Posts Tagged ‘projection’

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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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 have an irrational and visceral dislike for list based blog posts. Every time I see a blog post title that goes “ten reasons why…” or “the seven principles of…” etc, a little piece of me dies and reincarnates as a berserker with a nasty case of blood lust.

Gestalt itself seems particularly fond of the number five for this sort of thing; hence Perls’ five layers of neurosis; Parlett’s five principles of field theory; and Clarkson’s five levels of relationship. I mean seriously, at least try some different numbers people!

Anyway, one of the things that makes me a gestalt therapist is my pre-disposition towards noticing what gets my hackles up, having an internalised therapist/supervisor/trainer jump up and declare ‘projection!’, and then crossing over to my dark side for a bit to see what it’s all about.

So here’s a festively themed list-based post about my irrational and visceral dislike for everyone’s favourite mince pie munching bearded reindeer abuser.

Four reasons I set man traps for Santa:

1) he is a patriarchal symbol of parental tyranny

2) he is a capitalist symbol of social control

3) he is an agent provocateur for the Coca Cola corporation

4) … this one’s a secret, shhhhhh!

Stick with me while I elaborate, it might just change your life…

1) he is a patriarchal symbol of parental tyranny

It’s Father Christmas, not Mother Christmas. Ok, so lip-service gets paid to gender equality by a number of films that do cast a Mother Christmas. But that actually serves to highlight the underlying patriarchal assumptions; Mother Christmas is always cut from the long-suffering-wife-whose-husband-is-a-really-important-public-figure cloth. It is Father Christmas who holds the power, and the power he holds is incredibly sinister.

You better watch out
You better not cry
You better not pout
I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town

Now, try (and unless you don’t recognise the song it’ll be hard) to read this as a threat. Because it is a threat. Try reading it out loud through gritted teeth. A bit extreme maybe, but the point is clear: you, child, had better start behaving in a manner that I consider to be good because an extremely powerful man is about to arrive.

He’s making a list,
Checking it twice;
Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.
Santa Claus is coming to town

That’s right kid, you’re going on a list. And this is a black and white kind of affair; you’ve either been naughty, or you’ve been nice. There is no in-between. There is no process of appeal. There is only Santa’s judgment. Oh, and just in case you thought you had any way of hiding from the man with the big white beard:

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake

That’s right; every second of every day, Santa is watching you. So be good for the sake of being good, because that is behaviour that Santa has been created to reward; actions that appear to be good. Niceness, that bland little alias for obedience to status quo.

And here’s what you get if you’ve been naughty (NB Tony is one of my cats. Yes, it’s a ridiculous name for a cat).

I labour this point because I consider it the principle point. Every time a parent tells their child ‘carry on like that and Father Christmas won’t be visiting this year’ to get them to obey, a vital message about society is being conveyed: obedience is good, disobedience is bad. Yet so often the people who hold social power and demand obedience are not people whose motivations and actions are all that good.

And of course, Father Christmas grants parents the vital tactic of deferred authority. It’s not me, it’s him; I’m just the messenger. Because the kids need to know how to get on the good list right? And they can’t ask Santa directly, so they need parental cues on what counts as good and what counts as bad. So the parents get to enjoy the authority conveyed by service to a higher power, at the same time as the comfort of delegated responsibility; it’s easier to implement a higher authority’s rules than to own and assert one’s own needs.

Remember, young kids think this stuff is real. They literally think that actual Father Christmas will punish them for being on the naughty list by withholding presents and only reward them with presents if they get on the nice list. Doesn’t that directly assert from day one that the child’s own nature is to some degree inherently unacceptable?

So, Father Christmas is a patriarchal symbol because he perpetuates male dominance of power. He is a symbol of parental tyranny because his function is to give parents an unaccountable deferred authority with which to condition children into obedience.

2) he is a capitalist symbol of social control

If you have kids, and do the Father Christmas thing, I’ve possibly just offended you deeply by implying that you are a tyrant. Soz. Most parents aren’t tyrants, and don’t use Father Christmas as an overt tool of tyrannical control. Unfortunately though, the effect remains the same; however benevolently Father Christmas is presented, he is still the arbiter of the getting of presents.

