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This post has been moved to my new website, and can be found here: Simple questions, complex therapy.

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

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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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This is a brief check-in from me to draw attention to a new collaborative blog I’m involved with. It’s called Sex Positive Parenting. In a dramatic act of doing exactly what it says on the tin, the aim of the blog is to pull together bloggers who are parents trying to bring up their children in a sex positive way. Consequently, the writing so far has managed to be both amusing and provocative in a contactful way.

My first contribution to the project is “what are you having? A baby (boom, boom)…”, in which I start to explore the importance that gets placed on whether an unborn child is male or female.

I’m excited about the long-term possibilities for blogging with Sex Positive Parenting. I find blogging incredibly supportive for my development as a practitioner because the process of writing helps me focus otherwise quite fleeting thoughts into something solid and clear. I’ve been wanting to do something similar around my thoughts and feelings on parenting but don’t want le chat d’argent to become a parenting blog.

So Sex Positive Parenting will be a great focus for some of the trickier parenting stuff, at the same time as being a chance to experiment with a different writing tone. There will undoubtedly be overlap between what comes up for me there, and my work as a therapist, so I expect some of those thoughts will take a gestalt form here.

In the meantime, I recommend the blog not just for people with kids but for anyone wanting to cultivate a more sex positive attitude generally. For twitter updates, follow @SexPosParent.

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I have just finished my first week of paternity leave from therapy practice. Baby is due today and, so far, is declining to make an appearance. What does this have to do with May 3rd’s city wide referendum on whether or not Bristol should have a directly elected mayor? Pretty much everything.

As I started exploring in psychotherapy in a time of political crisis, I am already alive to the overlap between therapy and politics, and to therapy as a distinctly political activity in its own right. Now, it is a gestalt axiom that need organises the organism/environment field, the dynamic interplay between self and situation.

Accordingly, as I start to feel the physical reality of becoming a parent, I become increasingly aware of the social world into which my child will be emerging. The challenge this throws me is simple, difficult, and powerful. I look around me at my situation, and I tune in very quickly to the political domain. I feel urges towards action rise within me and… I explain them away. I’m a therapist, not a politician. There’s no point, I should focus my action in a better direction. Many of the self-same justifications for inaction that I support people in working through in therapy so that they can more fully be who they really are, not who they have been moulded to be.

My experience of starting to become a parent is of suddenly experiencing a need to take action that is stronger than my need to refrain from taking action. It’s not quite that I feel responsible for the world into which my child is being born in a way that I didn’t before, though that is a factor. It’s more that the projection of how my child might see me has revealed to me more starkly how, out of awareness, I am viewing myself. That is, I am fully in contact with the consequences for me of not acting on my political needs. Realising that I owe it to my child to be as fully myself as I can is a bridge to realising that I owe the same to myself. As a therapist, I am constantly re-learning this.

On 3rd May 2012, there will be a city wide referendum on whether Bristol should have a directly elected mayor. There is a yes lobby. There is a no lobby.

The key arguments in favour involve the direct accountability of the mayor vs a current leader who is elected by Council; the transfer of more powers and money (of an as yet undescribed nature) from Westminster to Bristol if we vote yes; and to shake up a tired political system.

The key arguments against involve the belief that the cost of implementing the mayor model will be too high; that the election will descend into a Ken vs Boris style personality contest; that the mayor will not be accountable to Council in the way the current Leader is; and that the candidates will be uninspiring.

In the midst of making up my own mind, I saw Salma Yaqoob‘s article ‘Yes’ to a Mayor who says ‘No’ to Austerity and realised what I want. I want to switch to the directly elected mayor system, and actively seek out the kind of candidate I want to vote for, instead of passively waiting for existing interests to make their offers. In parallel, I’m also seeking to form a political party with a mission to forge a politics of compassion grounded in core therapeutic principles.

I am unlikely to pull off such a feat on my own, so this is my call for support. Here is the kind of Mayoral candidate I am looking for:

A Mayor who opposes austerity: the austerity drive has failed and continues to fail. Britain is not only in a double-dip recession, but in a depression that is now more prolonged than the Great Depression of the 1930s. I want a Bristol Mayor who will actively oppose austerity.

