Posts Tagged ‘organismic self-regulation’

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


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egg timerWe’re often admonished to, “think before you speak!”, and most people, most of the time, would probably agree there is wisdom to that statement. This gives rise to the problem of thinking for too long, and never speaking as a result. It also gives rise to the problem of waiting for one’s turn to speak at the sacrifice of listening. Dialogue can disappear.

One of the main ways trainee therapists prepare for practice is by practising on each other in small groups. A trio of trainees take turns to swap the roles Therapist, Client, and Observer. I remember being client in one skills practice session, and discussing the problem of thinking so much about what I wanted to say that I never got to say it. The person being therapist suggested an experiment: for the rest of the duration of the experiment, I could only take a maximum of 3 seconds to think before responding. They would hold the time boundary and demand I respond if it got to 3 seconds.

This was a very uncomfortable experiment for me, bringing me into contact with shame and anxiety. It also became very energising and liberating. Most importantly, it was an effective learning experience because it generated emotionally charged insights. This is gestalt at its most here and now, when the current moment is itself the power source driving the therapy session.

The lesson here isn’t that 3 second thinking is preferable. An experiment I’ve tried with people who talk a great deal to avoid uncomfortable silences is to sit in silence together until the discomfort starts to feel too great. This kind of experimentation has its roots in behavioural therapy, and usually has the aim of increasing the versatility of a person’s behavioural range. But even this isn’t the lesson for a gestalt therapist.

In gestalt therapy, the aim is awareness. What happens if? Where a behavioural therapy would say, “you are unable to respond in less than 3 seconds, so here’s an exercise for getting better at that”, gestalt therapy says, “you are unable to respond in less than 3 seconds, isn’t that curious? Let’s experiment with that and see what’s going on”.

It’s up to the client to create meaning out of what the experiment turns up. And that awareness is a powerful thing, because once I’m aware of something, I’m responsible for what I do with that awareness. I gain response-ability, and even if I shrug and let that awareness slip away again, that’s a choice I have made. Generally speaking, I find it to be good practice to spend some time contemplating what I need to do with what comes into my awareness; some discoveries come before their time and need to be let go.

Some people need more 3 second thinking. Some people need less 3 second thinking. In both cases, awareness is key.

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Image credit: http://www.aliexpress.com/promotion/promotion_60-second-egg-timer-promotion.html

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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.

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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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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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I look around the room at the couple of dozen people making a rough circle; some sitting, some getting coffee or tea, a couple of groups chatting. It’s coming up for the scheduled 2pm start, so I decide I’ll use the toilet then come back and call everyone together to get started. Off I go.

Returning about five minutes later, the circle has expanded and a steady flow of people is coming into the room. Before I know it, a couple of dozen people has become more like sixty or seventy, and I’m wondering what the hell I’ve got myself into. As it happens, I don’t have enough time to give that question full consideration; there’s an Open Space meeting to start…

That’s pretty much how the first event of The People’s Bristol 2050 got going. This is a response to another Bristol 2050, a business vision of what Bristol should look like in 2050. Co-ordinated by Business West, it “provides a clear statement about jobs, housing and infrastructure requirements to meet the needs of the area and to continue to develop and grow as the economic powerhouse of the South West”. As usual, these are the needs of the area according to business leaders; after all, business leaders have been doing so well in addressing society’s needs lately.

Whether historical coincidence or zeitgeist we may never know, but at about this time, Occupy Bristol had developed into two branches; one that wanted to move on from College Green, and one that wanted to resist eviction. The question of what happens to Occupy Bristol as a movement is one that will be addressed in a public meeting on Saturday 4th February, 2pm to 4pm, location to be announced (the facebook page for this is here).

Among the people who wanted to move on, the idea of developing a People’s Bristol 2050 to rival the business vision offered a new direction in which to aim some of the raw energy of Occupy. What these events demonstrate is that the Occupy Movement as a whole is a crucible from which many different things have the potential to emerge; it all depends on who directs their energy into the mix.

