Indirect vs Direct Coping – How Do They Fit With Avoidance?

Sometimes therapists will “teach coping skills.”  I was about halfway through grad school, all jazzed up about counseling, when I changed from a behavior modification service (BHRS) to a therapy service (FBMHS).  Excited about the opportunity to work more deeply with people, I remember vividly being surprised when I heard several of my colleagues talk about “coping skills.” It took me a while before I had the ability to articulate why this was rubbing me in a weird way.

“Teaching coping skills” is a collusion of avoidance.

Therapists teach coping skills for the same reason clients avoid confronting their situations:

It’s a fear of not being able to change the problem – a fear of being consumed by the problem, in essence killed by the problem – a feeling of inadequacy and hopelessness.  Those are all really good reasons to avoid a problem!  If there’s a chance it’ll kill you, by all means avoid it!

So when people talk about coping skills, they’re often agreeing that the best idea is avoidance and maintenance of the status quo.

Let’s closely examine the concept of “coping” and let’s break it down into two categories:  “indirect coping” and “direct coping.”  It’s important to be skilled in both categories and it’s also important to see the difference between the two so you can choose mindfully and make sure you’re not settling for less than what you’re capable of.

An indirect coping skill is if my boss makes me angry and I go home and sprint a mile to blow off steam – or my dog dies and I have a beer – or my sister yells at my child so I beat up a punching bag. These aren’t necessarily unhealthy. Exercise is good and sometimes a beer really hits the spot. The only downside to indirect coping is if we never consider direct coping.  Indirect coping skills don’t actually change anything about the problem that’s causing the need for coping.

To go a step further, sometimes indirect coping skills can cause a more serious problem when it turns cyclical: being tired so I have a cup of coffee – being broke so I take out a loan – being mad at my boss so I yell at my wife, etc.

Direct coping skills, on the other hand, is a confrontation of the problem: an approach to the thing that’s causing the discomfort. It could be internal or external.

External: approaching the boss or the sister and trying to come to a resolution. Doing “chair work” to my dog and saying how much I miss him and I hope he had a great life.

Internal: searching myself to see why the boss bothers me so much. What are the self-concept messages that get activated? Examining myself to see if I have unresolved things with sister from before my child was even born.

Again, neither coping style is inherently better than the other. When we’re functioning optimally, they’re usually intertwined: like an indirect coping skill (deep breath) in order to gather my thoughts in order to do a direct coping skill (approach my sister to ask her to consider the impact she’s having on my child).

Let’s go back to the therapy side of things. We often utilize indirect coping skills when we don’t believe we have a fighting chance against the actual problem. If I feel hopeless that I won’t be able to create any change towards my sister, I won’t take the risk. If I feel inadequate in my interpersonal skills or in my value as an employee, I won’t approach my boss in order to try and make change. So when therapists “teach coping skills” (usually meaning the indirect kind), they’re often accidentally communicating to the client: “I don’t think you (or I) have what it takes to solve the actual problem and make things lastingly better for you.” Bummer, right? This is also closely connected to the difference between intervening to “treat the symptom” versus “treating the problem.”

The last crucial piece is the very-hard-to-reach attitude of viewing problems as opportunities. This is so difficult to do in real life. It’s much easier to type about while drinking coffee.

It goes something like this:

Each problem is an opportunity. Each problem is a lesson about yourself to teach you where you’re vulnerable to get your peace, joy, and grace stolen. Each problem shows you the perfect template for the exercises you need to do in order to strengthen the whole of your personality. Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” is a great resource to keep this part of you burning.

In sum, it’s important to recognize the difference between “direct” and “indirect” coping. And it’s important to really ask yourself how much change you think you can make.  If we only do indirect coping, we’re still spending a lot of energy… but the overall configuration doesn’t change.  Are you avoiding certain exercises? Are you selling yourself short? Is it worth the risk? Is there a growth opportunity if you directly confront the problem?

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Exploration, Choice, and Payoff (an examination of the phrase, “I’m good at helping others but I can’t help myself.”)

I’ll occasionally come across the phrase, “I’m good at helping others but I can’t help myself.”  I want to break this down a little bit and highlight a few concepts.

If we hold the first part of the phrase under a microscope, here’s how it looks: “I’m good at listening to a person’s situation, making an assessment of their available options, and then giving them advice about what they should do next.”

