This post has been sat in my drafts folder long enough for the relevant practice issues to have long since passed. I wrote it following an interesting supervision session.

I bring an issue to my supervisor that has been growing in intensity. It’s one of those emergent practice issues that finds expression across a significant proportion of the therapeutic journeys in which I am engaged. That I am constellating my practice in this way indicates that some unresolved issue of my own is preventing me from taking my work with several people into deeper territory.

I explore this issue as it manifests in one particular journey. I’m trying to find a way of challenging this person without being threatening or shaming. My difficulty is that, because of my own unresolved issue in this area, I can’t approach the challenge without becoming overtly aggressive. I need to work through what is raw for me before I will be able to tolerate working through the same territory with someone else.

My supervisor offers me some suggestions for avenues of approach. I become aware of experiencing these suggestions through a “client-filter”. That is, I have an immediate intuitive sense of how this person would respond to this line of approach. They would feel lectured at. I share this and my supervisor asks if he is lecturing me.

I smile; no. In this case I have two distinct experiences sat side-by-side. I feel like a cyborg, viewing the world through two different eyes. My left eye is my own, natural-born human eye. This is my personal response to my supervisor’s suggestions; I experience him as being helpful and welcome his suggestions. My right eye is some kind of cyber-eye that has been programmed to view the world as though I were my client. This is my anticipation of my client’s response; they experience the suggestions as invasive and lecturing, and start to burn with shame.

I share this response with my supervisor, and he observes that I’m doing a lot of thinking for my client. I remember Stephen Johnson’s Character Styles. Specifically, I remember the concept of narcissistic cathexis. This is the element of narcissism in which other people are viewed as objects to be used, not as people with whom to relate.

Cathexis means investing emotional energy in someone or something. Narcissistic cathexis means doing so as if the cathected other is an object that exists solely for this reason. I am sitting on a chair right now. Suppose this is my favourite chair. Having a favourite chair is a kind of cathexis because I invest emotional energy in its existence. Friendships also involve cathexis. If I consider you to be my friend, then I invest emotional energy in you in a way that I don’t with other people. If I cathect you narcissistically then I relate to you in much the same way I relate to my favourite chair. It’s not just that you are my friend, but that your function in life is to meet my need for friendship. You have no meaning beyond that function.

As I explore this idea alongside my experience of anticipating very closely this person’s potential response to my potential deployment of my supervisor’s hypothetical suggestions, I find my function in relation to this person. The purpose of my existence is to work it all out for them. To make sense of their experience, and to feed back that sense in a manner that is 100% perfectly attuned with their need at that moment in time.

And I am doomed to fail because that is impossible.

The idea of the cyborg as a symbol for narcissistically organisation of the self appeals to me. A cyborg is typically a combination of human and mechanical material. Perhaps most typically, a cyborg is a human being that has been integrated with substantial machinery in order to achieve super-human feats.

More than this, the cyborg is usually more identified with the abilities conferred by the mechanistic enhancements than with the human flesh that allows the whole to function. In this fusion of human and machine, the purpose of the human is to fuel and regulate the functioning of the whole. That is, whilst the human and the machine both contribute equally to the functioning of the whole, it is not the case that both parts are equally valued. The human material may be essential, but it is the machinery that is valued.

This description is poignant in the case of narcissistic adaptation. Various writers describe a split between the false, adapted self, and the real, rejected self. The false self, the person one must create in order to gain the desperately needed approval of significant others, is a machine, a construct; it has no life-force of its own because it is literally an imposed machination, not an organic outgrowth of self. The real self, that which has been devalued and rejected, first by significant others, then secondly by the person themselves, is the only available source of life-force.

In gestalt terms, organismic interest simply is the real self. In order for the artificially constructed machinations of the false self to function, this machinery must tap into, subdue, and conquer the life-force of the real self. The pay off is that the resurrected cyborg stands a good chance of excelling in the areas that will gain the much needed admiration of others. The substantial downside is that the cyborg can’t experience satisfaction with this because satisfaction can only come from meeting organismic needs, and it is exactly these organismic needs that have been conquered. The machine can’t be sated, it can only function.

Robocop is a good example of this kind of cybernetic functioning. Fully human cop Alex Murphy is brutally killed in the line of duty, and his body is taken by OCP, the archetypal evil corporation that have the contract for delivering policing in near-future dystopian Detroit (and seemingly the main inspiration for G4S). He is reconstructed as the cyborg Robocop and programmed with some directives, one of which is classified even from him.

As well as a stark warning against privatising essential state functions to the McEvils of the world, Robocop offers a metaphorical reconstruction of how one comes to organise oneself narcissistically. Alex Murphy is brutally killed. That is, the real self doesn’t just encounter difficulties or misattunement in the world; the real self is butchered, actively destroyed. Constant, chronic, venom-fuelled rejection of a young child’s emerging sense of self is, from the perspective of that child, a hail of bullets.

