Tag Archives: Gestalt therapy

I Want to Know What I Want

I have a friend named Steve.  Steve lives in a world completely unbounded by shame.  He fascinates and irritates me at the same time.  He fascinates me because I have no personal frame of reference for his world view but I also am envious of the freedom in which he seems to live.  He irritates me because from my shame ego’s perspective his mere existence is a negative judgment on how I live my life.

I remember hiking with him many years ago.  We were walking along a mountain trail.  He suggested we go off the path.  The neo-hippie wannabe part of me readily agreed.  Yeah!  Stick it to the trail man who wants us to hike in specificly designated places!  Another part of me was annoyed.  We had a perfectly good trail to walk on, we were outside, getting exercise, being healthy and enjoying nature.  His suggestion implied that walking on the path was conformist and somehow an inauthentic experience of the natural world.

Recently I thought about this interaction when I was walking on a sidewalk.  Clearly the sidewalk was the designated place for me to walk.  I felt annoyed that the sidewalk builder was dictating where I should walk.  I considered walking off the sidewalk and cutting through a yard.  Then it felt like Steve was telling me where to walk and that felt annoying too.

In this scenario I do not really know what I want.  If I walk on the sidewalk I am conforming to society’s rule.  If I stray from the sidewalk I am conforming to Steve’s neo-hippie ethic.  If I ask myself what I truly want to do in this scenario my mind goes blank.  I have no real, whole-hearted desire.  Rather, I am trying to please two alien masters.  I am motivated by a desire to avoid the shame that goes along with making the wrong choice.

Even though I do not know what I want, I think the feeling of being annoyed is informative.  From the shame based perspective, feeling annoyed is wrong.  By being annoyed, on a passive aggressive level I am fighting the system and fighting the system is sinful.  Passive aggression is a primary tool in the shame-based tool box.  But the feeling of being annoyed is also a message from my true self.  There is something happening in the universe that I do not like.  That is the truth.  That is the key to finding out what I truly want.

Gestalt therapy taught me that my feelings are always right and never sinful.  That is, there is always a legitimate reason behind my feelings.  They do not arise because I am flawed.  I think my feeling of being annoyed comes from the no win situation my shame ego has constructed for me.  I can choose to walk on the sidewalk or cut across a yard.  Either way I am conforming and as such, unoriginal and inauthentic which is shame worthy.  It is the no win situation itself that irritates me.  I want to be unbound by shame and the no win situation.

I imagine Steve would not spend a second of his life considering any of this.  He would walk where he wanted to walk because he wanted to.  How utterly simple.  How utterly beautiful.  The no win situation is a construction of my shame ego as is not knowing what I want.

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My Experience with Psychotherapy – Part VI

After about a year of being unemployed I managed to land a contract position working for an insurance company auditing their legal bills.  The hours were full time and the work was a tedious, cubicle type job.  Because I was a contract employee I did not have medical benefits, it did not pay very well and I was treated like a second-class citizen compared to the full time employees. On the other hand, I did have a place to go during the day and I had enough income coming in where I was able to get off unemployment insurance. It was better place to work than Dechert because the hours were not as long and the people were a little nicer. For that I was grateful. Basically, I was working this job because it was better than being unemployed.  But I knew that I was working this job only until I could find something better.

The guys in my Men’s Group were supportive and happy that I finally was no longer unemployed. But they all encouraged me to look for a job that better suited my desires.  At the time I really had trouble articulating what I actually wanted.  When asked this question my mind would go blank.  I knew I did not like working in a cubicle all day.  I had a vague notion that I wanted to write but every time I tried to write I ended up getting derailed.

Then I heard about a history teacher position at the private high school I attended when I was a kid. I loved history and could picture myself moving out of my parents’ house and becoming a part of the school’s community.  The job sounded much more exciting than my soulless, corporate cubicle job. I started to get really excited about it.  I interviewed with some of the school’s faculty.  A few of them were teachers that I had in high school. I thought the interviews went well and I really started to get my hopes up.

I remember going to work feeling good about the prospect of not having to work there much longer.  I went to group and told them about the position.  They all seemed to think it would be a good fit for me.  Weeks went by and I did not hear anything from the school.  Every week in the mens’ group they asked me if I got the job.  I kept telling them I had not heard yet.  Then one day I got an email in my cubicle informing me they hired someone else for the position.

I was devastated. I went to group and told them what had happened.  I could barely get the words out when I described the humiliation I felt.  When I did I broke down crying in front of them. At first I tried to hold back the tears but Scott told me to let them out.  Against every fiber of my being and every instinct I had I allowed myself to cry in front of them.

