The phenomenological method of inquiry supports the Gestalt therapist to attend to, and inquire into, the perspective of the client and their experience of the world around them.
Making sense of the world around us is an instinctive, human need. As children, we are active explorers of the world, embodying the beginners mindset. We yearn to learn and discover with no expectations for how things should be. However, by the time we reach adulthood, we are preoccupied by past events, or stricken by fears of the future. We focus on pursuing our goals while overlooking the value of the journey. Our obsession with interpreting the world prevents us from understanding. Yet life cannot be analysed from the outside; it must ultimately be experienced from within.
Based on these eternal truths, Gestalt therapy deepens our intuitive awareness to make sense of human existence. Instead of interpreting events and emotions, we let life surprise us. We appreciate where we are and our way of being in the world. Using the Gestalt method, we bracket off presumptions and biases to give equal weight to phenomena and our moment by moment experience (Wollants, 2008).
Together, we are intrepid explorers of the world, remaining curious to thoughts and emotions that shape our present experience. We approach difficult questions with an honest and open mind. Refraining from interpretation allows us to enter the experience of the other, without imposing our own worldview. We are meeting each other with compassion at a particular moment in time. As we drop our learned defenses, and suspend our instinctual judgments, we can enter into authentic contact to appreciate the world of another.
As humans, we are often our own worst critics. Even the most minor mistakes may leave us wracked with guilt. Traumatic experiences from the past can prompt us to retreat from the world. If we were scolded for our emotions as infants, we may carry these beliefs into adulthood. Over time, these expectations for how we should be can cause us to lose touch with ourselves, and the very essence of our being. If negative emotions arise, we may desperately seek to repress them, or dismiss them as signs of weakness. We may build emotional barriers as a means of self-preservation. Rather than openly expressing our feelings, we disown these parts of ourselves in the hope that we can somehow escape them.
Yet vulnerability and self-disclosure remains the source of our strength. Although foreboding at first, this open dialogue and disclosure helps us surrender to what emerges. The barrier between self and other dissolves in these moments of contact. The gift of unconditional acceptance encourages us to drop our defences. This is the essence of dialogue. We can express our authentic truth while respecting the truths of others. For as we open ourselves to the other, we welcome the world`s embrace.
Paradoxical theory of Change
A central concept of Gestalt therapy is the notion that change cannot be forced. Like water, which takes the path of least resistance, change is a spontaneous and organic process. If we attempt to force these changes, unexpected incidents or setbacks may rekindle previous traumas. We attempt to play multiple roles without fully embodying their significance. This can cause feelings of fragmentation, or an ongoing identity crisis. Transformation is only possible when we accept who we are in the moment.
As such, the Gestalt therapist encourages total immersion in these roles to uncover the meaning behind them. Once we authentically embody these roles, we understand that our way of being is shaped by the expectations of others and our interpretations of who we should be. This deepens our perceptions of these roles without feeling that they define us. As we experience these aspects of selfhood, we replace contrived ways of being with a newfound sense of perspective. We realise that the roles we play are shaped by inputs from others and the wider world around us. Once we embrace what this insight entails, we can accept ourselves in the present to empower our own self-healing.
Similar to the Buddhist concept of Wu Wei, the paradoxical theory of change is based on effortless action. Through honouring the totality of our experience and embracing our fragility as humans, we come to terms with our journey. While we may hold regrets, we acknowledge that our prior responses were based on our understanding at the time. After accepting this truism, we can learn to make peace with the past to embrace a new way of being.
The active, experimental approach is at the heart of Gestalt therapy. When we talk about our thoughts and emotions, we are distant from ourselves and our feelings. In contrast, the experimental, Gestalt approach encourages us to actively embody these emotions and express them as they arise. Using this lens, we identify with our present experience, and the varying forms of influence that shape our beliefs and behaviours (Wollants, 2008).
For some, unprocessed traumas from the past may remain trapped within the body, manifesting as physical pain or tension. As these traumas are often unconscious, they must be coaxed into the conscious space to process their varying impacts. Rather than avoiding them or shutting down, we can experience them in their entirety, and perceive how the environment around us may help or hinder our progress.
As we open ourselves to their wisdom, these intuitive, emotional messages become our greatest teachers. The very experience of suffering breaks a chink in our personal armour. Once we probe our anger for answers, we uncover the fear behind it. We can play with parts of ourselves that we previously sought to forget. When we suspend our critique and judgement, we accept how we feel in the moment, while remaining curious to subtle cues that strengthen self-understanding. In the world of spontaneous play, rules are rendered irrelevant; each moment unfolds before us without expectation of certain outcomes.
When we experiment, there are no right or wrong answers; it is the learning itself that matters and the possibilities that unfold in the process. Using a process of trial and error, we break free of habitual responses to explore new ways of responding. Rather than reacting, we confront our habits with compassion and uncover cues in the environment that trigger particular patterns. This dynamic, physical enactment is also highly cathartic, helping us express and release past hurts in a safe, supportive environment.
The issues and traumas we`re experiencing cannot be addressed in isolation. An essential tenet of Gestalt therapy is the symbiosis that exists between us; both the organism and the surrounding environment are inextricably interrelated. (Wollants, 2008.)
We both create and interpret this world, extracting meaning from the situations we encounter in relation to our frame of reference (Wollants, 2008.)
Over time, this feedback influences our sense of identity and how we interact with the world. This is, in essence, the key concept of field theory: our present beliefs and behaviours are simply reflections of our situations and the subjective world of experience. (Wollants, 2008.)
Far from being static, the relational field around us continually evolves and adapts. It reflects the world as we see it and the image we have of ourselves.
Consider your experience as an infant. If you grew up in a supportive environment, your perceptions of others and the world will generally be positive. However, if this environment was scary and unsafe, your fear in childhood may manifest as anxiety in adulthood. Thus, issues that we carry from the past are not personal, pathological failings; they are signs of insufficient support that forced us to fend for ourselves. (Wollants, 2008).
Once we come to terms with these truisms, we understand how our ways of responding are reflections of the conditions around us.
This profound, personal awakening affords a sense of liberation. Instead of perceiving ourselves as inferior, we accept that each situation shapes our experience of the world, and the way we relate to others. As we unravel these eternal truths, we deepen our self-awareness. We can explore triggers in our environment that lead to particular habits. We understand our reactions to others, while loosening our attachment to these patterns. Armed with this new self-knowledge, we can come to terms with the past and our present ways of responding.