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.

Why?

*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?

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Freedom

A central concept within theories, systemic and existential.

The crux of family systems theory and the direction of the growth-work therein is we are born into a family system of rules, regulations, limitations and patterns. Let’s call these “forces.” We’re nearly blind to these forces by default, but we feel them. When we feel them, we tend to attribute them as “laws of nature” rather than “family forces.” Think of a couple who just moved in together: “this is just how it’s done. Why would you do it a different way!?” As opposed to, “this is the way my family did it. Wow, it feels strange to consider doing it differently.”

So the growth-work entails recognizing this beginning state as a family system state (as opposed to a blind state or a universal law state) and then moving away / beyond / or out of the limitations and regulations. The task is to chew on the forces (the beliefs, the patterns, etc) and digest the ones you’d like to keep and spit out the ones that don’t really fit you. In psychobabble terms, this movement is called “differentiation” towards “autonomy.” In the end, you are a *self* whose rules have been choicefully examined and moderated to fit your flowing life. You’re not operating on rules that may have been passed from generation to generation and you’re not restricted in your range of behaviors because someone else believed you shouldn’t behave that way. Your beliefs are yours. You are you.

I’ll do a quick contrast with “emotional reactivity.” This is where a person may *appear* differentiated but, upon closer examination, they’re largely doing the opposite of what the family forces were. This person is not differentiated because they’re still operating in relation to the family forces, even though the relation is opposition. “Wow, you are so different from your family” as opposed to “you are you.”

That’s growth from a ‘family systems’ perspective.

Now to existentialism.

There is a root fact that we inherit a ‘self’ without asking for one.  (Not to mention we have to figure out how to operate it and they can be pretty complex and difficult.)

We appreciate this ‘self’ in varying amounts (self-esteem) while we also know, on a very deep/core/mostly-unconscious level, that we’re moving uncontrollably towards death – the loss/end/destruction of this ‘self.’  We can’t stop this movement.  It’s happening.  It’s happening while I type this and it’s happening while you read this.

The way I visualize this concept is as follows: the “root fact” is at the bottom. It’s cement. It’s the base. You can’t go further down than that. It’s a brutal fact and it’s arguable we can’t fully accept it because of the amount of terror that’s actually involved. What we do in defense is we live “above” the cement. We get involved with things and we “forget” about the root fact. We forget we only have a certain amount of time here. We forget about the aloneness inherent in dying.  We forget about the burden of shaping our lives on a moment-to-moment basis.  We forget about the odds that no one will remember us in 50, 100, 200 years. Like we never existed. We float and dance above the cement.

To continue the visualization, there are ‘forces’ above the cement also, a lot like a tornado but a ‘fun tornado,’ if you will.  While we “forget” about the root fact, we float and dance inside the winds of the fun tornado, not minding how we’re above the cement.  We swirl around. We float and dance.  There are so many people swirling, floating and dancing in the winds of the fun tornado – it’s very normal.  That’s all well and good but sometimes the tornado’s winds shift. There’s a quick gust downwards and the forces grab a person and violently slam them against the cement.  Violently, I said.  Everything is different now.  It might pick the person back up and put them back in the current of winds (concussed and shaken) or it might leave the person laying on the cement.  This gust could be anything – the death of someone close to you, the loss of a tooth, a car accident, an illness, a movie, a bad grade on a paper, anything – anything that touches you near the core root fact.

Now growth from an existential perspective.

Lara Perls said, “your feet are for grounding and your hands are for connecting.”  Using the cement and fun tornado analogy, we want people standing on the cement and having fun with their hands.  We don’t want people floating above the cement; they risk getting violently slammed down.  And we don’t want people huddling or crouching scared on the cement; they’re missing out on the joy of living.  In addition, we don’t want people’s feet to actually BE cemented.  In tai chi, you learn how to move from step to step while staying rooted to the center of the earth.  Same here.  We want people to be able to move, in a grounded way, on the cement – even dance on the cement. But we’re grounded.  We’re rooted.  And we’re living with meaningful joy.

One of the reasons systems theory and existentialism fit so beautifully together is the “differentiation” towards “autonomy”.  In the opening paragraphs about family systems, I described that movement away / beyond / or out of the original family’s limitations and patterns.  In the existential paragraphs, it’s the growing movement from floating with the gusts of the fun tornado down to the cement.  It’s the same movement, the movement towards autonomy – ‘selfing’ – growing – developing – towards the deepest, fullest, most grounded, most defined “you are you.”  A developed self can recognize family of origin forces for what they are and can recognize culture for it is – and can see ‘self’ as embedded within, AND separate from, these forces.  That’s the concept of autonomy, crucial in both family systems and existential theories.

I like connecting dots. Two more.

This concept is very relevant in the Buddhist idea of “attachments,” the recognition of attachments for what they are and the ability to let them go and let them move.

This is also very relevant in Mark 7:6,7, “These people honor me with their words, but I am not really important to them.  Their worship of me is worthless. The things they teach are only human rules.”

The attachments, the human rules, the forces, the tornado winds: same idea.  They’re all descriptions of the value of the movement towards the fullest and truest version of yourself, to let go of the things that are not you and to embrace and utilize your true self.

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.