Craig (one of the group members) told me he thought I was going to get the position but now he knew that I was meant not to get it because I had to go through this experience.  I did not fully understand.  But after that meeting I felt better.  A huge weight of humiliation and defeat had been lifted off my shoulders.

I sent Craig an email and asked him what he meant.

Hey Craig,

Last night seemed significant.  But now I feel like that significance is receding.  Can you please tell me your perspective on my work so I don’t lose what happened?  Does that make sense to you?

Thanks

 

He responded:

 Last night was a miracle.  You let people love you even though you were feeling humiliated.  No one attacked you for being who you are.  You let people witness your vulnerability and your perceived “badness” for lack of a better word and you were loved through it, not beat up.  You let people see into your soul and you survived it.  You jumped from a cliff that you could never survive jumping from and landed on your two feet completely unhurt.  Not only unhurt but a better person for jumping.  George, last night was beautiful.  If there were words that would let me relay the true significance of last night I would share them with you.  Words will never do justice to what we experienced last night.  Please let me point out that I did say “we.”  Every person in that room last night was taken to a place we could never be alone.  I feel sad that Dave and Marc weren’t able to be in your presence last night.  It was easily the most significant night in my group experience other than my own major breakthroughs which I can count on both hands.  Stellar.  I hope this puts a little perspective on what happened last night.  And as an addendum, we can never lose what happens to us spiritually and I mean never as in eternity.  Can we feel that always, I don’t know but I can appreciate it when I do.

Love,

Craig

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My Experience with Psychotherapy – Part V

Over the course of the next three years I worked almost every group meeting.  I was usually the first person to show up and I never missed a meeting unless it absolutely could not be avoided.  I possessed a strong inner motivation to be there because on some level I knew it was working for me.  Over time I began to see things about myself more clearly.

I saw that I grew up feeling deeply flawed and at my core I did not trust anyone.  I developed an isolated and easily wounded personality.  I compared myself to everyone else and found myself lacking.  If I witnessed anyone succeed I felt ashamed that I never succeeded.  If I did succeed, I down played my success as if there was a reason I could not fairly claim my success or else be branded a liar or a braggart.  If I failed I felt cruelly and unfairly judged by the world and bitterly angry under the surface.  If my anger surfaced I was made to feel ashamed for being weak and selfish.  In short, I realized that there was no way to win in the world in which I lived.

As I became more aware of this anger within me, I could see how it manifested itself in my life.  I found myself lashing out at former tormentors when I was alone.  Interestingly, when Scott tried to get me to display this anger in a therapy session around other people I found it very difficult to fully get in touch with it.

I also became aware that I self-sabotaged myself when I did something that I wanted to do.  At the time I had been trying to set aside time to write.   But every time sat down to write I became easily distracted or my mind would blank out.  I also became consumed by the potential reactions of other people who might read what I have written.  I then felt ashamed.  “What a stupid, self-indulgent, pathetic thing to write,” I would tell myself. All of this would cumulate and I would find myself not writing.

Scott and I did some “pillow work” on this subject.  He threw a pillow on the floor, pointed to it and said, “That pillow is you and you want to write.  Will you try to discourage the from writing?”

“Get your work done first then you can spend time on your hobbies,” I said to the pillow.

“But he wants to write,” said Scott addressing the force I impersonated, “why can’t he do that?”

“It is irresponsible to not get your work done first,” I answered as the force.

“Why are you smiling?” Scott asked.

I then noticed that I was smiling and felt amusement and shame at once.

“So you’re fucking with me?” said Scott.

“No,” I denied.

“Then why are you smiling?” asked Scott.

I said nothing.

“Who are you?” asked Scott.  “Who is this force you are impersonating”

I knew the force was my father but I was reluctant to say this.  It felt disloyal.  At the same time I could picture him making me feel irresponsible for doing what I wanted to do.  It surprised me that he experienced pleasure in doing this.  I did not want to believe that.

“Okay,” said Scott, “now you be yourself and let the pillow be your father.  What do you want to say to him?”

It feels very awkward but I summon the courage and say in an unemotional voice, “Dad, I think it’s really unfair what you did to me.  I don’t want to carry this burden of shame around.  I want to follow my passions and not constantly be derailed.”

“I hear what you are saying,” Scott said to me, “but it sounds more like reasoned discourse.  Where is the anger behind it?”

I understand what he said to me but it seemed like an impossibility to display the depths of my anger in front of him.  I think deep inside on a very basic level I do not fully trust that he would not shame me if I displayed my anger.  Or perhaps I will shame myself.

