tend to lack cultural flexibility and are overly influenced by the psychoanalytic obsession with “the mother-infant dyad”. Potentially, a field theoretical model of development that focuses on situational development could offer that cultural flexibility. Work for another day.

Back to New York Magazine, and what I enjoy about Jennifer’s article is her emphasis on just how formative adolescence is, and some of the research going on in this area. There is much here for therapists to take note of, in particular the development of shame:

When I asked one of the very first men I ever interviewed, ‘What does shame mean to you?'”, she [Brené Brown] recalled, “he answered, ‘Being shoved up against the lockers.’ High school is the metaphor for shame.

What disappoints me about Jennifer’s article is that it simply shifts the focus from childhood to adolescence. Worse, it reinforces the same determinism, one example being the highlighting of research exploring the correlation between male earning potential and height:

It wasn’t adult height that seemed to affect their subjects’ wages; it was their height at 16. (In other words, two white men measuring five-foot-eleven can have very different earning potential in the same profession, all other demographic markers being equal, just because one of them was shorter at 16).

So there is a big exploration of the impact of high school, and an implicit argument that high school experiences are more formative for adult personality than childhood. However, there is no exploration of the potential for therapy. The article’s title becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, with no consideration given to how we might be able to finally leave high school.

The hope, for me, lies in something Laurence Steinberg (“a developmental psychologist at Temple University and perhaps the country’s foremost researcher on adolescence”) has to say about some of the neuroscience seeming to explain why adolescence is such a formative period for personality formation:

“During times when your identity is in transition,” says Steinberg, “it’s possible you store memories better than you do in times of stability.”

To me, this points to the real value of long-term, in-depth psychotherapy: the creation of a period of transition, during which we get the opportunity to de- and then re-construct our sense of who we are.

I would say yes you can leave high school; it just takes a lot of work!

~ ~ ~

My name is Simon Stafford-Townsend. I am a gestalt psychotherapist in private practice in Bristol and Cardiff. My private practice website is Silver Cat Psychotherapy.

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This post has moved to my new website, and can be found here: Shoulds: the internalised wants of other people.

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