Gestalt psychotherapy emerged in the mid twentieth century, around the same time as other humanistic approaches such as Rogerian and Transactional Analysis. Gestalt is about relationship, with other people and with the world… It is about how we use our moment-by-moment experience to make choices that have an impact on ourselves and others, within the context of a wider field which is responsive to all that takes place within it. Gestalt understands how the choices we make reveal something unique about each moment, and helps us respond fluidly and creatively. It is as much a philosophy as a set of theories and is now used in community groups, business and politics as well as in the context of therapy.
Psychotherapy is known to help people experiencing:
•Anxiety and depression
•Difficulties around eating
•Trauma and abuse
•Physical pain in some circumstances
‘There is no path; we make the path by walking’ Antonio Machado
This is what happens with our brains too, habitual thought create a track that becomes easier and easier to take, just like a path through a wood that clears and flattens when it is walked upon. Our habitual thoughts create our experience. We act as though our thoughts are true, and the world reflects that reality back to us.
The good news is that it is possible choose a different path. With practice, we can learn to close off the well-travelled ways and cut a new route, which will bring a fresh experience and a different response from others.
Our bodies are our main allies in the practice of rebuilding our neural pathways. The brain’s plasticity contrasts with the sturdy solidity of the body. Our bodies attempt to help us can be experienced as pain, stress, anxiety or depression. Finally listening to the message our body is sending can result in increasing insight and alleviation of symptoms.
We settle into patterns of relating with the world that may be neither comfortable nor effective, but they are what we know. Psychotherapy allows these ways of engaging with the world to be brought into awareness. With awareness comes choice.
We learn how to be the way we are in the world from other people: parents, relatives and carers, teachers and other significant figures. The ability to change can only be found in the experiencing of a different form of relationship, and this is what therapy offers. New ways of connecting with people and situations can be discovered by means of the therapeutic relationship itself.
We find who we are in relationship with ‘other’, most powerfully, with other human beings. I offer a protective environment in which both of us can creatively explore your way of relating to the world, allowing a deeper understanding of the person you are to become known. With increased awareness comes choice, and the flexibility to respond to situations from a fresh perspective. The therapeutic relationship becomes a safe place in which to try out new ways of being, and discover how to evoke a different response from others.
Psychotherapy and Counselling
These terms are often used interchangeably. Some people think counselling and psychotherapy are the same. Others believe they are different. Differences can be defined in terms of depth and duration, with psychotherapy considered to go deeper and, therefore, to take longer. Until the profession resolves this question, one way of approaching how they are different may be to consider the training practitioners are required to undertake. Counselling training generally lasts for four years, psychotherapy for at least seven. Psychotherapists are usually required to be in personal therapy for most of their training, the requirements for counsellors vary depending on the course undertaken. Psychotherapists are required to undertake a placement within a mental health environment, counsellors are not.
What Happens Next...
If you think you might like to work with me, then please telephone or e-mail to make an initial contact. The first stage would be to speak on the telephone to discuss what you want from therapy. I will let you know if I think I might be able to help, and you can also ask any further questions you might have about me, or my practice. There is no charge for this.
The next stage would be to agree an initial, hour-long appointment, for which you would pay. This will give us an opportunity to explore what you want in greater depth, and provide you with a chance to experience how I work. We will identify a possible way forward, and then you can decide whether you want to have further meetings. Sessions last for an hour and usually take place weekly.
During our meetings, I will listen very carefully to what you have to say, both to the actual words and to the way in which you say them. I often echo back what I have heard, so that I know I have really understood. If I believe it is helpful, I might respond with my own thoughts and feelings about what you have said – my style is to become involved in what is taking place. We might decide to experiment with different options as a way of shedding light on difficult situations. We will certainly pay attention to the way we are working together in the session, identifying what is helpful and what is less effective. I have a very wide range of ways I can work with you and we will negotiate between us the best way to move forward. The idea is for you to feel safe enough to begin to take risks in order to achieve what you want.
How long would it take?
Some people prefer a shorter time scale of 4-6 sessions, finding this sufficient time to deal with the issue they have decided to explore. Others choose to remain in therapy for months or years because they find the benefits justify the time, expense and commitment involved.
The following article describes how this powerful approach can be used in a psychotherapy context.
