Psychological Debt, Saturation, and Autonomy

I believe happiness is earned.

In the same way we can accumulate wealth in a financial sense, we can accumulate happiness. In the same way we can go into debt financially, we can go into debt emotionally.  It’s amazing how getting a new gadget/car/boat with debt is identical to using drugs to feel good: it’s a fake sense of having earned something – or a fake sense of owning something.  Then we become a slave to the ‘something’ because there are certain measures we need to do in order to keep making payments.   This is identical to addiction.  Addiction is a loan with a terrible interest rate.   The happiness that comes from getting high will need to be repaid with interest and you’ll have even less than you did before.

It’s really important to understand the debt concept for your sense of wellbeing.  “Yeah, I’d like to feel better right this second, but am I fully accepting how it’s going to make me feel even worse eventually?”   It’s unlikely to have that thought (but it would be nice).  The more likely thought could be planted afterwards.  It’s in the trust of the cleaning-power of time: “yeah, I feel awful right now as I’m repaying my emotional debt, but I know if I keep making payments and I refuse to go even further into debt and take out another loan, I’ll eventually straighten things out and can build some wealth happiness.”

There are also two other concepts worth noting: ‘saturation’ and ‘autonomy’.

Saturation is one of the saddest psychological phenomena I’m aware of.  It basically means “getting used to how you feel.”   The term is used most often when talking about sleep.  After a small dose of sleep deprivation, we can tell we’re not firing on all cylinders.  We feel groggy and we look forward to catching up on rest.  If we let that level persist, we’ll lose the awareness that our cylinders aren’t firing and we’ll get used to it.  It’ll become the new status quo and we’ll forget we don’t feel very good.  It’s the new normal and we lose sight of better.  Saturation is also mentioned a lot when talking about hydration.  It is literally forgetting life can be better. Isn’t that awful?

For myself, considering the type of work I do, I think about it mostly in terms of substance use rather than hydration or sleep (people don’t generally come into my office and tell me how they’re having a difficult time staying hydrated.. lol).  Whenever I have a full dose of depressants in my blood – or when I’ve slowly built up too much of a tolerance to coffee – I’ll start thinking, “ugh.  This is what a huge portion of the population feels like. That is terrible!”  Fortunately, my compulsive side doesn’t settle for less-than-awesome, so I’ll put some work into shifting the status quo back to where I feel amazing.  Saturation doesn’t have a chance to take over.  That’s not the case for everyone.  That’s why, to me, saturation is one of the saddest phenomena out there.  It’s not on people’s radar and it sneaks in.  My intent in these paragraphs is to put it on your radar, stir up the part of you that wants more, and to encourage you to do the hard work of repaying your emotional debts.

Lastly, to return fully to the analogy of psychological wealth building: ‘autonomy’.

Sometimes when a person starts to catch the scent that the idea of psychological growth is a movement towards autonomy (becoming more “needless”), they will attempt to jump prematurely towards autonomy.  This is a near-perfect analogy to financial wealth as well.  It’d be sweet to be “independently wealthy,” right?   That’s a strong financial goal.  But a person can’t simply immediately choose to be independently wealthy.  We have to get out there and make it happen – working hard – making deliberate decisions – making sacrifices.   We have to fulfill the needs in order to reach the destination of being independently wealthy.  The same is true with psychology.  We can’t just decide to be autonomous.  We have to put the work in to get our needs met… then we are closer to autonomy.   It would actually be an obstacle (or it will completely stop you) on the path to autonomy if you prematurely act autonomous and needless.  It’s analogous to calling your job and saying, “you know what? I don’t need my paycheck this week.  Keep it.”  That’s probably not going to help your financial goals, right?  In the same way, acting autonomous doesn’t help your psychological goals.  The needs need met.  Ignoring them makes them last longer.  “What you resist persists.”

Take care of yourselves.  Repay your debts (don’t take out emotion-loans with high interest rates).  And let your needs move you.







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?

Tracking Awareness and the Meaning of Life

There’s a fundamental “exercise” in gestalt – Gestalt 101, if you will. We jokingly call this the ‘gestalt muscle’. Like any other muscle, the more you use it the stronger it gets and, if you don’t use it, you lose it. The phrase, “Here is where the beginner begins and the master ends,” is very applicable to this muscle.

The exercise is to repeat this phrase: “Now I am aware of [fill in the blank].” You simply track your awareness and keep repeating the phrase and filling in the blank with whatever you’re aware of. At the Center, we’re very strict about getting the exact wording during our Structured Groups. If you change the wording, you’re no longer doing the exercise. Simple enough, right?

It’s so deceivingly simple that people often ask, after their first round of about 8 seconds, “what was the point of that?” (Sometimes they might be angry, confused or disappointed when they ask.)

Polarities are fascinating and this one is one of my favorites. On one hand, what is the meaning or purpose of life? On the other hand, what was the point of that silly exercise? Those are the same questions.

To do this exercise – your gestalt muscle – you are tapping into the highest expression and location of your energy in that very moment in time. You are touching your most powerful potentiality. We don’t exist in any other moments other than right now and to clearly locate your precise energies at the precise moment when they’re available is the very peak of your existence (at that moment).  While doing the exercise, it’s your largest truth and your fullest self – attempting to move with the energies of the universe – in those moments. Unless you’re already objecting to the things I just typed, it naturally follows to ask, “so what?” hence, the meaning and purpose of life.  If that’s your truest and fullest self in those moments, then what?  What’s the point of being a person in the first place?  What are we supposed to do while we’re here? What’s the meaning of life?  What’s the point of “having an awareness”?