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Gestalt Therapy and Developmental Theories

Updated: Feb 1

in Gestalt Therapy in Clinical Practice: From Psychopathology to the Aesthetics of Contact (Gestalt Therapy Book Series 2). Gianni Francesetti, Michela Gecele, Jan Roubal, and Leslie Greenberg

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Gestalt Therapy and Developmental Theories
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It is important not to underestimate how therapist’s theoretical premises as well as his subjectivity could constitute an obstacle to an accurate perception of the patient’s experience ... above all when this risk involve children’s development and non verbal communication. Gestalt Therapy has re-examined itself in relation to

developmental theories ... a model for working with children (Oaklander, 1988; Bove Fernandez et al., 2006) and a description of child’s body growth phases (Frank, 2001) was developed by Gestalt theory and practice. ... attempt was made in the Eighties to outline a child developmental theory using the ways and times of the contact cycle (The From We-to I/You model; Salonia, 1989a or. ed.; 1992). ... Gestalt Therapy approaches the human animal organism, ... which weaves together the body ... (the theory of the Self with its functions: Id, Personality and Ego), ... the relationship ... (the theory of the contact with its ways and times: the Gestalt contact cycle) ... and time ... (the theory of growth and its relational time experienced).

From: Gestalt Therapy in Clinical Practice: From Psychopathology to the Aesthetics of Contact (Gestalt Therapy Book Series 2). Gianni Francesetti, Michela Gecele, Jan Roubal, and Leslie Greenberg

11. Gestalt Therapy and Developmental Theories

by Giovanni Salonia

  • The existence of different developmental theories (Loc: 5,385)

  • makes us fully aware of the risk of perceptual selectivity (Loc: 5,387)

  • it is important not to underestimate how therapist’s theoretical premises as well as his subjectivity could constitute an obstacle to an accurate perception of the patient’s experience (Loc: 5,389)

  • above all when this risk involve children’s development and non verbal communication. (Loc: 5,391)

  • we are just wondering if it is not perhaps true that several developmental theories are just descriptions of the different ways in which adults relate to children. (Loc: 5,392)

  • the description of the socio-cultural context could orient in the elaboration of any theory. (Loc: 5,394)

  • Adults’ perception of children is determined by the socio-cultural context they live in and, specifically, by the Base Relationship Model (Loc: 5,395)

  • When a society experiences a shared sense of a common danger, then it gives priority to the sense of belonging, to the “We” (Loc: 5,398)

  • fall»): in this context the child is raised through models of introjective obedience and of passive adaptation. (Loc: 5,400)

  • when a society does not perceive the existence of an imminent and all-pervading danger, (Loc: 5,401)

  • the push towards belonging is relaxed (Loc: 5,402)

  • society becomes “fluid”) (Loc: 5,402)

  • emphasis is laid on subjective experience and creativity: (Loc: 5,403)

  • value is placed on listening to the child’s needs and to encouraging the expression of his creativity. (Loc: 5,404)

  • in the BRM/We (Loc: 5,406)

  • growth will be aimed at creating functional introjections (Loc: 5,407)

  • reckon with fear, rules as well as a sense of guilt (Loc: 5,407)

  • in the BRM/I the child will be perceived and educated within a hermeneutic subjectivity, of the body and of creativity; (Loc: 5,408)

  • reckon with the duty of self-fulfilment (Loc: 5,409)

  • and his own fulfilment with those of others. (Loc: 5,410)

  • new developmental theory does not contradict the previous ones but enriches them. (Loc: 5,411)

  • This paper (Loc: 5,413)

  • in the first, (Loc: 5,414)

  • previous and current developmental theories are being read through Gestalt hermeneutical keys; (Loc: 5,414)

  • the second part, (Loc: 5,415)

  • Gestalt Therapy’s innovative contribution to the elaboration of a developmental theory with its clinical declinations (Loc: 5,415)

1. A Gestalt Re-Reading of Developmental Theories (Loc: 5,418)

  • the first great intuition of its founders: (Loc: 5,422)

