Go Go Gestalt: The Theories Video Shoot, Part I


There’s nothing quite like experiencing embarrassment in the Here and Now.

Today Rita and I started a several day video shoot to produce counseling and psychotherapy demonstrations to go with the second edition of our theories text (Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice. Rita did demos of Person-Centered and Feminist therapy and I got to do a Gestalt therapy demonstration.

In honor of the Gestalt approach, below I’ve inserted a short excerpt from our text describing the Gestalt principle of the figure-formation process. Tomorrow or the next day or whenever I’ve recovered I’ll post a short description of the Gestalt demonstration for those who may be interested.

The Figure-Formation Process

Humans are able to constantly shift their cognitive or perceptual focus. This may be especially true in our contemporary, media-based society where distractibility is normative. In Gestalt psychology, this is referred to as the figure-formation process.

An amazing human quality is the ability to intentionally shift the focus of consciousness. If you’re reading these words your focus (or figure) are the words on this page (or screen) and their meaning. This process puts you in your head—literally. You’re all eyes and intellectual processing.

This visual and intellectual experience is a function of your focus, but you might just as well focus on something else. If, as you read these words you intentionally shift focus to your ears, what happens?  Or, if you are listening to this book instead of reading, shift to the smells in the room.  Can you simultaneously focus completely on every sound wave or every odor bouncing around you without losing your intellectual focus? You may still be seeing or hearing the words, but now they’ve drifted into the background. If you consciously focus on auditory perception, then sound will take over the foreground or figure. And if we take this further we could have you alternate between different sounds and smells in your environment (maybe there’s music or a dull hum of lights, or your breathing, or someone’s perfume or your gym clothes in the corner, or . . .). In each case, your attention is shifting, more or less, and placing different perceptual experiences at the forefront. You’re engaging in a figure-formation process.

Perhaps an everyday example will help even more. Let’s say you’re driving the Interstate in Montana. The speed limit is 75 mph (yes, thanks to the federal Department of Transportation, we do have a speed limit). There aren’t many cars on the road because you’re in Montana. A signal from your cell phone pops into your awareness, triggering a social need, which then produces disequilibrium, and so you decide to take action and check your new text message. You steer with one hand, hold your phone with the other, and shift your eyes back and forth from the road to the phone. Three seconds on the road, 3 seconds reading text on the phone. At first the road and steering wheel is figure and the phone in your hand is background. Then the phone and text message is figure and the road and steering wheel is background.

Suddenly, you have a background thought about what you’re doing. Having passed your driver’s test you possess internal knowledge about how far you travel in three seconds at 75 mph. You’re covering 333 feet—over the length of a soccer or football field—every 3 seconds. This internal memory emerges from background to figure along with a realization that you could have run over 111 deer on the highway standing side-by-side while checking three-seconds of your text message. Another linked thought crystalizes into figure and you can almost hear your parents in your head telling you they love you so much that they’d like you not to text and drive.

The figure-formation voice in your head brings with it a surge of anxiety and you tap your brake and slow down to an unheard of 55 mph so that you’re only covering 243 feet every 3 seconds. Somehow you rationalize and justify that you’re safe enough to text and equilibrium is restored.

The point is not so much that you’re endangering your life and the lives of hundreds of innocent deer, but that you’re always missing something when figure recedes into background and gaining something when figure-formation occurs. This losing or gaining is, to some extent, under voluntary control. You may choose to miss out on the text message or you may choose to miss out on the 333 feet of road—but you can’t have it both ways because something has to be figure and something has to be ground.

From the Gestalt perspective, you’re always just a little bit aware of the ground (or background) and part of the purpose of therapy is to turn up background noise volume by shifting your focus or awareness so you can evaluate whether whatever’s bubbling around in the background might be meaningful or useful. During Gestalt therapy not everything you focus on will be meaningful or useful. However, many parts of your human experience (including unfinished business from the past that’s affecting you in the present) might prove useful and meaningful.

This is the essence of Gestalt therapy: Shift your focus and then shift it again to embrace here and now awareness and the personal development it might stimulate. At the same time, you recognize that not every 333-foot stretch of Montana highway will be immediately and profoundly important, but you stay with that focus because to do otherwise threatens your existence.

The figure-formation perceptual process, as applied to therapy, suggests that the primary or dominant needs of an individual can emerge from background (ground) into focus (figure) at any given moment. This is why Gestalt therapists believe that a client’s unfinished business from the past will inevitably be brought into focus as therapists keep clients in the here and now.

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