Connecting with the Collective: The Constellations Approach of Bert Hellinger
“They called me after my dead Uncle Peter.” A slender, intense man in his late twenties, Peter made this announcement early in our first session. At times, in a therapy encounter there can be a sense of the real action having taken place elsewhere. Not just outside the counselling room, but in another time and place, among different people. I felt that way being with Peter: he told me about his sense of identification with the uncle who had died in childhood: “My Grandmother told me how much I reminded her of him…” He spoke of his ambivalence towards life, the fantasies of escaping. There was no obvious reason for these feelings. Life was good: good enough relationship; good enough job; enough money, but Peter was still ambivalent. Why? My suspicion was that it had something to do with Peter’s family background, how they had all been affected by the loss of the little boy who would have been Peter’s grown-up uncle, if he had lived. I had done a long training in one-to-one psychotherapy and had worked with couples and groups too. But those people were all in the room. Here was a situation where people who were not present, even long dead, were directly affecting the work and I had very few resources I could use to feel effective in supporting my client to explore what was happening.
I knew that this phenomenon had to be recognised and understood somewhere in our culture: after all, there was that notorious, often-quoted piece from the bible about the sins of the fathers being visited on the sons… My training in Gestalt psychotherapy, had made me aware of Field Theory, which is described by its instigator, Kurt Lewin as, ‘a set of principles, an outlook, a method and a whole way of thinking which relates to the inter-connectedness between events and the settings or situations in which these events take place.’1 It is no mystery to an observant practitioner that we all exist in inter-related fields. At the most obvious level it is noticeable that, as our clients begin to change, the others with whom they are in relationship are forced to re-evaluate their own ways of relating (including ourselves as counsellors and therapists). So maybe these adjustments and re-configurations happen all the time in families, as they react individually and collectively to the life-events occurring within them. This possibility interested me, but I needed something more: a clearly-defined philosophy and a methodology for intervening with the issues my clients were bringing. I began a search for approaches that were inclusive of wider family systems and discovered the work of German psychotherapist Bert Hellinger.
Hellinger refers to his work as, ‘The Orders of Love’, a name I found as engagingly enigmatic as the title of a prize-winning novel! His idea is that certain principles needed to be followed in order for families to work at the best level for all their members. He claims that the flow of love within a family system is what makes it healthy or dysfunctional. Issues can be resolved, and the whole system strengthened if the most effective order for love’s movement within the family is identified. Some of Hellinger’s principles for the ideal ways that love can flow seem obvious: that it is more effective for the parents to take care of the children, rather than the other way round, for example. I found other principles were less easily understood intuitively and my feminist ideals were challenged by some of Hellinger’s statements on the relationship balance between men and women. What was significant for me in being able to accept Hellinger’s ideas was that they were not derived intellectually, but distilled from his observation of the actual experience of people with whom he had worked. When I began to be more involved in the approach, I could see for myself how certain patterns emerged, and that in the main, his conclusions were sound. Even so, in practise, priority is always given to here and now observation: the solution that makes everyone involved feel better in each unique set of circumstances.
I was able to see and sense the validity of Hellinger’s principles because of the method he uses for understanding and intervening within the system. Traditionally taking place in the context of a workshop, a facilitator works with an individual ‘client’, a volunteer identified from among the group members. When a client has been identified, usually the facilitator will spend some time sitting with him or her, discussing the issue to be explored and identifying the members of the client’s family system most directly involved. The client then chooses other members of the group to represent those family members and places the representatives so that they stand in a pattern that makes some sort of intuitive sense to the client. Representatives are not sculpted in any way; the emphasis is on the spatial relationship between them and on the direction in which they are facing. The pattern created in this way is called a constellation. In the situation with Peter, outlined earlier, a facilitator might choose to set up a constellation with representatives for Peter himself, his mother and father and his dead uncle. The way Peter chooses to place them in relation to one another would give an indication of his perception of the situation. For example, if he places the representatives for himself and his dead uncle very closely together and facing one another, that would give a very different impression from placing them at a distance and turned away.
When a constellation has been set in place, something mysterious begins to happen: representatives experience physical sensations and emotions which are powerful and compelling, though recognised not to belong to themselves as individuals, but somehow connected to the constellation. I have experienced fear, nausea, extreme fatigue and the desire to run away, from among a whole range of different responses, and seen others similarly affected. These phenomena are experienced consistently among people chosen as representatives, even those who have previously known nothing about the approach. The constellator uses the information received by representatives to support some change in the configuration of the constellation by, for example moving them closer or further away from one another. As the process continues, the difficulty being experienced by the client begins to emerge among the representatives. For instance, in the example, Peter’s representative might experience an overwhelming desire to lie down, which may indicate a desire to follow his uncle into death. Hellinger has identified this as a ‘choice’ that may be taken by children in an attempt to somehow make things better for the family:
“The drive for balance working in the family group is more fundamental than love, and it readily sacrifices individual love and happiness to maintain the larger family equilibrium.”2
Of course, it is not helpful for the child or the wider system for the choice to be followed through, so the constellator will look for a way to resolve the entanglement.