  • the decisive obviousness of the fact that dentition is a way of assimilation (Loc: 5,422)

  • a model for working with children (Oaklander, 1988; Bove Fernandez et al., 2006) and a description of child’s body growth phases (Frank, 2001) was developed by Gestalt theory and practice. (Loc: 5,424)

  • The hermeneutical cipher with which Gestalt Therapy approaches the human animal organism, might be summed up in a triadic paradigm which weaves together the body (the theory of the Self with its functions: Id, Personality and Ego), the relationship (the theory of the contact with its ways and times: the Gestalt contact cycle) and time (the theory of growth and its relational time experienced). (Loc: 5,429)

1.1. Sigmund Freud: Body, Relationship and Time (Loc: 5,433)

  • the revolutionary principle which asserts that child’s relational thoughts and style emerge from the body is implicitly affirmed: depending on the part of the body activated (by the libido), the child-caregiver relationship is modified (Loc: 5,443)

  • (dependence, counter-dependence, independence, interdependence). (Loc: 5,444)

  • pleasure – the signaller of these stages – reveals itself to be a three-dimensional experience: (Loc: 5,445)

  • experience of one’s own body, (Loc: 5,446)

  • opening to the reality of the body of the other (Loc: 5,446)

  • the experience of time as transitory duration. (Loc: 5,446)

  • from the pleasure that the experience of lived intercorporeality (Loc: 5,447)

  • (perception of one’s own and the other’s body) and of the lack of the other’s body (that becomes expectation) are being made by a corporeal memory, (Loc: 5,447)

  • builds identity and bodily tension opening to otherness. (Loc: 5,448)

  • every stage remains “memorised” in the layers of the body as muscular tension and as quality and style of breathing. (Loc: 5,449)

  • the child’s body has found adequate primary support in the body of the parent figure, the progression of stages follows in every wider waves and generates a sense of wholeness (body-relational identity). (Loc: 5,449)

  • the body of the caregiver does not provide adequately primary support, then fears will be layered in the child’s body, as bodily tension destined to produce various types of interruption of the contact. (Loc: 5,451)

  • the progression of stages occurs spontaneously (Loc: 5,452)

  • constitutes the physical base of the concept of the Organism Self-Regulation (Loc: 5,454)

  • Freud indicates as markers of the stages (mouth, anus, genitals), (Loc: 5,458)

  • not be considered as isolated and juxtaposed (Loc: 5,458)

  • rather as each being endowed with libido (attention and pleasure) (Loc: 5,458)

  • and intimately connected with the entirety of one’s own body (Loc: 5,459)

  • and with the body of the other. (Loc: 5,460)

  • breathing patterns record the quality of the experience: depending on the fluidity of the experience, it expands or is held in and it becomes deeper or shallower. (Loc: 5,460)

  • various stages succeed each other (Loc: 5,462)

  • spontaneously and harmoniously and they progressively build the child’s corporeal and relational identity. (Loc: 5,464)

  • (first stage ))

  • oral sphincter concerns the receiving of something from the environment (Loc: 5,465)

  • into the body; (Loc: 5,466)

  • suckling cannot be reduced to the pleasure of feeding (Loc: 5,466)

  • but – at an intercorporeal level – it is resembles a relational dance which involves various parts of the mother’s body with equal intensity (nipple or bottle) and the baby’s mouth (and entire body). (Loc: 5,467)

  • play with the mother’s breast (not as a simply feeding experience) has in this way a relational identity and function. (Loc: 5,470)

  • second stage (Loc: 5,471)

  • the anal sphincter. (Loc: 5,472)

  • action of defecating represents a new relational modality learning: (Loc: 5,472)

  • sensation of one’s “own” power to expel or hold in something (faeces) that the child produces and the environment awaits (relational dimension). (Loc: 5,473)

  • In this stage the child in fact learns how to relate to the environment with a greater power of negotiation (Loc: 5,474)

  • the possibility of expressing anger by holding in the faeces or using them to soil things) (Loc: 5,474)

