Power, the Structure of Therapy, and Existential Responsibility

These thoughts and connections were fueled from something I came across in which a therapist was advocating for the use of workbooks and activities in order to, “make sure we get somewhere.”

I love both gestalt philosophy and gestalt therapy so I am going to take that phrase and hold it under some gestalt lenses.

The “somewhere” gestalt wants “to get” is: Here. Now.


*The power is in the present.*

Gestalt unapologetically wants to make its clients more powerful. In the past, I imagined one day opening a practice called “Power and Peace.” I appreciate how those words complement each other and seem to express the polarity of the *centrality* of peacefulness and a *reach* of power.  (Saying the “power” alone makes it sound like we want a bunch of narcissists or Napoleons running around?)  Psychological growth really seems like it’s made up of centralizing and expanding.

The reason the power is in the present is because it’s the only time we can DO anything. The past and future are extremely important too, but with a key difference. We can’t DO anything in the past. We can’t DO anything in the future.  Our power is within what we can do – what we can create.  The only time we can do anything is now. Here. Where you are. You can imagine doing something 5 minutes from now, but that’s you, now, imagining. If you’re under water, you can imagine breathing all you want but it won’t do you any good.   You need actual movements towards actual air.  I was really struck the first time I read PHG say, “the wholly inadequate motions of thinking.”  I was probably offended.  I treasure(d) my thinking.

Therefore, one of the results of gestalt therapy is the consistent movement closer and closer to the now. Closer and closer to one’s power. And also closer and closer to one’s peace. It reminds me of the phrase, “the only zen you find at the top of a mountain is the zen you bring.” The task is to learn how to appreciate the now. The better we do at that task, the less it matters what’s actually happening in the now.  This touches some ontological stuff – the appreciation or even amazement that this (life) is even happening.  This is a child-like quality that unfortunately a lot of us lose.  Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning is a great place to jump-start this concept.

So you see how the words look through that lens? Using a workbook “to make sure we get somewhere”… do we want to get better at living in workbooks? Not from a gestalt perspective. We want to get better at living in the now.  The now is where you can do things.  The now is where you can have fun.  The now is where you can find meaning.  The now is where you actually are.

The other key piece that ties in is the structure of therapy. From an existential perspective, the therapeutic growth is the increase of “responsibility” of authorship of one’s life: Yes, this is my situation. Yes, I have created it. Yes, I am responsible for what happens next.  Carl Whitaker said, “you’re responsible for what happens, not for what you say you wanted to happen.”

The benefit of leaving the canvas of the therapeutic structure blank for a client to use (as opposed to a workbook) is it’s the microcosm and bridge for the same concept in the general, larger (scarier, harsher) sense. By having a client *feel* the structure-less-ness, it provides a *safe* opportunity to examine the relation between creative-self and empty-canvas. It’s such a heavy relation. It’s such a scary idea that we’re creating our one chance at existence. A “structureless” therapy (a blank canvas) lets the client get the feel of the paintbrush, to splash around with paints, to begin to get mastery over certain types of strokes and previously unknown colors, to examine the painting and make critical decisions about its aesthetic satisfaction – to look at how and when the client turns away from the canvas or drops the paintbrush – and then supports the client in the often painful task (there’s always a good reason we drop the paintbrush) of picking it back up. The existential responsibility is the sense of holding the paintbrush and being open to the possibility you created the painting.

On the flip side, let’s go a layer deeper into this and weave.  It’s a paradox – or at least a misnomer – to say the therapy is structureless.  The interplay of canvas and paintbrush is the structure.  It’s a very specific structure.  And the therapist is very deliberate and heavy-handed in providing the canvas and examining the relation of creative-self and empty-canvas.  That’s the therapist’s one and only agenda.  Interestingly, what ends up on the canvas is the agenda of the client.   So, said in a different way, the therapist’s agenda is in support of (or at least in relation to) the client’s agenda.  It’s this interweaving of agendas Whitaker refers to when he talks about purposely “winning” the Battle for Structure and purposely “losing” the Battle for Initiative.  To put the therapist’s energies into words, it’s something like: “hey, we’re going to be examining your creative power and we’re not going to be doing anything other than that” (winning the Battle for Structure) while also: “in the end, I deeply believe you know what’s best for you.  I’d like you to be consistently fine-tuning your ability to check inwards to find your truths, so I’m not going to tell you what to do with your paintbrush.  Your paintbrush is yours and yours only.  And I’m really happy to support you while we play around with the difficult brushstrokes you’ve been hoping to improve” (losing the Battle for Initiative).

Here are two separate PHG quotes which will take us full circle back to power.  The first one contrasts on the continuum of “existential responsibility” and the second one is very clear about how we want our clients to be powerful.  (“Weapons” is a pretty powerful word, yes?)

“An unknown number, perhaps a majority, believe they would have no troubles if the world would just treat them right. A smaller contingent does have, at least at times, a vague recognition that they themselves are responsible for the ills that beset them, at any rate in part, but they lack techniques for coping with them.” Techniques for coping?  How about psychological weapons:  “We wish to strengthen and supply [the client] with more effective weapons.”

How strong do you feel?  Do you feel like you have the weapons necessary to handle your current obstacles?  What brushstrokes are you being challenged to make?  What parts of your situations are you deeming outside of your control?


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.