And there is one very good reason why Santa retains this power: commerce. The christmas shopping period is the retail occasion of the year. There are shops whose existence throughout the year depends on Christmas trade. That is, the profit they make in the run up to Christmas offsets the losses they make in the rest of the year. Watch in the New Year for businesses going into administration as a result of holding out for the Christmas revenues that didn’t come.

That’s a pretty powerful social pressure. Christmas is a vital economic stimulus; profits have always been at stake, meaning the interests of powerful people (it’s that 1% again!) are at stake, meaning a powerful controlling symbol is needed. That’s right, Father Christmas is in the pay of the corporate elite. This makes absolute sense; only multinational corporations can rival Santa’s ability to deliver presents worldwide in a single night without falling prey to the contradiction of timezones.

The point here is this: the vested interests that give the symbol of Father Christmas its power are corporate and motivated by profit. Just look at where the activity is focused; people queue to get into shops, empty the shelves of food, and fight each other to make sure their kid gets the must-have present of the year.

Now stop, breathe, and ask yourself: why does this happen? I’m serious, what’s the motivation here? Wasn’t the 25th December Christ’s official birthday last time I checked? For the record, I’m neither Christian nor driven by the need to labour the ‘but the Christians stole it from the pagans’ angle. All of that is somewhat irrelevant when we take gestalt’s here and now perspective and ask:

What is the need that mobilises all this action now?

My conclusion is that profit drives this action. Generally speaking, I do not observe families benefiting from Christmas. I do observe parents feeling an immense pressure to give their kids what they want for Christmas. I observe advertising telling kids what they should want for Christmas. I observe a level of activity that can only be described as manic taking place in retail centres; not a rush to attend church, not a desperate flailing to go home and play board games with family, but a frenetic stampede to buy stuff. And it’s all stuff that is largely not needed other than to live up to a collective idea of what Christmas should look like.

And Father Christmas is the lynch-pin. For one thing, he’s the symbol that many of us grew up with, so he now sits active in the psyche of many adults wanting to give their children the kind of Christmas they wanted and didn’t get (or worse, the sentimentalised Christmas they remember but that never actually happened). More importantly, he ensures that no parent is in any doubt that Christmas is about giving your children presents.

When your kids go back to school, the question will be: ‘what did you get for Christmas?’. Not, ‘don’t you think it’s ironic that our Government is forcing another 100,000 children into poverty at a time of year when we celebrate Christ being born in a stable?’. Not, ‘did you enjoy spending time with your family over the holiday period?’. But, ‘what did you get for Christmas?’. Because kids are authentic (that is, they respond to the actual situation) and they know what Christmas is really about.

So, Father Christmas is a capitalist symbol because he is the jolly bearded face that demands you shop like a maniac for the benefit of the wealthy few. He is a symbol of social control because his image demands action that is hard to disobey without attracting social disapproval.

3) he is an agent provocateur for the Coca Cola corporation

Holidays are coming, holidays are coming, holidays are coming…

There’s a nice overview of the history of Santa Claus on wikipedia. A brief synopsis of this would be:

Father Christmas started out life as a pagan symbol of the coming of spring. In time, this merged with the legend of a Christian Saint famed for making anonymous gifts to the poor. Under the influence of Victorian sentimentalism, the erstwhile variable form of Father Christmas crytsallised into the kindly old sleigh riding, present bearing bearded one we know today. Finally, Coca Cola popularised the red version.

Coca Cola say: “though some people believe the Coca-Cola Santa wears red because that is the Coke® color, the red suit comes from Nast’s interpretation of St. Nick”. A more accurate way of putting that would be: “some people believe the Coca-Cola Santa wears red because that is the Coke® color; this is true”. After all, the decision to use Nast’s interpretation of St. Nick will have included the rationale “it matches our corporate colour”.

And in the spirit of the imperialistic urges of multinationals, this corporately sponsored Father Christmas has so homogenised the celebration of Christmas, that a natural abundance of diversity in portraying the spirit of mid-winter has been largely wiped out. That’s right, Santa Claus is also a genocidal maniac.

He’s probably not really an actual agent provocateur though, I just put that bit in because it sounded good.

