On March 14th, 1970—fifty years ago—Fritz Perls, the man behind Gestalt Therapy, died. Few people reading this will know who he was, let alone the significant influence he had on the world of psychology. He was a complex and interesting man. He could be manipulative, grumpy, dismissive and harsh but also funny, insightful, sentimental and warm. His parting words to this world were: “Don’t tell me what to do!” He barked that to a nurse who demanded he gets back into bed after surgery. He dangled his feet over the side of the bed in defiance and promptly died. That is classic Perls. Nobody told him what to do. His personality was not always agreeable, but he devoted his life to helping people live well in the ‘here and now’ before modern mindfulness was even a thing.
As I write this article my Gestalt Therapy diploma hangs above my desk. Completion date 2004. Even when I trained in Gestalt, there weren’t many schools teaching it. As a therapy it had fallen out of favor for more thinking therapies like CBT, which Perls would have rolled his eyes at. Even back in the sixties, he warned that too much was going through our thinking-computer, and because of that, we were losing the ability to be aware of our senses. To feel and be whole. Seventy years on, he’s righter than ever.
I think the other reason Gestalt therapy fell out of favor is because it wasn’t a fad. Gestalt never promised a quick fix. Gestalt therapy is about growth, and growth can feel painful and takes time. There is also nothing easy about being a client in Gestalt therapy. Many days I dreaded going to my therapist. And yet I found the journey incredibly worthwhile and to this day, I am grateful to Fritz Perls and the Gestalt community for all I learned about myself.
But here we are, fifty years on from his death, and I think the world needs him and Gestalt therapy more than ever. I see a fragmented world, where thinking is everything and our senses have dulled. I imagine Perls wouldn’t like seeing how far from the ‘here and now’ we have traveled. How everything is about selfies, and instant-happiness, instant-health, instant-cure. But that’s not growth. That’s all surface stuff that distracts us from what is really happening within.
Everything is on-demand, and you demand the world be as you want it. We focus on those bits of us we like or can at least tolerate, while hiding the parts of ourselves we don’t like. Just think positive! But running away from situations or feelings that challenge us only increases the likelihood we won’t address our own discomfort. You fly to Facebook to complain how slighted you are by someone you don’t even know, rather than diving into what it is about them that creates such anxiety or anger in you. What are you feeling and not resolving?
But we don’t do that. Instead of asking questions of ourselves, we wait for the likes and comments to confirm how righteous we are, and what a pig they are. Good and bad. Those conflicting polarities pushing hard against each other. You consistently eliminate the parts of your self that don’t fit into a glossy social-media narrative. You post idealized pictures on Instagram while behind the lens your world is falling apart. Do you really think people live such fantastic lives all the time? And instead of engaging in group therapy—something Perls thought would replace individual therapy because of its benefits—you hide in online groups that support your singular worldview. You stick with people like you who rage against those who don’t share your ideology. Typing disparaging comments like you’re engaging in meaningful dialogue, yet you are not listening because we are not meeting. All this action is inauthentic.
Gestalt therapy showed me how to pay attention to those parts within me that are unfinished and unsatisfied. To explore those parts with excitement and creativity rather than keeping them split-off because they don’t feel good. I learned to accept and bring that discomfort into my center, making me as whole as possible. Many times, I bawled like a baby as I touched these parts; talked to them and brought my Gestalt to a close. It isn’t easy. Never was and shouldn’t be. There’s something deeply healing in the pain of acceptance. And if we can do that with ourselves, we can then see others for who they are and the struggles they fight. Accepting these fragmented parts completes us, enabling us to grow as healthy humans—warts and all.
We all know our world requires attention, and yet, the way I see people addressing these problems, I think, is unhelpful. Everything is another’s fault—they have to change. I understand wanting to live in a safe world, but safety doesn’t come from control. That’s called authoritarianism, and that’s bad. With your demands on others, you may not realize it, but your children are growing up weak. You don’t teach them to be robust enough to find support for their problems from within. You teach them problems get resolved by outside-forces like schools, parents, social-justice-warriors or government. You teach them that those who shout loudest get what they want. If they are frustrated or in discomfort, you teach them others will come running to their rescue and solve all discomfort. Enforcing control over others by creating rules and calling it progress.
