Gestalt Therapy: Therapy of the Situation
This seminal textbook on Gestalt therapy refreshes the theory of Gestalt therapy revisiting its European roots. Taking the basic premise that people do the best they can in relation to their own situation — a thoroughly Gestalt idea — leading European therapist Georges Wollants explains Gestalt theory and provides a useful critique of commonly taught concepts: - Each section approaches a key area of psychotherapy theory in context, while chapter summaries, illustrations and worked-through case examples help to make the theory accessible to all those training in Gestalt therapy; - Commentaries from current experts in different areas of Gestalt provide a balanced overview of Gestalt therapy today; - The author brings in his extensive knowledge of European philosophers and psychologists to offer a unique ...
- Front Matter
- Back Matter
- Subject Index
- Chapter 1: From a Monopersonal Approach to a Therapy of the Situation
- Chapter 2: The Developing Situation
- Chapter 3: Impairing Situations: Disordered Person–World Interactions
- Chapter 4: Concepts of Gestalt Therapy Revised
- Chapter 5: The Bodying Forth of the Situation
- Chapter 6: The Therapeutic Situation in Practice
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© Georges Wollants 2008, 2012
Originally published in 2008 by Faculteit voor Mens en Samenleving
This version published 2012
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I first encountered Gestalt therapy in the early 1970s while a graduate student at Duquesne University, whose psychology program was firmly rooted in European Existentialism and Phenomenology. At the time, we read Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (PHG) in passing, and were shown some films of Fritz Perls in action. But none of my professors seemed to take Gestalt therapy very seriously. They seemed intrigued by its emphasis on immediate experience, and nodded approvingly of its effort to anchor its methodology in a field model of psychological phenomena. But PHG was found lacking on account of the polyglot nature of its theorizing, particularly in its on-again, off-again invocation of a homeostatic biological model. It seemed a noble attempt at challenging traditional psychotherapy, but through the lens of existential phenomenology, we judged it insufficiently radical.
When I look back at my first encounters with PHG, I think mostly I found the book confusing. In some places, the text seemed to be proposing a radical phenomenology of experience and behavior (for example, in its theory of self), while in other places it seemed too close to the natural scientific models that have long characterized American psychology. It is perhaps no surprise that Gestalt therapy came to be associated in those early days, not with its ambiguous theoretical propositions, but with the highly distinctive intervention style of Fritz Perls. And this, it seemed to me at the time, was both Gestalt therapy's strength and its weakness, because Fritz was indeed captivating and instructive to watch, even if I was at a loss for grasping a coherent theoretical framework for how he practiced.
My early dismissal of Gestalt therapy began to change on several accounts. The first was when I came to Cleveland and had an opportunity to watch several ‘master practitioners’ of Gestalt therapy in action, most notably Sonia Nevis and Joseph Zinker. Here was something that really caught my attention; I might even say, stopped me in my tracks. When they demonstrated Gestalt therapy, there was an uncontrived simplicity and elegance to their interventions, a grounded directness of their method, and an impact on their clients that seemed at once transparent and magical. Here, indeed, I felt I was witnessing existentialism and phenomenology in clinical practice, and I was astonished by the simplicity and power of their work. It was clear to me that practitioners of Gestalt therapy knew something I didn't, something missing from my own training, and I wanted to learn what that was. I returned to PHG humbled, and began a long journey of trying to make sense of it.
I can see now, in light of Gestalt therapy's continued evolution, that I was by no means alone in my disquiet with its original theoretical framing. Indeed, there has developed over the years a tradition of scholars who have ambitiously taken on the [Page vii]challenge of addressing the ambiguities and contradictions of PHG, separating the wheat of Goodman's radical phenomenological field model, from the chaff of Perls' biological metaphors and self-in-isolation motif. The names of Gary Yontef, Malcolm Parlett and Gordon Wheeler come to mind as key architects of this ongoing project of retrofitting the genius of Gestalt therapy's praxis with a theoretical infrastructure that could both adequately frame its origins, and coherently support its continued development. To this list of important Gestalt phenomenological thinkers, I think we can now confidently add the name of Georges Wollants, whose present text firmly and dramatically situates Gestalt therapy within the context of its proper historical and theoretical framework.
Wollants' stated purpose in this book is to ‘embed Gestalt therapy in its original European ground’, in which he includes the Gestalt psychology of the Berlin School, and the Husserlian tradition of phenomenology. He pays homage to the important phenomenological recasting of Gestalt therapy by Yontef and Wheeler, and indeed his re-formulations of Gestalt therapy are similar to theirs in many respects. But his explicit intention is to reconnect Gestalt therapy's theory to the European intellectual traditions that are its rightful wellspring and home. A quick scan of Wollants' references shows that he means business: names like Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Binswanger and Buytendijk, to name a few. I was especially delighted to find that Wollants is familiar with J.H. van den Berg, among clinical phenomenology's most lucid exponents, but whose name is conspicuously absent in Gestalt therapy's literature.
Wollants pre-figures his thesis in the very title of this book, and again in its opening pages, where he tells us that the proper domain of Gestalt therapy is the ‘situation’, the irreducible ‘intertexture of interactions of a human being and the environment that is relevant to him …’. He offers this as a correction to the inherent ambiguity of PHG, whose ‘double reading’, he points out (echoing Wheeler), shuttles between views of human psychology as intra-personal (i.e. as a self-in-isolation) and as ‘interactional, relational and situational’.
This ‘double reading’ reveals an even deeper philosophical confusion, one that is perfectly reflected in Gestalt therapy's use of the term ‘field’. For, as Wollants points out,‘… the expression “field theory” tends to be an umbrella term for… different approaches to “reality”. It can refer to the transphenomenal, material, physical field of a physical organism and that organism's physical environment, or it can denote the phenomenal, experienced, behavioural, psychological field of a perceiving person and his phenomenal world’ (p. 3).
This is not a trivial distinction, because it marks the boundary between Gestalt therapy conceived within a natural scientific, positivistic, context, and Gestalt therapy conceived as an expression of a radical, phenomenological world view.1 Wollants himself is unambiguous in his phenomenological rendering of Gestalt therapy:‘… the ultimate client of our psychotherapeutic occupation is the interplay of the person and his phenomenal environment, and this in turn implies that the Gestalt therapist defines personal problems in terms of the interactional whole consisting of the person and his world’ (p. 3). What Wollants establishes, time and again, is that if Gestalt therapy is to constitute an internally coherent system of thought and practice, it must rest explicitly upon the solid foundation of phenomenological philosophy. Wollants is not the first to make this point, by any means, but he makes it more thoroughly and insistently than has been done before.
[Page viii]The ‘phenomenological attitude’, properly understood, dissolves the philosophical distinction between ‘essence’ and ‘existence’ which underlies traditional western scientific thinking – as if the ‘reality’ of a thing, or a person, or a situation for that matter, somehow existed in and of itself, in a noumenal state of ‘objectivity’, discoverable by the carefully conceived experiment, or by an astute clinical diagnosis. Gestalt therapy's literature has long referenced the ‘phenomenological attitude’ as an identifying characteristic of its approach, but all too often this literature has equated the phenomenological attitude, weakly and inaccurately, with simple respect for the client's first-person experience.
