Posts Tagged ‘development’

Recently, a number of things have come together, and I feel myself undergoing a developmental leap in my practice and professional identity. I am manifesting that change through two decisions: leasing my own therapy room, and rebranding my practice.

It is unlikely to be a coincidence that Generation Rent is a political topic of the day. The transience and rootlessness of renting therapy rooms by the hour is something I have begun to find unbearable. The experience is interesting. Renting a space means more than just renting a space that belongs to someone else. After all, I haven’t bought my own building; my new therapy room is still on a lease. But there is a substantial difference between hiring a space, and a hire-space.

My new room is in The Ethical Property Company‘s centre on Colston Street. It is “my” space in so much that I contract with Ethical Property for use of that space to be exclusively mine for the period of the lease. Importantly, this means that the shaping of that space is down to me. I am free to create, not simply a therapy space, but my therapy space. Every decision about shaping this therapy space becomes a consideration of how this space can express the possibilities of my practice.

Contrast that with the nature of a hire-space, a room whose function is to be hired. The decoration may range from magnolia boxes, to beautifully themed rooms. But the spirit of the room, its very structure, is one of transience. The room is hired by many therapists, but belongs to none. It is no one’s “home room”. I tend to feel this as a sense of emptiness in the room; it is missing the many, tiny, background cues that suggest there is one specific person using this space on a regular basis.

In terms of figure/ground formation, the ground doesn’t support the figure of a tangible therapist. On the one hand, this means that it supports a kind of everytherapist, which certainly maximises the utility of the room as a hire-space. But this invites the therapist using the room into an everytherapist role. Just as any therapist could be using that room, so too could the clients who come to the room be seeing any therapist. The effect for me now is similar to every town having an identical high street; the unique element of soul that arises from place goes missing.

This has been ok so far. Gestalt therapy can be practised anywhere, with the only requirement being that the environment in which the therapy is situated be explicitly included in the therapy. There isn’t a correct set-up for the therapy, there is only the co-created experience of the therapy session, in awareness. If the therapy takes place in a soul-less box, then the experience of being in a soul-less box can be invited into the foreground for exploration. It is simply that my needs have changed, and now I feel constrained by hire-space in a way that I haven’t before.

Consequently, I am in the process of setting up my new room, and will practice from there as of the beginning of September.

A second need that arose as I made the decision to lease a room, was the need to attend to my professional identity. I feel like I have outgrown Silver Cat Psychotherapy, that this particular image no longer represents my practice. So, over the next few weeks, I will be transforming into the bristol therapist, a practice name that is more rooted in place, and reflects my sense of gestalt therapy as a particularly Bristol-ish approach. If psychotherapy was the UK, gestalt would definitely be Bristol!

And just to make that transformation process suitably challenging, I’ll be moving this blog to a new website, the very definition of growing pains!

I feel a mixture of excitement and trepidation. I wonder if my room will fulfil my expectations, or if I’ll discover that it’s no different to hire-space when it comes right down to it. I notice how applicable the cycle of gestalt formation and destruction is to specific projects like setting up a new therapy room and rebranding a practice.

Expect some updates. In the meantime, here is a work in progress shot of a painted corner of the room (first coat!):

therapy room work in progress


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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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