A Case for Gestalt Therapy

Author: Jane Barry

Komiko is from a second-generation Asian family. She has lived in Australia all her life, yet her Asian roots are deep. She has been raised according to traditional Asian culture and in addition, she and her family are devout Catholics. Komiko has never questioned her upbringing before, yet now at the age of 26 she is struggling with value conflicts relating to her religion, culture and sex-role expectations and has come to counselling in order to allay some of her confusion.

A précis of the sessions is as follows. For ease of writing the Professional Counsellor is abbreviated to “C”.

Background Information

Komiko had a strict and formal upbringing with her parents and the various Catholic schools that she attended. She was taught to always honour and respect her elders, such as her parents, teachers and priests. Because of this she explains that she has never really felt independent of figures of authority, and has usually acted out the role of a willing child. She states that she seeks the approval of those in authority and whenever she attempts to assert her own will, she experiences guilt and self-doubt.

She has always followed closely the rules and morals of the Catholic Church, through her school and adult life. Komiko has never been married, nor has she had a long-term relationship or experienced sexual intimacy. She states that this is primarily because of the codes she has learned to live by, however there have been times when she has wanted to break away from these. She is interested in living away from her parents and experiencing a relationship out of wedlock, however she is afraid that if she does so, her parents will not accept her decisions.

Although Komiko is frightened to break away from the codes and rules that she has learned, she is seriously considering their validity and realism. She has noticed a change in her own beliefs about morality, and how she no longer accepts her family’s and church’s beliefs without question. She wonders about the importance of her own individual conscience, and following her changing beliefs. The questions she asks herself include: What if I am wrong? Who am I to decide what is moral or immoral? What will I discover if I follow my own path? Will I lose my self-respect or be able to survive the guilt I feel if I don’t follow the teachings of my church and parents?

Generally, Komiko would like to be less dependent, less socially inhibited, less emotionally reserved and be more assertive and able to make important decisions in her life. Instead she finds that she is extremely self-conscious and always considers how she should and should not act. She wonders if she has the strength to act in opposition to what she has learned from her culture, her parents and her church.

Session Content

After drawing out Komiko’s story and beliefs, “C” considers some of the core issues that she is facing. “C” summarises the nature of Komiko’s struggle as follows:

Child roles vs Adult roles:

  • Catholic morals vs non-Catholic morals
  • Asian influences vs Western influences

Whilst listening to Komiko, “C” considers briefly her own opinions about these conflicts. “C” is a Western, non-Catholic woman and realises her own biases in these arguments may lead her to influence Komiko away from traditional, Asian and Catholic codes of living. “C” also considers that Komiko may be looking to “C” as someone in authority to grant her permission to act more in accordance with her own views.

“C” started with a warm up exercise with Komiko. “C” asked Komiko to summarise the way she was feeling about herself. Komiko stated that she felt self-conscious, weak willed, lacking in assertiveness and dependent. “C” discussed these opinions further with Komiko and asked her questions such as “How are you dependent? Who is responsible for your self-consciousness? What do you take responsibility for?”

Komiko became aware of her passivity through this exercise, and her tendency to allow others to dictate how she should live. “C” then asked Komiko to use the “I take responsibility for.” exercise where she repeated out-loud, all of the current feelings that she was responsible for. “C” then encouraged Komiko to take responsibility for the goals she wanted to achieve.

Komiko said:

  • I am responsible for my self-consciousness.
  • I am responsible for my dependency.
  • I am responsible for my independence.
  • I am responsible for my decision making.

“C” added some responsibilities of her own:

  • I am responsible for helping you explore your blockages.
  • I am responsible for allowing you to make your own choices.
  • I will not take responsibility for your decision making.

This exercise allowed “C” and Komiko to examine their roles in the counselling relationship and reinforced that Komiko was responsible for the decision making. Komiko and “C” both were fairly warmed up after this exercise, so “C” encouraged Komiko to perform a dialogue exercise between her assertive self and her unassertive self. “C” explained that this was a chance for both of these sides to talk to each other and air their grievances.

“C” said to Komiko, “In this first chair I want you to position yourself as your assertive self. Your assertive self should talk to your unassertive self in this other chair. “As your assertive self, I want you to sit, speak and act in an assertive manner. You should tell your unassertive side what it is you want to be more assertive about and why.”

As Komiko progressed through this exercise, “C” prompted her to talk about what her assertive side felt and to point out what she didn’t like about her unassertive self. Komiko grew slowly into her role as her assertive self. She experimented with the role of advice giver and decision maker, clarifying the choices that she wanted to make in regards to her life. In particular these included moving out of her parental home and pursuing a relationship.

After this point, Komiko was a little quiet. When prompted to speak, Komiko explained that she feared her parent’s response to these changes. “C” then suggested that Komiko take on her unassertive side. Komiko’s unassertive side defended some of the actions and principles of her traditional upbringing. She explained some of the value that she saw in behaving in accordance with the belief’s of her parents. She wanted to make her own choices, but she wanted her parent’s approval to do so. She was afraid that they would not tolerate her decisions. She explained that some of her parent’s expectations included having supervised dates with young men, living at home until she was married, preferably marrying a Japanese man, wearing skirts and dresses and generally keeping a feminine appearance.

After lengthy discussions with her two sides, Komiko came to realise more clearly the nature of her conflict. Her assertive side wanted to move out of home and be more independent, realising that she may have to live with the disapproval of her parents for a while. Komiko’s unassertive side felt afraid without the support of her family. She thought that maybe she could ease her parents into the idea of her moving out by starting to collect furniture, saving money, looking for suitable apartments and discussing her plans with them.