There is nothing wrong with that.  That’s what some therapists do.  And it helps some people.  The downside is the frustration in the second part: that they “can’t help themselves.”

Here’s how the frustration looks under a microscope: “When I examine my own situation, I usually come up with advice for myself about what I should do.  But then I run into some serious difficulty in following through with the plan.  I can’t get myself to do what I should do.”

So let’s check this out.

It’s a problem of exploration, choice, and payoff – and ultimately, like everything else, energy flow.  To put it another way, it’s an insight problem followed by a stalemate of energy and behavior.

Whenever we fully want to do something, we move into it with grace, ease, passion, interest, care, eagerness (and many other really positive sounding words).

Whenever we partially want to do something, the behavioral flow loses some of its power and force.  The more partial it is, the harder it is to follow through with the task.  If I partially want to get my paperwork done but I partially want to go to bed, it’s going to be pretty hard to get my paperwork done.  If going to bed ends up trumping the paperwork (51% bed, 49% paperwork) then I’m going to bed.  I might not be able to sleep because some of me still wants to have my paperwork done.  Makes sense, right?  It’s pretty straightforward: desires come in percentages.  Some desires compete.  The largest one wins.  Unfortunately (in this culture – for most people – and arguably even due to the human condition) the times when we have a desire that has 100% fullness are rare.  Desires spend most of their time in conflict with other ones.

There’s a big difference between a “should” and a “want.”  A “should” is an encryption.  It keeps you from knowing the exact number of the percentage of “want.”  It conceals/hides the valuable data.  That’s why we encrypt things… to conceal the actual data.

People become a lot sturdier and free-flowing once they explore their personalities, find the “shoulds,” and become hackers: unencrypting them and uncovering the valuable data of the actual percentages.  Some “shoulds” become high-percentage-wants and they’re so much easier to flow with.  Some “shoulds” become low-percentage-wants and they can be more easily disregarded.  The tougher ones are when the percentages are close (like my bed-to-paperwork example).  When the percentages are close, that’s where we’ll feel stuck because any movement will be the loss of a huge chunk of energy/desire.  If I choose the 51% winner, that’s 49% of myself that’s not on board.  That’s a big loss of fuel!

So let’s head back to the “I can’t help myself” example.  Let’s also define “advice” as a “should.”  When we ask someone for advice, we’re saying, “please assess my situation and tell me what I should do.”  The sticking point ends up being a less-than-full evaluation of the wants.  So whenever someone says, “I can’t help myself,” they’re saying, “I’ve assessed my situation and given myself advice (shoulds) but I can’t get myself to behaviorally follow it through.”  This makes sense now, right?  There are encryptions.  The behaviors won’t flow unless there’s enough “want juice” flowing into it.

So here’s where it gets more complex because, if we want to rearrange the stalemate and create movement, we would need to develop the insight into functions.

Every whole wants to preserve itself – whether it’s a whole culture, a whole nation, a whole business, a whole pattern, a whole family, a whole creature, whatever.  An animal will gnaw off its leg if it’s trapped and it can’t think of a better way to preserve the whole.  Each human being is a whole.  We seek to preserve ourselves.   Every choice has a function of self-preservation.

So when we run into a problem where we can’t quite get ourselves to do what we think we should, we’re battling against a self-preservation desire that’s larger than the encrypted should.  Rather than beat yourself up about why you’re not following through, it’s much healthier to try and move downwards into your personality and start to look for the payoffs to the choices.   Give yourself more credit.  At the roots of you, there’s a perfect reason why you’re doing what you’re doing.  If you can’t quite see it yet, give yourself some time to fully examine your desires, your hopes, your fears.  Try to move into the confusion/frustration (where the encryptions live) in order to map out those parts of you.  They are obviously strong enough to influence you, so you might as well spend some time there.  You might as well try to ally with those strengths rather than beat yourself up about not being able to overpower them.  All the parts of you have vitality.  All the parts of you are attempting to serve you for the greatest good.  The goal is to tap into all of your vitality so you can move as one beautiful whole.

Once things are mapped out, they make perfect sense.  You make sense.  The world makes sense.  Give yourself some credit and some time.  Keep exploring.  Keep mapping.

Enabling, Enmeshment, and Fear

[Scenario A]

The A’s and the cliff.  Parent-A is terrified of Child-A falling into the abyss.

