Developing Awareness as Tool for Change

If Insight is the holy grail of Psychoanalysis, “Awareness” is the goal of Gestalt Therapy.  Insight is the cognitive understanding of how the past may inform the present, or the “why’s” of our actions. Insight tells us why we are angry at our partners because of a past wound inflicted upon us by our mother, etc.   While insight is important, it is much like watching a baseball game on television. We can see the action, but can’t “feel” the action.  And if aren’t fully aware of our process, particularly at the contact boundary it is hard to grow.

For the Gestalt Therapist, “Awareness” is a 3D experience. It’s the roar of the crowd at the ballpark, the smell of hotdogs lathered in mustard, and the crunch of used peanut shells under our feet.  Insight can happen in the present, but Awareness is the present. It is not something that happens now. It is now.  And ideally, it happens in the therapy hour, in the “Dialogue” between the therapist and client. Awareness is not something the therapist does to the client, but rather is co-created in the field and an offspring of true “Contact.”

Awareness has been called a valuable tool that offers us the possibility of “choice.”  Perls would often say that Awareness offers us “response-ability,” with an emphasis on the word response.   If we are unaware of our process and how we are in the world, particularly at the point of “contact” with the environment, then we are prone to contact disturbances, living through the default gestalts from the past.

Other disturbances of Contact besides Introjection are as follows:

  1. Confluence: The idea of fusion, where one organism does not differentiate from the other but becomes fused with them. Thus the self is diffuse and not independent.  I have a 20 year old male client now that is enmeshed with his mother to the degree that when I asked him, “Who was more important? Him or His mother?”… he could not answer.  His own sense of self was stunted, with all the resources directed at her needs. Her significant anxiety impacted him to such a degree that they were like Siamese twins. If she was anxious, he became anxious—and thus he spent considerable time figuring out how to reduce her anxiety (for his own benefit). Since they were both equally important to each other’s survival, the death or illness of one, could destroy the other. This is unhealthy confluence.  Confluence can be supportive and effective if combined with healthy withdrawal or disconnection.  This is the essence of sexual intercourse. This cycle of connection (confluence) and withdrawal has been framed as a healthy model for couples by the Resnicks. The Resnicks also have a saying about uynhealthy confluence (or fusion) in couples…. “Two Becomes One and Then None.”
  2. Retroflection: Retroflection is the idea that the individual’s needs are called back, just at the point of contact boundary with the environment. Like a very important letter stamped “return to sender,” except the sender stamps these words himself! A need or gestalt forms, but at the point of scanning the environment (or earlier in some cases) the individual doesn’t feel the self-support to engage the motor activity needed to meet the.  Some cultures practice Retroflection often and this can be healthy and productive for the continuation of the species—particularly where resources are scare like on islands. Both the English and the Japanese are known for their polite language where anything uncomfortable or threatening is retroflected and not communicated to the other. Interestingly New York City is an island but nothing seems retroflected. Retroflection is often, but not always, combined with introjection. A fixed rigid belief is held about the self or other that prevents the individual from meeting the environment authentically.
  3. Projection: Projection involves the unowned parts of ourselves that we are unaware of and are overwhelming our current system of self-support.  Like a toxic bacteria, these thoughts and feelings threaten our systemic homeorhesis, and so we discard them, projecting them out onto another host.  This prevents healthy connection at the contact boundary. How can we truly connect if the projected thoughts create instability in the environment? It’s like a woman eagerly looking for a partner but afraid that the men she meets are planning to abandon her eventually.  And so she ends the burgeoning relationships prematurely, confusing the men that were genuinely interested in a long-term relationship. As in this case, projected thoughts are often negative, seeing the other as evil or mean or dangerous—but not always. We can project onto others our unowned greatness.  Who hasn’t attributed unwarranted positive feelings to a celebrity or athlete? Helping the client become aware of the projected thoughts and the parts of themselves that they have not owned yet is the key to working with projection. Empty chair work has been used effectively to build awareness around projections. The therapist must also be committed to accepting the projection if it falls upon him or her as a means to create deeper awareness in the client.
  4. Deflection: A client’s boundaries may be impermeable or he or she doesn’t have the self-support to be vulnerable. Thus, a shield is placed at the contact boundary that prevents the environment from contacting with the other.  Humor is often used as a means to deflect from the environment. Turning away or ignoring a child that is having a tantrum may be an effective means of deflecting from a charged figure.