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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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