  • feeling embarrassment (people eat together but defecate alone) or shame (when he is incapable of controlling his sphincter). (Loc: 5,475)

  • in the third stage (Loc: 5,477)

  • great attention to peeing and discovers his genitals as a site of personal pleasure and as the difference between males and females. (Loc: 5,477)

  • the phallic stage, (Loc: 5,478)

  • Penis envy (Loc: 5,479)

  • is merely cultural: (Loc: 5,480)

  • In this stage the change in the relational model concerns the acquisition of major independence on the child’s part because now he knows how to procure himself pleasure alone (autoerotic stage). (Loc: 5,482)

  • any equal relationship of intimacy: to go towards the other not from a position of dependence (Loc: 5,484)

  • (the transition from the dyadic mother-child to the father-mother-child triangle) (Loc: 5,493)

  • characterised by the overcoming of the Oedipus complex: (Loc: 5,493)

  • For Freud, (Loc: 5,494)

  • is during the oedipal stage that the child’s growth or pathology are delineated. (Loc: 5,494)

1.3. Daniel Stern: the Child Talks! (Loc: 5,519)

  • Stern’s developmental theory is situated in changed cultural and social coordinates. (Loc: 5,521)

  • see a developmental theory which shifts attention towards the Self of the child, to describe how the subject-in-contact with the world evolves. (Loc: 5,522)

  • Stern’s theory is the developmental translation of Kohut’s theory of the Self (1977; (Loc: 5,524)

  • in an unaware way, Stern (1985; 1995; 1998) incorporates some passages from Gestalt Therapy (Loc: 5,526)

  • a theory of the Self rather than of the child, (Loc: 5,527)

  • study of “healthy” child in his interactions (Loc: 5,528)

  • the attention towards the interpersonal (Loc: 5,529)

  • world; the relational styles (Loc: 5,530)

  • and the “being-with” schema (“the other is a self-regulating other for the infant”; Stern, 1985, p. 102). (Loc: 5,531)

  • acme of a child’s development is the Narrative Self. (Loc: 5,533)

  • He asserts in fact that the Self is polyphonic and therefore every stage adds a new music to the preceding ones, (Loc: 5,537)

  • stages are not correlated in a hierarchical order. (Loc: 5,537)

  • 1.4. Infant Research: Mother-Child Self-Regulation (Loc: 5,544)

  • From the Nineties onwards, research into developmental theories has concentrated on observing the child and his interactions (Stern, 1998). (Loc: 5,545)

  • A particular concept which emerges from their research (Infant Research) is the systemic paradigm of self-regulation: (Loc: 5,552)

  • a process of reciprocal self-regulation is always in action (Loc: 5,553)

  • 2. Developmental Theories in Gestalt Therapy (Loc: 5,567)

  • Gestalt Therapy emerges in the Fifties as one of the most important models of the humanistic movement. (Loc: 5,569)

  • characteristics of this (Loc: 5,570)

  • is the emphasis placed on the present, within an epistemological framework that underlines the depth of the surface (Loc: 5,570)

  • aims at reducing an interest (Loc: 5,571)

  • in the patient’s childhood. (Loc: 5,571)

  • The coeval (or contemporaneous) Carl Rogers’ Person-centred therapy (1951) concentrates in few pages a synthetic and shortened developmental theory. (Loc: 5,576)

  • Gestalt Therapy emerges from a brilliant intuition concerning developmental theory. (Loc: 5,581)

  • psychoanalysts – Fritz and Laura Perls – whilst they were observing their children found that the teething (the capacity and the necessity of destroying food), develops much earlier than Freud had predicted (Perls, 1947). (Loc: 5,582)

  • The duration of the introjective phase is reduced, (Loc: 5,585)

  • Perls’ observation of teething became a departure point for the creation of a new paradigm of understanding the human condition (Loc: 5,588)

  • as well as the child development. (Loc: 5,590)