A Mayor who will devolve power: one of the dangers of an elected mayor is that power becomes more centralised. I would like to see Bristol become a functioning e-democracy in which any Bristol citizen with an interest can be part of the decision making process. I want a Bristol Mayor who would seek to make that a reality.

A Mayor who is a woman: the mayor debating panels have been dominated by the usual white, middle-aged men, and the candidates so far proposed belong to this demographic. According to the 2001 Census Bristol’s population was 51.2% female. Austerity measures disproportionately affect women, who, absurdly, form the majority of the population but hold a minority of political posts. I want a woman for Bristol Mayor.

A Mayor who places humanity above economy: we are living through a time of atrocity in the name of balancing a national budget sinking under the weight, not of excessive public spending, but of bailing out the banks. Welfare is under attack, and the NHS is being thrown to the wolves. This is not unique to the Coalition; all three main parties are part of a neoliberal consensus that equates human activity with economic activity. This then justifies the most ruthless of decisions, as economy and humanity are one. I want a Bristol Mayor who will place humanity above the economy.

You might not want what I want, and that’s fine (and if I’ve inspired you to do the same thing as me but for a different kind of candidate, then even better!). Possibly I will get no further with this than the warm glow I get after publishing a new blog post. And if Bristol votes no on 3rd May, it’ll all be fairly academic anyway.

But suppose you want the same thing as me. And suppose Bristol votes yes on 3rd May. Then maybe you can take your own step towards action, and instead of waiting for the usual suspects to offer us up a selection of the same old faces, lend me your support.

Let’s get together, and find a candidate worth voting for.

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Having previously lamented a dislike of list-based posts in my character assassination of Father Christmas, a so-called Facebook friend pointed out that I’d previously blogged a four point guide to defeating end of level bosses. Ok, so she didn’t directly call me a hypocrite but I think we all know the word was hanging in the air (and the first person to accuse me of projecting will get a prompt ‘I know you are but what am I?’)!

Clearly then, I’m about to present a list-based post. And, as this is early January, the handy topic of New Year’s Resolutions is flowing fairly consistently down my twitter feed. So, a gestalt take on New Year’s Resolutions it is.

Process goals

In simplest terms, a process goal is a direction rather than a destination. A process goal is ‘I’m going to improve my fitness’, whereas an outcome goal is, ‘I’m going to run the London Marathon’. And so on. This is highly relevant to gestalt because, as the mighty Yontef has pointed out in his equally mighty Awareness, Dialogue & Process, the goals of gestalt therapy are process goals.

More specifically, the process goal in gestalt therapy, according to Yontef, is raising awareness. That is very different to the approach of a therapy like CBT where the outcome goal is changing thoughts and behaviour. Gestalt, after all, points to a paradoxical theory of change in which change is the natural by-product of simply being (as opposed to trying to be). Simply being is incredibly difficult given how much effort years of socialisation have put into informing each of us who we should be and what we should do. Simple doesn’t mean easy!

So, taking process goals as a journey, here’s a three stage breakdown that, as an added bonus, lays some groundwork for a later post on the gestalt cycle of figure formation and destruction. I spoil you, really.

1) Starting the journey – motivation

In terms of the gestalt cycle, this is fore-contact, the stage at which support for action is generated. For me, the most important starting question isn’t what am I going to do? Or, what is my end goal? The most important question is why? Why am I doing this? What’s my motivation here?

Take two of the classic New Year’s Resolutions, giving up smoking and losing weight. What is your motivation for doing either? Because you genuinely want to or because you think you should? There is a subtle but powerful difference between those two motivations. Mainly, proceeding from a should-based motivation will likely lead very quickly to the infamous topdog/underdog split.

That is, the part of you laying down the law and demanding that such and such should be done becomes a domineering topdog that gets resisted by another part of yourself that doesn’t want to change; this becomes the underdog. Topdog and underdog then expend much energy wrestling with each other, which is all rather futile considering that both characters are in fact the same person.

As a general rule, if you force yourself to do something you don’t feel a genuine need to do, then you will sabotage yourself at some point. Making motivation incredibly important; find the things that light an internal fire and you’ll find that your ability to wrestle with the difficulties you come up against will be much more doable because you’ll be doing it whole-heartedly.

