Gestalt methods of increasing awareness
Fritz Perls (Perls, Hefferline & Goodman, 1951; Perls, 1971, 1972, 1976), a psychoanalyst, spent a long lifetime helping patients and group members become more aware of their potential to discover and change parts of themselves. Unlike Freud, Perls did not look for childhood causes of behaviors or feelings. He looked for ways for the patient to find and re-own unconscious feelings, wants, and behaviors. He wasn't concerned with why these things were hidden. He simply assumed you needed to have "all the facts"--full awareness--in order to cope with life.
If you have shoved important, painful experiences and feelings out of your conscious, and they now operate unconsciously, how can you possibly make intelligent decisions and adjust to the situation? You don't see things realistically; you don't know your own needs; you don't respond appropriately. Gestaltists try to help people work through their "unfinished business." This means becoming aware of old hurts, fears, needs, and resentments which are still alive but buried in your unconscious and which continue to distort your view of reality. Fritz Perls and other Gestalt therapists developed several methods (experiences) for increasing awareness of these repressed emotional experiences that secretly disrupt our lives, carry over the past into the "here and now," cause neuroticism, interfere with decision-making, etc. Some of these methods are described here for you to try.
Like all insight therapies, Gestaltists emphasize "know thyself" and "the truth will make you free." Yet, Gestaltists don't ask their patients "why did you do that?" because it arouses defenses and encourages rationalizations. Instead, they ask their patients to experience all of their selves, to accept all their alienated parts (as in method #1) and, thus, become whole--a gestalt. Similar to Freud's assumption that insights will automatically be used, it was an Gestaltist notion that we humans will intuitively make good decisions if we are playing with "all our marbles," i.e. if we really are aware of the "unfinished emotional business" and unconscious drives that are going on inside of us. Thus, a basic principle of Gestalt therapy is to let your natural wisdom or intuition flow--stop thinking about what you "should do" or "should have done" and do what "feels right." Gestaltists suggest other healthy attitudes: (1) assuming responsibility for all of your self--your traits, decisions, feelings, and actions, (2) being your true self, your own person, independent--not conforming to others' expectations, and (3) living in the here and now--not regretting the past, not obsessing about why we did something, not trying to plan and control everything in the future, but being in touch with our feelings and what is going on right now around us.
I do my thing, and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you. And I am I.
Gestaltists, while stressing self-responsibility, feel that self-help procedures and techniques are of little value. Why? Because they believe that self-improvement pits one part of you, the part that wants to change, against another part, the part that wants to remain the same. So even if self-help methods force a change over the resistance of another part of you, such as weight loss or being more assertive, you are likely to revert back to being over-weight or passive after the self-help project is over. Instead, Gestaltists suggest getting to know both the "I want-to-improve" and the "I-don't-want-to-change" parts very well, and then doing what feels right. By not pushing for self-change, Gestalt therapists help each client find his/her unique barriers to self-improvement. Once the emotional barriers are known, the problem resolves itself. (I believe they have a point, but we still need methods for getting in touch with our conflicting parts and unfinished business.)
- To increase your awareness of three "worlds" where your consciousness spends time: the outside world, the inner world of feelings, and another inner world of plans, memories, and thoughts.
- To help you recognize the pockets of "unfinished business" in your garbage bag, so you become more rational and effective.
- To teach you some techniques for gaining greater awareness of unconscious feelings and needs. Gestalt therapy is not technique-oriented, it is process-oriented. But there are techniques or "experiences" which aid the process of insight and awareness.
STEP ONE: Becoming more aware of the full range of experiences possible in the here and now. What is the focus of your awareness?
You realize, of course, that hundreds of things are available for you to attend to at any moment: sensations from all your senses, observing the environment or your actions or emotions, having fantasies, memories, plans and many other thoughts. You notice very little of all that is available. This selection process is instantaneous, constant, and mostly unconscious. Let's see if we can clarify for you what you tend to focus on...and what you exclude from awareness.
Begin by observing what you become aware of during two minutes of "quiet time," i.e. no TV blaring, no loud music, no one nude walking by, no pressing physical needs, no demands to decide what to eat for supper, and so on. If you need a little structure, then say to yourself, "At this moment, I'm aware of..." or "Here and now, I notice...." Please, do this exercise (two minutes) before reading on.
