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Gestalt Contacting Process and Contact Cycle

Contacting Process

Contact with anything not novel - not different - does not require adjustment because the familiar, by definition, has been adjusted to (either by integration or rejection).

The Novel

Contact with anything not novel - not different - does not require adjustment because the familiar, by definition, has been adjusted to (either by integration or rejection).  What is pervasive is not an object of contact, ie, not assimilable. Essentially, what is not different is not contacted.  Therefore what is assimilated is always novel;

Contact is dynamic, is the awareness of, and behaviour toward, the assimilable . . (Perls et al, 1951 p230). Therefore what is assimilated is always novel; and primarily, contact is the awareness of, and behaviour toward, the assimilable novelty (ibid, p230). What is pervasive is not an object of contact, ie, not assimilable. Essentially, what is not different is not contacted. Contact is dynamic and Goodman, in Perls et al (1951) says all contact is creative and dynamic (p230)



Perls et al 1951

P230:  Primarily, contact is the awareness of, and behaviour toward, the assimilable novelty; and the rejection of the inassimilable novelty

P230  All contact is creative and dynamic . . . because it must cope with the novel . . . cannot passively accept or merely adjust to the novel, because the novel must be assimilated

P230:  what is assimilated is always novel

P373:  … materials and energy of growth are: the conservative attempt of the organism to remain as it has been, the novel environment, the destruction of previous partial equilibria, and the assimilation of something new.

P230:  What the organism perceives as the same or indifferent is not contacted, nor contactable

Philippson 2001

P48:  Novelty is an essential aspect of awareness, and novelty inevitably involves time (this is now, but wasn’t then).


Contact is dynamic, “… is the awareness of, and behaviour toward, the assimilable …”.  ”.   (Perls et al, 1951 p230). 

CONTACT may be shown:            C=f(A+B)n

Contact is a function of (varies with) the Awareness and Behaviour towards the novel

Contact with anything not novel - not different - does not require attention because the familiar, by definition, has been attended and adjusted to (either by integration or rejection).

Another way of saying this is that an object of attention that is persistent and familiar is not an object of contact, ie, not assimilable.  Therefore what is assimilated is always novel; and “primarily, contact is the awareness of, and behaviour toward, the assimilable novelty” (Perls et al 1951 p230). Essentially, what is not different is not contacted. 


Mackewn notes that the self is an elusive and controversial concept. (Mackewn 1997 p73)

Rather than me/self being a structure, e.g., composed of id ego and super ego, Perls et al, the founders of Gestalt view Self as a process, and most importantly consider Self to be “the system of contacts at any moment”. (Perls et al., 1951 p235)

 “the self (is) the function of contacting the actual transient present”. ”.   (Perls et al, 1951 p371)

This gives:               S=f(C)t

S is Self, t is the transient present (the now moment of time); and C is Contact.


The Self varies with the Contact in the actual transient present

What is being said here is that with Self being the system of contacts, the process of Self shows itself in Contact; Self is visible; is seen.


Perls states “An organism preserves itself by growing”.  (Perls et al, 1951 p372)

Growth and preservation are a continuum; “self preserving and growing are polar”.   (Perls et al, 1951 p372)








So there is a balance with more preserving, less growth; and less preserving, more growth.  This fits with the personality manifesting the enduring qualities; and does not deny the potential for change.

This fits with Beisser’s (1970) paradoxical theory of change that says, succinctly,


“that change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not”.


So, the Self lives, and survives, in Contact; by

  • making meaning,

  • identifying

  • and accepting or rejecting and alienating with

  • all that it is not-self.

In noticing what presents as different the Self responds with assimilation or rejection, thus maintaining, and making, the self through this contact.  This growth is the Self in contact, in the moment, and in this temporal sense:

Creative and Dynamic

Contact is dynamic and Goodman, in Perls 1951 says “all contact is creative and dynamic” ( p230)  Remembering this is Gestalt Contact and Gestalt Contact is Self, thus:

Self is creative and dynamic.  As Wheeler puts it, we are hard-wired to be creative.