At this point in Peter’s example constellation, the facilitator may choose to set up a negotiation between the representatives for Peter and his uncle, in which the uncle releases Peter’s representative from the impulse to follow. Another option would be to ask Peter himself to take the representative’s place to experience the negotiation at first hand.
“The proper way of remembering is… mourning with the dead together – just being one with them. That has a healing effect on the soul; anything else has the opposite effect.”3
When all the representatives are feeling better, the constellator ends the work and the client releases each one of the representatives from their role.
Participants have found that a constellation can resonate strongly in their lives, easing the problematic situation and even having an effect on other members of the system who were involved by being represented, even though they were not physically present. Themes emerging in constellations seem, by the very nature of the work, to be concerned with powerful existential issues like death, responsibility and belonging.
For me, participating in a constellation as a representative is usually a deeply moving experience. Observing my own issues being constellated is even more powerful and mysterious. It is like seeing aspects of my life played out in front of me: the representatives seem to know so much about the people they are representing, enough to make the situation seem vividly familiar, though often allowing for a different or additional insight into its difficulties. As a beginning constellator myself, I am in awe of the power held in the constellation and learning to be with it in a way that allows me to trust its inherent wisdom and withstand the inevitable times when I have a sense of not knowing intellectually what to do.
Although it began in a workshop setting, with individual people acting as representatives and with a focus on the family, the practice has developed into different arenas and specialist areas. Practitioners have experimented with constellations as a way of exploring issues in organisations; others have used it as an approach to counselling supervision. Constellations have even been used as a method for gaining insight into the ecology of the natural world. Methods have been devised which allow symbolic objects to take the place of human beings as representatives. These allow constellations’ systemic approach to be applied with individual clients in a counselling context and in one-to-one supervision. I have found that even a knowledge of the Orders of Love and the interconnectedness of systems is a valuable support when working with individual people like Peter; the little system the two of us create together is richly resourced by my taking a stance that is inclusive of the wider field.
The age of the individual is over. Human beings are learning more about the ways we connect with and impact on each other and our environment; becoming more sensitive to the possibilities and limitations of these involvements. Physicist and writer Fritjof Capra describes the world as:
‘one interconnected whole, and this whole, this process forms patterns. We discern these patterns and in everyday life we separate them and regard them as isolated objects; and then we say there’s no connection between these objects. But in doing so, we have already made an approximation and we have left out the connection which was initially there. And there are many traditional nonliterate cultures that, as a matter of course, would regard things as interconnected and would not separate out the patterns as we do.’4
A systems perspective is a valuable addition to a training in counselling or psychotherapy because it offers us more options we can use in support of our clients: in one-to-one counselling and therapy, it is useful to have a framework for exploring and understanding a situation from a systemic perspective, even if none of the specific procedures of constellations work is used. Constellations are a particularly powerful tool to use in supervision, where the counsellor/client system is the focus for the work and there is often a small group available to act as representatives. For myself, I see constellations as a way of exploring the seemingly unresolvable issues in my own life. Even though I found the many years of therapy I have undertaken life-transforming and immensely valuable, Hellinger’s work gives me an exciting new way to approach my ongoing personal development. I am often profoundly moved by the insights I have already gained and confident that I will continue to learn. The combination of personal development and a methodology I can readily use, supports my competence and resourcefulness in working with the issues my clients and supervisees want to explore.
1. Lewin K. Field Theory in Social Science. London: Tavistock; p45;1952. In Parlett M. Reflections on Field Theory. British Gestalt Journal;1(2):p70;1991.
2. Hellinger B. with Weber G. and Beaumont H. Love’s Hidden Symmetry: What Makes Love Work in Relationships. Phoenix, Arizona: Zeig, Tucker and co; p161;1998.
3. Hellinger B. with Weber G. and Beaumont H. Love’s Hidden Symmetry: What Makes Love Work in Relationships. Phoenix, Arizona: Zeig, Tucker and co; p203; 1998.
4. Capra F. The Tao of Physics Revisited. In Wilber K. editor. The Holographic Paradigm and Other Paradoxes. Boston. Shambhala; p232.