When Child-A was little and learning to walk, he was completely focused on simply putting one foot in front of the other.  He was fascinated and absorbed by this new and challenging task. Parent-A could effortlessly spin Child-A around by always holding both hands and redirecting him away from the direction of the cliff.  Child-A wouldn’t even notice the guidance because of his absorption.  If Child-A would misstep and begin to fall, Parent-A would already have both hands in hers and could hold him up to keep his knees from scraping the ground.  “Wew! That was a close one,” she lovingly laughed, helped him rebalance, and they both enjoyed the excitement of the moment.  There was true and beautiful bonding occurring.  Truly beautiful moments.

Once Child-A didn’t have to try so hard to simply put one foot in front of the other, he began to explore more.

He noticed when he walked in a certain direction, Parent-A would stop him.  At first, this was just slightly disturbing… but he grew more and more frustrated.

He got older. He got stronger. He got more frustrated.  Eventually, he engaged her fully.

Parent-A is positioned between Child-A and the cliff.   She began screaming, “stop trying to walk this way!!  There’s a cliff behind me!!”  She has her hands on Child-A’s upper chest and is now pushing him as hard as she can, digging her feet into the earth and passionately trying to keep him from getting closer to the cliff.  When Child-A was younger, she could stop him without using all of her might.   It’s harder now.  Child-A is equally passionate.  Child-A, with all of his might, pushes back at Parent-A, “get out of my way!! Let me be myself!!! There’s no cliff!!!  You’re just trying to run my life!!!”   Child-A digs his toes in and is pushing as hard as he can.  Child-A is able to gain ground, inch by inch, towards the edge of the cliff.  He’s able to push Parent-A backwards.  “Can’t you see the cliff behind me!?!  I care for you and I don’t want you to get hurt!!  You need to stop going in this direction!!” Parent-A pleads with all the love in the world.  Child-A continues to push towards the cliff.  “I am so sick you of you trying to control me!!!  I will get past you!!!”    He can’t see the cliff.  All he sees is Parent-A and her attempts at obstructing his path.   All he feels is her efforts to take away his options.  “Get off of me!!!  Leave me alone!!!”  He grows and grows, becoming stronger and stronger.  He wants to be free.  He wants to have his own life.  He continues pushing, trying harder and harder.  They get to the edge.  Parent-A stops pushing and frantically clings to the shirt of Child-A because her heels are now on the edge of the cliff and she’s leaning backwards, about to fall off.

Her grip on Child-A is the only thing keeping her from falling backwards.

“You…. will… not…. control… my….. life!!!!! I am my own person!!!!  I will do what I want!!!!” Child-A screams and, with one last shove, takes them both over the edge.

 

[Scenario B]

The B’s and the cliff.  Parent-B is terrified of Child-B falling into the abyss.

When Child-B was first learning how to walk and couldn’t coordinate his vision and his steps, Parent-B would hold his hand and guide him and steer him in different directions from the cliff.  Child-B wouldn’t even notice the guidance.  As Child-B grew, Parent-B would gradually let go of his hand and give him opportunities to balance himself.  Occasionally, Child-B would trip over a rough patch of dirt and he would fall, sometimes hurting his hands and knees very badly.  Hurt, he would look to Parent-B.  Hurting deeply with Child-B, she says, “I’m so sorry that happened.  Please try and watch carefully where you’re stepping.  Sometimes there are rough patches in the dirt.  I care for you and I don’t want you to get hurt.”  Child-B begins focusing on the dirt and eventually masters walking over the rough patches.  When he doesn’t need to focus on his steps so much, he looks outward and begins to explore.  He sees the cliff.  “What is that!?” he asks, in awe of its vastness.  “That’s the cliff,” Parent-B answered.  “People who go over the edge never come back,” she said.  Child-B gazed at it for a moment, took a deep breath, and fully felt its vastness.  Child-B never ventured too close to the eternal danger.

 

[Scenario C]

The C’s and the cliff.  Parent-C is terrified of Child-C falling into the abyss.

Once Child-C has mastered his steps and has developed a good vision, he asks, “what’s that out there?” Parent-C says, “that’s the cliff.  People who go over the edge never come back.”  Walking freely and masterfully, Child-C strolls to the edge.  He looks over.  He’s intrigued.  It is vast and amazing.  Matter of factly, he says, “I bet there’s something good down there.”  He jumps off.

 

 

Taking a Systemic Approach (to yourself)

There’s a phrase that gets used a lot in physical therapy:

“the symptom is the victim, not the criminal.”