And finally…


Even ignoring the fact that our entire society collectively puts effort into lying to children, forcing inquisitive children to remain in the lie, and using social pressure to force parents into maintaining the lie, we are left with an undeniable truth:

The guy in the red suit sneaking around my home in the middle of the night is a burglar.

Upstanding pillar of the community, Secretary of State for Justice Ken Clarke says I can stab people for being burglars. In the light of the level of menace this man represents to society at large (Santa Claus, not Ken Clarke, though I’ll leave you to make your own judgment in the latter’s case), I am therefore justified in ensnaring him in jaws of merciless steel should he cross the threshold of my humble abode.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I set man traps for Santa.


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Final Fantasy VII rocked my world. It was a threshold moment for the Playstation as well as for a generation of gamers. And it’s an experience I come back to even now when I’m giving shape to my thoughts about therapy and human development.

Recently, I’ve been reading Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It’s a classic post-Jungian psychoanalytic work in which Campbell attempts to outline an archetypal hero’s journey that accounts for no less than every single myth ever created ever. It’s ambitious. His central hypothesis is that the hero’s journey is an archetypal pattern of psychological transformation that underlies all human experience. In Jungian analytical psychology, this would be part of the individuation process.

There is much that is jarring about Campbell’s account. For one thing, the hero’s journey is very male, being, as it is, a drawing out of the themes common to hero myths. Clearly, if we take the hero myths of patriarchal societies and look for their common themes, we’re unlikely to find much description of the psychological transformation of women beyond what is relevant to the transformation of male heroes. The section ‘woman as temptress’ is a case in point; the monomyth is both male and straight.

One of the ideas that does resonate with me, and one that strikes me as unisex, is that of the threshold guardian; the end of level boss.

The principle Campbell arrives at is that whenever the hero attempts to cross the threshold between known and unknown, he encounters a monster. Wandering beyond the village on a merry adventure? Monster. Straying from the royal road to explore the magic forest? Monster. Taking the ferry to Calais by yourself for the first time? You get the picture.

The two key points are: guardians stand at the threshold between your current level of development and the next; and the guardian curiously takes such a form that you can defeat it provided you stretch your abilities just beyond your capabilities. The threshold guardian forces an actualising of your potential.

This, of course, is exactly the principle of end of level bosses in computer games. To advance from one level to the next, you need to defeat the boss. To defeat the boss, you need to build up your powers and abilities during the level. Having defeated the boss, you tend to gain bonuses in the form of treasure, extra powers, and, in Final Fantasy VII and other RPGs, XP (experience points). Gain enough xp, and you level up; that is, your general range of skills and abilities increase.

Levelling up in real life involves a general expansion of ability and consciousness. Think of a job you started that was hard to get to grips with to start with, then progressively felt easier over time. Your end of level boss there would be any situation that challenges you to go beyond what you’re familiar with into a whole new realm of experience. Then one day, you’re presenting an arcane piece of strategy you’ve co-written to a senior committee and you get a flash of the first time you stood staring at the photocopier hoping you hadn’t just pressed the self-destruct button.

These are our modern day hero quests, and while their forms are potentially infinite, their basic structure (Campbell’s monomyth) seems reliably constant. The caveat I’d apply to Campbell’s monomyth is that he’s dealing with the archetypal structure of a masculine hero without acknowledging that there is no reason why the questing hero needs to be male. The questing hero represents a certain kind of energy and attitude, and I’ve known a fair few women who have embodied that energy!

Whilst in patriarchal myth and folklore there is often a theme of ‘woman as temptress’, this theme could be universalised simply as ‘temptation’. It is in the nature of the hero to encounter temptation because this is ultimately his/her encounter with his/her own as yet unintegrated kundalini (note the similarity between the serpentine associations of both temptation and kundalini).

The hero who hasn’t mastered his/her own essential lifeforce is doomed to be destroyed by it; the encounter with temptation is symbolic of the hero discovering that the figure of temptation is a reflection of the hero’s own erotic power; the heady charge of life that surges through each of our bodies. Just look at how many public figures have been undone by temptation of an essentially sexual nature! That is the fate of any hero who doesn’t master his/her kundalini; they will be powerless to resist it later on because, by definition, as they grow more powerful, so too does the strength of their kundalini intensify.