This is the essential difference between the scars left by narcissistic injuries (of which no one seems to be spared) and the need to create a narcissistic personality: survival. The real self, like Alex Murphy, is effectively executed.

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Image scavenged from the 3oneseven website.

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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.


Following my recent guest cartoon on the Therapy Tales blog, I’ve been wondering a bit more about exploring therapy visually rather than exclusively verbally. Something I’m particularly interested in is “otherworldliness”, an experience of not belonging to this world, or of not being connected to the real world, or of otherwise feeling to some degree surreal/ethereal/disconnected. This is often referred to as “disassociation“, though I’m coming to understand a distinction between the two; otherworldliness seems to be more of an existential stance, whereas disassociation is usually a much more focused response. Same basic functionality at different scales I guess.

One particular source of otherworldliness is the experience of parental neglect in childhood. I was thinking about how to express this in a cartoon, and came up with the ten frame strip below. I wanted to do without words but, to be honest, the lack of words created a sense of unbearable silence for me.

The Stolen Child, of course, is a poem by W. B. Yeats, and one very successfully put to music by Loreena McKennitt. My thinking here is that the old folk warning about faeries beguiling away children is actually sound parenting advice. The effects of parental neglect are profound. In my cartoon above, I show a child being left in a room for a day and a night. This is metaphorical. The child’s emotional experience is of a loss of contact, play, and love that lasts beyond its endurance. The abandoned child does not cry for attention because it has given up hope of getting any. Following that abandonment, the child seeks out a new world, and this is where the abduction by the fae comes in. People who fit the descriptions for schizoid and schizotypal character styles have often experienced significant parental neglect.

Loreena McKennitt’s song is beautiful. I recommend re-reading the cartoon as it plays:

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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.

If you have an interest in alcohol-related issues, and/or the provision of long-term, low-cost therapy, and/or running a charity generally, then this may be an interesting opportunity for you.

I am a Trustee with The Swan Project; a small charity providing long-term, low-cost therapy for people wanting to work with alcohol related issues, primarily addiction. Its founder, Ronnie Aaronson, has written a book about her approach called Addiction: this being human. The charity also offers a general low-cost therapy service.

The Swan Project is small and only a few years old. Consequently, its structure and organisation is still very informal as it makes the transition from the founders’ labour of love to a fully functioning autonomous charity. Our board of Trustees is too small to provide stable leadership at this time, so we need more people.

The Board of Trustees’ collective duty is to ensure that the charity operates legally and in the spirit of its stated aims and objectives. Essentially, we make the strategic decisions, and the charity’s management implements them. We are responsible for ensuring that the charity’s accounts are done properly and reported to the Charity Commission and Companies House within the relevant timescales.

At this point, we need responsible and reliable people who are able to attend four meetings a year and make decisions in line with a set of stated objectives. There is a lot of scope for suggesting ideas for how The Swan Project develops, particularly in the direction of fundraising, which is a need area for us.

The Swan Project has grown a lot recently, and is currently sustaining itself financially, which is an exciting milestone. Our short-term focus is on consolidating this position so we can rely on remaining sustainable.

If you’re interested in finding out more, then please email me using simon@silvercatpsychotherapy.co.uk with any questions or to arrange a time to chat/meet.

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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.

Yesterday, I contributed a guest post to the Therapy Tales blog. “Time-capsule” is about one of the long-term benefits of therapy that isn’t measured by CORE and the like.

If you don’t already follow it, Therapy Tales is an ingenious exploration of therapy via the medium of cartooning. We are given a view of two sets of legs to set the scene of therapist facing client. This set up gives us the stable ground against which the figure of each strip’s exploration emerges.

When I’m processing a therapy session, I try to draw a simple cartoon depicting the session. This seems like an impossible task. Too much happens in 50 minutes; there’s too much information; there’s rarely a simple, easily defined focus; there is an abundance of nuance and possibilities. And yet, it is always possible to sum up a session with a drawing. How do I explain this? Well the clue is in the name: gestalt therapy. What I draw in my process notes is the gestalt of that session.

Cartooning has the potential to distil a large amount of information into a simple set of images. It is easier to hold onto these images than it is to hold onto the information from which they have emerged. However, once I meditate on those images, think about them, or play around with their arrangement, I recover huge amounts of information and discover new connections between them. I also find out a great deal about how I am relating to this particular person by attending to which events I give greater prominence to, and which events I sideline. The combination of operating non-verbally, and allowing an image to emerge spontaneously, engages my intuition and gives me something honest.

I enjoyed creating a cartoon about therapy. I think I will bring images into my blogging more.

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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.

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

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.

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.