The Contact-Boundary

The contact boundary … is essentially the organ of a particular relation of the organism and the environment … this particular relation is growth.    Perls et al (1951 p229)

The contact boundary is not a physical separation, rather it is a quality of depth and permeability of the Self – Not-Self; of what is you – not you.  It is as much the degree of spontaneity available for the situation.

THUS, the Contact Boundary is the organ of GROWTH (and this is relational – growth of organism/environment)

Growth is a function of the contact boundary:   G = f(β)d

where  G = Growth,  β = Contact Boundary, d = field

Growth varies with Contact βoundary of the given field


The contact cycle between person and person your sense of the unitary interfunctioning of you and your environment (Perls et al 1951 p73) was first forward by Perls in 1947 as the cycle of the interdependency of organism and environment (Perls 1947 p43) and builds on the natural cycle of change and growth. (Clarkson and Mackewn 1993 p54) This cycle of contact provides for a fundamental cornerstone for appreciating how contact and its interruptions are viewed in Gestalt therapy.

In its original format Perls, prior to the writing of Excitement and Growth, laid out the cycle as shown below:

The Contact Event: Interfunctioning of You and Your Environment

This is the original interfunctioning description given by Perls

  1. The organism at rest.

  2. The disturbing factor, which may be:

An external disturber - a demand made upon us, or any interference that puts us on the defensive

An internal disturbance - a need which has gathered enough momentum to strive for gratification and which requires:

  1. The creation of an image or reality (plus-minus function and figure-background phenomena).

  2. The answer to the situation aiming at:

  3. A decrease of tension - achievement of gratification or compliance with the demands resulting in:

  4. The return of the organism to balance

(Perls, 1947:1969, p. 43)

Cycle of Gestalt Formation and Destruction

The contemporary model often cited is Clarkson (1989). This Cycle of Gestalt formation and destruction is usually referred to as the contact cycle, or Gestalt cycle.


In sensing a difference the person is bringing the novel into figure, and into awareness. The resulting assimilation, or rejection, is a creative response by the person; and in this process there is an adjustment, through refining and reintegration of the self. This is creative adjustment. (Perls et al 1951 p230)

Contact Cycle Based on Zinker ‘wave’




2. Sensation

At the point where the self is balanced, between cycles, after completion and prior to the next fore-contact there is either internal or external disturbances will impinge upon the self heralding the start of the figure/background formation process.


The self feels, senses, (a) disturbance, a change of status and so (a) figure forms to the fore front. The person is ready to notice, to be aware


Gradually or suddenly we become aware of events impinging via our senses, or our feelings, or mentally onto our consciousness. As a form of experience, there is a fresh Gestalten. A need arises and the need is known - you recognise that you have a need; this is not the same as knowing what the need is.



3.  Mobilisation:  Usually follows awareness in that the person becomes aroused or emotional of the opportunities leading to satisfaction of the need. The healthy person is alive to the senses, to the surroundings, is open to information.



Action:  A punctuation - or figure formation - in the process of contact. The person chooses or rejects possibilities. Behaviours are relevant to the effective fulfillment of needs in the here and now. Action occurs at the boundaries of self and environment. Occurring within dialogue and within the contact with others. The healthy self is able to take from and give to the inter action and to experience its fullness


4. Contact:  Having healthily mobilised and acted there will follow full and vibrant contact, termed final contact by Goodman (Perls et al, 1951 p403)

it is not the act of thinking or remembering that provides the contact but the quality of thought, seeing, remembering, hearing etc, and the summation of these.


Contact occurs at the boundary of our self and the environment. within the moment of contact all else merges to the background; as seeing your loved one in a crowd, everyone and everything else blurs and melts with your loved one in the fore-ground.  The full and final contact marks the closure of a particular Gestalt.  Contact is a basic need of human beings, providing and opening to the possibility for change.


5.  Integration and Assimilation: Satisfaction.  Perls et al(1951/1969) refer to this as post-contact. This is the after glow, the satisfaction following the full and complete experience. This is the quiet after the storm prior to separation or withdrawal. In a full and vibrant contact-cycle the individual is able to savour the completion and is ready to move on with satisfaction and readiness of the next sensation


6.  Withdrawal:  Following the satisfaction experienced in the post contact phase the person is able to withdraw to the balanced fore- and back- ground stasis. Another way of viewing this is moving into the resting void; where sensation has yet / is awaiting to be felt.