  • Healthy aggression (not primarily connected with destruction and frustration) is experienced, both in therapy and in life, as a self-regulation and it renders recourse to an external entity (such as the Super-Ego) completely useless, (Loc: 5,593)

  • the patient becomes the protagonist of the therapeutic treatment as a “co-construction” relational experience (and as the Cognitivists will say thirty years later). (Loc: 5,595)

  • In the Eighties, there is a resurgence of interest in developmental theories (Salonia, 1989 or. ed.; 1992; McConville, 1995; Wheeler, 1991; 2000a; Frank, 2001). This was not a reawakened interest in the past but, first of all, it arose from the need to try and outline the stages through which the Gestalt contact competency is formed. (Loc: 5,612)

  • The model emerged was called: “From We to I-You” (Salonia, 1989 or. ed.; 1992) and was circumscribed in the ways and times of the contact cycle’s phases: the “We” of primary confluence, the “You” which one depends upon (introjection/orientation phase), the “You” towards whom energy is directed (projection/manipulation), the Ego (“I”) of self-sufficiency (retroflection), the “I-You” of contact: finally, at the contact boundary two presences have brought to fruition the work of maturation. (Loc: 5,618)

2.2.1. A Gestalt Developmental Theory of the Self (Loc: 5,625)

  • Gestalt developmental theory concentrates more on the child’s Self concept rather than on the child’s intrapsychic world (Stern will call it the “interpersonal world” (Loc: 5,627)

  • in harmony with the Gestalt principle that the organism is always in relationship and into a relational movement: (Loc: 5,629)

  • the reciprocal relational intentionality (Loc: 5,629)

  • between child and his caregivers (Loc: 5,630)

2.2.2. The Between-ness: a Gestalt Developmental Theory of the Contact Boundary (Loc: 5,632)

  • Gestalt developmental theory refers to the development of the contact boundary (Loc: 5,634)

  • between the child and his parent figures, (Loc: 5,635)

  • different levels of contact boundary (Loc: 5,637)

  • evolving and depending on the developmental phase of the child and on the parental feedback. (Loc: 5,637)

  • the primary confluence, (Loc: 5,638)

  • a sense of presence/absence of the other’s (Loc: 5,639)

  • progressively emerges: (Loc: 5,639)

  • the child experiences how his own body is hungry, (Loc: 5,639)

  • which body wants (Loc: 5,640)

  • and how to live without the other’s (Loc: 5,640)

  • “we reach ourselves” when the “I” feels there is a “You” (Loc: 5,641)

  • takes place through the development of the succession of different levels of contact boundary, (Loc: 5,642)

  • Stern uses the term of “being-with” (Loc: 5,644)

  • applying phenomenological categories, (Loc: 5,644)

  • Gestalt Therapy prefers to say “being-there-between” (Loc: 5,644)

  • “between” refers to the category of organism-environment contact boundary (Loc: 5,645)

  • “there” refers to the phenomenological curve of the here-and-now (Loc: 5,645)

  • as well as (Loc: 5,646)

  • the experienced interaction between two bodies (Loc: 5,646)

  • Intercorporeality represents a central concept in Gestalt Therapy, (Loc: 5,648)

  • For example, a parental prohibition becomes a block (and a dysfunctional introject) if it is transmitted by the tension which passes from the parent’s body to the child’s one: the parental figure’s words become significant not just for their content but for the tone of the voice or tension/ relaxation of his/ her body (Salonia, 2008a). . Gestalt Therapy in Clinical Practice: From Psychopathology to the Aesthetics of Contact (Gestalt Therapy Book Series) (Kindle Locations 5650-5652). Istituto di Gestalt HCC Italy. Kindle Edition. (Loc: 5560)

  • - 5652)

  • category of intersubjectivity (Loc: 5,648)

  • child and parent’s bodies live a physical “between-ness”, (Loc: 5,649)

  • where different growth blocks or breakdowns could occur. (Loc: 5,649)

2.2.3. At the Beginning of Primary Confluence (Loc: 5,654)

  • Gestalt Therapy defines the Confluence as the primary relational modality. (Loc: 5,656)