Now, ask yourself: Which of the three possible worlds did I focus on the most? (1) Cognitive world: inside your head--thoughts, fantasies, problems, plans for future, remembering the past, etc. Did you rehearse dealing with some situation? (2) Affective world: inside your body--physical sensations, emotions, and feelings. Did you notice your physiological responses, such as heart rate, nervousness, muscle tension or twitches, tiredness, upset stomach, sweating, etc.? (3) Outside world: the environment--sounds, sights, temperature, observation of events or other people. Did you attend to distant noises, to objects you had previously overlooked? Which world did you focus on the least?
Gestaltists believe we live too much in our heads and avoid sensations in our bodies. Thus, the saying, "lose your mind, gain your senses." In our culture we tend to disregard what is going on in our bodies (that is why Gestalt therapists pay so much attention to the patient's gestures, mannerisms, and body language) but do an excessive amount of head-tripping, i.e. trying to reason, plot, manipulate, and self-help our way out of a problem. Without being clearly aware of the complex and conflictual feelings in our body and in our "unfinished business," our coping will be impaired. Awareness is not easy to gain, however.
Your task is to become open to all feelings and sensations in you, to perceive the environment in detail, to be a fully experiencing person. Start practicing increasing your awareness. Try to see and note details in a familiar situation you never noticed before. Notice facial expressions, eye movement, body language, tone of voice, the little ways we signal "it is your turn to talk" or "it is time for me to go." Notice your hand gestures, eye movements, physiological and emotional responses, your feelings when touched or challenged, etc. Review your history and try to uncover the origins of your feelings and reactions to certain people or situations--look for the "unfinished business." Also, practice describing in detail an interaction you have recently had with someone. Note what is easy for you to focus on and describe, and which aspects of the situation you tend to neglect or avoid. A friend can help you realize what you overlook.
Bodily sensations and body language are peep holes into our hidden conflicts and feelings. So you can see why, as the patient is talking about a concern, Gestalt therapists are constantly commenting, "What are you feeling?," "What is your foot doing?," "Your hand is making a fist, what is it feeling?," "What does it mean when you stretch like that?," "Stay with the feeling of guilt and see where it leads you," "What do you want to happen?" and so on. There is no reason why you can't constantly ask yourself, "What is going on inside me?" and, thus, become more self-aware.
It is also important to observe any resistance you have to increasing your observational powers and your awareness. Are you uninterested or bored with practicing to increase your awareness? Are you made anxious by these tasks? Are you saying, "I'm perceptive and aware enough!"? If you are resisting, you probably do tend to avoid facing some unpleasant feelings. The feelings, people, and situations in the past that most upset you are probably your "unfinished business"--the ones that are inhibiting you from being a fully and accurately experiencing person every moment of your life.
Another purpose of these Gestalt exercises is to clarify for you the difference between (1) having an immediate experience--having the feelings fully here and now--and (2) giving a "clinical" description--unemotional, cold and cognitive--of the feelings to a friend. I notice when I share a painful experience (divorce, a troubled child, a failure) with a group or friend, even though I am genuine, completely honest, and feeling very emotional inside, it frequently sounds like I'm describing a patient. This distancing--called intellectualization--is another way of avoiding intense emotions, and maybe a way of gaining some control over threatening feelings, such as crying. Notice the difference between saying, "I feel really angry--my arms are tense, my stomach has a knot in it, I'm perspiring and thinking 'What an SOB _____ is'" and saying, "Most people would find _____ quite irritating." If I or any person denied and intellectualized all the time, never directly experiencing or seldom admitting the feelings, it would surely reflect "unfinished business" and reduce awareness and coping skills in certain situations. Keep in touch with all your parts.
Beyond attending to body language, feelings, and wants, Gestaltists prescribe learning experiences or homework, such as having a group hold, comfort and feed an inhibited, aloof, unemotional man (to get him in touch with childish dependency again), having a dependent woman with a weak, whiny voice to talk like a little girl (to recognize how her helplessness is used), having a shy, self-depreciating person walk around the room like he/she had just gotten an A in a tough course (to recognize and accept feeling proud), having group members imagine being an animal (to see if the choice reflects personal traits or wishes), having a shy person gradually explore being more sociable, and so on (Gilliland, et al., 1989). Gestaltists also make use of dreams (see method #6), imagination (next step), guided fantasy (method #5c), looking for the opposites (next step), the empty chair (see step 3), and many other techniques for finding parts of ourselves. Most of these things you can do yourself.
