‘Perls trained as a neurologist at major medical institutions and as a Freudian psychoanalyst in Berlin and Vienna, the most important international centers of the discipline in his day. He worked as a training analyst for several years with the official recognition of the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA) and must be considered an experienced clinician.’ (Bocian, 2010: 21)
One of the most important changes I have seen in the last few years in the Gestalt world is the rapprochement with psychoanalysis. Not only are we as a community more open to understanding our analytic roots (which I would say are much more useful than trying to locate us in the humanistic world), we are able to be in respectful dialogue with analytic practitioners who are also interested in what we bring. However, I would say that we have been limited in our ability to engage properly in this dialogue because we do not understand our own roots. This was not helped by the fact that Fritz Perls also progressively denied his roots both in psychoanalysis and in the early thinking around Gestalt theory. Much of the rethinking of Gestalt theory recently has been based more on a critique of Perls’ style in his later years than of his original proposals. (We now have a wonderful volume of Perls’ early essays and lectures (Perls, 2012), to which I had the honour of writing the Introduction.)
I want to give a brief tour of the way Perls oriented himself in relation to his experience of psychoanalysis. I think the most useful image is of a computer casing where computer memory and disc drives can be replaced by new ones. In the same way, in the ‘casing’ of psychoanalysis, Perls removed modules (mostly to do with intrapsychic functioning) and replaced them with new modules (mostly field-relational) that perform analogous functions. Yet the whole looks quite similar.
So let’s look at the ‘casing’ first. The important points to consider here are that the understanding of the therapeutic project is not a ‘solution-focused’ one, but a joint enterprise of exploration of dynamics underlying the difficulties with which people come to therapy, dynamics that essentially originated from difficult circumstances in childhood and infancy. Furthermore, for both psychoanalysis and Gestalt Therapy, those dynamics show themselves in the interactions in the therapy relationship, which will in some ways mirror those early circumstances. Gestalt Therapy shares with Kleinian psychoanalysis the further elaboration that as much can be discovered from the therapist’s countertransference with the client as from the client’s transference.
Another implication of this for both GT and psychoanalysis is that the client does not come to therapy knowing what they want from the therapy. Their perspectives are limited and distorted to defend against anxiety that is experienced as too great to approach (understood as ‘repression’ in psychoanalysis and ‘interruptions to contact and awareness’ in GT. If the client does come with a sense of a problem to be solved, both the problem and the solution are wrapped within that limited and distorted perspective, are usually insoluble in the terms proposed by the client, and yet can give information about the dynamic processes involved. During therapy, the sense of what the therapy is about usually clarifies. This differs from the assumptions of Rogerian counselling (the client will find his/her own way if supported by the therapist) or Transactional Analysis (the client contracts for a specific change at the beginning of therapy) as well as of solution-focused behavioural therapies.
Now the ‘modules’:
The ‘conscious, unconscious and preconscious’ in psychoanalysis, where unconscious activity can only be analysed by the therapist becomes in GT a more dynamic concept of ‘awareness’ taken from the Gestalt Psychology idea of our active engagement in perception to form coherent figures against a background that becomes relatively uninteresting, a figure that becomes incoherent and muddy if the background is a denial of possibilities that are of continuing importance to the person.
‘Id’, the well of drives and instinctual desires in psychoanalysis, becomes in GT the unattached forecontact that is emphasised in meditation, being-there and open to what emerges as interesting and energising. Like the Freudian Id, the Gestalt Id is not verbalised, symbolised, planned, or choiceful. Perls gave an image of a farmer, lovers, a soldier and a pilot approaching a field, and that the field is a different field for each of them. In the Id of the situation, I am open to what kind of person I am to my field, and what kind of field it is to me.
‘Ego’, the referee between the Id drives and the demands of the Superego in psychoanalysis, becomes the choiceful engagement in contacting the world, the actualization of the self (in the original version by Kurt Goldstein that says we all actualize who we are in our engagement in the world, not the version of Abraham Maslow that makes it a higher stage of functioning that needs to be achieved) and the making of figures and grounds. Essentially it is about solidifying self in the contact as the farmer, or the lover, or the soldier, or the pilot, and thus also solidifying what the world is for us in the moment, our intentionality, and what arouses our interest and excitement and so becomes figural for us.
