A Gestalt Understanding of the Organism and the Self, Part 2

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This second part of a two-part article explores the self as the meeting of organism and environment, and the role of that self in Gestalt therapy.

This post is a response to a recent article by Sarah Luczaj. (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. (See “A Gestalt Understanding of the Organism and the Self, Part 1”.)

The Self

The Gestalt approach sees the self as the process of adjustment by the person to their situation. Put another way the self is the meeting of the organism and the environment. Another metaphor is that the self is the boundary: it defines both where the person finishes and where the situation begins. With a simple organism there is a cell wall which lets in ‘food’ and keeps out ‘poison’ from the environment — the cell wall is the boundary, the place of contact for the organism and its environment.

With people, the situation is far more complex. The boundary in the human situation involves thoughts and feelings and relationships. The person is in a situation where there are cultural codes and an array of sometimes extremely complex technologies. But in principle the organismic situation is the same: we draw on the situation we are in to maintain, protect and enhance our lives; we avoid or defend against what we perceive as poisons or threats.

With people there is a self — all those thoughts, feeling and actions that make up our relation to our situation. That is, in the Gestalt view, the self is what is in awareness.

Some of the actions we undertake in the situations that make up our lives become habitual. For Gestalt these are not part of the self, they are part of the organism. We once devoted a great deal of attention to learning to walk. Our self was engaged in this activity. For most adults most of the time, the self is not engaged when we are walking; instead we are aware of other things: the beauty or otherwise of our surroundings, planning what we will say at the meeting we are walking to, and so on. If we slip or trip, our self once again is engaged with walking, and our focus of attention shifts.

There are a great many things that our organism does that are not part of our awareness, not part of the self. This includes all manner of physiological processes as well as cultural accommodation, and learned skills. (In my view, our situation also has a spiritual dimension — this is not touched on in Gestalt therapy, which is another story.) All of this is not usually our self but can become so: we may get an upset stomach, we may shift cultures, we may need to expand or modify a skill.

For Gestalt, the self is not set, nor does it have a particular content — it is the fluid relation of the organism and the environment. Therapy is needed when this normally flowing relation is disrupted.

Gestalt Therapy

For Gestalt, therapy is concerned with the self, for the benefit of the organism, but the therapy is directed to the self and the person’s ongoing awareness of their situation.

For instance: a person may take a drug for anxiety. In the Gestalt view, the physiological action of the drug is not part of psychotherapy, but the person’s decision-making process about whether to take it is. If hypnosis was used to induce a deep trance where the person was unaware of their environment, this too wouldn’t be Gestalt psychotherapy — yet inducing a light trance to heighten awareness would be.

The purpose of therapy in the Gestalt view is to restore the function of the self. This is all that psychotherapy can do. There may be many other changes needed for the organism to thrive — readily accessible healthy food, political change, social innovation, or medical treatment to name only a few — but these are not psychotherapy.

A Couple of Concluding Notes

There is much more to Gestalt therapy than this. I’d love to go into it all in great detail (I’m a Gestalt fan) but this is already a long post.

There is a pattern to the organism’s relating to its environment. This is of great use in therapy, but this is also the topic of another post (or perhaps many).

Does this picture of the self as you adjust to what is going on around you make sense? Do you think it is a useful base for therapy (which is what counts as far as this blogger is concerned)? Looking forward to hearing from you.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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