This has incredible implications (truth) in our psychological functioning as well.  This post emphasizes and encourages a certain attitude you can take in order to boost your growth and create widespread change.  At the end of this post, I’m going to contrast a “systemic approach to yourself” versus “systemic therapy,” even though they’re definitely made of the same stuff.

So let’s examine “taking a systemic approach to yourself.”

It’s the idea there isn’t a singular thing going wrong.  The more you hunt for a singular thing –  the one root cause to your unhappiness – the one thing that needs to be found and fixed – the more time you’ll spend spinning your wheels and the less time you’ll spend enjoying living and reaping the benefits of your efforts. If you want to create change, the best approach is to try to turn over every rock. It will be rare to find a golden ticket under one of the rocks, but the landscape will look entirely different once you turn over enough of them.

This post is the encouragement to examine more aspects of your life… to get wider in your efforts.

How many minutes of your day are spent going through the motions? How much doesn’t get a second glance?  How many of your settings are set to default?

Here’s a range of examples:

How many steps a day do you take without feeling your feet on the ground? How many interpersonal interactions are completely routine (and lacking in satisfaction)? How many shallow breaths do you take a day?* More importantly, how many huge ones do you take on purpose? How much of your diet is habitual and hasn’t been adjusted in a while?  How many calories are in liquid form? When was the last time you changed your exercise routine? How long have you used the same mouthwash?   If you wear heels, do different pairs have different lengths?  When was the last time you made a really weird face? How do you normally sit? Which leg is the crossed-over one? When was the last time you crossed over your other leg? How much hazelnut creamer do you put in your coffee? How long have you done that? When was the last time you tried out some different pillows?  When was the last time you imitated your mom?  How different is your Monday morning from your Friday night?  Are you getting something auto-debited that you really don’t need / use?  Do you really like the tv shows you watch? What do you do during commercials?

Sure, your mouthwash isn’t causing your knee pain and your heels aren’t causing your depression, but how fast do you want change to happen?

Sometimes things stick around in our lives for far too long. The only thing that keeps them there is we’re not consciously choosing them anymore. They’ve become default. “Taking a systemic approach” to your self-improvement is taking the extra time to see what default motions could be adjusted. I deliberately put really big things and really small things on that list of questions. Your pillows probably aren’t killing you. But if you want to make some really significant change, the idea is to shake things up and get wider as opposed to having a magnifying glass on a ‘symptom’ and hoping a singular root cause will present itself. There are infinite causes. Things have been in motion for a very long time.  But we can only fully do one thing at a time. Taking a systemic approach to yourself takes thing-by-thing and examines it. It stops looking for the magical thing. It starts looking at moment-by-moment movements to see what can be examined – conscious choice by conscious choice.   This is hard.  It’s easier to wish for a magical thing.

The up-side:  this hard work is a safeguard against helplessness.  When we go directly at a symptom, we are agreeing to a losing battle. Everything else in the overall configuration supports that symptom and there’s truly no way to move it without reconfiguring the connections. We are webs. We are a “system of contacts” (PHG). If we go at a symptom and try to simply remove it from the field, we will eventually feel helpless – because we will lose.

In sum, taking a systemic approach to your development is the effort to get wider. It’s the understanding that everything is interconnected. It’s a commitment to the details, to the smaller things, to the whole of your growth.  We really can’t make this wide commitment to rethink our defaults unless we have the belief (hope) that it will pay off – that it will only be short term suffering and hard work – that we will yield fruit after the labor. That’s the purpose of this post: the encouragement towards that belief – the hope – that hard work pays off.  We pay for it now or we pay for it later.

* There’s a pointed phrase in yoga: “most people breathe just enough to stay alive.”

As promised, some contrast.  More often than not in this blog, I’ll be referencing a “systemic approach to therapy” rather than a “systemic approach to yourself.”  They’re made of the same stuff but there is a contrast that’s warranted.  This post emphasizes an attitude you can take on a moment by moment basis in order to boost your own growth.  I am encouraging you to shake up and second-guess as much as you can handle, even if it doesn’t seem immediately connected to a symptom or a goal.  If a therapist took this hyper-diligent approach with clients, it would be exhausting for everyone.  I literally just laughed out loud.  “Hey, did you notice how we just shook hands?  Maybe we could do that better.  How did I just shut that door?  Was that the best way? How did you engage your hamstrings when you sat down on the couch?  Want to try that again?  How’s your water?  Do you think we should try turning the fridge temperature up or down a few degrees?” Lol.  So when I speak of ‘systemic therapy,’ I’m really talking about the beliefs about symptoms.  It’s the interconnectedness and the embedded-ness of supports/symptoms.  It’s the understanding that a direct attempt at removing a symptom is playing whack-a-mole.  Another mole pops up.