So then… how do you spot an end of level boss? Here is my four step guide:

1) Insufficient challenge

Eventually, a game becomes quite dull once your powers get to the point where everything in the level is easy to do. This is the clearest sign that it’s time to face an end of level boss. It’s like life saying ‘you’re done here, really you are, it’s time for the next level’. In computer games, that normally means it’s now so easy to kill or defeat all the bad guys running around that it’s almost not worth bothering. But that could equally apply to having no challenges left in your current job, or being bored of living in the same old town. Existential discontentment, dissatisfaction, and boredom; these are the symptoms of occupying a level you’ve completed and are ready to leave.

The person who is content with their lot in life simply doesn’t embark on any kind of quest. And whilst the monomyth deals with the more grandiose questing themes, the same principles can be applied in dramatically scaled down examples. The quest is always proportional to the hero, just like the end of level boss is always tough enough to demand that you develop your abilities in order to defeat it, yet always defeatable. Remember, part of the essential nature of the questing hero is that he/she is pretty much looking for trouble; the first sign that trouble is up ahead is when life in general starts to feel dull (like full on malaise; we’re not just talking Sunday afternoons here!).

2) The alluring unknown

End of level bosses are threshold guardians, so you’ll find them at the threshold between one level and the next. In left to right scrolling computer games, the threshold is simply the bit where the screen stops scrolling… that’s probably not very helpful for real life though. Usually, the gameworld will be set up in such a way that you need to get through the boss to get to the next part of the game.

In real life, this will be some unknown yet alluring aspect of life that calls to you as ‘the next step’. Basically, you’ll be trying to progress in some way. So then you ask yourself what you need to do to progress, and the answer has a great big but after it. That but? Most likely your end of level boss. In order to move from the dull situation you’ve outlived into the vibrant and alluring new situation you feel drawn to, there will be a threshold to cross, the boundary between the old and new.

That threshold is the quintessential bridge, beneath which the troll. As you prepare for some major transition from one chapter in your life to the next, keep an eye out for that end of level boss.

3) Bosses advance the plot

Assuming your life resembles a well made computer game, your end of level bosses should be plot-relevant. That’s one reason why you’re unlikely to ever need to slay a fire breathing dragon (I guess we could think of others but I’m keeping to a theme here!) though quite likely need to stand up to a tyrannical manager or face down a fear of public speaking to give a presentation.

There’s this bizarre idea that life somehow imitates art that seems to forget that life came first. Yes, there’s a feedback loop in which art imitates life which then imitates art which then imitates life etc. But a feedback loop stops when you take away the source, and the source in this case is life; no life, no art.

Hence, it can sometimes be fruitful to think to yourself ‘if my life was a novel, what would happen next?’. Of course, in gestalt theory, this can lead you into egotism; a modification to contact in which you become an observer of your experience instead of directly experiencing life. A simple experiment to show this would be:

Take five minutes in which you notice what you are experiencing in the third person. So, instead of ‘I can hear birds singing’ I would say ‘Simon can hear birds singing’. Whatever experience you have during the five minute experiment, report it (best out loud but thinking it works too) in the third person.

Notice the quality and intensity of your experience during this experiment; how do you feel experiencing in the third person? Then:

Take another five minutes. This time, notice what you are experiencing in the first person. So now it’s ‘I can hear birds singing’ and ‘I feel an itch on my arm’ and so on.

Notice the quality and intensity of experience during this experiment, and compare to the previous; do you notice any essential difference between the two? The first experiment involved using egotism to modify your contact with your experience; the second experiment involved making direct contact with your experience. Basically, egotism in gestalt means thinking about rather than being in the moment.

Contemplating the question ‘if my life was a novel, what would happen next’ takes you away from directly experiencing your life for a while. When this kind of pre-occupation dominates and leads to an inability to ‘let go’ and simply experience life, then we’re into the territory of stuck patterns and psychopathology (remember, that’s just an impressive way of saying ouch, it doesn’t mean you’re crazy). When it’s a choiceful shifting of focus from living life to contemplating life in order to enrich your living of life, then it’s exercising a form of wisdom.