Wollants offers a far more robust understanding of the phenomenological attitude – one which faithfully renders the seminal insights of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty within the world of psychotherapy. Merleau-Ponty, in explicating Husserl's clarion call to ‘return to the things themselves’, defined the phenomenological attitude as one that orients us toward the thick ground of originary, embodied, perceptual experience,‘… that world which precedes knowledge, of which knowledge always speaks, and in relation to which every scientific schematization is an abstract and derivative sign-language…’ (1962, p. ix). Wollants succeeds in rendering this attitude operable in psychotherapy by orienting us to the irreducible tableau of life-world situations that the client brings with him to the consulting room, and to the ambiguous, inescapable, and pregnant situation in which the therapist and client find themselves enjoined.
Before I mention some of the content areas of Wollants' text, I want to cite one striking example of his phenomenological refinement of Perls' and Goodman's thinking. In PHG, Goodman offers a theory of the self that has become the hallmark of Gestalt therapy. Goodman's discussion of self represents essentially a Husserlian ‘reduction’ of the phenomenon of self, yielding our present understanding of self as that which precedes, and is presumed by, abstractions on both the subject side (‘consciousness’, ‘response’, ‘cognition’, ‘ego’ and the like) and the object side (‘stimulus’, ‘environment’, and so on) of the Cartesian split. Thus, we have Goodman's well-known formulations that‘… thoughts and emotions, objects and persons, are abstractions that are meaningful only when referred back to interactions of the field’ and ‘the complex system of contacts necessary for adjustment in the difficult field, we call “self”’ (PHG, 1951, pp. 372–3).
In filling out his analysis, Goodman takes on the Freudian constructs ‘ego’ and ‘id’ and attempts to render them within the framework he has established. He refers to them as ‘special structures of the self’ and emphasizes that the ‘classification, description, and analysis of the possible structures of the self are… the subject matter of Phenomenology’ (PHG, 1951, p. 378). But the analysis Goodman gives us, particularly of the ‘id’, is (to borrow a favorite word of his) ‘otiose’, which is to say, lackluster and thin. This is probably why this concept, the ‘id structure of the self’, has nearly disappeared from Gestalt therapy writing.
Echoing the work of J.M. Robine and Des Kennedy, Wollants picks up this tantalizing thread of PHG and brings it to life, opening up Goodman's once-used phrase, ‘the id of the situation’, like the petals of a flower. The id of the situation, he writes, is the ground of awareness, the ‘given of the situation’; it is the ‘body's way of living its situation … not yet differentiated into parts’ (PHG, pp. 87, 89). He succeeds beautifully in fulfilling Goodman's task of re-casting psychoanalytic insight within a phenomenological framework. Quoting de Waelhens (1951), a noted Merleau-Ponty scholar, he notes that ‘sense data expect the emergence of a receptive attitude in me but this attitude does not arise [Page ix]from the personal “I”, but rather from an impersonal, underlying ground, and existential and anonymous force’ (p. 87).
To deepen his description of the bodily nature of awareness, Wollants later introduces the evocative phrase ‘bodying forth to express the impersonal’… emergence of a rather vague, diffuse, more global bodily felt assessment of the person's situation. The “it” marks his relation to the world, without his knowing exactly what this relation is about’ (p. 79). And later still, in his chapter on psychotherapeutic praxis, he emphasizes the central role in the therapeutic process of the therapist's openness and attunement to the ‘id’ of the therapeutic encounter. Wollants' description of the ‘id of the situation’ is representative of his thinking generally, and the point I wish to emphasize is the way he takes aspects of Goodman's theorizing and opens them up, often in beautifully descriptive language, exposing more clearly the radical phenomenological reformulations that are at the heart of PHG.
Wollants does similar things in his chapters on development, psychopathology and psychotherapy, offering in each instance a thoroughly phenomenological formulation of Gestalt therapy's body of work. Concerning development, he promotes and amplifies Lewin's project for an ecological approach to development, and echoes Laura Perls and Gordon Wheeler in emphasizing the crucial role of environmental support in the developmental process. In his chapter entitled ‘Impairing Situations’, he stands the body of traditional psychopathology on its head, declaring that so-called ‘mental disorders’ represent ‘disturbances of the reciprocal relations of a person and his phenomenal environment’ (p. 103), where symptoms are best understood as meaningful attempts to cope with such disturbances. The pathology, he points out, is not ‘psycho-’ at all, but situational.
While there are many parts of this book that provoke and captivate, my personal favorite is Wollants' chapter on ‘The Therapeutic Situation in Practice’ (Chapter 6). As in other chapters, he begins by spelling out the phenomenological, i.e. situational, framework of the topic under examination. He writes:
the overall goal of Gestalt therapy is to assist clients to regain the freedom to respond adequately to the requirements of their situation, in other words, to gestalt (organize) their interaction with the environment in such a way that the relation meets the demands of the total situation, and to enable the client to complete the developmental tasks that have been arrested, (p. 103)
He goes on to elaborate the familiar tenets of Gestalt therapy practice – working in the present, understanding the client in context and therapeutic grounding in the phenomenological attitude. On this last point, the therapeutic implementation of the phenomenological attitude, Wollants succeeds spectacularly. Many writers have attempted to take the seminal propositions of the phenomenological fathers – Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty – and show their relevance to the concrete practice of psychotherapy. But as I have written before (McConville, 2001b), many of these attempts have been compromised by fundamental misunderstandings and convenient simplifications of Husserl's reduction. Wollants, I propose, has gotten it right. He notes that therapy is essentially ‘a kind of phenomenological investigation’, and he means that quite precisely.
[Page x]Wollants' thinking throughout this book evinces a thorough familiarity with Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, and his description of the therapeutic process definitively reveals the graceful application of their method – the vaunted phenomenological reduction – in concrete therapeutic practice. In his formulation of therapeutic technique, he cites Lewin's ‘method of gradual approximation’ (which is itself an embodiment of Husserl's reduction), in illustrating the open-ended process of evolving meaning making that characterizes therapeutic work. I have often had the experience when watching a master practitioner at work – Sonia Nevis comes to mind – that there was something more going on than I could possibly put into words. Wollants' description of the therapeutic process comes satisfyingly close to capturing that ‘something more’.
I should say a little bit about Wollants' writing style, which is quite distinctive. Malcolm Parlett, in his Epilogue, notes the book's unmistakable ‘European flavor’ and ‘recursive style’, deeming it ‘more a sustained reflection’ than a linear or bullet point presentation. And indeed this is so. One can open this book to almost any page at random, and in reading that page, encounter the essence of Wollants' argument. But it would be completely mistaken to call the book reiterative or redundant. It is, rather, holographic, where each part expresses the structure of the whole, but where the whole, indeed, is considerably more than the sum of its parts. It is as if the book itself represents Wollants' application of Lewin's and Husserl's investigative methods – where, like Husserl's description of perceptual ‘adumbrations’, each piece expresses both a specific profile, as well as a richer ground implied thereby. Each page, each chapter constitutes another pass over a richly articulated but only gradually revealed landscape.
In advocating Lewin's method of gradual approximations for therapeutic practice, Wollants notes that ‘therapist and client are able to grow into the situation which they are exploring together and to observe which elements settle into the foreground against the background of the total situation’ (p. 90). This exploration ‘proceeds in steps from the general, i.e. the whole situation, to the particular, i.e. a differentiation of its parts’ (p. 13). It is worth noting that Wollants has written his exploration of Gestalt therapy in exactly this fashion, and by doing so, models the very process he is advocating. If only as an aesthetic achievement, the effect is quite remarkable.