The Dynamic Interchanges of Self and Environment


Wheeler (2003 pp163-178) suggests this (Clarkson / Zinker) simplistic model, and its usual accompaniment of biological needs being sensed and met, is insufficient in exploring deeply the nature of contact, and creativity, since unfortunately, little or nothing of [this] social relational ground of our being is evident (Wheeler, 2003, p. 163)

He takes the contact boundary and examines much more closely the dynamic interchanges of self and environment; moving into a much more experience-near position.  (Wheeler, 2003, p. 166)

Wheeler has been able to provide the context of creativity in contact, and locate the zone for creativity in contact and contacting. This provides greater examination and locating the ingesting - whole or otherwise - across the contact boundary/zone.











efending for some time. In spite of the therapist’s understanding the function of these behaviors, she is beginning to feel frustrated. She [therapist] cares about Nell, and because she cares she is vulnerable to this sense of frustration: she wants to help; she wants to see Nell break through the old patterns, and Nell is not doing so. Rather than pretend an acceptance that she does not (at this moment) experience, the therapist challenges Nell:

Therapist: Why, Nell, I don’t believe what you just said. And if you want to change your life, then You’re going to have to take some risks with me.

Nell: I thought I just did.

Therapist: I don’t experience you taking risks with me. I experience you wanting to do with me the same pattern you do with everybody else. You just got done quoting yourself: “I’m going to do with you what I do with my mother.” Now, if you want to change your inner life, You’re going to have to take some risks with me and treat me differently than Mama. Are you willing to be different with me?


This example is particularly interesting in that it leaves open the question of whether the therapist’s challenge was motivated more by her own level of frustration or by what she thought would be most helpful for the client. However, by posing that question we set up an artificial dichotomy. The therapist’s expression of her own feelings, her own vulnerability, is most helpful for the client.

Erskine, Richard; Moursund, Janet; Trautmann, Rebecca. Beyond Empathy: A Therapy of Contact-in Relationships (pp. 103-104). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.


Or the intervention is to:

“invite (someone) to do or say something that one thinks will be difficult or impossible”.


Script Belief and/or Introjection;

A counsellor might challenge and support the client in actually telephoning her father to tell him that she loved him. Someone shy who is recalling the thrill of a childhood circus visit might be encouraged to transform the consulting room, either in his imagination or with certain props, and to become the ringmaster with voice, body and actions to match. For someone else who was never allowed to be critical of his parents, merely acknowledging disagreement with the counsellor may be a major and important experiment. These and similar experiments offer opportunities for clients to experience themselves directly in new and different ways.

Clarkson, Petruska; Cavicchia, Simon. Gestalt Counselling in Action (Counselling in Action series) . SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.


The other definitions of challenge are contrary to a humanistic approach to therapy.


Fundamental in this work is to respect the client’s process, or more accurately, their unfolding process.  The client will unfold at their own pace that is determined by safety and trust – by the strength of the therapeutic alliance.  The unfolding process is challenged without breaking through a client’s defences because such defences are there for a strategic and necessary purpose, albeit mostly archaic, but not completely. The humanistic approach recognises the client unfolds when the conditions – the situation – allows.  Cutting through, or pushing too hard and too soon is detrimental for many clients – it is not relational, and it is not respectful


In doing this work it is vital that the counsellor finds the delicate balance (which in any case may shift from moment to moment) between challenge and support. Gestalt requires that the counsellor respects the client’s personal integrity. This integrity consists of the wholeness of that person, her body, her patterns of movement, her rhythms of living, her ‘symptoms’, her so-called ‘resistances’ and her vocabulary. Establishing full contact with this whole person means that the counsellor expects that at that precise moment the person represents the highest level of creative adjustment that is possible for that person at that time. No matter how dysfunctional in context her behaviour patterns may appear, and no matter how simple it may seem to the observer

Clarkson, Petruska; Cavicchia, Simon. Gestalt Counselling in Action (Counselling in Action series) . SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.