  • (both Autism and Mahler’s Symbiosis are now considered obsolete). (Loc: 5,657)

  • confluence is an original perspective of the primary “being-there-between” (Loc: 5,658)

  • respects the (Loc: 5,659)

  • child’s early independence (Loc: 5,659)

  • a relationship of confluence (Loc: 5,660)

  • is established in the sense that both experience a reciprocal coming together of their perceptions: (Loc: 5,661)

  • both experience a sort of “perceptive obsession” of the other, (Loc: 5,662)

  • if the caregiver’s support is not “good enough”, some breakdowns can occur (Loc: 5,666)

  • the child will remain stuck (Loc: 5,667)

  • not acquire the needful primary competency of the full contact. (Loc: 5,667)

  • this model in clinical practice with seriously ill patients (Conte, 1998-1999; 2008) and in psychiatric communities (Argentino, 2001) has shown the usefulness and value of a Gestalt developmental perspective. (Loc: 5,668)

2.2.4. Oedipus as a Crossroads (Loc: 5,672)

  • The Oedipus complex (Loc: 5,673)

  • is certainly one of the most delicate points of any developmental theory. (Loc: 5,674)

  • there are two different ways of answering the question that lies at the heart of the epistemology of development: (Loc: 5,676)

  • should the presence of possible “incestuous” (and dysfunctional) desire be seen as physiological and universally present or does it reveal a relational dysfunction in the primary triangle? (Loc: 5,676)

  • By considering incestuous desire as physiological, Freud has to invoke an external regulative principle (the Super-Ego) (Loc: 5,678)

  • Humanistic therapies have always held, in fact, that the concept of the Super Ego can be bracketed off because of the organismic self-regulation. (Loc: 5,682)

  • Gestalt Therapy goes even further (Loc: 5,683)

  • the relationship regulates itself; (Loc: 5,684)

  • and it represents the forerunner of what is called “co-parenting” nowadays. (Loc: 5,685)

  • The Gestalt triangle expresses an epistemology in which relationships are self-regulating. As it is clear, there are irreconcilable epistemological differences (Loc: 5,686)

  • From the first perspective, the therapeutic work will be centred around containing the child’s incestuous desire; (Loc: 5,687)

  • in the second perspective, the focus will be on the co-parenting relationship. (Loc: 5,688)

  • the primary triangle concerns more relationships than behaviours. (Loc: 5,693)

2.2.5. Towards New Developmental Perspectives: the Intrapersonal Contact Boundary (Loc: 5,698)

  • Being present to oneself – in the sense of “reaching to yourself” or “giving you to yourself” – is not a given but the point of arrival of the primary developmental pathway. (Loc: 5,703)

  • this destination is defined in different ways (Loc: 5,704)

  • in a traditional repressive society, it will be the overcome of the Oedipus complex (Freud, 1962); (Loc: 5,705)

  • in post-modern individualism, the capacity to engage in a dialogue (the narrative self; Stern, 1985); (Loc: 5,707)

  • Gestalt Therapy of the Eighties, it will be the “relational competency” which goes from the From We to I-You (Salonia, 1992). (Loc: 5,707)

  • today’s (Loc: 5,708)

  • society, we propose the “re-reading” of a fundamental element of Gestalt Therapy that might be called the intrapersonal contact boundary. In other words, coherently with Perls’ great idea of replacing the “free association” technique instead of the “concentration” one («What are you feeling?»), GT emphasises now «Who are you, who are feeling this?» other than «What are you feeling?». (Loc: 5,708)

  • In a fluid society, the challenge of feeling (Loc: 5,712)

  • (Ego’s function) (Loc: 5,712)

  • has to be integrated with the task of becoming (Loc: 5,712)

  • (Personality function); (Loc: 5,712)

  • this is particularly complex because of the tendency to «put down anchors rather than roots» (Loc: 5,713)

  • that reduces the phase of the assimilation as well as the sense of belonging. (Loc: 5,713)

