“We may define therapy as a search for value.”
  —Abraham Maslow

Gestalt Psychology: Got Boundaries?

Gestalt Psychology arose in the cultural climate of the United States in the 1960’s, an era famed for the Summer of Love in San Francisco and the massive concert at Woodstock in upstate New York.  It was a time of upheaval and radical reorientation across the whole country.  A trend of conformity and extreme conservatism from the 1950’s gave way to its own worst nightmare: outrageous self-expression.  Nothing was safe against the new point of view, including Psychology.

Until that time the Freudian model of psychoanalysis dominated the clinical scene.  If you wanted to have therapy, you entered into a relationship of doctor and patient that functioned on the premise that doctors will figure out what is wrong with you—that is, analyze you—and then explain that information to you to bring about your cure.  People sometimes call this paradigm the medical model for its similarity to many medical practices, which often place exclusive authority in the doctor, relegating the patient to a passive recipient of expertise.

This paradigm contradicted the times.  Or more precisely, the times contradicted this paradigm, and eventually replaced it with an alternate view of the relationship between therapist and client, self and other, self and the world.  In his first book, “Ego, Hunger, and Aggression”, Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy, outlines a very different point of view for these pairings.  In early versions, the book bore the subtitle “A Revision of Freud’s Theory and Method”, emphasizing that this material was a conscious departure from the status quo.  In later printings, the subtitle came into its own with an emphasis on “spontaneous personal encounter”.  Imagine that possibility as a way of living.

The book introduces and explores the core concepts of Gestalt Psychology.  One of them is a principle theory about contrast: all qualities depend on their opposites.  For instance, there is no hot without cold, no up without down, no here without there.  It seems simple at first, but apply it to your thinking about the nature of self and things get pretty interesting.  If that experience also depends on its opposite, there will not be self without other.  So many problems on Earth derive from attempting to obliterate other and here we have a philosophy that pronounces it indispensable instead.  That kind of opening bodes well for diversity, difference, and mutual appreciation.

It also leads into many deep and related areas, such as organismic self-regulation, which is a name Perls uses for homeostasis, the process by which living things interface successfully with their environment, a consideration that brings the nature of the contact between self and not-self into high relief.   As Perls makes clear, that contact happens exclusively at the boundary between self and surroundings.  He also describes the core disturbances to contact, laying the ground work for the Gestalt therapeutic model. The model posits the areas of contact as workable boundaries, and views their presence or absence, along with their quality or lack of quality, as the determining factors in whether one suffers or thrives in one’s life. Satisfying boundaries equal sound living.

This first formal installment in Gestalt Psychology is an emergent tour de force.  It offers a broader and more comprehensive picture of the human condition than had preceded it in the world of therapy, in part because it is fundamentally a holistic philosophy at its core.  Its devoted emphasis on systems thinking places human beings in a  very wide context and elevates what it can mean to be healthy and intact, to be human at all.  Many of the book’s core ideas have implied origins in prior recorded wisdom traditions, such as Taoism and Zen, among others.  These venerable roots feed the book’s specialized applications to individual psychological well-being.

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