Last fall, I was at a party that was a reunion of sorts, with my engineering undergraduate classmates, many of whom I hadn’t seen for more than two decades.
They were all quite fascinated with my 180 degree turn from engineering to the field of psychotherapy. One of my friends asked me what I had learned about the human condition, based on my experience as a therapist. I struggled to answer the question, since I’d always seen each individual as having a uniquely subjective experience.
My friend’s question got me thinking, however, if there were any broad commonalities that I could draw from the hundreds of individuals and couples I had seen thus far; And indeed, there are several I could think of. In this article, I will focus on one very important cause of human suffering that brings many clients to the therapy room. This particular conditions, also happens to be one of the central foci of Gestalt Therapy.
Here it goes: There is a difference between who we are and who we want to be seen as being. In other words, there is a disconnect between our authentic selves and our Self Image.
This disconnect is a leading cause of suffering, our anxiety and our depression.
Our Self Image is a part of what Freud refered to as our Superego. It is that part of us which tells us what it means to be a civilized member of the particular society and family that we are born into. It is the storehouse of all our “Shoulds.” That is, how we should be, as a good woman, a good man, a good girlfriend or boyfriend, a good brother or sister, a good wife or husband, etc.
These ‘shoulds’ are borne of what we were explicitly told when we were kids and what we have implicitly seen in our family and in culture around us. It is the programming that promises, that if we play out these roles, we will be successful in life. Or to be even more precise, we will be perceived as successful in life. As Fritz Perls (founder of Gestalt Therapy) observed, we are all actualizing our self images rather than ourselves.
So what is the problem with actualizing our Self Image, you ask?
The answer is plenty. When we lose ourselves in the pursuit of our Self Image, we live a life that is not entirely our own. A lack of alignment with ourselves can cause a sort of generalized deadness and/or generalized anxiety. It is our soul’s way of saying (or sometimes screaming) that there is something awfully wrong.
A major endeavor of therapy is about becoming aware of the roles and shoulds, that we have “introjected” (meaning swallowed whole without being questioned). In therapy, we question the introjects, that are keeping us from our true selves. Once a person gets in touch with who they really are, rather than operating lazily from their introjected roles, aliveness and vitality can be restored to our lives, and we can thus become responsible (meaning “able to respond”) to and for ourselves.
A lot of these introjects are built on the backs of fear and shame. In order to recover our authentic selves, we have to go through outdated childhood fears, and face their shame.
There’s a way in which all of the hundreds of disorders listed in the DSM, can be charted on a continuum that ranges from overly uncontained and disorganized, to overly contained. Most of us (whom we refer to in our field, as “normal neurotics”), belong to the latter end of this continuum.
Gestalt therapy is particularly good at treating the malaise of being overly contained (or overly civilized). It has roots in the human potential movement and in the counterculture of LSD. The founders of Gestalt Therapy looked at how we can unleash our vitality and uniqueness, and learn to live a life that is aligned with who we really are, as we change and evolve moment-to-moment.
Srini Katragadda is a Registered Marriage and Family Therapist Intern, #64418 at Bay Area Gestalt Institute.