Friedrich (Frederick) Salomon Perls, better known as,Fritz Perls, coined the term Gestalt Therapy with his wife Laura Perls.
(For those unfamiliar: Gestalt Therapy is an existential/experiential form of psychotherapy that emphasizes personal responsibility, and that focuses upon the individual's experience in the present moment, the therapist-client relationship, the environmental and social contexts of a person's life, and the self-regulating adjustments people make as a result of their overall situation.)
In January, I began a one-year training in Gestalt Therapy. I told myself it was to make me a better practitioner with my patients. But I think deep inside I really wanted more tools to better understand me. Yesterday was my second class. Starting at 9am and finishing at 6:30pm, needless to say I know a little more about me. See part of the training requires us to participate in a process so others can observe and learn. Essentially what this means is a small group of 7-8 people sit in a circle on the floor, the remaining students sit on the outside of the circle and observe the process. The group is compromised of first year students (me) and advanced students. The inner circle is called the fishbowl. In the fishbowl two facilitators begin the process and get the students to relax and eventually someone the in bowl is the focus of discussion. Only the people in the fishbowl can speak, the others are merely observers. I quickly learned it is difficult for me to be an observer. The healer in me comes to the surface and wants to rescue the person on the hot seat. During our first class I attempted to negotiate with a facilitator the option to speak from the outer circle. He was quick to let me know I am always welcome to enter the bowl but if seated on the outside I was not able to speak, merely to observe. I was quick to let him know I was not anxious to have my shit addressed and therefore feared entering the bowl. He smiled and some how I knew in that smile he understood me but was not going to let me negotiate what I wanted. So with a deep breathe and all my shit in tact later that day I entered the circle. Nothing profound happened to me during that class, and I was grateful. Sitting with this group of 18 people, most of whom are therapists I wondered how I was going to share my inner most thoughts. I learned long ago having worked in mental health how to block myself so they could not peer into my soul and steal my shit that makes me who I am. Good, bad or indifferent.
Fast forward to class two. Still unfulfilled with merely observing I jumped head first into the bowl. Putting on my therapist repellant I was ready to venture into the circle and claim my space so I could speak. I was quick to share I thought this process took too long and how I wish some of the participants would just speak their truth so we could move this along. You would have thought I had a bomb strapped to me and was going to detonate it. There I sat with my shit in the middle of the room as the wolves began to circle. It did not take long for me to understand not only had I laid my shit out for the group, but I stepped in it. In a very nurturing and compassionate manner they started to peel away my layers and address my need for speed. I now understand the brain, and clearly the mouth move quicker than feelings. It is through this experiential and tedious process we learn what is really happening inside of us. So in short I needed to dial myself down and trust the process.
I was certain I had dealt with my issues in my early 20’s, when I was Gestalt-ed. I often refer to Gestalt as something that was done to me, not something I participated in. I think I referred to it in this manner because so much of my early work was interactive, not just talk therapy. My greatest memory of my early Gestalt process involved three chairs. The chair on the left represented the head, logical and processing. The chair on the right represented the heart, the feeling part of me. The chair in the middle was a space for the two to come together and have a serious and gut wrenching discussion. This space was reserved for the two to have a serious talk about working together to make me a whole person. Suffice to say it took me a year to make it to the middle chair. I was certain she wanted to sit me in the middle chair tie me down and force me to have this discussion. But she never pushed and told me some day I would make it to the middle chair. I remember thinking I hope I win the lottery or the insurance pays because I had no intention of sitting in that fucking chair, my mind and heart were just fine running their own shows.
Who knew almost 30 years later and in training to learn Gestalt I would again encounter the same issues, patience and working the process. I am almost embarrassed to say I am still working on these things but I will chalk it up to being a slow learner when it comes to working on me. I always give my patients a wide path to explore and take their time. Even cautioning them to slow down and work the process. Sound familiar?
Interestingly enough in the two fishbowl sessions I participated it was the men who took the center stage. Sitting across from me was a younger more unenlightened version of me it was like watching myself in the early years struggling to find me and who I would become. Sitting next to me was an older version of me successful, retired yet lonely and struggling to find his space at this point in his life. What I am about to say I already knew and often talk to patients about this very thing, but I fail to use my words on myself. It occurred to me in the safety of the fishbowl we are never done with the journey, there is never a coasting period, only a small eye of the storm then back to it. If we are seekers of the truth and desire to suck the marrow out of life we must be ever changing, patient, and open to the experiences around us. Bearing my soul and in my best therapy speak I relayed to the younger me how he always made me feel as if I wanted to hug him and tell him it would be okay. He stared blankly into my eyes but I knew he got what I was saying. It was then time to turn my attention to the older me sitting to my left. Shortly thereafter a facilitator and the woman to her left, who by this time was crying, touched his leg and said I give a shit about you and what is happening in your life. At that moment I knew I was in healer mode his energy leapt into the room and seized my body. Shaking his head and struggling not to cry he told her, the other student, that was overwhelming to hear. No shit it was overwhelming and I too began to struggle with not loosing my shit for the group. Taking a deep breath I allowed the tears to fill my eyes but not over power my face, it was as if he was crying through me. I know he touched something deep inside me because as humans we all have the same feelings and emotions. We only differ in how these emotions and feelings play out for each of us. During the time he was struggling to compose himself I inquired if he asked for what he wanted in life, “hell no” was his response. Then we chuckled. It reminded me when we are un-happy with how things are it is okay to ask for what we want. We may not get it but at least we know we have asked. I also found it interesting that I connected to the young guy and his blank stare, I have given that to so many people as a young man. Interestingly enough I empathized with the older man and his desire for more unable to ask but finally being in a space to loose the stare and own the feelings.
I must report this experience as difficult as it was changed me for the better. I know the journey never really stops; retirement is what we do at the time of death. Fishbowl be dammed, I am sure next month the desire to participate and be able to speak will overtake me I will once again be in the bowl vomiting up crap I had no intention of sharing. I am also reminded that all things have a price. The price of this ticket is leaving the old behind and embracing a new way of thinking about how I interact in the world.