When I tell colleagues that I am a Gestalt therapist, I generally hear “so you hit pillows” or “so you just talk to an empty chair.” The general lack of understanding of basic underlying theory and guiding philosophy is surprising given the approach’s popularity and influence over that last 60 years. In this article I would like to describe and discuss a concept that is at the heart of Gestalt therapy. This concept is the Gestalt cycle of experience.
In Gestalt therapy, the self is not seen as a static thing but rather as a continually evolving process that is defined and illuminated by how person makes contact with his or her environment. This process, when completed in a healthy and unimpeded way, generally follows a process called the cycle of experience. This cycle is a basic map for how a person becomes aware of a need, mobilizes to meet that need, and achieves satisfaction. The key phases of the process are sensation, awareness, mobilization, action, contact, satisfaction, and withdrawal/rest.
One of the most commonly cited examples of this process is the act of eating. We begin with the physical feeling of hunger (sensation) which is generally followed by our acknowledgement of the hunger: “I feel hungry” (awareness). We take action to find and acquire food (mobilization), we eat the food (contact), our hunger is sated, we feel full (satisfaction), and we are done with the process, it no longer draws our attention (withdrawal).
Given this map of a fundamental healthy human process, we are then able to examine how the process gets interrupted, providing information for diagnosis and treatment. So how does the process get interrupted? There is an unlimited variety of ways. Let me provide a few examples.
Suppose a young girl desires affectionate contact with her father. She initiates contact and tries to be affectionate with her father but, for whatever reason, he rebuffs her (possibly due to physical illness or his own discomfort with physical affection). His reason to rebuff her is not important. What is important is how she perceives it. Since there is no overt or outright explanation to the girl, she perceives that he does not want contact with her or that she has done something wrong. So the girl, rather than feel the pain and frustration of a continually unsatisfied need, may develop her own reason for the rebuff (“physical contact with men is not okay,” or “there is something undesirable about me”). In this example, the cycle has been interrupted at the point of contact.
In another example, a boy may grow up in a family where emotions are neither valued nor acknowledged. In this situation, the boy may learn that feeling sad or angry is not allowed, or even potentially dangerous, and may develop a habit of ignoring or suppressing his emotions completely. The cycle here is being interrupted at the point of awareness.
The ways in which we interrupt the cycle at a young age (or any age) can stay with us throughout our lives. This habitual way of trying to use an old solution to present problems is referred to as unfinished business. One of the goals in Gestalt therapy is to help people become aware of the ways they have learned to interrupt themselves and empower them to make new choices.
© Copyright 2009 by William Sandy Pryor MA, LPC, MT-BC. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.