If you let yourself daydream a bit about what kind of crisis/test/guardian you’re likely to come up against in making the transition from one stage to the next, you’ll probably end up with a clear idea of who/what your end of level boss will be. And if you’re a smart gamer, then having anticipated the nature of the end of level boss, you’ll be sure to train appropriately as the encounter approaches.

4) Cometh the hour

The approach of an end of level boss comes in two parts:

a) A flurry of challenges

In your classic adventuring hero type game, the adversaries you come across during the level get progressively harder as the level goes on. This is the game training you up, getting you more sophisticated at using whatever range of abilities your character has, and often allowing you to build the character’s power.

One sign you’re about to face an end of level boss is when every single adversary you’ve come up against so far gets thrown at you in rapid succession. ‘Oh ho’, says the game, ‘so you’ve worked out how to defeat those annoying little bouncing goblin things? Well how about twenty of them at once followed by a dozen of the big ones and three ninjas ahahahaha!‘.

Basically, the rate of every day challenge increases whilst the challenges themselves stay within the range you’re used to. The reports you’re writing aren’t any harder, they’re just coming in at a faster rate. The family issues are all the same old issues you’re familiar with, they’re just all happening at once.

If you find yourself in a flurry of challenges like this, it’s time to review the above and ask:

1) Am I insufficiently challenged (current flurry of challenges aside)?
2) Is there a significant change I’ve been wanting to make?
3) If my life was a novel what sort of encounter would bring this situation to a head?

If the answer to questions one and two is pretty much yes, then I’d really take some time to think about question three. Remember, a great way to build XP ahead of a big boss is to spend a few hours (game time, I have no idea how long that would be in real life) defeating lower level adversaries that live in the magic forest or wherever (Cartman does this to optimum effect in a memorable episode of South Park). I don’t know how helpful that advice is… I guess I’m just saying be prepared.

b) The calm before the storm

So… your life has become insufficiently challenged… you’ve identified the significant change you want to make and headed on over to the threshold… possibly you’ve written a novel that is essentially a psychodrama of your own spiritual development… and you’ve just come through an intense period of challenges familiar in nature but almost overwhelming in number.

Life seems at once calm yet poised… it’s like Zeus has just jumped up onto a cloud wielding a thunderbolt, and all the baddies have gone, ‘right you are then Mr Zeus, I’ll just go home and feed the little goblins shall I? Yeah, I’ll just be off then’. This leaves you, a brief period of calm, and an impending encounter with your end of level boss. The background music normally changes somewhere around now.

If you’re in an RPG, this gives you time to switch around the characters you’ll be taking into the encounter, or play around with the equipment you’re going to have to hand. There might even be a save point (I know what you’re thinking, ‘how the hell are you going to argue for a real life counterpoint to the save point?’. Well I’m working on it… I’m currently thinking Damasio’s somatic marker theory but that’ll need to be a separate blog post!).

In a left to right beat or shoot ’em up, this is simply the bit of time you get to crack your knuckles, massage out the cramps, and get ready for one last push. This is the five minutes sitting outside the office before being called in for your career advancing job interview.

End of level bosses are preceded by a flurry of challenges and then a brief calm precisely so that all the skills and abilities you need to defeat the boss are honed to precision, then rested just enough to regain energy without losing tone. End of level bosses want to be defeated because they are in fact disowned aspects of ourselves; in defeating the threshold guardian, we destroy (as in de-structure) something we experience as alien to ourselves in order to re-structure ourselves by assimilating our enemy.

Hence, in lots of RPGs, some adversaries have to be defeated in mortal combat in order to gain them as allies or bonus characters. Or in defeating an end of level boss, your character absorbs some of their power. Ie, you defeat the boss, then gain its powers/service.

Always always, the threshold guardian is what it is because it embodies in externalised form what we are doing to stop ourselves from crossing the threshold. That’s what makes it such a damn fearful challenge!

Armed with my four point guide, you should hopefully now be sufficiently prepared for seeing the advance of an end of level boss. As Fritz Perls would say: may the force be with you!