“C” suggested to Komiko to consider the consequences of moving out on her own, or staying in her parents house. “C” also suggested to Komiko to write a letter to her parents, to tell them of her fears of their disapproval and the consequences this has for her. “C” explained to Komiko that the letter should not be sent, but that she could bring the letter to their next session to discuss its meaning.

In the final part of the session, “C” asked Komiko how she might feel about attempting a more difficult exercise – playing the role of her non-Catholic self, non-traditional self. “C” explained that Komiko was already well acquainted with her Catholic/traditional self and suggested that she experience what it would be like to be her non-Catholic, non-traditional self.

Initially Komiko was hesitant and didn’t understand how she might act as a non-Catholic or non-traditional self. “C” suggested that she think about how she might look, what she might wear, how she might do her hair. Komiko thought that she might wear pants more often, dress in a less feminine style and cut her hair shorter. She practiced walking around the room, as this side of herself, slowly gaining confidence to put a bounce in her step and imagining her hair to be shorter and coloured. She was quite shy about her performance and so “C” joined in also, by mimicking her movements and asking her to describe how she felt about herself.

When seated again, “C” moved on to ask Komiko how she might act on an average day. “C” asked her to imagine her non-Catholic, non-traditional self going to work, doing the shopping or visiting friends. Komiko imagined herself talking avidly to her more assertive friends about making decisions. She discussed the possibility of having her own place to be herself, and how she might plan meals for herself and arrange everything to her own liking. She thought of having friends stay over for weekends and setting up a study room for her work.

Komiko moved on to consider having the freedom to see a male friend from church that she was interested in, without being under the watch of her parents. After this point she was quiet and “C” asked what she was thinking. Komiko said that her Catholic/traditional side was not happy about this, as she was afraid of becoming involved with someone.

“C” prompted Komiko to imagine how her non-Catholic, non-traditional self might approach this problem. Komiko thought that her non-Catholic self probably wouldn’t get involved unless she thought that the relationship could be serious. When asked what being serious meant, Komiko replied that there would be some sort of verbal agreement with her partner and that she would feel in love. She thought that she might see him on weekends and would consider introducing him to her parents.

“C” asked her how her non-Catholic, non-traditional side would feel at this stage. Komiko thought that she might be quite happy, though her Catholic/traditional side feared that her parents might find out earlier, or might not approve of her choice. As the session was near to finishing, “C” asked Komiko to stop playing the role, suggesting that they may work further on these roles in the next session. Komiko sat quietly for some time, reflecting on her role reversal. “C” expressed her admiration of Komiko’s attempts to explore herself and her conflicts. “C” asked her to give herself some feedback on the session.

Komiko felt that she had further explored her motives for change and her fears of change in further detail. She had come to realise her responsibility for both her assertion and lack of it, and had been surprised at the extent of her desire to take more control of her life. She felt that her assertive side had the strength to be independent, whereas earlier, she didn’t think that she had any inner resources to make changes to her life. She hoped to continue the therapy until she became more decided about the decisions she wanted to make.

“C” validated this progress that Komiko had made and suggested that they might continue the next session by exploring some more of the conflict between her catholic/traditional and non-catholic, non-traditional values and to consider the letter that she was to write to her parents.

End of Session

Some points to consider with Gestalt Therapy include:

The assumption of Gestalt therapy is that individuals are responsible for their own growth and behaviour. It is an experiential approach, designed to help people gain more awareness of what they are doing. Gestalt therapy is an active therapy and clients are expected to take part in their own growth.

Most of the techniques of Gestalt therapy are designed to assist people to more fully experience themselves. The therapist should not force clients to partake in experiments if they don’t want to, but in this instance should explore the client’s resistance to the therapy.

Some of the activities and exercises employed by Gestalt therapists include the following:

  • I take responsibility for.this is to help someone accept their own personal responsibility for their feelings, actions and their subsequent consequences. This can be useful if the client is blaming others for their problems. By taking responsibility for their problems, the client may be more empowered to change their thinking, actions, and feelings.
  • The dialogue exercise…this is a useful experiment to employ if the person is engaged in a struggle of some kind. The client should carry on a conversation between the two parts of themselves that are in conflict. This exercise can help the client to better understand the motives of each side and clarify their experiences.
  • I have a secret…this is a technique for exploring secrets and imagining revealing them to others. It allows the client to think about the reactions of others to their secrets and understand the reasons for keeping these secrets. Writing a letter to someone (but not sending it!) may be a way to explore secrets or taboo subjects.
  • Reversal technique…if a client is attempting to deny a side of themselves, this technique may be used to help explore the side they wish to cover up. By experiencing themselves as this side, may help them to explore what they are failing to deal with.
  • The Rehearsal technique…we rehearse many things inwardly, when we imagine how situations will be. The technique is to rehearse these out-loud by acting out all the things that you might be experiencing inwardly. You might do this when facing something you are afraid of, such as applying for a job, or asking someone for a date.
  • The exaggeration exercise…this is designed to draw attention to our body language. The client is to deliberately exaggerate a body movement that they do often, such as frowning or smiling when they feel hurt. The exercise aims to make people more aware of their feelings when they use these particular body movements and gestures.

These are just some of the experiments used in Gestalt therapy. You may know of others. Perhaps you might like to think about how you might use these experiments with someone like Komiko.

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