Respect

Respect is one of those vital abilities we can start learning in our childhood. It’s obviously not binary (“yes I’ve learned it” or “no I haven’t”). It’s on a continuum and we can always keep improving.

Some groundwork:

There’s a term called complementarity in systems theory. When people say “opposites attract,” they’re talking about complementarity. If one partner loves the pizza portion and the other partner loves the crusts, that’s complementarity.  It’s like puzzle pieces: if the one piece is caved in, it will fit perfectly with a piece that sticks out.  Symmetry is where the puzzle pieces go together because they have the exact same straight lines.  In symmetry, both partners simply love pizza, period.

Complementarity is where there’s a perfect opposite-ness.  Symmetry is where there’s a perfect same-ness.

They are the reasons we fit together as we move through the world.  They create a certain balance in a relationship (not necessarily a healthy or sustainable balance, but a balance nonetheless).

Back to respect.

Respect is one of the lines around our personalities that determine the shape of our puzzle piece and what kind of people we fit best with.

Since it’s an ability (like everything else) it’s not a static line.  It’s a skill.  The line can be moved.  In addition, it potentially aims in both directions:  an “inward” respect (self-respect) and an “outward” respect (towards other people, laws of nature, etc).

A quick and rough template to make the respect-skill visible:

Regarding adults: it can be summed up by being ok with difference – not being offended if someone has a different view – not trying to conquer the other person’s view to make it more like your own – not feeling an automatic need to change/hide your own view if it meets opposition.

Regarding parenting: it’s not trying to control your child. You still want to shape your child, yes, but you shape them best by controlling what’s in *your* control. You don’t try to over-power them. You leave them a sense of choice with a clear description of things *you* will do (or not do) depending on what choices they make. This teaches them respect. It teaches them worth: the worth of others, relationships, decisions, and self-worth. It teaches them creativity and responsibility: how their choices create results. It teaches them to look for feedback loops, many of which come from nature. It makes them thoughtful and full of care. If you use your power to over-power your child, you create a funky shaped puzzle piece; a shape that has a hard time learning the skill of respect.

Please notice how, in both examples – the adulthood one and the parenting one, it’s about the use of power.  Respect, power, and violence are a part of the same package.

Done with groundwork.  The main point I’d like to illustrate:

If we didn’t learn a large dose of respect in childhood, we have some work to do in order to re-balance. We’re probably either too “respectful” of other people (letting people harm us) or we’re too “respectful” of ourselves (doing harm to others).

They’re both in quotes because it’s not a balanced, healthy picture.

There’s harm!

In ultimate respectfulness, when our respect-ability is pulsing vitally in both directions, we are careful (1) not to harm others and (2) not to be harmed.  If our puzzle-piece-shape is one of the two versions in quotes (even though it kind of looks like “respect”) there’s too much harm happening.  Those are shapes that leave us lonely, confused, and/or hurt because we can’t nestle up comfortably in the puzzle.  One of our primary needs isn’t met: a sense of belonging.

The point of these words is to show how deceptive those two versions are.  They look like respect… but they aren’t whole.  They aren’t balanced. And we can really mess ourselves up by leaving the respect-skill underdeveloped (leaning heavily in one direction) because it’s a skill that goes right down into one of our primary needs.

 

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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.

 

The Other Side of Power – The Larger System at Play

My last post emphasized “the existential responsibility” side of the coin. I’d like to spend a little time on the other side of the coin in the service of the whole.

This also provides a nice segue to talk about psychological health in general. As I’ve said prior, the goal is response-ability. The growth of a human depends on its ability to respond effectively in its environment.  Abilities can fit nicely into sets of polarities or opposites, with a continuum running between.  Seeing abilities in sets of opposites is very useful in order to ascertain where one is stuck, off-balance, or has an INability.

Health (or even happiness?) can be summed up succinctly as the ability to perform both extremes of an ability-continuum coupled with the ability to recognize the situation and what it calls for.

1) Ability to reach the extreme ends of an ability-continuum
2) Ability to recognize what the situation calls for

Response-ability.

We become the most unhappy when we’re in situations where one of those two things is off.  We either (1) lack an ability that’s being called for or (2) we misinterpret the situation and respond “out of touch.”

At root, this is psychological digestion at the boundary of organism and environment.  Food and senses touch (see the mold, smell the milk gone bad, taste a chemical out-of-place taste).  Senses help to determine whether it’s worth putting it inside us. Teeth do the work at the entry.  In the end, it boils down (ha) to whether we have the full ability to take in and whether we have the full ability to keep outspit out.

If we’re not fully able in those polar skills, we’re in danger of swallowing something bad for us or rejecting something good for us.  Even if we have full abilities but then we misinterpret the situation, it’s the exact same danger.

I hope that makes sense.  It can be hard to see abilities as sets of opposites until you get used to it.

So back to the coin.

Existential responsibility:  “Yes, this is my situation.  Yes, I have created it.  Yes, I am responsible for what happens next.” Basically a God-like attitude, yes?  Is this good?

It’s an ability.

Polarity? Continuum?

“I am powerless against the forces much, much bigger than myself.  Forces other than myself will determine how things unfold from here on out.”

Is that good?

It’s an ability.

Rather than look at this particular polarity as beliefs (nouns), please try to look at them as verbs or abilities (in the sense of taking the stance or, more abstractly, being with the belief).  One could move to the far side of the continuum to touch the extreme pole and then one could move all the way to the other side to touch the opposite pole.  They’re polar abilities and they both have a perfect function…  depending on what the situation calls for.

I will often say to parents, “we want to teach your kids there are powers much bigger than themselves.”  I usually feel the need to clarify with, “I’m not talking about God or the police.”  This isn’t about following societal laws or being religious.  It’s about the realization there are powerful laws (natural laws) and how, if we don’t follow them, things don’t go well.

This belief (or the lack thereof) seems to be buried so deep down there sometimes.

It has a couple of fuzzy twins like “being an exception” or “I shouldn’t have to.” Those are very, very close to what I’m talking about in this post but they’re not exactly what I’m talking about.

I’m talking very simply about the realization that we’re not God.  We didn’t create these rules.  And when we don’t play by the rules, things don’t go well.  We can’t deprive ourselves of sleep for a period of time and then expect things to go well.  We can’t put junk in our bodies and then expect to feel good.  We can’t sit in a chair 99% of the time and then expect not to get a nasty case of Chair Pain Syndrome.  We can’t be selfish in our relationships and then expect to have warm, deeply satisfying relationships.

I’m talking about the genuine surprise within a person after they go on a 30 year drug binge and then can’t understand why their system is misfiring.  I’m using an extreme example (albeit a true one I’ve seen time and time again) to illustrate a concept that can be very subtle and buried but can still be very destructive.  My hope in writing this piece is it emphasizes this belief (the “I am not God and I didn’t create these rules so I really can’t bend them” belief) and it supports people to refrain from doing destructive things.

I love the word-play with being “care-full” – not “careful” in the sense of hyper-cautious, scared, mistrusting, but care-full in the sense of trying to be fully in touch with these powers that are much greater than ourselves and then taking-full-care to move with them, not against them, because we will lose every time.

So back to the coin.

The polar abilities.  The whole coin.

The ability to be open to the possibility I have created my situations and I am fully responsible for what happens next and the ability to acknowledge, respect, and move in harmony with powers much, much greater than myself…  followed by the ability to recognize what the situation calls for.

We’re back to the serenity prayer.  The courage to change the things you can.  The serenity to accept the things you can’t change.  And the wisdom to know the difference.

Please be care-full and play by the rules.

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.