Ultimately, ‘I want to do x’ trumps ‘I should do x’ because the former is your agenda, whereas the latter is nearly always an externally imposed agenda, however internalised. If that ‘I should give up smoking’ or ‘I should lose weight’ is actually connected to a felt need of ‘I want to be healthier’ then start with that need. There are lots of things you can do to be healthier that don’t involve giving up smoking or dieting, so think of them. Suddenly, you realise, ‘well, I have always wanted to take up tango or karate’; great, so now take up tango or karate! Your health will likely improve because both are great exercise.

There is very little point in resolving to do something unless you have a genuine interest in doing it. Genuine interest proceeds from a personal need, and is motivational.

2) On the journey – experience

In the gestalt cycle, this will be contact, the stage at which action takes place and contact is made with what is being done. This is the realisation that taking a walk is as much about stopping to smell the roses as it is about arriving somewhere, and that makes the quality of the journey important.

This is another reason why doing something because you should do it leads to self-sabotage; the things that we are under obligation to do (unless they coincide with what we also want to do) are unsatisfying. They are unsatisfying because a significant part of us (our dear friend the underdog) doesn’t want to do them. And so we actively resist the very thing we are doing. Picture that supermarket scene where the parent is dragging a screaming child around. Parent = topdog, child = underdog. Is either side of that conflict getting any satisfaction from their shopping trip? Exactly.

The same thing applies for a resolution. What a great start to the year; ‘this year I will expend as much energy resisting something I don’t want to do as I will forcing myself to do what I don’t want to do in the first place’. And so your experience of that journey becomes stressful and unsatisfying.

My point here is that, having proceeded from a good motivation, the experience of the journey needs to be satisfying enough to sustain the effort you’re going to be putting into it. People who get satisfaction out of challenges are all about this part of the journey; the experience of being challenged is rewarding in itself. Most people get satisfaction out of some degree of challenge; for some, that’s diving in at the deep end, for others it’s moving slowly out of the shallow end. And if you find challenge overwhelmingly frustrating, then don’t challenge yourself! After all, lots of people could do with a resolution of ‘I will take it easy on myself this year’.

There is very little point in resolving to do something unless you are going to experience what you’re doing. For one thing, only by being in your experience will you be alert to the relevance of what you’re doing. For another, if you skip the experiencing of what you’re doing, it won’t be very satisfying.

3) Finishing the journey – destination

In the gestalt cycle, this will be the post-contact stage where the satisfaction of completion is experienced and the figure of interest is withdrawn from. This is sitting down after a job well done, sighing, basking a while in the after-glow, and then letting the whole thing go.

Eventually, you will lose interest in whatever you’re doing, either because the need you set out to fulfill has been fulfilled, or because the need is no longer there. This is absolutely the number one reason why I prefer process goal therapy to outcome goal therapy. Frequently, the goals a person has when they come into therapy change over time, or the thing a person wants to change is actually what’s holding them together, or it’s not the real issue but the one they think they’re allowed to get help with. And so on. And this is why gestalt therapy focuses on raising awareness, and lets change happen as a natural by-product rather than aiming for a specific change.

In terms of process goals, the destination isn’t the pre-destination of an outcome goal: eg, I’ll have arrived when I’ve lost however many stone. Rather, arriving is a felt sense of completion: eg, I feel satisfied with how much fitter I feel now and no longer need to push myself. Remember the topdog/underdog conflict. If you get halfway to your pre-destined target and feel that’s good enough BUT continue pushing yourself to achieve that target, you’ll be straight back in that supermarket with the screaming child! It is literally the case that you don’t need to do any more than you need to do. And the sign that you’ve done what you need to do is losing interest.

There is very little point in resolving to do something when you’ve already done as much as you’re interested in doing. If anything, the effort it will then take to soldier on in the name of the final goal will likely ruin much of what was satisfying and turn the whole thing sour.

In conclusion

As the Staff-Tow Uncertainty Principle states, the more we focus on outcome, the less we can focus on process, and vice versa. Setting process goals for New Year’s Resolutions may not allow for smashing ever higher targets, but it will allow for living a more satisfying 2012.

Happy New Year!

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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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