Gary Yontef *
Why relational gestalt therapy?
Some contemporary gestalt therapists such as myself have recently been referring to relational gestalt therapy. Since the basic theory of gestalt therapy has always been relational, and if it is not relational there is no coherent core of gestalt therapy theory, why add the adjective relational?
The adjective relational is added to differentiate among significant variations in how gestalt therapy theory is explicated and even more significant variations in how gestalt therapy is practiced.
It is my understanding that in gestalt therapy theory
the field is configured by the relations of the field
(field theory) and perception is always interpreted
constructed in an interaction between an observer
and what is being observed (existential phenomenological
perspective). Any process, problem, creative advancement,
solution to a problem is a function of the relationship
between the people of the field and
observation/perception is phenomenologically constructed.
There is no single valid or objective truth or
observation. Indeed the existential
Contrary to this basic theory, there is often an
unacknowledged attitude in how some practice gestalt
therapy, train therapists, and talk about gestalt therapy
that the trainer or therapist has an objective stance,
one that is more real or accurate than that of the
patient or trainees. Moreover, the attitude often
includes the belief that the gestalt therapy system is
self-sufficient and knowledge from other systems
unnecessary. In that view, any person or system that has
to take in from outside sources is seen as weak and
flawed. Sometimes this emphasis on self-sufficiency and
the interpretation of need from outside the individual or
system self as indicating a weakness or inadequacy is
communicated through subtext rather than what is
explicitly said. Some of this attitude can be discerned
when some people refer to seeing the obvious,
as if all biases could be successfully eliminated by the
therapist or trainer and observation be objective. In
this attitude, differing perceptions are treated as
inferential and subjective while ones own is
treated as factual and objective. Sometimes the differing
views are treated
In practice the most conspicuous variations are in the
area of inclusion and shame. In the last decade it has
been discussed in the literature that patients often come
to therapy feeling fundamental shame stemming from their
need for therapy, but that often this situational shame
is just the immediate manifestation of a globalized or
existential shame. Sometimes this shame is either
triggered by interactions with the therapist or trainer
or, unfortunately, on occasion one may even observe the
trainer or therapist actively shaming the patient or
trainee. Often accidental shame triggering or active
shaming is a part of abrasive confrontation, advocacy
If the therapist assumes that the experience of shame in the therapeutic situation by either the patient or the therapist is co-constructed in the interaction, that the attitudes, values, and practices of the therapist may be part of the shame induction process, then practice consistent with the basic theory of gestalt therapy is possible, the phenomenon can be examined by patient and therapist, and healing the shame of patient and therapist through awareness and dialogue is possible.
However, when therapists assume that their perception, including their perception of their own behavior and attitude, is accurate and the patients is inaccurate, and that any criticism by the patient is a distortion by the patient and not caused by the total field of the therapist and the patient, then the cause of any shame felt by the patient is explicitly or implicitly attributed solely to the patients characterological difficulties. When the therapist has the hubris to believe that they interact with the patient but cannot be part of the problem and that only the patient needs to grow in the interaction, and that healing is a result of the therapists virtue -- and failure to heal is due only to the patient -- the basic gestalt therapy theory is violated and iatrogenic shame and other difficulties are likely.
In the situation where shame is activated in the therapy or training situation, if the therapist truly practices inclusion, is willing to be a vulnerable participant in the interaction, is willing to have his or her own perception informed and corrected by the interaction, is open to the possibility that they are flawed and a part of interruptions in the therapeutic process, then the basic theory is followed and through this kind of dialogic contact growth is supported.
Most gestalt therapists say they are relational, dialogic, make good contact, respect the patient, follow the patients awareness, cause no harm, and so forth. However, we all know that the map is not the territory. Claiming this relational practice is not the same as actually practicing it.
It has been my experience in gestalt therapy since the mid 60s, that each explication of relational concepts is met at first by some by outright rejection by many gestalt therapists -- with claims that it is useless or harmful. When the relational theory and practice prove to be valuable and well received, these dissenting gestalt therapists often say that it might be useful, but is not gestalt therapy. Finally, if the concept becomes generally accepted, these same gestalt therapists often claim the new concept for themselves, saying that this is what I do and have always done. Careful observation of what they actually do often does not confirm this claim.
When some of us started talking about dialogue as a special form of contact, which included inclusion, valuing relationship variables, support and kindness over confrontation and abrasiveness, increased authentic presence of the therapist, more surrender to interaction rather than controlling the outcome, it was at first treated by many in gestalt therapy as a foreign concept. More recently the very people who practice gestalt therapy in a way that is in contrast with the dialogic attitude and are part of the reason the relational gestalt therapy emphasis is needed, have started claiming dialogue for themselves. It behooves us to observe what therapists and trainers actually do and what the actual consequences are of what they do.
The perspective of the importance of inclusion
(listening within the patients experience), support
and kindness, the centrality of the ongoing
Gary Yontef, December 10, 2000
* Gary Yontef, Ph.D., FAClinP, is a Fellow of the Academy of Clinical Psychology and Diplomate in Clinical Psychology (ABPP). Along with Lynne Jacobs, Ph.D., he has co-founded and co-directs the Gestalt Therapy Institute of the Pacific, a contemporary gestalt therapy training institute. Formerly President of the Gestalt Therapy Institute of Los Angeles and for 18 years he was head of its training program. He is an Editorial Member of The Gestalt Journal, Editorial Advisor of the British Gestalt Journal, and member of the Executive Board of the International Gestalt Therapy Association. His book Awareness, Dialogue and Process: Essays on Gestalt Therapy has been translated into 4 other languages. He has also written over 30 articles and chapters on gestalt therapy theory and practice.
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