Georges Wollants set out to ground Gestalt therapy, and the seminal text of Perls, Hefferline and Goodman, in particular, in the ‘id’ of its own situation – the European ground from which it emerged as a potent and important force in shaping a movement. And at this, he has succeeded magnificently.Note
1 Merleau-Ponty discusses this same issue for Gestalt psychology in The Structure of Behavior (1963), where he argued that Gestalt psychology established phenomenology's fundamental premise (Husserl's reduction), and yet continued to frame itself within a dualistic, Cartesian, world view.
Preface[Page xi]Therapy of the Situation: Toward Embedding Gestalt Therapy in its Original European Ground
My purpose in writing this book was to reconnect Gestalt therapy to the theory of Gestalt as originally formulated by the Berlin School, given that the relationship between practice and theory is in this case intrinsic. The founders of Gestalt therapy, Fritz and Laura Perls, based their approach explicitly on the Gestalt-theoretical Berlin School. Fritz Perls dedicated his first book, Ego, Hunger and Aggression (1947/1969), to Max Wertheimer, the driving force behind the Berlin School, and in the introduction to the vintage edition of this book (1969), he set out the most important concepts that he had borrowed from Gestalt theory, namely:
- the organism as a whole, which differs from the parts
- the organism-environment or person–world unity
- the dominant need, which organises the field
- the here and now: exclusive focus on the events and other elements that the client experiences as relevant over a given period of time and that are observable in the current client-environment relations –the importance of the process of ongoing awareness
- the significance of spontaneous non-verbal expression, such as posture, movements of the hands and eyes, muscular tension and vocal expression
- the therapy situation as a genuine encounter of one human being with another human being and not with a case.
Perls periodically cites Goldstein and his theory of the organism as a whole; he alerts us to the risk of the misunderstandings that can arise if we fail to take account of the context or field or whole in which a phenomenon is embedded. He stresses that body and soul are identical in re though not in verbo; that the labels body and soul denote two facets of the same phenomenon (p. 33).
He quotes the famous Gestalt-theory formulation of Wertheimer:
There are wholes, the behaviour of which is not determined by that of their individual elements, but where the part-processes are themselves determined by the intrinsic nature of the whole. It is the hope of Gestalt theory to determine the nature of such wholes. (p. 27)
To a greater extent than Fritz Perls, Laura Perls, his wife, was influenced in her thinking by the Gestalt theorists. On various occasions, she propounded the view that Gestalt [Page xii]therapy is indebted to these theorists, as in the following statement: ‘For the development of Gestalt therapy the work of Wertheimer, Gelb and Goldstein, Koffka and Lewin became particularly important. Anybody who wants fully to understand Gestalt therapy would do well to study Max Wertheimer on productive thinking; Kurt Lewin on incomplete tasks and the crucial importance of interest for gestalt formation; and Kurt Goldstein on the organism as an indivisible totality’ (L. Perls, 1992, pp. 131, 150).
If Laura Perls' vision on the training of Gestalt therapists were followed today, very few Gestalt institutes in the USA and Europe would be seen to be up to scratch. The theory of Gestalt therapy is indeed grounded in the Gestalt-theory tradition of the Berlin School, which was announced in the early writings of Wertheimer (1912, 1922/1938a, 1922/1938b, 1925/1938) and by the appearance of an actual journal (Psychologische Forschung in 1922).
In the founding book by Perls, Hefferline and Goodman, Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality (1951/1994), henceforth referred to as PHG, Goodman cites Köhler and Lewin only twice; however, the fact that person–world interactions are the cornerstone of his conceptualisation is proof positive of the far-reaching influence of the Gestalt theorists on both Laura Perls (and through her, on Fritz Perls) and the seminal work by PHG.
Regrettably, PHG admits of a double reading, in particular an intrapersonal and an interactional interpretation. Part I of Theory puts forward an interactional, relational and situational view, while Part III, especially Chapters XIV–XV, argues for an intrapsychic, monopersonal and decontextualised approach. The latter deviates significantly from the interactional definition of a situation, in which each event or behaviour is understood as being influenced by the ways in which person and world shape their interactions.
It stands reason on its head that the later writers who developed the theory of Gestalt therapy should prefer a model-like homeostatic self-regulation to the situational characterisation of person–world relations as striving for self-realisation, which takes all parts of the whole into account and addresses the requirements of the total situation. The main reason for the ambiguity of the PHG text is that Goodman himself elaborates on Perls' homeostatic model, in which the interdependency of organism and environment is described and contact is reduced to the correction of a disturbed balance. In contrast with the many authors who put forward the principle of a quasi automatic auto-regulation, Goodman proposed a model of a contacting process that deals with the given of the situation on the basis of an awareness of what the situation demands as a whole and the realisation of the best possible form of contact between person and environment. The later, expanded concept of the contact cycles, however, is closer to Perls' interdependency cycle than to Goodman's idea of the contacting process, the hypothesised goal of which was to meet the requirements of the person–world relations. The later writers distorted Goodman's broader concept, rendering it in the sense of a quasi auto-regulating mechanism.
The dissatisfaction that I experienced when I saw how the contact cycle is misused by Gestalt practitioners who label and judge their clients' safety operations as contact disturbances or resistances to contact was a major motivation for my writing this book. Through it, I have tried to re-introduce a view of contact in which even the smallest effort to deal with anything that interferes with an ongoing contacting process can be [Page xiii]considered as a necessary preparation for completing a person–environment interaction, i.e. for achieving contact.
In the course of writing this book, I was constantly guided by a single question: What kind of Gestalt therapy would have been developed from the first hesitant elaborations of this method if most of the attempts to further formulate and re-formulate the basic concepts had been based on situational and interactional considerations and if, from the very beginning, the Gestalt-theoretical insights, principles and applications of the Berlin School had been incorporated into the practice of Gestalt therapy?
This book is my answer to this question. I hope that the interested reader will discover in it the richness of our heritage, which for more than 50 years has been gathering dust. In writing this book, I meant to do a thorough dusting, for it is high time that the authentic Gestalt approach, securely embedded in its original European ground, should be revealed in its pristine glory. I realise, however, that house cleaning is by nature a never-ending task and I leave further sanitising and de-revisionism to other Gestalt therapists and email@example.com,
This book would never have seen the light of day without the help of the many people who cooperated with me in safeguarding both its form and its content. I would like to name each of them, but I am afraid that if I tried to do that I would inevitably forget someone. So by way of a group thank you, I would first like to express my gratitude to the numerous students who, through their participation in training courses that I led, challenged my concept and conceptualising of the theory of Gestalt therapy. They forced me never to be satisfied with a new insight but instead to re-think the theory over and over and to change it whenever that was needed in order to accede to a higher level of integration or a more effective application.
And thank you to the people who were at my side when I first declared my intention to write this book, namely the participants in the European Writers' Conferences in Syracuse, Barcelona and Bordeaux.
I am also thinking of Jeffrey Lubin, a native English-speaking psychologist who took on the frequently terrifying task of editing the book. In this case, editing meant transforming my convoluted Flemish English into fluent and graceful English English.
My gratitude goes out to Malcolm Parlett, who became more for me than a fellow writer; he became a real friend just when I needed one most, when the painful incubation of the writing process started to take its toll on me. His belief that I was capable of seeing the culmination of my life's work through became my belief and inspired me to do just that.
