A Gestalt Understanding of the Organism and the Self, Part 1

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Part one of this two-part article explores how attending to the relationship between the organism and its environment means that in one sense, Gestalt therapy is focused on the individual, while in another, it is not.

This post is a response to a recent article by Sarah Luczaj on this blog. (See Am I a Self or an Organism?.) It’s aim is to stimulate more discussion of what I think is an important and fascinating subject.

What Do I Mean by “Gestalt”?

I mean what is in the book Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality by Perls, Hefferline and Goodman. This is still the best book on gestalt in my view — and by a very wide margin. Things have moved on, been added to and clarified somewhat since the book was published. However, the basic framework in Gestalt Therapy is still clear and useful. Much later writing is decidedly inferior, including the work of Fritz Perls, in my view.

The Organism

Any organism exists in an environment and thrives or not depending on this environment and its action in, and in relation to, this environment. Gestalt looks at this relationship between the organism (a person) and the environment, the person’s particular situation in life.

This means that in some sense Gestalt psychology — especially Gestalt psychotherapy — is focused on the individual. It is not sociology or cultural studies, and neither is it medicine. In another sense it is not: to focus on the individual loses the meaning of their behaviour, an understanding of which needs to take into account the person’s situation in life. For example, we can look at an individual taking one step (putting one foot in front of the other) in many ways. There is a physiology of walking, there are different gaits associated with different cultures, and we could examine shoes and their effect on walking; for Gestalt it is about the meaning of this step for the person in their environment. Perhaps it is stepping out the door in the morning to go to a job they like or hate (the step may look different), it may be stepping into a river for an enjoyable dip, it may be stepping into a dangerous situation to rescue a loved one — this is the business of psychology in the Gestalt approach.

This also means that in some sense Gestalt psychology — especially Gestalt psychotherapy — is not focused on the individual. The situation is important. It may be that the person is not seeing a part of a situation that others see; it may be that they respond habitually to particular situations with the same unhappy result. Gestalt therapy deals with the situation and the person’s response to it.

Usually, for most of us most of the time, there is a good enough match between the organism and the environment. Most of our needs are met largely in a fairly satisfactory way. (For some people this is far from the case.) The use of therapy comes in when this usually satisfactory process goes awry — we find that we are discontent with a relationship, that we have emotional reactions that puzzle us, or our thoughts don’t help us to act effectively in one or more parts of life.

In part two of this article, I’ll look specifically at the Gestalt view of the self and its role in Gestalt therapy.

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