When Humanistic Psychology was first founded in the early sixties by Abe Maslow, Rollo May, Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls, and others, it was defiantly individualistic in its approach while playing a role in putting an end to an era of stifling social conformity. As the fifties faded and the bonds of conformity loosened, the championing of individualism faded within the Humanistic movement. By the eighties the focus had shifted to the interpersonal aspects of psychotherapy. This was clearly manifested in the Gestalt branch of humanistic psychology where the individualistic "You do your thing, I do my thing" ethos of Fritz Perls was largely replaced by the interpersonal approach of Lynne Jacobs, Gary Yontef, and Richard Hycner.
Interpersonal Gestalt posits the relationship between therapist and client (rather than an intra-psychic process) as enabling the client's self-actualization. To quote Lynne Jacobs, "Self is emergent out of contextual support". While the relationship between client and therapist plays a vital role in enabling the self-actualization of the client, it is far from the only formative one. In fact, the relation between self and its' context can be thought of in a radically different way.
Here is a quote from Picasso that helped change my view of the self-context interaction:
While a picture is being done it changes as ones thoughts change. And when it is finished, it still goes on changing, according to the state of mind of whoever is looking at it. This is natural enough as the picture lives only through the man who is looking at it.
Notice the importance given to the viewer in reifying that which is being viewed. I discovered the Picasso quote shortly before reading Carlo Rovelli's Reality is Not What It Seems, a book for those seeking a basic understanding of quantum physics and its principles. The principle most interesting to me is "relationality". I link it to aspects of human behavior while being aware of the vast difference between the subatomic world of quantum physics and the world we experience. Yet, since all matter (including ourselves) is composed of subatomic particles, imagining a resonance between the laws governing the subatomic and human levels of existence seems reasonable.
In the subatomic world relation creates existence. Nothing exists without interacting with something else. To quote Rovelli, "All reality is interaction." He offers velocity as an example. Velocity is composed of two interacting elements - space and time. Miles per hour for instance. Without those elements interacting, velocity does not exist.
The interaction of space and time creates velocity; the interaction of the mind of the artist and the mind of the viewer with the canvas creates the painting.
Viewing the development of the self through the lens of relationality reveals the formative power of context. Let's first start by defining self. I consider self to be an individuals' ongoing flow of subjective experience and manifested behavior. That self is created by the sum of all its interactions. Thus the self emerges out of contextual interaction, not contextual support. It is the nature of the contextual interactions that determine whether the emergent self is authentic or stunted.
When the flow of authentic wants (grounded in interests, values, attitudes, and emotional states) are consistently dismissed and/or attacked over time, individuals learn to suppress their own authentic selves in order to survive. Since the flow of experiences and motivated behavior form the basis of an authentic self, the emergent self arising in that kind of context is stunted. This stunting process is self-perpetuating, since without being guided by one's interests, values, etc., the choices made in terms of career or interpersonal relations are not likely to satisfy one's authentic wants and needs. The support needed for a more authentic self to emerge remains absent.
Implications for Psychotherapy.
Ideally, psychotherapy provides a supportive context for the authentic self to emerge. But how does the therapist actually provide that necessary support? A key way lies in taking the client's authentic wants, interests, values, attitudes and emotional states seriously. Operationally, the therapist does this by listening carefully and responding authentically. That combination leads to the client experiencing the therapist as being engaged with them. That kind of focused engagement is likely to be experienced by the client as their being taken seriously. The experience of being taken seriously by another helps the client learn to take themselves seriously
When this process continues consistently, it acts to counter-balance the internal and external forces seeking to suppress the client's authentic self. As they learn to take themselves seriously, they are better able to acknowledge and act on their wants. A new self emerges, better prepared to make choices leading to a more satisfying life.
Gestalt and the Emergent Self.
Gestalt therapists are particularly well suited to elicit and support the emergence of the clients authentic self. Firstly, we collaboratively explore the client's unfolding experience rather than attempting to fit the client into a particular theory of personality. It seems to me that many psychotherapeutic approaches with the suffix -ian (e.g. Freudian, Jungian, Adlerian) focus on specific aspects of the client's psyche and explore and magnify those, rather than attempting to elicit the authentic, unique self of the client.
Our aware interactive presence enables us to elicit authentic aspects of the client. We suggest experiments that help them access and develop parts of themselves previously suppressed. The combination of focused awareness and authentic interactions lies at the core of being a Gestalt therapist. Both parties take themselves and each other seriously, enabling them to develop and sustain their authentic selves.
Since, according to Rovelli, "All reality is interaction", it follows that as we help create the self of the client the client helps us create ourselves We could not be who we are without our clients. Some of the qualities, values, and abilities that we cherish the most are elicited and strengthened thanks to our interactions with them. Compassion, courage, expressiveness, intuition, wisdom, come to mind. The engagement of both the therapist and client are heightened thanks to the alive, authentic interaction inspired by the Gestalt approach. It is that engaged interaction that provides a supportive context within a larger context. A supportive context that helps both the client and therapist manifest an authentic, fuller self.
Frank Rubenfeld, Ph.D. is a BAGI Trainer and Faculty Member www.frankrubenfeld.com