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Once upon a time, I was a philosophy student. Now I might be somewhat biased, but in my opinion, a philosophical training is an optimum preparation for psychotherapy training. This is no surprise when you consider that philosophy originally arose as an expression of humanity’s need to answer exactly the kinds of Big Questions that sit at the heart of much human suffering: how do I know the world is real? Is there life after death? What is the meaning of life? What *is* life?

For the ancient Greeks, philosophy was already a form of therapy. I translate philosophy as love of wisdom, philo being the love part, and sophia being the wisdom part. It can be rendered as love of knowledge, but I think this fails to capture the point of engaging in philosophy in the first place.

Philosophy isn’t about knowing stuff; it’s about becoming wise. If philosophical insight doesn’t lead to an enriched sense of being, then it is a grape that has withered on the vine. One of my most painful experiences during my studies of philosophy was realising that a disturbing proportion of academic philosophy was constituted of sour grapes! The main problem is that philosophy has been split in the West into the analytical or anglo-american tradition and the continental tradition. The former focuses on intellect, the latter on intuition.

In my opinion, wisdom is a fusion of the two. Possibly a discussion for another day.

One of the unique challenges about being a philosophy student is that every other student thinks they know what philosophy is. This invariably gets expressed in the following dialogue:

Other: So what are you studying?
Me: Philosophy.
Other: Ahhhhh, but if a tree falls in a forest when no one’s around does it make a sound?
Me: No, it doesn’t.
Other: … I need to go over there now.

There is a good reason for asking a question as preposterous as ‘if a tree falls in a forest when no one’s around does it make a sound?’. Which, of course, is to provoke the student into thinking about their assumptions. The point in this case being that sound is a sensation, and that sensation is created by the creature that experiences that sensation. When a tree falls in the forest, it makes vibrations in the air; these vibrations need to be converted into the experience of sound by one with ears to hear. If Alfred the Evil Scientist were to eradicate all beings capable of hearing from the universe, there would be no such thing as sound.

The point of the thought experiment is to provoke serious thought about the nature of sensation, and this is very important for the practice of psychotherapy. Has it occurred to you, for example, that absolutely everything you experience is your own creation? Seriously. I can hear a car’s engine right now. That means that vibrations in the air have reached my ear, vibrated some sensitive bones, rippled through some fluid, been converted into electric impulses, then been converted into the experience of sound by my brain.

Question: where is the sound of the car’s engine located?

Answer 1: In the car’s engine.
Answer 2: In the stretch of air between the car’s engine and my ear.
Answer 3: In my ear.
Answer 4: In my brain.

In a way, sound is located in all four places because all four places are needed in order for sound to be possible. The experience of sound, though, is located in my brain. I can locate with a good degree of accuracy where the source of the sound is, and experience the sound as existing over there. But that’s projection; I experience as coming from something else what is actually being created by me. Yes, the car’s engine is vibrating the air, but the form the experience takes is my creation. Hence why we can only hear sound waves within a certain range of frequencies; our auditory equipment has physical limits that shape what it is possible for us to experience.

Vibrations are not sound; vibrations are one causal factor in the creation of sound. If you experience sound in your dreams, where are the vibrations? Nowhere; you create the experience of sound.

This is why the gestalt idea of need configuring the field is so important; we create our experience of our environment. The experience we create is heavily shaped by our needs. As we make our way through the world we live in, there is an infinite scope for what could come to our attention. So why is it that we focus our attention on this thing here rather than that thing over there? Why am I writing a blog post about the link between philosophy and psychotherapy rather than some other subject? Why am I writing a blog post rather than doing one of a myriad other things that are possible for me right now? And so on.

The fundamental lesson of the tree falling in the forest is the insight that I create my experience of the world. Now, if you really want to explode your mind a second, just take a look around you. Everything you’re seeing is your own creation. Light has entered your eyes, impacted your retinas, been converted into electric impulses that have fired along your optical nerves into your brain where you have converted those impulses into the experience of sight.