I feel very honoured that Mark McConville, who I highly estimate, would write the prologue for the Sage edition of my book.
In the course of writing this book and thinking out the concepts I wished to convey, I corresponded with Gerhard Stemberger, editor of the International Multidisciplinary Journal of the Society for Gestalt Theory and its Applications, who encouraged me hugely in my project, thereby helping me to lay its foundation stones.
I am grateful towards Christine Stevens, editor of the British Gestalt Journal for introducing my book to SAGE, and assisting me in the difficult process of making the book ready for publishing.
I want to thank Sarah Fallon who didn't hesitate to support my writing by adding her musical colour to the notion of the field. And finally, I want to thank Karin Groet for assisting me in the courses on English soil.
In reflecting on Georges Wollants' wonderful manuscript, I am inevitably drawn back to basic considerations – to the fundamental shifts of thinking that Gestalt therapy has pioneered.
In the introduction to Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (PHG, 1951/1994), the authors famously wrote about acquiring ‘the Gestaltist mentality’. The authors acknowledged it was difficult for the average person, ‘raised in an atmosphere full of splits’ and who has ‘lost his Wholeness’ to grasp what they called the ‘unitary perspective’. To reclaim an ‘undistorted, natural approach to life’, a person ‘has to heal the dualism of his person, of his thinking, and of his language’ (PHG, p. xxiv). In small measure, one could argue, holistic – or unitary – thinking has crept into some areas of practice, for instance into psychosomatic medicine. However, the most entrenched dualistic thinking, and the severest challenge to being unitary in psychology, is exemplified in the practice of separating the human person from the world within which he or she exists. (Even this statement carries a trace of keeping apart person and world, if only linguistically.) Georges Wollants states the essential proposition clearly (in Chapter 1): ‘person and world are inseparable’, they are ‘inter-dependent parts of a dynamic whole’.
As simple and sensible-sounding as the outlook may seem, how often it is denied, glossed over or ignored altogether!
Thus, most psychology is still oriented around a conception of the single individual, regarded as a neurobiological unit with a separate consciousness, possessing psychological traits or properties, who can be subjected to investigation in a laboratory or medical-type facility – i.e. in ‘objective’ circumstances that ‘do not contaminate the subject’. There may be recognition that the person could be affected marginally by the environment or social context in which she exists, but this is basically a secondary matter. Alas, ‘individual psychology’ of this kind still exists; it represents the complete antithesis of the position from which Gestalt therapy begins. To de-contextualise a person and to objectify him is to depersonalise him, to treat him as less than human. Georges Wollants senses the danger, and his book is one, long, powerful repudiation of any such development: he presents something as different as it could be from the above tendency with its nightmarish overtones.
Gestalt therapy takes as axiomatic that if we are to honour human beings' actuality, we need to recognise ourselves and others as inseparable from the various contexts in which we live, work and relate to others. Each of us experiences a ‘phenomenal world’ that is our present situation. I cannot be divided up, as in ‘this bit is me, this bit is my[Page 116]environment’; my personhood and my psychological environment form an integrated whole which is experienced as my immediate situation. In Georges Wollants' words, ‘there is not an environment that is separate from me’; ‘“person” and “environment” are only abstractions out of the situation’.
In PHG, the language was slightly different: they suggested that rather than regarding the organism and the environments two separate entities, they could be seen instead as a single, unitary and undivided organism–environment field. Georges makes a convincing case for using the word ‘situation’, rather than ‘field’, on the grounds that it is closer to everyday experience and usage than the more scientific-sounding (but actually more ambiguous) term ‘field’. However, the fundamental ‘unitary’ message is the same.
From the basic beginning principle – that individual and environment interact continuously to create a field or situation, which is experienced as a lived totality – the necessary requirements for a coherent therapy method, backed up by a comprehensive theory, should be possible to construct. The founding book accomplished this, but there is also some share of muddle and inconsistency within it, as if the authors themselves were not quite sure how far they could extend their central idea. For sure, the revolutionary implications of the shift from an ‘intra-psychic’ to a ‘field’ perspective have never been fully realised, including within the Gestalt therapy community.
It is the sense I have of Georges Wollants picking up the challenge of completing the theory that excites me most. While he continues in the same direction as PHG, in significant ways he has gone further. He ‘re-presents’ the fundamental tenets of Gestalt therapy but his interpretation is a particular one, a creative theoretical integration as well as obviously a personal and professional one, drawing on many years of acting as therapist, supervisor and trainer.
I believe that Georges Wollants understands the radical nature of the shift required in adopting the field perspective that was intended by PHG. He also seems to understand, as perhaps others have not to the same degree, that the project calls for re-examining every aspect of therapy as it is generally conducted. The work of moving beyond the ‘individualist paradigm’ (Wheeler, 2000) requires bunding a carefully weighed argument, but with necessary excursions into relevant areas – for instance, human development, the crucial aspect of bodily participation and of course contact. These form chapters of the book, along with others, each a complete essay of its own, each one helping to complete a big mosaic. Georges is at times critical, even acerbic, about the features of Gestalt therapy, which he considers inappropriate importations from the later Perls era. He also takes Goodman to task at one point (Paul Goodman is usually recognised as the chief theorist of the PHG trio). Yet through it all, one senses that Georges knows there is something he needs to accomplish, with patience and persistence: the task is no less than to convince therapists to take the situation of the client as the focus, including the environmental forces helping to shape that situation.
If the authors of PHG themselves were sometimes muddled about what was meant by adopting the unitary perspective, it is not surprising that subsequent generations of Gestalt therapists have also frequently been confused. It is as if the full implications of the theory they have signed up to have not yet fully impinged for many in the Gestalt therapy community. It is hardly surprising: after all, the members of this community do not exist in splendid isolation; they are themselves situated, living in a surrounding culture which they embody, breathe, contribute to and from which they cannot be divorced. And this wider environment still holds to the view, so pervasive in western [Page 117]culture and philosophy, that human beings are separate and free-standing, and have free choice. To take on board that a person is always in a situation which to improve matters may necessitate changing something in the environment, rather than changing something in the individual, is a radical conception with political implications as well. Recognising the person as a situated being, as a human being-of-the-world, is difficult for many to comprehend, even if the theory of Gestalt therapy calls us to do just that.
My other remarks at the conclusion of this book are mainly celebratory. As a reader, I am imagining you have engaged with this seminal book with pleasure and interest: and that you will have found Mark McConville's Introduction very helpful in getting an overview of the book (I enjoyed it again, having come to the end of the book). Further, I imagine you will have found Sarah Fallon's commentaries useful in throwing extra light on practising in the way that Georges recommends; and that you are still absorbing Georges Wollants' magnificent account itself. At this junction, I do not think I need to add more about the detailed contents of the book. However, there are other summary thoughts and final reflections that I hope will round off your experience, perhaps helping to set the book in a bigger context.
My first thought/feeling is one of being thankful to Georges Wollants for writing such a wise and readable account of contemporary Gestalt therapy. I am glad that the publishers were far-seeing enough to recognise a future Gestalt classic – a book that I believe will be read and re-read as a source book, a book that traces a path ‘back to the source’.
My second realisation is that Georges' achievement is a double one. He has written an account that can be read ‘situationally’ in two different ways. Thus, the book serves as an accessible introduction to Gestalt therapy for trainees, whether in Gestalt psychotherapy and counselling contexts or in other modalities; alternatively, it can be read as a scholarly treatise by qualified Gestalt (or other) therapists to think afresh about their practice and their understanding of what they do. Only with writing and thinking of very high quality is such a double outcome possible.
