Field Theory in Action

Reflections about a Gestalt Workshop with Malcolm Parlett

“Field theory in action” describes best this workshop for me.

In a skillful way, Malcolm combined personal work with theory which then again led to further personal work. As he pointed out at the beginning, to understand Gestalt Therapy, we need to understand the theory, as outlined by Perls, Hefferline and Goodman. In order to be able to understand the theory, we need to experience Gestalt Therapy. To make sense of the experience, however, we need to know the theory.

Learning Gestalt Therapy, therefore, is a step by step process fluctuating between experience and theoretical understanding.

The application of field theory was demonstrated by attending to the person in the context of the group.

We can assume that whatever anybody in the group experiences is relevant for the whole group, since it is part of the field. Therefore every contribution was validated.

Malcolm attended to whatever came up and integrated it as part of the whole. While setting and maintaining clear boundaries, he skillfully integrated what was offered. In a gentle, accepting way he invited and encouraged the group participants to express themselves, make statements and interact with him and with the group. This was facilitated with increased support in the group. Rather than “pushing the individual”, attention was given to the environment, to make it safe and supportive.

Malcolm talked about the “Paradigm shift” in psychotherapy from a focus on the individual to a focus on connectedness. The individualistic perspective may describe a person as “resistant”, “reluctant” or “avoiding”. The field theory based perspective of connectedness relieves the individual from the pressure of labelling by taking the environment into account. Holding back is then a sign of insufficient support in the field rather than an individual problem.

An alternative to blaming an individual for her/his “shortcomings” is the concept of “fracture in the field”, which represents a more inclusive and accurate description of the situation. As Virginia Satir puts it, “everything makes sense when we know the context”.

As an individual takes it upon themselves to have “caused” a problem, defect, or deficiency, shame occurs.

Shame was described as the experience of over-exposure with insufficient support.

Shame was validated as a “regulator at the contact boundary”. It tells me whether there is sufficient connectedness or not. The normalisation of shame reduces the shame about feeling shame.

The onus is shifted from focus on the individual to what happens in the field. If a group member or a client feels shame, this says more about the relationship than about that person. The antidote to shame is “being received” by another person. In contact, by experiencing connectedness, the experience of shame diminishes and finally disappears.

Due to the exposure, a therapeutic setting is potentially shaming. By taking the field into account, additional injuries can be more likely avoided.

Malcolm also introduced some of the concept of Bert Hellinger, a former Jesuit monk and Family Therapist, who apparently is taking Germany and Europe by storm. He focuses in his work on repairing ruptures in the field. This is done with regard to the internalised care givers. His work is based on the assumption that there is a natural order how families ought to be. For example, the parents should have a loving relationship with each other and children should not have to look after parents.

Group members were used to construct families in a way that initially looked to me like Psychodrama. But then Malcolm rebuilt the family in an ideal way, where children were freed from the burden of looking after a parent, by providing adequate support for the parents. He added grand parents and other supportive people. The person, whose family was reconstructed, observed this process, then joined at the end, to experience an ideal family as it never was. This experience can heal the effects of internalised family members by providing an alternative experience.

This reparative way of working was a great contrast to the old style “beating cushions”. Rather than staying helpless and stuck, an integration of an unrealised potential was offered.

The integrative aspect of Malcolm’s work felt very reassuring to me. Rather than separating, for example the child part and the adult, he shuttled between both states to help destructure a rigid boundary between the two parts and to help integrate them.

Overall, I felt very enriched at the end of the workshop, both, personally and professionally. Thank you Malcolm.

I want to acknowledge Gill Caradoc-Davis for inviting Malcolm to New Zealand and Nickei and Dave for organising his visit.

Rudolf Jarosewitsch


Copyright © 11/1995 by Rumijabu | Originally published in Gestalt Dialogue #3, Nov1995

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