Archive for May, 2013

This post has been moved to The Bristol Therapist: Resentments and regrets: working with unfinished business.


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A while back, I registered my private practice with the Bristol Pound. So Bristolians can now get support for themselves at the same time as supporting independent local trade by paying for therapy in Bristol Pounds. And by text message (how txt2pay works) no less.

I would like to see Bristol’s counsellors and psychotherapists adopt the Bristol Pound, as I think we generate an interesting economic microcosm. Every therapist has a supervisor; that supervisor has a supervisor; who in turn has a supervisor, ad infinitum. In fact, there’s a great therapy film waiting to happen about a therapist seeing a supervisor whose therapist is her supervisee’s client (Shakespeare would soil his/their pants).

Furthermore, the main counselling and psychotherapy professional bodies (BACP & UKCP respectively) require their members to attend to their Continuing Professional Development. Which is a bit like requiring cats to lick themselves, because CPD basically means attending trainings, workshops, writing articles, etc in all the interesting things to which counsellors and psychotherapists are already naturally drawn.

Consequently, if a client pays me in Bristol Pounds, it is highly likely that between my room hire, supervision, personal therapy, and CPD, I could probably hand over all that money to other therapists. Who will hand that money over to other therapists. And so on. And so on. Until someone finally buys a latte or a person centred scarf (sorry) from someone outside of Therapy World.

My point being, of course, that therapists end up handing over a significant proportion of their client fees to other therapists.

And the gestalt therapy angle on this is field theory. Gestalt therapy models a person as an organism in an environment. One dimension of my environment is the economic environment.

I’m thinking now of money as water, the economy as the water cycle, and the Bristol Pound as a dye trail showing how money flows around the local economic system.

Where does the money flow? Businesses that spend a high proportion of their income within Bristol are keeping money flowing around the local system. This is in contrast to businesses like, say, Starbucks and Vodafone, that spend a low proportion of their income within Bristol. If money is water, then the long-term prospects for a Bristol that loses more water than it takes in is economic dehydration.

Which is kind of the raison d’etre of the Bristol Pound: to increase local water retention. It has the potential to highlight who moves money around Bristol most effectively, and adds substance to an important discussion about what local economies are, and how they relate to regional, national, and international economies.

Perhaps most importantly, it connects the individual with the collective in a tangible way. And that’s the essence of field theory in gestalt: an individual is an organism, and an organism is both an expression and shaper of the environment from which it continuously emerges. A change in individual behaviour as simple as buying coffee (with Bristol pounds!) from an independent local coffee shop instead of Starbucks, scales up to a dramatic shift in how the local economy works.

Check out the directory of businesses accepting Bristol pounds to investigate how relevant to you this might be. And remember, the more a trader hears the question, “do you accept Bristol pounds?”, the more likely they are to get involved.

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Image scavenged from Positive Money’s “The Telegraph: Bristol Pound to Launch in September”.

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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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A quote oft-attributed to Buddha goes something like:

Question everything, even me.

I’m considering writing this into my contract.

Fundamental to gestalt therapy practice is the exploration of the nature of knowledge; what do we think we know, how do we know it, how do we verify what we think we know. In philosophy, this is called epistemology; the study of knowledge.

This is important to gestalt therapy because gestalt therapy is concerned with being in touch with what is happening now. In order to be in touch with what is happening now, it is necessary to have reliable information about the current situation, and have reliable frameworks with which to interpret that information.

But there is a problem. If I were to question all the information available to me about my situation, as well as the frameworks I was using to interpret that information, all the time, I would be unable to function. Oh look, I appear to be perceiving a car moving towards me at high speed. Ahhh, but motion is relative, so how do I know it’s the car moving and not everything else that’s moving? Indeed, maybe I’m just imagining the BAM! And so on.

Faced with the question: is the car coming towards me a real car or a hallucination? I could easily write a few thousand words on the philosophical problems of claiming firm knowledge either way. Faced with the actual experience of what appears to be a car coming towards me, I’ll probably move the fuck out of the way.

Incidentally, I’m using that example because, a couple of times over the past few months, I’ve dodged cars that were coming towards me that turned out to not be cars that were coming towards me. In both cases, light reflected off my glasses as I was crossing a road, triggered an automatic perception of headlights, and a survival instinct to move pretty damn sharpish.

In gestalt therapy, the challenge is to slow down and deconstruct these tendencies. What is it about light reflecting off my glasses that triggers a danger situation rather than a street light reflecting in my glasses situation? What about other information such as hearing a car? Hadn’t I already looked before crossing the road? And so on.

When I reflect on these questions, my realisation is that I spend a lot of time thinking whilst walking, so there is a lot of basic information about my situation that I miss. An experiment suggestion would be focusing on sights and sounds as I walk. Not because thinking whilst walking is wrong, but because doing things differently offers an opportunity for discovery. Specifically, is there something about my “external” situation that I habitually avoid by focusing on my “inner” situation?

And before you know it, a 50 minutes therapy session has been spent examining a single instance of crossing the road!

Against this background, consider the idea of going to see a psychotherapist to work on some personal issue that is causing you difficulty and some degree of suffering. You meet a therapist. Do you trust this person? If so, why? If not, why not? Is this a safe environment for being vulnerable? How would you know if it wasn’t?

Often, the criterion for assessing that a psychotherapist can be trusted is the fact that they are a psychotherapist. Occupying a certain role confers upon a person a kind of invisible cloak woven from the fabric of cultural assumptions about what kind of person occupies this role. People come to see me with assumptions about who I am and what I can do. These assumptions aren’t always available to awareness.

One, fairly critical, assumption concerns whether or not I can be trusted. Safe behind my invisible cloak, I could argue that the fact I’m a therapist demonstrates that I can be trusted. I think the therapist that takes this line of argument is demonstrating that they can’t be trusted. There is no good reason, having only known me for a couple of minutes, to trust me other than the choice to do so. I would go further and say that there is never any good reason to trust someone other than the choice to do so.

This is an existential position that challenges you to slow down your process of trust giving/withholding in order to examine how it works. What criteria do you use to differentiate between people you can trust and people you can’t trust? How did you arrive at those criteria? Are you essentially a trusting person who assumes trustworthiness until something happens to break that trust? Or someone who withholds trust until something happens to make someone trustworthy? Or someone who mistrusts until trustworthiness is proven? In both these last cases, how is trust gained and how is it lost again?

And, perhaps the most important question: what is the effect of your construction of trust on your relationships?

My conception of trust is of an existential choice. There can be no way of knowing that another person is trustworthy, even once I discover the criteria I unknowingly use to assess trustworthiness in others and apply them knowingly. After all, Hume’s problem of induction is enough to demonstrate that no amount of previous history of being trustworthy ensures that someone will be trustworthy on the morrow. I argue that it is impossible to discover criteria that will reliably guarantee that the person who meets them is trustworthy.

The purpose of this kind of deconstruction is to arrive at a realisation of the arbitrariness of much of how I understand the world. The adaptive value of this arbitrariness is that it allows me to quickly establish reliable ways of making decisions without being overwhelmed by the myriad possibilities I would otherwise need to consider. An unintended consequence (ask me about spandrels sometime) is that I increasingly only experience my situation in terms of what is familiar to me, and increasingly lose my ability to see other possibilities. I become lost in a world of hastily constructed algorithms that in turn take over the ongoing construction of my world (a la Kevin Slavin).

Consequently, one of the tasks of a gestalt therapist is to short-circuit the algorithmic self by demonstrating this arbitrariness. And that means questioning everything, even me.

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Image scavenged from Osney HR’s Trust: an engaging priority for 2013.

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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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