Third, I have been struck again by the radical nature of what Georges has written, despite the fact that what he is writing is not ‘new’ in some absolute sense: it is there in the founding book (Perls, Hefferline and Goodman, 1951/1994, or PHG as it is affectionately known), and in other sources he writes about. But he presents the insights in ways that arrive fresh. The reader is led to understand, as an embodied truth, that attending with exquisite sensitivity to the whole of the client's experience is also to attend to her situation: the person and the person's world enter the therapy room together. The obligation is simple, and yet it is often not the first priority for harassed therapists, especially when they are pressured to operate within a medical-model-type, diagnostic framework, where the important reference point becomes the classification or category into which to slot the person – rather than simply encountering the full uniqueness of the individual-in-her-situation.
The fourth achievement I want to underline is that the book never strays far from therapy practice itself. There is close linkage between the author's theoretical perspective and the way he pursues his own work as a therapist; there are numerous indications of his long experience in the consulting room. The result is that readers, however experienced, are challenged to review and question their own way of practising: they cannot float above practice into the clouds of theory and stay there.
These four observations made, I want to refer to other aspects of the ‘total situation’ of this book its origins and context, and Georges Wollants' particular ‘position’ as its originator.[Page 118]The Author and His Language
Georges Wollants lives and works in the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium. His language community is a small one. Especially in comparison to that leviathan of languages, English, the dialect of Dutch spoken in Flanders carries little international weight politically speaking, even though it is a rich language within a proud and distinctive cultural tradition. Those in powerful majority groups (English speakers in this case) can easily take their privileged position for granted; they have far greater opportunities for getting their ideas out into the world than those in language minorities. That this book is now widely available is therefore itself newsworthy and very welcome.
Georges has a long-established reputation as a renowned Gestalt therapist and trainer in Holland and Flanders; yet it is only in recent years that he has begun to be known and respected in other countries. This again has to do with the effects of language. While the spread of English as the dominant international language means that a writer and practitioner from a small country who writes English gains a far wider potential readership, this international levelling of the linguistic playing field is two-edged. A powerful language like English can also be a vehicle for cultural hegemony, for colonising-type impositions of norms and ‘natural’ expectations. This is not the place to consider the effects of American values, culture and technology spreading across the planet; however, within the domain of Gestalt therapy, as well as in some other forms of psychotherapy, the question of American versus European influences is a perennial topic; and in understanding the context for this book, the subject of American dominance is unavoidable. Some history is required, and points to the second background theme that I want to address.Gestalt Therapy in the USA and in Europe
Teachers and writers from the USA dominated the early years of Gestalt therapy as an international movement. This was hardly surprising. Gestalt therapy was birthed in the USA; it took its first steps in the exciting post-war era in New York, which felt like the centre of the world in those days; and the first institutes were founded in New York City and in Cleveland, Ohio. Of course, everyone realised that the new therapy had European ancestry, but this fact was not emphasised. After all, had not the parents and grandparents come to the USA to get away from Europe – so they could lead new lives?
This exodus from Europe and the launching of Gestalt therapy in America had an unfortunate side-effect – of overlooking how most of the founding influences and essential ideas were developed and already present in pre-war Europe, notably in Germany itself. While Gestalt therapy, through Paul Goodman, drew upon American influences – notably William James and John Dewey – most of the seminal thinkers were grounded in European thought, languages and culture.
As Gestalt therapy continued its development, the European roots became even more eclipsed. Disturbing transformations of early Gestalt therapy ideas occurred. (These have been well documented elsewhere – see Bowman, 2005.) The changing priorities were reflected in Friedrich Perls' transition through a phase of ‘Frederick Perls’ to ‘Fritz Perls’, and then just ‘Fritz’. Perls substituted a simplified and popularised version of Gestalt therapy in place of the founding theoretical statement (PHG), which he more or less [Page 119]disowned. A more flamboyant and confronting style of Gestalt work came into being, which was widely disseminated in the USA. It was also exported to Europe by travelling Gestalt trainers, who arrived to enthusiastic welcomes from groups of new ‘converts’. Those in the USA who maintained a loyalty to the original conception of Gestalt therapy found themselves in a minority. They were mainly clustered around Laura Perls in New York; she did not go along with her husband's re-branding of Gestalt therapy, and retained a strong connection to the ideas developed before Fritz's departure from New York.
Historically important is the fact that the divide between ‘PHG Gestalt’ and ‘Fritz's Gestalt’ came to be replicated in Europe. When psychologists and others set up new study groups and brought American trainers over to teach them Gestalt therapy, they knew little of the seismic shifts that were taking place in the American Gestalt therapy scene. So the particular form of Gestalt therapy they learnt was largely a function of the visiting trainer's personal Gestalt affiliation. (In fact, even in the USA this pattern was evident, leading to divisions of thought and practice being built in from the start.)
Gestalt therapy in its various versions arrived in Europe as if it was an all-American creation, like numerous other cultural imports flowing across the Atlantic at the time. That its chief roots lay in European existential and phenomenological philosophy and in the earlier discoveries of Gestalt psychology was lost. There was little or no sense of a profound continuity with European ideas and sensibilities. These were seen as being of marginal historical interest only.
However, there were some notable exceptions to the general trend: a few people who never forgot the European grounding of Gestalt therapy and experienced an alive and exciting continuity between the two eras and the two continents. Notably, Laura Perls was one of these; and Georges Wollants, one of Laura's former students, has been another.Georges Wollants' Background
It is important to emphasise that Georges is not anti-American. I have heard him speak about how he remembers with intense and fond feelings being liberated by US forces at the end of the Second World War, and like other war experiences, these early memories lie deep within him. He is not against American thinking either. However, he does want to emphasise that there are benefits for Gestalt therapy in a closer linking up with its theoretical roots in Europe. Educated at the University of Leuven, influenced by the Utrecht school, immersed for years in philosophy, theology, pedagogy and psychology, and subsequently trained in Gestalt therapy by Laura Perls, Georges Wollants is in a good position to make the case for a fuller, more European-rich integration of Gestalt therapy. In an interview he gave in 2005 (p. 101), Georges Wollants spoke of ‘a fruitful cross-fertilisation’ between American and European writers and teachers in the ‘renewal of Gestalt therapy’. Reading the present book again, I realise how it is a beautiful example of the cross-fertilisation, which he applauds. Thus, in exploring his theme, he does full justice to the Gestalt literature written in English and admires and draws upon a number of American writers, from Goodman to Jacobs, Wheeler, Yontef and McConville. At the same time, Georges stands upon his European philosophical foundations and derives support from his cultural background. You will have noticed how he honours European figures that have influenced his work, including Buytendijk, van den Bergh [Page 120]and Nuttin, alongside more familiar names such as Wertheimer, Koffka, Köhler, Goldstein, Metzger and Lewin. His book contains quotations in German, French and Dutch (each translated into English) and his bibliography is inclusive of American, British and other European writings.The Style of Writing
I imagine that, placed alongside other Gestalt books written in English, you will have noticed the European – as opposed to Anglo-American – flavour of the book. Its recursive style, patient argument and scholarly referencing are all indicative of a certain kind of serious engagement with a difficult topic that sometimes seems far removed from the Anglo-American norm. In an increasingly frenetic world, and the change in pace of living, this book is one that demands slower reading – not because it is ‘difficult’ but because its insights are worth savouring; they deserve to be chewed over and the nourishment to be absorbed. It is not a quick-fire, bullet-point kind of book, more a sustained reflection. If you are already a therapist, full participation in the reading of it – almost like a meditation at times – may already have transformed your way of working.Finally…
Georges Wollants deserves our congratulations for picking up the nearly but not fully complete PHG project, and for sharing his integration. Inevitably, an ambitious project like this involves a monumental effort of writing and putting difficult concepts into words – especially difficult if writing in a second language.