‘Personality’, which for Freud incorporates the whole dynamic between Id, Ego and Superego, becomes the assimilated self-concept, the understanding of who I am and how the world is with me. Ideally personality can be flexible and grow as we mature, but it can also become fixed and defensive and therefore disconnected from our current world.
‘Superego’ is transformed in a very interesting way. For Freud, it is the demands of the world in conflict with the Id drives, with the Ego as referee. For Perls, it still consists of the demands of family, society, religion etc., but it is primarily in conflict for supremacy with another artefact, a rebellious ‘Infraego’ (Perls more famously called these ‘topdog’ and ‘underdog’) and the organismic drives and desires actually become drowned out by the conflict.
‘Introjection’, which for Freud is the way we take in attitudes and understandings from outside becomes for Perls two relational mechanisms: ‘introjection’, an uncritical taking in of what is not mine; and ‘assimilation’, a critical engagement with what the world gives us, a ‘chewing over’ of the potential for this to nourish us or to inhibit our aliveness, taking in only what is nourishing. Introjection is involved in the topdog/underdog struggle, while assimilation is an essential part of ego functioning.
‘Therapeutic abstinence’, the ‘rule’ for the psychoanalyst to provide minimal cues the might get in the way of the developing transference becomes ‘creative indifference’, a term coined by Friedlaender, a contemporary of Fritz Perls in the Berlin coffee-house discussion scene. The therapist views the polarities posed by the client’s understanding (victim/persecutor, ugly/beautiful, valuable/valueless) without ‘siding’ with either of the poles, but standing at a point (that Friedlaender called the ‘zero point’) where the meaning of the polarization itself becomes clear.
The goal of therapy in psychoanalysis is the discovery of the underlying dynamics of the client’s actions, leading to a greater (Ego) ability to accept oneself and balancing out the demands of the Id drives and the Superego demands of the world through sublimation of those drives into acceptable areas. The therapist is there to elicit the transferences and to interpret the client’s fantasies and dreams to the client in a usable way, while working to maintain abstinence and avoid providing a new set of introjects to the client, even if it seems at first to be helpful (the ‘transference cure’).
In Gestalt Therapy, the goal is a progressive taking ownership of one’s own activity and choices, moving from introjection to assimilation, authentic action rather than rebellion, and providing support and challenge to extend contact and awareness to areas that had previously been disowned. The therapist is there as an engaged other in relation to whom the client can become him/herself in a new way, because the therapist does not become involved in the client’s polarisation. Neurosis is a loss of ego functioning leading to a sense that life just happens to the person rather than, in the psychologically healthy person, emerging from choiceful engagement and the ability to overcome difficulties through clear contacting and awareness of what is available.
It is useful to realise that this is a departure from classical psychoanalysis, but no more so than Jung, Adler, Kohut, Intersubjectivity and other variants from the classical model.
Bocian, B. (tr. P. Schmitz) (2010). Fritz Perls in Berlin, 1893 – 1933. EHP, Bergisch Gladbach, Germany.
Perls, F.S. (2012). From Planned Psychotherapy to Gestalt Therapy: Essays and Lectures 1945 – 1965. Gestalt Journal Press, Gouldsboro, Maine.
Peter Philippson, M.Sc. (Gestalt Psychotherapy) is a UKCP Registered Gestalt psychotherapist and trainer, a Teaching and Supervising Member of the Gestalt Psychotherapy & Training Institute UK, a founder member of Manchester Gestalt Centre, Full Member of the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy, Senior Trainer for GITA (Slovenia), advisory board member, Center for Somatic Studies and a guest trainer for many training programmes internationally. He is Past President of the Association for the Advancement of Gestalt Therapy. Peter is the author of 'Self in Relation', pub. Gestalt Journal Press, ‘The Emergent Self’ pub. Karnac/UKCP and ‘Gestalt Therapy: Roots and Branches’ pub. Karnac, and many other chapters and articles. He is a teacher and student of traditional Aikido.