The reason we get such a sense of awe and majesty when we stand in a high place and see a sprawling panoramic is, I think, because at some level we know that we are creating that panoramic for ourselves. Every experience we have is our own creation. Which means that the possibilities available to us at any given time are also our own creation. Philosophers get lost in academic wrangles about technical points because that’s what they need to do to sustain an academic career (publish or perish as the saying goes). The real purpose of philosophy is to be a vehicle by which, through contemplation, we arrive at insight, wisdom, and peace.

That said, every insight raises more questions. Such as, if I create my own experience, then what is the nature of the external source of that experience and how can I know that there is one? Gestalt’s answer is that all experience occurs at the contact boundary between my self and my environment. No vibrations, no sound. No creature capable of hearing, no sound. Not only do both exist together, but one cannot exist without the other. The very idea of vibrations in the air necessitates the existence of something that can conceive of such a notion. In order to conceive of such a notion, some phenomena must provoke the conception of such a notion. The two cannot be pulled apart.

Did you ever do the bar magnet and iron filings experiment at school? You take a bar magnet and place a piece of plain paper on top. Then you sprinkle iron filings over the paper. This makes the bar’s magnetic field visible.

This provides an excellent example of the contact boundary because it’s only possible to know of a field by giving shape to it, and the shape the field takes is determined in equal measure by the nature of the field and the nature of the medium the field is influencing. The two make contact and produce an experiential skin. And that gives rise to the gestalt concept of contact. Nothing has a ‘true nature in and of itself’ because nothing exists in and of itself, everything exists in, and is shaped by, some context.

Even the laws of physics fail to express the true nature of an objective reality independent of human experience. The very idea of a human being defining something that is independent of human experience is actually quite amusing because the very act of definition demonstrates the subjectivity of the thing defined; we must necessarily define it in human terms.

And that means that reality, human reality, isn’t just relative; it’s relational.

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This post has been moved to my new website. You can find it here: dream a little dream of me.

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Among the many contentious ideas and concepts in psychotherapy is a particularly tricky concept called projective identification. At least, it’s been made out to be a particularly tricky concept; I’m not so sure that it is. Considering the phenomenon the concept is meant to describe, there is a great irony for me in the contention that surrounds it. This contention, I contend, is actually a case in point.

I’m going to rename projective identification as social dysmorphia. This isn’t a purely cosmetic exercise, but a cosmetic rehabilitation exercise. In a similar way to high profile criminals who, having been vilified relentlessly by the press, have their appearance cosmetically altered to allow them a new life, I hope to give projective identification social dysmorphia a chance to start a new life of its own, rehabilitated within the warm glow of gestalt’s field theoretical outlook.

To understand this concept, you simply need to contemplate the phrase: give a dog a bad name.

In google searching this phrase, I was pleased to find an explanation that actually captures my understanding of social dysmorphia very well. It may or may not be accurate, but it fits:

A catchphrase meaning that if one has acquired a bad reputation one will never be able to lose it. The full proverb is ‘Give a dog an ill name and hang him’, which can be interpreted in two ways: ‘If you can succeed in giving someone a bad name you will destroy him’ and ‘If someone has got himself a bad name he is as good as destroyed’.

In short, social dysmorphia is what happens when a person is shaped by a social situation to be something they are not because it’s what other people expect them to be. The idealisation of celebrities is a form of social dysmorphia; no one can live up to the expectations placed on a celebrity, but many celebrities fall into the trap of responding to the expectation. That’s the social dysmorphia trap: intense expectations are placed on someone by someone else, and the person with the expectations placed on them is moulded by them into something they don’t really want to be.

Projective identification has been a problematic concept because it involves the idea of one person (the client) putting disowned emotions into another person (the therapist) such that the therapist is then ‘forced’ by the client to feel something that isn’t theirs. Understandably, psychotherapy has reacted against this psychoanalytic concept because it sets up an easy exit for therapist responsibility: my client made me do it.

However, projective identification does attempt to describe an inter-personal process. When shifted into a field theoretical framework and considered as a social force, it starts to make a lot of sense. Social dysmorphia is the process of giving a dog a bad name in order to hang him (and viewed the other way round, it’s the process of getting a bad name in order to be hanged).