But this retards the maturation process. Without taking responsibility for our own discomfort, and supporting ourselves in the face of personal challenges, we learn to be ineffective in our ability to deal with the world. The more we demand chaos be controlled, the more we fear chaos. And make no mistake, life is chaos.
The best we can do is to learn how to cope with the chaos of the world—which will not go away because you demand it. Without proper inner support, you are diminishing your capacity to deal with the world until the slightest touch on your comfort zone drives you into a fear frenzy. This is not good. If you don’t have the internal skills to deal with something you don’t like, you’ll continue to play the helplessness game—screaming at others to control the world—but, as Perls would say, you are acting phony. Control has nothing to do with growing as a rounded and complete human being. And if you don’t grow, how can you expect others to?
I believe in the message of Gestalt, and what it can teach us. I have shared the Gestalt Prayer with countless people, and not once has it fallen on deaf ears. For me, it highlights what it means to be an authentic human being and I offer you this poem to chew on.
You do your thing, and I do mine.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in the world to live up to mine.
You are you and I am I.
And if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
If not, it can’t be helped.
That’s a fantastic message. Some will push back and say it is a selfish message, but I disagree. It is a reminder that we are all individual, and sometimes it takes work to understand each other. We can’t and shouldn’t demand the world and others be as we want them to be. Differing views are okay and tolerated. If you want equality, inclusion, diversity and safety in the world, you need to find that balance within you first. We have no right to demand the world change because it negates our discomfort. And recent events around the world have highlighted how much we need to understand this message more than ever.
It is time to embrace ours and other’s individuality. All around me, I see more and more splitting: rich or poor; black or white; Republican or Democrat. This is not the way forward. It is only when we embrace the split-off parts of ourselves that we become whole. We cannot define ourselves by the collective we associate with, for that leads to mob mentality, and history has proven that is a dangerous path. When we split, we deny parts of ourselves that will not go away.
I see this in the therapy sessions all the time, and I see this reflected on the streets as protests around the world grow. In the US, Black Lives Matter is a powerful message that America needs to stop pushing against. For centuries we have marginalized black lives, split them off from the whole that is America. A wound that has never healed. I urge the white majority to understand that the black population is part of you, and for the sake of your growth and happiness you need to bring this split-part back into yourself, as uncomfortable as that might be.
Perls showed us that the more we push away those parts that are uncomfortable, the more insistent and damaging those parts will become until we can no longer ignore them. In therapy that might be issues with drugs or alcoholism, and in the streets that might be protests and riots. Our world is but a reflection of the individual. We cannot run from our past, either individually or collectively. We are all part of this process.
Somewhere along the way we have learned to demand our expectations should be fulfilled or else. We have forgotten to accept each other for who we are. To care for each other no matter our differences. We have found ourselves in a place where we will only care for you if you are the same as me, share my thoughts, my beliefs and act and look like me. Individuality has become dangerous.
To me, the Gestalt Prayer and Gestalt philosophy encourages difference, and respecting that difference. I would argue that through the understanding of Gestalt therapy we have more empathy for each other because we hold the belief that it is okay to be different. We do not hate or punish people because of the color of their skin, their preferred sexuality, or religious beliefs, instead we embrace them for it.
As individuals we may not understand other people’s life choices, but that’s okay—I am I, and you are you, after all. And if you don’t like Fritz Perls, even the Bible echos these sentiments.
As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
So, before it’s too late, I urge you to stop shouting at the world and confront your discomfort and need for control. I urge you to stop manipulating the environment and ask: “what do I need from others that I can’t get from myself? What does control mean to me? Why do I fear difference?”
I learned from Gestalt therapy that freedom comes from within. Where wholeness and acceptance are preferable to ignorance, manipulation and control. Individuality is a blessing and makes the world a richer place.
You are you and I am I…
Fritz Perls, the world needs you more than ever.