Being aware is not just noting the details of what is happening for a few minutes; it is a continuous way of life. It is an openness to everything around you and within you. It takes practice. Explore your worlds--all three of them--and observe details: "stop and smell the roses;" see the lines and movement of a familiar face; analyze the pain of rejection into fear, sadness, remembered joy, anger, hope, etc.; when you are attracted or annoyed by someone ask who or what he/she reminds you of, and on and on.
After this exercise, some people report feeling as though they had never fully experienced themselves before, saying, "I never realized there were so many feelings and sensations inside my body--heart beating, muscles tensing and twitching, myself touching and scratching, eyes blinking, breathing, eyes tiring, pants tightening, body relaxing, all intermingling with a constant stream of emotions."
STEP TWO: Looking for the opposites. Thinking more freely.
This experience is based on the assumption that everything has an opposite. In order to know happiness, one must have known sadness. In order to recognize greed, one must know there is another way--generosity. The Gestaltists believe that we are often aware of one feeling or wish or urge to respond a certain way, but unaware of other feelings, wishes or urges, including the opposite of what is on our mind. Remember the example of both wanting and not wanting some self-improvement. The objective is to become aware of all your parts and the conflicts among these competing urges and wishes, and in this way free up your thinking.
Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (1951) suggest imagining things in alternative or opposite ways. Examples: If you are short, imagine being tall. If you are honest, imagine lying. If you are a giving, loving person, imagine being in dire need of help and love. If you are a man, imagine being a woman. Imagine what might have happened if you had said "yes" instead of "no" in some important decision. If you believe something strongly, imagine it isn't so. Imagine disliking a person you ordinarily like or love. Think about the possibility that one person's gain is likely to be somebody else's loss, such as your getting a new job may mean someone lost the job and/or others failed to get the job, or the more of the company's profits go to the executives, the less money there is for the clerks' and janitors' wages, or the steel in your new car may have come from a defaced mountain side, or your beautiful furniture means a tree was cut, or your lobster dinner means the death of an animal and less money to reduce world hunger, and so on.
Other examples to practice: If you feel inferior, ask if you don't also feel superior. If you believe you are attractive, look for ways you think you are unattractive. If you are always sweet and nice to others (lots of southern hospitality), search for your resentment and distrust of others. Take a common fantasy, say being committed and devoted to someone, and look for urges in the opposite direction, say to use and dump him/her. If you daydream about being a failure, look for signs of your potential. If you dream of being great, look for frustrations in your everyday life. Reverse roles with your spouse or parents. Be flexible. Loosen up. Use your imagination and let your feelings flow with the fantasies.
Next, these authors suggest you focus on some specific troublesome situation. First, get in touch with your usual ways of perceiving, acting in, and feeling about that situation. Do this long enough so that your current views and reactions are clear. Second, completely reverse the situation, i.e. imagine the opposite views (if you see it negatively, view it positively), the opposite actions (if you are quiet, be active), and emotions (if you are angry, be indifferent). Third, after experiencing both ways of seeing and reacting to the situation, try to find some "middle ground." If possible, stand on this middle ground between the two opposite reactions without judging either extreme. Give equal attention to each way of reacting, view each in detail with sensitivity and appreciation. This is called "centering."
The intent of this exercise is to free up your thinking and expose you to different alternatives, factors, and relationships you had not seen before. With this greater awareness should come clearer understanding and better solutions. Perhaps you will also gain some insight into your resistance to thinking flexibly and seeing the opposites. Did you experience anxiety, disgust or boredom while searching for any of the opposites? These reactions might be clues to fears that keep you from seeing things differently or from re-claiming the parts of yourself you have disowned. Self-awareness is very important.
Perls, Hefferline and Goodman cite several case illustrations, including a young man who was eagerly awaiting his wedding date. His fiancee was studying abroad. He missed her terribly and spoke glowingly of his bride-to-be and of marriage. His therapist asked him to go look for the opposites. He resisted but finally acknowledged she had some faults that might spell trouble in the future. Also, he had some financial worries, many demands on his time, and an interest in dating for a few more years. For the first time, he got in touch with some important feelings that had been drowned out by his positive feelings. He still decided to get married but realized these other feelings needed to be dealt with too.