Gestalt Therapy

The Gestalt approach to counselling can embrace a wide variety of diverse but specific techniques within a holistic frame of reference which integrates mind and body, action and introspection within an appropriately supportive, challenging and attuned relationship between client and counsellor.

Clarkson, Petruska; Cavicchia, Simon. Gestalt Counselling in Action (Counselling in Action series) . SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.



The reorganising of the personality consists of both disintegrating and integrating processes, and should be balanced so that only such amount of dissociated material should be set free as the patient is capable of assimilating. Otherwise his social or even biological function may be dangerously upset. (Perls, 1979: 21)


It is the in depth psychotherapy training through programmes under the umbrella of UKCP (at least) ensure challenges are considered and measured:

The counsellor provides for each individual client a ‘safe emergency’. Too much support can deprive the client of the opportunity to grow through frustration. Too much challenge can be invasive and sadistic. Allowing the client to repeat in counselling endlessly the processes she habitually uses to substitute for genuine feeling, experience and action can also be ultimately destructive. Yet at any one time with any one client provocative challenge, nurturing support or laissez-faire neutrality may be the modality of choice.

Clarkson, Petruska; Cavicchia, Simon. Gestalt Counselling in Action (Counselling in Action series) . SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.


The “bad stuff,” the part of self that felt so lonely or frightened or angry or devastated, is tucked away where it is immune to the kinds of normal integration and updating that occur as a part of growing up. It resides, an undigested lump, with the affect and understandings of the developmental stage(s) the person was in at the times the traumas occurred (Federn, 1953; Weiss, 1950; Berne, 1961). Beliefs and expectations that are split off in this way cannot be questioned or challenged because they are out of conscious awareness; needs and feelings remain unrecognized and unresolved. The split cannot be healed until full contact, with self and with others, is restored.


… these defenses serve to maintain stability, reduce awareness of discomfort, and allow the person to disengage from the pain of their needs not met and get on with the business of living. As a way of coping, such defense mechanisms are useful and perhaps even necessary processes. But they have a cost,


… as the therapeutic relationship begins to hit the bumps and snags that signal reactivation of old patterns, the focus may sometimes shift to the relationship itself, to “what is happening between us.” The therapist may share his or her own personal experiences and reactions, and the client’s ability to make full contact-with-other begins to be challenged and to grow in the relative safety of the therapeutic session.

Erskine, Richard; Moursund, Janet; Trautmann, Rebecca. Beyond Empathy: A Therapy of Contact-in Relationships (p. 7). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.


Disruption of contact with self and with others usually involves some sort of decision, conclusion, or survival reaction. Rarely a part of our conscious awareness, these decisions and reactions trace back to early experiences that have taught us some survival strategy (Greenwald, 1971, 1973; Goulding & Goulding, 1979; Berne, 1972). The problem is that such strategies then tend to be applied—and misapplied—to current situations. Because the conclusion or decision is often either out of awareness, or is experienced as a natural and inevitable response, it cannot be challenged or updated …; Asking a client about decisions and conclusions helps to bring these responses back into awareness, where they can be re-examined from the perspective of an adult’s knowledge and experience.

Erskine, Richard; Moursund, Janet; Trautmann, Rebecca. Beyond Empathy: A Therapy of Contact-in Relationships (p. 40). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.


A … consequence of attunement is the challenge to the self-protective belief system that the client has been maintaining (Erskine & Moursund, 1988/1997; Erskine & Zalcman, 1979). Old beliefs and expectations, once useful but now self-defeating, are continually contradicted as the attuned therapist recognizes them, acknowledges their historical significance, and validates their current psychological function. As the client, too, begins to recognize those old coping strategies and to both value them (as serving an important purpose) and question them (as perhaps no longer the best way to serve that purpose), he or she becomes more and more able to risk trying out new ways of being, not only with the therapist, but with himself or herself, and even with others outside the therapeutic setting.

Erskine, Richard; Moursund, Janet; Trautmann, Rebecca. Beyond Empathy: A Therapy of Contact-in Relationships (p. 81). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

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