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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
phenomenological attitude does not accept the subject-object split at all – does not accept the existence of pure subjectivity or objectivity.
Reality is co-constructed by all participants of field events. Moreover, an important aspect of the foundations of gestalt therapy is that all parts of
the field, hence all participants in human interaction, are mutually interdependent. In fact all living systems, including the system of gestalt
therapy, only can grow by contact with that which is outside the system and assimilating needed novelty.

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 one’s own is treated as factual and objective. Sometimes the differing views are treated
as interpretations and the therapist or trainer’s views as if uninterpreted fact. This hubris is incompatible with the values of both existential
phenomenology and dialogical existentialism, two of the foundational principles of gestalt therapy.

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
of self-sufficiency and rugged individualism, use of sarcastic humor, use of experimentation to override self-identification and manipulate the patient to be different than they are, and/or shame defense by the therapist.

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 patient’s 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 patient’s 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 therapist’s 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 patient’s 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 patient’s experience), support and kindness, the centrality of the ongoing
therapeutic relationship, value of transparency of the therapist, the existential phenomenological attitude, the field process approach has come to be known as relational gestalt therapy. This encompasses what was included in the term dialogic gestalt therapy -- and more. Unfortunately the term “dialogic” has been overused and has lost some of its distinctive meaning through inexact usage and outright expropriation. This relational approach to gestalt therapy has been partially influenced by newer schools of psychoanalysis, especially the relational and intersubjective schools, but has also been an outgrowth of the development of gestalt therapy theory and practice through clinical experience, personal psychotherapy of the practitioners, and theoretical dialogue. The relational gestalt therapy attitude applies to all aspects of therapy practice, including experimentation, teaching, and dialogue about
differences between therapist and patient.

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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