It is a job well done. Thank you, Georges.firstname.lastname@example.org), 7 November 2010(
Appendix: The Challenges to Practice: A Personal Response to the Therapy of the Situation from a British Senior Gestalt Therapist[Page 121]
The purpose of this appendix is to summarise some of the theory in Gestalt Therapy: Therapy of the Situation. I was asked by Georges Wollants to particularly bear in mind the student in writing this, but also perhaps the more experienced practitioner embarking upon the challenge of translating his ideas into practice. I have tried to draw on my own experiences of incorporating a situational approach into my work, and hope this will be useful to readers from what Wollants would see as more ‘individual’ or ‘field-based’ backgrounds.
I initially came to Wollants' work confident in my field-theoretical view of self. To clarify, I would see myself as staying present at the contact boundary, offering the conditions in which a client might increase their range of contacting and relationship. On the face of it, this matched almost perfectly with what I understood to be Wollants' therapy of the situation, and I imagined any differences between our approaches might be merely ones of language. (I say ‘merely’ whilst realising the power in the words we select to describe phenomena. Wollants' work has also directed me to a deeper consideration of this issue, and there is more about this in his writing.)
However, despite our approaches sharing many similarities, as I exposed myself to more of his thinking, it seemed that the model I used reverted to a mono-personal paradigm at a certain point in the therapeutic encounter – despite its field-theoretical approach in principle. There are some examples of this later, and in Wollants' writing, but to briefly summarise: when intervening through a lens of interruption to contact and self-functioning, I felt my focus turning from a field orientation to that of an ‘individualised’ client, and the figures becoming my own. I felt interested in knowing more about such points, and in extending my awareness into what surrounds them. This interest has prompted me to discover more about a ‘therapy of the situation’ and I have felt fortunate to be able to explore this with Georges Wollants through reading, workshops and personal communications.An Overview of a Situational Approach
Firstly, in exploring Wollants' work, I consider it important to clarify the use of the word ‘situation’. In English, situation is often used as an alternative word for environment – referring to that which surrounds the subject. However, in understanding a therapy of [Page 122]the situation, it is important that we define ‘situation’ as ‘all that is in situ’, including all of the experience of the client meeting his therapist in the particular circumstances of today, and in this place as it appears on this occasion. (‘Life is forever pouring in afresh’, Rumi). This includes subject, object, environment – all is in relational flux; the totality of what is presented and no one more figural than the other. In this way, the situation is the client. We may carry a caseload of complex situations. This is not just figurative speech – it is Wollants' actual approach defined.
The situation is Wollants' ‘interactional person–world whole’ and he reminds us that Goodman made frequent references to situation in Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (PHG). Frank Staemmler refers to the notion of situation as ‘pragmatically much more useful than the abstract concept of field, since situations are the basic holistic units of human experience’ (Staemmler, 2010, italics in original). I believe that only by understanding the situation as all that is in situ, and opening to the relational experience of this, will the book make full sense to the English-speaking practitioner. At least, that is my own experience and I offer it to the reader in the hope of heading off any confusion.
The situation is the unit of analysis in Wollants' approach. Thus, it is important not to cast the client as the solo artist in her world, but as having an embedded place in the orchestra. So, what are the implications of this in practice?Situation as Symphony
Wollants uses the phrase ‘bodying forth’, thus articulating and acknowledging his respect for Merleau-Ponty Wollants sees every'bodying forth as having a rightful place in the emerging situation. He gives the example of a client biting her lip and offers a likely suggestion of what a therapist with an individualist approach might say:
‘You don't want to speak’ or ‘you are interrupting speaking’.
In a therapy of the situation, on the other hand, the therapist might say:
‘You seem to have something to say and maybe it is not the right time at the moment or perhaps you don't feel enough support to say what you want to say?’
In the above example:
- All parts of the music have equal value.
- There are no sudden solo acts. To clarify, the words perceived, the words not spoken, the choosing itself, the ear of the other, the hesitancy, the urge, the urge repressed –all are accepted as having a rightful place in the composition of the current moment. It might help to appreciate these as the violins, the rest of the strings, a distant oboe, the woodwind section, the percussion, the rests.
- The situation is the orchestration of the above.
- This relational symphony is to be accepted and not criticised, nor individual ‘notes’ held up to be blamed for their form or their position in the score.
Wollants' model is firmly rooted in PHG, as was my own training. Even so, studying his ‘id of the situation’ in practice (and Robine's, as Wollants cites in his book) has allowed [Page 123]me to extend my understanding, and practical application, of the original theory. I have found it challenging to sustain a situation-focused view throughout my practice and, in my first workshop with Georges Wollants, found it humbling to discover how frequently I departed from the meaning behind PHG's field-theoretical terms.Sustaining a Situational Attitude
I have found artistic analogies useful in helping me understand what is required of me in sustaining an attitude of situational relationship. For instance:
- I do not attend a performance of Hamlet to identify aspects of him that would change Shakespeare's play.
- I do not critique the dog's coat in Constable's Hay Wain before I have opened to its place in the scene.
- I do not generate grammatical alternatives within War and Peace as I'm silently reading the opening page.
In all the above, as audience, viewer, reader, I am assisting the art and I am present with the situational characteristics of what emerges between us. It is an attitude of relational allowing.
It is this manner of being-with that differs from some teachings on how to assist in the relationship where, for instance, identifying interruptions to contact is a method of diagnosing the client and generating a meaningful treatment plan. Wollants would see this as an individualist, rather than a situational, approach to diagnosis. To clarify, such an individualistic, almost ‘symptom focused’ and fundamentally non-situational stance, would be an approach where, despite an academic acknowledgement of the ‘field’, at the point of intervention it is only ever the client's contact skills, or self-functioning, that is actually being addressed by the therapist.
To return to an artistic example, if an actor playing Hamlet came to me for help in how to act in his situation, I would need to have gained knowledge of his world through:
- reading the play
- absorbing the subtext
- acquainting myself with the production
- developing a sense of the characters and their relationships
- acclimatising to the landscape and the culture/s therein
- gaining some sense of the play's place in time
- developing an appreciation of the mise en scene.
Wollants would advise such assimilation of the situation to be necessary before making any intervention based upon the individual client's presentation.Specifics in Practice
I have been asked to focus here upon some specific aspects of Wollants' clinical thinking and I hope my comments will be of some use to those readers just beginning to apply [Page 124]them practically. I shall focus upon Bodywork, Self-functions and Personalisation. These are just three aspects from the many in Wollants' work and I imagine readers will encounter many more shifts and developments when starting to work in line with a situational approach in their own practice.Bodywork
Wollants does not see ‘bodywork’ as a distinct specialisation within Gestalt psychotherapy. He strongly believes a well-developed bodily awareness to be essential to common practice. He writes that ‘Gestalt therapy has no need of exercises involving bodywork or sensory awareness. Gestalt therapy is a body therapy from start to the finish; the bodies of therapist and client are the loci in which they can encounter the other.’The Bodying Forth of the Situation
What I like about Wollants' approach to bodywork is that he brings a solid and sophisticated theory to our already established use of body as instrument; the bodying forth of the situation as it occurs for both therapist and client, including the person–world of the therapy session.