Despite the contrast, the common ground is this:  it’s best when clients take a systemic approach to their own self-improvement (with this wide hyper-diligence) in between meetings and then use their therapists to co-create some different frequencies and find where even newer rocks can be turned over, rocks that wouldn’t have shown up on the radar if someone else didn’t call attention to them.

 

Not of Correction, but of Growth

In a recent Structured Group, we studied a section with two beautiful parts that fuel my fire. That was weeks ago but they’re still on my mind and I’d like to share them with the blog-universe.

In my first post I mentioned how I’m not sure what shape this blog will take. Not surprisingly, there’s a vein of comparing / contrasting gestalt with other methodologies. I’m passionate about theory and that’s why I like teaching and supervising in addition to doing gestalt therapy. Making sense of the world (psychological / philosophical theory) is one of the relationships that hold me up.

(I also mentioned in my first post I’d be adding a disclaimer to every post and saying what music I’m listening to. False. Writing on the fly. No music. And I got over my initial blogging resistance / fear of being sued. Ha.)

So here are the two quotes and then I’ll explain why I love them.

“This is to psychologize without pre-judgment of normal or abnormal, and from this point of view psychotherapy is a method not of correction but of growth.”

Mmm.

“The psychotherapy proposed in the previous chapters emphasizes: concentrating on the structure of the actual situation; preserving the integrity of the actuality by finding the intrinsic relation of socio-cultural, animal, and physical factors; experimenting; promoting the creative power of the patient… ”

Double mmm.

Sometimes people start counseling with the assumption they will be judged. Sometimes this has fear with it (“please don’t judge me”) and sometimes this is welcomed (“please tell me what I’m doing wrong”).

Judgment and correction go hand in hand. Gestalt therapy is not of correction, but of growth. There’s absolutely nothing *wrong* with the way a person is living. There is, however, a chance to optimize and to grow into new areas which will certainly *improve* the way a person is living… literally opening up new options… new skills… more payoffs… less costs.

There’s an Alice in Wonderland quote I keep in my office.  Alice comes to a crossroad and asks the cat, “which way should I go?” The cat says, “where are you trying to get to?” Alice says, “I don’t really know.” The cat says, “then it doesn’t matter which road you take.”

Gestalt therapy, similar to the cat, is interested in *your* desires/goals. If you’re not sure what your desires are, do you desire to know what your desires are?

Then by “preserving the integrity of the actuality by finding the intrinsic relation[s]…” we can land on a clearer image of what path may be the most valuable to you. It’s not correction. It’s examination. From examining, your perceptions become clearer / brighter / truer and then your “creative power” is “promoted.” Alice gets a better sense of where she’d like to get to and which path would give her the best odds. AND there’s additional self-support to be able to take the risk of choosing the path, even if she’s not certain it will pan out.

Gestalt develops your ability to self-support. Lara Perls said, “we support the client as much as necessary and as little as possible.”  The second part, “as little as possible,” is because we want to increase your ability to self-support.  We don’t support too much because then it would get in the way of developing your own abilities.  We’re looking for your growing edge (within the “intrinsic relations”) so that you can be with it and relate to it – thereby moving it and increasing/expanding your comfortable area of self-support.  The scary part about therapy is the ‘growing edge’ is where your anxiety lies.   But we also support you as much as much as necessary… while at the same time we’re trying to work ourselves out of a job. We’re very interested in your ability to feel grounded and supported within yourself. This often means reconfiguring your relationships. What is supporting you? Your relationship with your breathing? With posture? With the ground? With your ears? With Sam Adams? With a good book? With your spouse? With an imagined future? Are you aware of the relationship that’s holding you up? What’s the cost of that relationship?

It’s not correction. It’s growth. It’s examining the relationships, lighting things up. We want you to know what movements you’re making, what the costs are, and what the payoffs are.   In the words of Perls, Hefferline and Goodman, “At this point, the patient can take over on his own.”

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.