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My Experience with Psychotherapy – Part IV

My wife and I started to see a couple’s therapist named Dori in Connecticut who was part of a larger practice trained in the Gestalt method.  Her office was an upper room in a large, formerly residential house that had been refurbished into therapists’ offices.  She primarily had us “mirror” each other whereby one of us would state an issue and the other one would repeat what the first one said starting with the phrase, “I hear that you feel…”  This was very difficult and after several sessions it did not seem like we were making much progress.  We were still angry with each other all the time.  During one session I had expressed that I felt a lot of shame and that I was trying to get past that and that was the reason I had seen the psychic.  And I did not like how my wife had shamed me into not seeing her.  Dori suggested that I join a “men’s group” that two of her colleagues ran in the same building.

I showed up to the first session feeling very awkward and nervous.  The group was made up of six men and two facilitators (Scott and Dave) who were trained in Gestalt, body centered therapy.  I remember that first session everyone took their shoes off in the hall so I did too.  I saw some other people bring in folding chairs so I grabbed one and set it up in the room. Other people sat on couches already in the room.  Once everyone had settled in the facilitators went around to the group members and asked them if they wanted to “check in” or “work.”  If a member checked in he would briefly describe how his week had gone and how he was feeling generally.  If a member chose to work he would describe something that was bothering him and the two facilitators would probe him until they got to the bottom of the issue.

Often the method employed was called “pillow work.”  If a member said they felt anxious about something (for example) the facilitators would put a pillow in a chair facing the member and say, “That pillow is you.  Make you feel anxious.”  Then the member would try to put himself into the mind of a person who would try to make him anxious.  Often this process resulted in the member lashing out in anger and then breaking down crying.

Each member checked in or worked and I grew increasingly nervous as I felt my turn approaching. I remember one member, Rick, announced to the group that he was dying of prostate cancer.  He had just been diagnosed with six months to live.  He seemed pretty balanced about it.  I remember thinking none of my problems were significant in comparison to his.  When it was finally my turn and everyone turned to me I remember saying that this type of situation was very difficult for me.  Scott told me he thought I was courageous for doing what I was doing.  I did not believe him.  I thought he was just trying to make me feel good about myself.

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Learn To Become Less Judgmental In Four Easy Steps

Recognizing I am judgmental helps to make me not judgmental.  This came about in four steps.

First step is being judgmental but feeling justified.

I used to be very critical and judgmental of other people.  Everyone was out to fuck with me.  No one pulled their own weight.  Everyone was stupid and uninformed.  I felt justified but miserable.  What I did not realize was that I was also being equally judgmental of myself.  That was why I was miserable.  I cannot be judgmental of other people without also being judgmental of myself.  But when I was in the midst of it I just felt like other people were judging me and that made me resentful.

Second step is being judgmental, acknowledging it and feeling guilty

At some point I realized I was being judgmental.  Perhaps I heard someone I respected saying that it was wrong to be judgmental.  I internalized that ethic and then when I experienced being judgmental I felt I was bad and wrong.  This state of affairs is more evolved than the first step, however, it is also more painful.  At this stage I was doubly judgmental.  I was judgmental of others and then judgmental of myself for being judgmental.  This also resulted in me feeling resentful.

Third step is being judgmental, acknowledging it but not judging yourself for it

At some point the negative feelings associated with judging myself became too much to endure.  Through Gestalt therapy I learned that did not have to constantly judge myself.  I recognized that I judged other people but I did not have to judge myself for it.  This broke the chain of shame that lead to resentment and depression.

Fourth step is being judgmental, acknowledging it and then choosing not to be judgmental.

Not judging myself for being judgmental of others allowed me to choose to not be judgmental of others.  The judgment would arise, but I could recognize it and choose not to act on it.  I am not always successful but I do not need to judge myself for this either.  Shame always tries to outflank me.  Forgiving myself outflanks shame, it breaks the chain of shame based action.

Alongside this process is learning and accepting where the judgment comes from.  For me, it came from the energy I bonded to.  I was judged and so I became judgmental.   In that respect, being judgmental was not my fault.  But if I recognize I am being judgmental and then choose to be judgmental it then becomes my fault.

Shame’s ultimate outflanking maneuver is that there are societal standards that need to be upheld.  If  these standards are not upheld  then society will decline and it will be my fault.  And the way I uphold societal standards is to judge those who do not uphold societal standards.  If I am not judgmental I am not upholding societal standards and it is my fault for societal decline.  In order to outflank shame I must forgive myself for this as well.

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10 Things That Make Me Anxious

This list is in no particular order.  Anxiety is about fear.

1.  Being left out

My first post is about this.  This feeling has been with me for my entire life.  I was the kid picked last for the kick ball team on the play ground.  I never felt good enough.  Every time I moved somewhere new I felt like an outsider.  It is the same feeling I had as a kid in my parents’ house looking out the window and feeling like everyone else is having a better time and I am not entitled to that better time.