Have you ever walked into a social situation in which you didn’t know anyone but they already had an expectation of who you would be? Maybe you were the relative of someone and were introduced to their friends for the first time (‘oh we’ve heard all about you!’). Or you’ve done/said/made/written something and been introduced to a group of people who are familiar with your work (‘you’re something of a celebrity round here’). Or you simply happen to be placed in a category of person that has attracted the ire of a group (‘your sort ain’t welcome round here’).

The point is, when a person or group of persons have constructed a strong idea of who and what you are, they will project that idea onto you the moment they meet you (hence ‘projective’). And because we are social animals, part of you will respond to the expectations in order to fit in (hence ‘identification’). You’ll be invited to behave in a manner that resonates with the internalised version of you, and on some level you will feel a pull to behave in exactly that way. You’ll find yourself acting in ways that feel alien but that nonetheless you can’t seem to help because you’re not pretending, you’re actually feeling what you’re acting out of. You’re suddenly irritated with people despite being a fairly easy going person, or you’re suddenly really slack about things that you’ve always taken so seriously. And, importantly, you can’t account for the change. It feels like something has been done to you.

That’s social dysmorphia; the simple relational process of responding to expectation. In this way, husbands and wives transform into their spouse’s fathers and mothers; perfectly good managers transform into tyrants; and well-meaning therapists transform into the one person their client doesn’t want in the room.

One answer, of course, is to change your name, change your face, move far away and never come back… except these days you’ll probably get tracked down on Twitter.

An alternative answer is to know thyself. If you can become familiar with what the process of social dysmorphia feels like, and if you can gain a good awareness of the needs in you that serve as hooks for pulling you into those alien feelings and responses, then you can at least see it coming. Co-creation is an empowering idea here. You can choose to not respond in the ways you feel driven to respond in. The only way to then break the spell is to draw attention to it and (here’s the killer bit) hope everyone’s willing to let go of the co-created illusion.

And that part really is a killer, because it’s hard to give a dog with a bad name a better name. Look at how many people come out of young offender units or prisons with more criminal tendencies than when they went in. Or people who are hospitalised for mental health reasons and never make it out again, having swapped a fragmented sense of self for the relative stability offered by their clinical diagnosis.

I’ve often heard phrases like ‘now I’m not a racist, some of my good friends are black, but ‘. Projection is a modification to contact, meaning it’s a way of avoiding being in true contact with another person. Someone with strongly held racial prejudices will project a hostile image onto anyone fitting their idea of that race. When presented with the contradictory reality of the actual person behind the projected racial mask, the prejudices tend to fall away. But often that’s only as an exception to a general rule that remains comforting and keeps the projection alive.

Social dysmorphia is a natural extension of the human urge to be shaped by social forces, to find one’s place in the inter-personal realm. Its co-creation relies on a refusal by both sides to enter into contact, a reliance on the modified contact of projection over the full, vibrant, and often painful contact of two fully subjective human beings making and holding a connection with each other. If I view you as powerful because I find it easier to adopt a position of weakness, and you prefer feeling powerful, then together we will create an illusion in which you are powerful and I am weak. Then I can enjoy the comfort of all my familiar creative adjustments; I don’t have to accept the challenge of realising that I too am powerful and that you too are weak. Better the devil you know after all.

And that’s why I want to rehabilitate projective identification as a concept; because it’s useful, and in a gestalt setting it doesn’t allow for the abdication of therapist responsibility. Instead, we can talk about what both me and my client do to co-create a certain situation. And this is just a magnified version of what takes place in human interaction generally; the therapy situation is the social situation in microcosm.

Making good contact with ourselves, other people, our environment, is an active process. In a society in which much of our energy is focused on sustaining economic vitality, there is often not much left over for putting in the effort it takes to make and maintain contact with other people. Projections are easier to engage with because they are familiar, predictable, and ultimately under our control. And it can be easier to identify with what someone else is projecting onto us because if making good contact takes energy, imagine the energy it takes to challenge the projection that is blocking that contact! Sometimes it’s easier to go ‘fine, if you say I’m bad then I’ll just be really bad!’.

So I offer up a new life to projective identification as social dysmorphia. And if you’re worried by all that give a dog a bad name stuff, remember: you’re not a dog, that’s just my projection!

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