In more gestalt terms, the open space event on Saturday created a fertile ground with the potential to mobilise a wide variety of social actions. There is a buzz that I’ve noticed in every open space event I’ve been involved with, and I can only describe it as being plugged into a circuit of human power, rich with potential.

The downside to many open space events is that, as stand alone events, that buzz inevitably fades, leaving people with a sense of potential unachieved. This makes the People’s Bristol 2050 extra fascinating to me because the next event is already being planned for roughly four weeks time, with the intention being for a series of these meetings to take that buzz and develop it.

Except that there is no one centrally to develop it into anything; the idea is to support a process that challenges the people who turn up to take action for themselves. The idea is to move from a sense of “someone should really…”, to “I am going to…”. Instead of handing over power to someone else, the spirit of open space is to take a group of people and give them the minimum structure necessary to support self-regulation.

And to me, that sounds like gestalt therapy in action as a progressive social force.

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I’ve been blogging away for about six months now, and have decided that it’s high time I named a principle after myself as my enduring contribution to psychotherapy. I’m not entirely sure how I arrived at what I arrived at (which, as you’ll see, is a rather neat case in point) but it was fun getting there.

I was thinking about the seemingly diametrically opposed focuses of process and outcome in psychotherapy. I think of therapies like CBT as being essentially outcome focused, the logic being ‘so you suffer from panic attacks? Right then, we’ll find a way of stopping those damn panic attacks!’. A process focused therapist might well scoff at this attitude. I think of therapies like humanistic person-centred as being essentially process focused, the logic here being ‘so you suffer from panic attacks? *therapist looks warmly at client whilst embodying the core conditions*’.

The two approaches are, of course, focusing on two completely different things. The CB Therapist (btw, please can everyone stop saying CBT Therapist? What you’re saying is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Therapist; my brain automatically expands the acronym and it causes me physical pain! Thank you) wants to solve the problem (outcome), the HPC therapist wants to explore the problem (process).

In HPC, the idea is that the panic attacks are something the person needs to experience in some way. Roughly speaking, the person, driven by their actualising principle to develop and grow, encounters some deep-rooted obstacle to that growth, resulting in panic attacks. By supporting exploration of the problem, the HPC therapist is supporting the person’s growth with the belief that the actualising principle will eventually win out, with the person spontaneously discovering their panic attacks to be meaningful expressions of their humanity. This may or may not result in release from panic attacks, but will certainly lead to an expanded consciousness.

By contrast, in CBT, the idea is that panic attacks are an undesired consequence of the person’s thinking and behaviour. This person wants and needs to change their thought and behaviour patterns in order to gain release from the suffering of panic attacks. The goal is to stop the panic attacks, and this is achieved by identifying the problematic thought and behaviour patterns and changing them to non-problematic thought and behaviour patterns. Successful CBT ends the panic attacks, unsuccessful CBT doesn’t end the panic attacks; expanded consciousness is beside the point.

If you’re HPC or CBT trained and are currently frothing at the mouth at how badly I’ve misrepresented your field, please do correct me; I reserve the right to disagree with your interpretation of your own area of practice for entertainment purposes.

Gestaltists will most readily ally themselves with the process focus but to be honest I think gestalt actually moves between the two, with the majority of the time spent with a process focus. The fact that I engage in creative experimentation in my practice places at least some of what I do in the CB camp. Experiments, by their nature, are a behaviourist approach to therapy. And sometimes, they have an outcome focus.

If I was working with panic attacks, for example, an experiment might be to re-create a low-level panic attack situation in the therapy room (like reading a passage from a book to an imagined audience). The point of this in gestalt is to gain direct access to the feelings involved in a safe environment instead of being two steps removed from the issue by talking about what happened last week (and of course, I wouldn’t do this with someone if I felt they weren’t going to be able to re-stabilise afterwards). This can be process focused; the experiment brings powerful feelings into awareness and we see where those feelings take us. Or this can be outcome focused; the experiment serves as a training ground for building tolerance for the panic-attack situation (it becomes exposure therapy really).