2.  Need to do something 

This feeling is newer.  My last post touched on this.  I remember sleeping to 1:00 PM during the summer when I was younger.  It felt great.  Today I cannot sleep past 7:30 AM without feeling panicked.  Somewhere along the way I internalized that sleeping in that late was shameful and lazy.

3.  Being Judged

In supermarkets old people look at me with disgust.  I am not sure they are actually doing this (I suspect they are not) but I feel like they are judging me.  It is the “Greatest Generation” concept that makes me feel like my generation is the reason things are worse now because my generation is lazy, undisciplined, ungrateful and selfish.

4.  Being Late

There was a time when if I was late to an appointment I would freak out in my car if someone was driving slowly in front of me.  This feeling has to do with my father.  I remember being late and he looked at me with an expression that said, “you can’t be trusted because you are undisciplined and incompetent.”  To this day I  leave extra early for appointments and usually end up waiting in my car for a half an hour in a parking lot.  I would rather do that than be late.

5.  Fearing Failure

The prospect of failure and the humiliation that goes along with it makes me anxious.  This fear keeps me from acting and taking risks sometimes.  I am better at recognizing this fear now after going through Gestalt therapy.  By recognizing the fear I gain separation from it and that frees me up a little.  This certainly was not something that happened overnight.

6.  Fearing Societal Breakdown

The Romans had it good.  Then came the dark ages.  It is possible for society to regress and break down.  Things do not always improve.  When I was younger I feared nuclear war.  Later I feared peak oil and Y2K.  I think this fear is connected with the fear of failure but on a larger level.  Societal failure is my failure on some level.  This fear is also linked with the fear of being left out.  If society fails then I will miss out on a life that I otherwise would have enjoyed.

7.  Fearing Health Problems

I fear that my diet and bad habits will take their toll on me.  My brother-in-law dropped dead of a heart attack in his 40s and he did not drink much or smoke.  On the other hand, both my parents drink and my mother smokes and they are both in their late 70s.

8.  Fearing Assault

I fear being physically attacked or robbed.  I fear my children being kidnapped or killed in an accident.

9.  My Parents

Being around my parents makes me anxious.  I suppose it is the fear of being judged and they are probably who taught me to fear that.

10. My Children

I love my children and want to provide them with good lives.  Sometimes it feels like my best efforts do not produce the results I am looking for.  I suppose I fear being judged and judging myself.

This list is in no particular order.  Anxiety is about fear.

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Labor Day – The Need to Do Something

Today was Labor Day.  I woke up feeling very anxious.  I felt like I should be doing something. No matter what I do sometimes I feel like I should be doing something else.  I had the day off from work and so did my kids but my wife was working.  I had to come up with something to do and if I did not come up with something the kids would end up watching TV all day.  I hate that because it makes me feel like I am failing as a parent.

We just moved from Connecticut to North Carolina.  The area is new to me and I am not entirely sure what there is to do around here.  There is this lake nearby where we can rent a kayak.  I did not really want to do that because we just moved and I have been hemorrhaging money.  It seemed like an unnecessary expense.  So I was torn.  I am a bad parent if I do not spend money and take my kids somewhere but I am irresponsible if I spend too much money.  I cannot win either way.  I recognize this dilemma because of my experience with Gestalt therapy.  No matter what I do I am wrong.

It is interesting to consider this feeling of needing to do something within the context of Labor Day.  This holiday celebrates labor, hard work.  I used to work for a national law firm and hated it because it felt like I was not doing work of any consequence even though I was working long hours.  I never felt like my work was important.  The dilemma repeats itself.  I work hard but my work is not important.  So I am not really working.  It does not count.  I cannot win.

But there is a small victory in recognizing the fact that I cannot win under any circumstances.  I recognize that there is this force that wants to fuck with me no matter what I do.  When I am not aware of this I think if I just get all my ducks in a row then I will not be fucked with.  This of course, is an illusion.  I am asleep when I think this way.  There is no way to get all my ducks in a row and even if I did I would be fucked with then for some other reason.  When I recognize this I am more awake (in the Buddhist sense of the term ‘awake’).

So where does this leave me?  When I wake up feeling anxious I am being fucked with.  There is an energy within me that is telling me I am doing something wrong.  To the extent I feel anxious I am believing the message of this energy.  To the extent I recognize this dynamic I gain separation from it.  This is a victory but each victory is small.  So on Labor Day my task is to do nothing and to try to be okay with it or at least recognize the energy trying to make me feel not okay with it.

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