As you may recall, in Chapter 5 Wollants elaborates upon the theory behind his use of body as a guide. As I referred to earlier, he sees ‘body’ as a bodying forth of the situation. This is a significant perceptual shift in terms of how we view somatic phenomena, and Wollants models and sharpens the ways in which it behoves us to be fully present to this unfolding situation of which we are part.
Wollants highlights that there are practitioners who might suggest a client make bodily changes in a particular way. For example, a therapist says:
Therapist: Your jaw is tense. Try loosening it. See if you can let your mouth hang open.
If the client feels uncomfortable doing that, or communicates that they don't wish to do that right now, this therapist might say:
Therapist: Be interested in why that is. What stops you?
A situation-focused therapist would see such a therapist as following his own agenda here; the initial intervention his own figure, put upon the client, and against the flow of any emerging and joint unfolding. It might even be said that it is an ‘interruption to contact’ in itself, whilst claiming to be addressing the interruptions to contact in the client.
A situation-focused therapist, however, would see the same client as bodying forth something crucial in their locked jaw. It is an offering; an expression of some of the impairment of the situation. And it is one of many in the symphony.
Some of Wollants' approach brings to mind the importance of grace elaborated upon in Sally Denham-Vaughan's lecture (2010) ‘The Liminal Space’, in which she speaks of ‘an instant in being and time when the client is specifically contained and worked with while on the threshold of a change process, rather than mobilised or enabled into action. The liminal space is rich in possibilities and potential that could not have been thought of or anticipated’ (2010).
[Page 125]In contrast, when the client in the above illustration did not respond receptively to the figure of the therapist, the therapist stayed with his own figure, albeit this time focusing on what the client didn't like about his suggestion.
Another example is when a client has been with something deeply and to the point of physical stillness. Some therapists commonly use an imperative in this instance, albeit perhaps said softly, such as:
Yet it is possible the client needs to be still, and to breathe shallowly (he won't stop breathing!) in the new situation in which he finds himself. The therapist might continue:
Therapist: You're not breathing …Take deep breaths… Feel the air going into your lungs.
Perhaps the client says this doesn't feel right at this moment, and the therapist may even go on to say:
Therapist: It may feel unnatural at first, so do it consciously.
It might be said that this client is being controlled by the therapist and, some may argue, making interventions that feel akin to a subtle form of puppetry.
I find this detail to be helpful. In my early training and development, I would have been encouraged to intervene in the manner of Therapist 1. In subsequent interventions, I may have paid attention to the smile and, also, the fear in combination with the smile. And at the root of these options, there is an implication of:
- seeing the fear as something of the client's to be explored
- seeing the fear as a potential ‘interruption to contact’
- seeing the smile as an interruption to the fear
- seeing the smile as a necessary support to enable the client to stay with the therapist whilst feeling scared.
[Page 126]However, a situational approach goes several steps further. Taking the last intervention as an example, even acknowledging the smile as a support carries an implication that the client is somehow in a world of their own. By contrast, Wollants' choice of intervention, seen in Therapist 2, does not focus on the disturbances of the individual, but on the impairment of the situation.Summary for Practice
- Do not initially focus on one part of the body more than another.
- Instead, stay with an appreciation of the orchestration –do not single out one violinist!
- View the situational body with acceptance.
- Perceive with your whole body and avoid separating yourself into different senses.
- Remember that perception is a multi-sensory, whole-body phenomenon, and it is inseparable from situated body.
- Describe any phenomena without judgement.
- Know that you, the therapist, are part of the music.
In practice, I have felt supported by seeing any bodying forth as a liminal phenomenon; an embodiment of the whole situation as it stands at the ‘body-threshold’ of person and world.Self-Functions
Wollants raises questions about the usefulness of the concept of self-functions, a well-established template for some practitioners. Wollants does not believe in self-functions. This being the case, he would see a situational response where a more individualist therapist might see a client as being stuck in ‘ego functioning’, and as having a ‘self disorder’ as opposed to Wollants' sense of the client being part of an impaired situation. From this premise, the ‘self disorder’ therapist sees the client as being the victim (or perpetrator) of what he is experiencing. The interventions are to the client suggestions, or relational encouragements, to make things different with the therapist's support.
However, to refer to Wollants' discussion of Lewin's and Kofka's ‘demand characteristics’, it might be said that:
- The fixed family calls to the child to act stereotypically.
- The hysterical colleague calls out shallow participation.
- The controlling therapist calls out fight, submission or adaptive engagement.
If we take Wollants' views on board, then it proves difficult to speak meaningfully of a client's ‘personality function’ or, indeed, of any ‘self’ functioning. Wollants speaks instead of developmental needs, anxieties and fixed solutions. Below I include an illustration relating to the clinical illustration (in Chapter 4) of a man who cannot stand up to his father. I attach to this a simplified summary that Wollants gave of the same, in a training workshop for therapists.1
- Every ‘disease’ can be seen as a disturbance of a developmental need. Even a situation needs certain developments. However, these developmental needs are interactional. [Page 127]
- It is not easy to stand up to father and say ‘F you!’ It is forbidden to do so. When the man is with his peers he can say ‘My father can f himself.’ But it is hard for him to look in his father's eyes and say ‘You are not good for me’. He has to cope with this situation and so there forms a fixed solution.
- Symptoms are nothing more than attempted solutions. The young man falls back on rigid patterns. For example, he says ‘Yes, father’ but he is thinking ‘No, father’. Symptoms are behaviours that have previously been incorporated as solutions. In the therapy, if you are ‘soft’ with this client, he doesn't believe his eyes and so he might test you. When you do not respond to these tests in the way that his father would, his fixed solutions melt and dissolve like snow in the sun.
The last sentence again brings to mind the grace inherent in Wollants' approach that I have witnessed both in his teaching and in his work:
When two violins are located in the same room and a string is plucked on one, the string tuned to the same frequency on the other will also vibrate …This is not merely imagining, extrapolating or interpreting cues; the epistemic process is more direct. Subjectivity is suspended to attune to the other. (Rowan and Jacobs, 2002:80)
Wollants sets out a theory which, at its core, pays homage to the ethical requirements for a therapeutic relationship – and one which offers us a way of holding the ensuing fullness of such. I see this ethical basis as indivisible from his developed theory. He shows us how to hold the situation as the therapeutic figure which, in terms of any emerging power issues, feels very different from seeing ourselves as the part in the relationship with a contract to ‘heal’ the other.Personalisation
Wollants believes it unwise for a therapist not to personalise or individualise too soon. Instead he urges us to stay with the global, undifferentiated situation in question for much [Page 128]longer. To return to one of my previous illustrations, an example of too early an intervention would be the therapist asking ‘Hamlet’ to speak as his tapping foot before having opened to any of the situational characteristics, including the present one. Hamlet's essence does not reside in his foot. He has emerged from, and is embedded in, a situational matrix along with the therapist.