‘Yes yes, but what about this principle you’ve invented?’, thanks for the reminder…

Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle postulates that:

“The more precisely the POSITION is determined, the less precisely the MOMENTUM is known”

Roughly speaking, determining the position of a particle in space is difficult because all things are in motion relative to each other. So the momentum of a particle is a function of its spatial relationship to other particles (note here the similarity to gestalt’s field theory where behaviour is a function of a person’s environmental/situational relationships).

Consider the earth orbiting the sun. We know the speed with which the Earth orbits the sun because we take the sun to be a fixed point. But of course, the sun is also hurtling through space; it is only a fixed point relative to the planets that orbit it. The moon orbits the earth at the same time as the earth orbits the sun, so how fast is the moon travelling and in which direction? It’s ok, my mind just melted too.

My argument is that the same uncertainty applies to process and outcome in psychotherapy, hence The Staff-Tow Uncertainty Principle:

“The more precisely the OUTCOME is determined, the less precisely the PROCESS is known”

As a guy I once knew used to say, ‘you can have yan or t’other but ye anae avin’ baeth’.

This doesn’t mean that one factor is better than the other, only that you can’t have a full and vibrant awareness of both at the same time. And that’s because the sheer scope of possible outcomes for any given process is huge. In order to arrive with any kind of probability at a pre-determined outcome, the process has to be geared towards that outcome, meaning that the possibility of all other outcomes is closed off as much as possible.

On the other hand, focusing on process, on what is happening right now, opens up progressively more outcomes that themselves become part of the process until there is only process and no outcomes at all. Again, this is relative; in order to define something as an outcome, we have to create a fixed state, and the illusion of an outcome as a final state of affairs.

Strictly speaking, stopping panic attacks only counts as an outcome if we arrive at a point where the person never has a panic attack again. Hence, the outcome is relative to the process of a person’s entire lifetime. And there is one very good reason why, as unpleasant as a panic attack is, the removal of panic attacks is an undesirable outcome; survival. I would quite like to have a panic attack in a life threatening situation if that panic attack mobilised me into running away and surviving.

We can become more precise about our outcome: no more panic attacks in such and such a situation. In which case, we become less precise about the process of being human of which those panic attacks are an expression. We can also become more precise about the process: panicking is a fear reaction to certain environmental factors that were real once but are now largely internalised and projected onto similar situations in the present and actually have as many pros to the individual as cons. In which case, we become less precise about the outcome we’re aiming at.

In gestalt theory, this would be an example of need configuring the field. A desired outcome is our need, so we arrange our perception of our current situation around that need; hence, we are most aware of aspects of our situation that will bring us closer to our desired outcome, and lose awareness of other aspects of our situation. This is a good thing, by the way, because if we were fully aware, moment to moment, of every aspect of our immediate situation, we would quickly lose ourselves in an overhwelmed state in which we would be unable to selectively block out environmental stimuli.

Just like position and momentum, outcome and process are two ends of the same continuum. I think of this as having an outcome/process dial. A CB therapist most likely has that dial way in the outcome direction, whilst the HPC therapist will be way in the process direction. My personal preference as a gestalt therapist is to change my dial’s position depending on the therapeutic situation. Generally speaking, I enjoy being more on the process side than the outcome side. But just try having a traumatic flashback in my therapy room and see how quickly I turn that dial to outcome!

Outcome and process are two ways of focusing the same experiential lens; awareness. Awareness is often likened metaphorically to light (which is apt bearing in mind that light can be considered a particle or a wave depending on the situation). If we use the outcome/process dial to change the focus of the light of awareness, then maximum outcome is going to be highly focused like a laser beam and maximum process something more diffuse like twilight.

Try out this metaphor for yourself. Imagine a dial that goes from (maximum process) 0 to 100 (maximum outcome) with an exact halfway point at 50. What is your dial turned to right now? Where do you habitually keep your dial? What range of settings feels possible/impossible for you? Where’s your comfort zone?

For me, the ideal isn’t to find the right setting on the dial. The ideal is to be able to change the setting from situation to situation by choice; and that is organismic self-regulation.

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