Systems, Judgment, and Experimentation (Oceans and Inverted Twister)

I find the following analogy very helpful to explain some concepts. And I’d like to connect some analogous dots.

Systemic vision and judgment are mutually exclusive.  It is impossible to judge something (or someone) when you can see the way it fits into the larger picture, embedded within connections that make any other configuration impossible or, at best, improbable.  When student counselors are taught the Rogerian foundations (Counseling 101) of positive regard, nonjudgment, unconditional acceptance, etc.,  it’s often a stretch.  The counselor has to *try* to be nonjudgmental.  They have to disconnect from their judgment (vision) in order to *try* to connect with their client in a nonjudgmental way.  If the counselor continues to study systems, this [need to] disconnect begins to disintegrate.  Things just make more sense.  The counselor doesn’t have to *try* to be nonjudgmental because there’s nothing left to judge.  PHG talk about this in describing contact.  In contact, things just seem “inevitable” or “just right,” they say.  The more we are in true contact with our clients (and with life in general) judgment actually becomes impossible – or, rather, loses its function / becomes useless.

So here’s the analogy I want to use to describe systemic vision: if you look at the waves in the ocean, there is no way to locate a beginning point or an ending point, a cause or an effect, a do-er or a do-ee, an isolated part from the rest of the parts.  It is simply in flow.  It is completely connected.  All of the parts are moving in relation to all of the other parts.  One can’t ‘judge’ a singular wave and say ‘it shouldn’t have happened that way’.  When you see the whole: of course that wave is going to happen exactly the way it did.  It is simply just happening.  (The ocean also lends itself wonderfully for an analogy of ‘figure and ground’ – wave and nonwave – being made up of the same stuff (“self”) – and also in flow, inseparable, and inverse-able/relative. But that’s another post.)

Now let’s shuttle back to the application of therapy…  and let’s continue with analogies.

Are you familiar with the game of Twister?  Please imagine ‘inverted twister’.  Imagine a playground: monkey bars and other hanging apparatuses.  I’m picturing something like a rock-climbing-wall in a gym, only it’s parallel to the ground so you’re actually hanging parallel, belly up, with your feet, knees, elbows and hands holding and weaving onto certain pieces according to the colors of the inverted twister.  Very uncomfortable.  It’s this discomfort that brings a person to therapy – and the “stuck-ness!”  Inverted twister may have been going ok for a while (and the person is, without a doubt, performing with their best effort) but then a certain combination of color patterns presents itself, knees wrapped over this, ankle tucked under that, arm across one bar to grab onto the other bar, etc.  The configuration started to make any subsequent movement impossible / improbable.  The person is stuck and uncomfortable to say the least.  If we wanted to say more, we could certainly add ‘scared’ and ‘losing hope,’ I’m sure.  Again, this is when a person might choose to enter therapy to get some outside assistance.

I would hope no one would judge this person.  They have been giving their best efforts, responding to the color configurations presented (aka life), and moving along until they got stuck.  To return to the ocean analogy, we see how all of the movements up until now make sense.  We can’t look at any one piece of the picture and say ‘it shouldn’t have happened that way.’  The same with the wave: ‘yeah, of course it happened exactly the way it did.’  Without systemic vision in place, a counselor might think, ‘look at his arm! It’s wrapped under his knee, turned backwards and then only holding on with two fingers! Of course that’s not going to work,’ (with judgment) not seeing the larger picture of the interconnectedness.  Without systemic vision, a person/counselor also can’t see how the arm going under the knee actually supports the leg to keep the ankle wrapped around a different bar.  The counselor says, “just take that arm out and grab onto this bar over here!  You’ll be much more comfortable!”  The client tries and either falls off or simply can’t.  Counselor gets frustrated. Client gets frustrated/confused/shamed.  Client drops out of therapy. Counselor rationalizes, “that person just wasn’t ready for therapy.”

This is largely where the ‘gestalt experiment’ comes into play.  In gestalt therapy, we value (we understand the power of) the interconnectedness and we are interested in the ‘whole’ and in the ‘configuration’.  We want to see how parts relate to other parts to determine the whole of the functioning.  This is the gestalt approach to the unfortunate stuck individual on the inverted twister:

“Hmm.  Yes, you are stuck indeed.” “I am going to stand right here with my arm right here so that you can’t fall and we can take a look at things together.” (There is a fundamental supportiveness within gestalt therapy.) “Now you feel more secure, right?  Good.  Now, what happens if you try to wiggle this finger, does it move?” “Ok. I also see your shoulder is able to rotate a little bit, what’s it like for you to do that?” “Great.  Where do you feel the most range now? That knee? Ok, great, go for it.. what happens when you shift it?” “Are you happy with how your wrist is positioned? Or is it worth playing with that as well?”

There is an understanding that the configuration is paramount and that the work is investigative and experimental, both in the service of learning and developing, opening new options, harnessing creativity.  We value full range of motion and aware choice.  We don’t like stuck.  We want twister to be fun and meaningful.

Lastly, this term will probably show up a lot in this blog but I’ll make the first mention now: “response-ability.”  Gestalt is an existential therapy and in existential philosophy there’s the idea of “responsibility,” the acknowledgment of the authorship/ownership of one’s existence.  Gestaltists (Fritz first, I believe) have played with that term and broke it up into “response-ability.”  This works very well with the inverted twister analogy (life).  We can’t always choose the colors that are presented.  We choose our responses.  Earlier when I said, ‘we value full range of motion and aware choice,’ another way of saying that is, ‘we want people to have full abilities.’  The greater our abilities, the more apt we are at responding to the color configurations that life presents.  Sometimes the color configurations are ugly.  But we can be response-able.


About Kip Watkins, MSEd, NCC, LPC

Kip is a Nationally Certified Counselor and Licensed Professional Counselor in Midtown, Harrisburg. He earned his Bachelor's Degree from Saint Vincent College and his Master's Degree from Duquesne University. Passionate about existential and systemic modes of therapy, he completed the post-graduate program at the Gestalt Institute of Pittsburgh. He deeply enjoys his work with his clients and he also loves helping other clinicians have more meaning and joy in their work.