Going in to focus too quickly on a tapping foot can serve as a protection for the therapist from opening to the fullness, and complexity, of the situational matrix at hand. But it is the very impact of the full situation to which Wollants would advocate we expose ourselves. Thus, he would advocate we spend time listening to the music of the situation, in full awareness that we are part of the composition. We stay in the moment of the current phrasing; feeling the impact of each note, each rest, the rise and fall of crescendo, the slurring, the staccato; the emerging whole as it continues. Accepting we are also instruments of the music, we allow, absorb and appreciate.
When first incorporating Wollants' ideas into practice, I found it easy to feel there was no ‘relational handle’ when flooded with such a range of equally valued data. I felt de-skilled at times. In other words, I had wondered what to ‘get hold of’ as I let go of more established, and more pointed, methods. However, as Wollants clearly sets out in his teaching and this book, through practice it becomes possible to find a ‘relational handle’ in the situation instead of in a single figure.I versus it
A good example of difference in approach here is Wollants' position on the tradition among some Gestalt therapists of inviting the client to make T statements from ‘it’ statements. For example, a client says ‘It is raining in my situation. It is difficult’. Some therapists have been trained to intervene by saying ‘Say “I”‘. The client is then expected to incorporate this, perhaps saying: ‘I am in the rain. I find it difficult’.
Wollants advises us not to do this but to stay with the whole: ‘the id of the situation’. He proposes that we help by not differentiating into the parts (of person or world) for as long as possible. We accept the whole: the relation and the interplay. If we differentiate into Personalisation (or, conversely, Environmentalisation) too early, we make the client a victim of the rain. We assume the person is to blame, or their environment is to blame, whereas all is in relation, in situ. So, he argues, we would better serve the therapy by, instead, fully accepting the ‘it’.Interruptions to Contact
As I mentioned previously, Wollants sees practitioners as shaping the contact prematurely when they make a figure of an interruption they have found in the client's way of relating. This interruption then becomes the subject of, and justification for, the therapeutic work. For the ensuing segue, the therapist has the knowledge and expertise and, albeit perhaps kindly, he points out the interruption to contact, or the fixity in self-functioning, hoping the client can have their awareness sufficiently raised to be able to see it too. This might lead to an experiment initiated by the therapist, in which the therapist directs the client through certain procedures (such as in the earlier example of the tense jaw).
[Page 129]Wollants points to a schema of blamer/blamed that he sees emerging in such a dynamic. I would add that there might be a wider relational schema around domination that is shaping the encounter at its core. Once such a structure has formed, it sets the foundation from which future interactions emerge. I believe it is difficult to move on to a situational approach after one has shuttled quite so far out of it.
Some basic, and simplified, tenets to aid early practice (that are beautifully elaborated by Wollants in the book) are:
- Don't differentiate into person/world too soon.
- Don't ask questions.
- Let the whole situation be the focus of the therapy for as long as you can.
- Remember, there are no symptoms, only fixed solutions.
- There are no ‘mental illnesses’, only behaviour.
Wollants is not advocating that we don't ever examine a person's experience and behaviour, but that we need to have devoted significant time to exploring the situational forces that are influencing it beforehand. In holding up for examination an interruption to contact, we are left only with a very small piece of it. We reduce the complex relational situation to an identification of the client's interruptions, and reduce a field-theoretical therapy to a mono-personal paradigm at the moment of intervention.The Risks in Making Personalised Interventions Too Soon
The blamed client feels her problems and those of her situation are of her own doing alone: ‘If only I could fix myself then my life/my family's life would be so much better…’.
When the therapist responds to the presenting situation with a person-focused intervention – often expressed as a micro-observation intended to illuminate the macro-situation – it is not unlike taking the fumbling music student to another room to practise alone before he returns to take his place in the orchestra. Wollants suggests keeping the therapy in the orchestra, believing that to separate the client from the situation is to blame him. I realise there can be good intention behind some psychotherapists' removal of the musician. However, once removed, the isolated pupil embarks upon the task of improving his playing without the support of the very musicians (i.e. the vectors in the field) he needs to play among, and this is one of the points at which I think any practical embeddedness with the field is left behind.
As Wollants points out, in such an approach the therapist gives himself the powerful position of identifying the momentary relational deficiencies in the client. The client who questions these perceptions can be perceived as presenting yet another interruption to contact, or fixity in self-functioning, to be worked upon. Despite a commitment to horizontal relationship, this dynamic emerges from a vertical axis of the therapist imposing his view on the client from a position of superiority. Wollants warns us against making the client an object of study and, instead, encourages us to engage in collaborative partnership.
In what Wollants terms a personalised approach, there may be some acknowledgement paid to the field by the therapist, but only perhaps in terms of how the client (changing [Page 130]as the therapy proceeds) might impact it. In response, the impacted field then responds differently to the client. However, this draws a line between person and world with the therapist working through the person in order to affect change in the field. This is a subtle, but significant, difference. This is one of the points at which I initially became very interested in what Wollants had to say; a pivotal juncture at which I was able to identify a difference between his situational approach and the ‘field’ approach in which I had been originally trained.
In his therapy of the situation, I feel invited by Wollants to engage in a moral consideration of therapy in terms of what accords with an ethical approach to relationship. His aim is to provide the conditions in which the client can provide the conditions for being in situ. When a figure arises from a situational foundation, then both client and therapist are likely to share an equal interest in the emergent phenomena. A situational foundation is built by staying embedded in that which is in situ, including at the points of intervention. After all, there is no separate set of interruptions' for a therapist to comment on.Concluding Remarks
Wollants' helpful examples of therapeutic dialogue, both his own and those of Fritz Perls, illuminate the differences between individualised and situational approaches better than I have been able to do here and I encourage the reader to keep returning to them.
It is my belief that one doesn't have to identify as a pure situation-focused therapist to gain benefit from Wollants' teachings, and that it is possible to extend one's practice just by holding back from personalisation until much later in the work. When assessing clients, I have found it useful to shift to assessing the impairing situation; the situational contacting process; the circumstances pressing against the client as they form him in forming them; the situation of relationship. This is the crucible of any emergent self/situation. In seeing the whole situation, one is not separating the client from his world. It is an assessment of that which is in situ; that with which he is embedded. It is a holding of the music; all that is the symphony of the client's life.
As a developing psychotherapist, I have found value in the self-function approach in which I was initially trained. Having said this, I have found it of more specific value when working with clients who have been referred to me with a medical diagnosis of personality disorder. However, following his training, I am experimenting with going along with Wollants and refraining from any reification of self through conceptually dividing it into separate functions. There is the same phenomena to be recognised but, in conceptualising what I see otherwise, I hold the relationship and situation differently. If I see these movements as ‘bringing about what the situation demands’, in collaboration with the client, we can more precisely examine the nature of the impairing situations as they emerge.
I have found that continued practice of Wollants' methods brings about an increased awareness of how to be with the fullness of the situation in a way that is precise, despite opening to its totality. Over time, I have discovered more about how we can omit with precision, and the ways in which a sense of this precise and unvoiced consideration can also be registered by the client.
[Page 131]There is great intelligence to Wollants' writing, which I both enjoy and respect. I find the same to be true of his situational method; a staying with, and a refined expression of, ‘the intertwining reciprocity of the other and me’. I encourage readers to try these ideas out in practice as I found that it was only through engaging this way in triads and clinical work that the full implications of his theory were clarified.Note
1 Taken from my notes of Wollants during his workshop for therapists, Nottingham, UK, 2009.[Page 132]
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