  • in this re-reading, the theory From We to I/You needs to be integrated, emphasising the “Ego of the retroflection” (of the gender phase, of rapprochement, of the verbal self) which emerges from a relational background (Loc: 5,715)

  • The Ego of the intrapersonal contact boundary is the Ego made mature by relational experience: the awareness which comes out from the womb of the full contact. (Loc: 5,719)

  • Dysfunctions, as breakdowns of the development process of contact and of the intrapersonal boundary competency, will be expressed as being outside oneself or lagging behind oneself, as losing one’s way and as a non-functional contact boundary (a parental figure who does not hold the child’s body or hampers its spontaneity). (Loc: 5,720)

Towards a Triadic Paradigm of Between-ness (Loc: 5,725)

  • The difference between saying to one’s child: “Cover up because it’s cold” and saying: “How do you feel the temperature? If you feel cold, cover up” refers to very different paradigms: (Loc: 5,726)

  • the first affirmation, the intrapersonal between-ness is denied, (Loc: 5,728)

  • in the second it is fostered. The child – in the latter paradigm – will have to learn for himself not only to listen to his parental figure but also through this (that is, by approaching the contact boundary), in a genuine and untouched sense, learn how to listen to himself. (Loc: 5,728)

  • Talking to oneself about everything that has happened is, in the end, an awareness of intrapersonal between-ness (Loc: 5,732)

  • Inside a relational perspective, however, the internal or intrapersonal dialogue emerges from the interpersonal dialogue. (Loc: 5,734)

  • The circularity between “intra” and “inter” personal dialogue is learnt in the primary “Between-ness”. (Loc: 5,738)

  • Intrapersonal between-ness is, (Loc: 5,743)

  • the preliminary condition of interpersonal between-ness (Loc: 5,744)

  • we learn to talk to ourselves in an (Loc: 5,744)

  • primary between-ness). (Loc: 5,744)

  • primary between-ness (Loc: 5,745)

  • is the special contact boundary created between the child and the parental figure. (Loc: 5,745)

  • The Ego, in order to reach itself, needs to be expressed by a parental figure not once but many times. (Loc: 5,745)

  • the child’s development (Loc: 5,748)

  • as the development of a special between-ness in which an Ego, capable of interpersonal between-ness, takes care of a You in which this between-ness is taking shape (Loc: 5,748)

  • as the parental figure is able to express his own experience to himself, he will facilitate in the child the emergence of a “proto-dialogue”, (Loc: 5,750)

  • if the parental figure has a block in his own intrapersonal between-ness and so that does not have the words for themes of the Self, he will provoke in the child a partial or total inability “to give you to himself” (Loc: 5,752)

  • Primary intrapersonal between-ness (Loc: 5,754)

  • is required as the condition sine qua non of any relationship in which somebody looks after somebody else (Loc: 5,754)

  • Any block in growth and in care giving, in fact, goes back to a block in the intrapersonal between-ness of the care-giver. (Loc: 5,756)

  • Reflecting on intrapersonal between-ness, as a basic moment of interpersonal between-ness (it emerges from it and leads to it), allows us to refine with greater depth the intimate and final sense of the libido. In a succinct but expressive manner, for Freud the libido is the pursuit of pleasure, for the Object relations theory it consists in the search for objects, and for the Gestalt perspective it is the search for one’s own soul. (Loc: 5,758)

Comment (Loc: 5,767)

  • «we reach ourselves when the “I” feels there is a “You” before it». (Loc: 5,775)

  • «development takes place at the contact boundary», (Loc: 5,777)

  • the “exterior” contact boundary between the self and others, (Loc: 5,778)

  • “interior” contact boundary between the conscious self and the multiple aspects (Loc: 5,778)

  • whole self (Loc: 5,779)

  • the senses, (Loc: 5,779)

  • the body, (Loc: 5,779)

  • feelings (Loc: 5,779)

  • thoughts. (Loc: 5,779)

  • The common tool for (Loc: 5,780)

  • contact, (Loc: 5,781)

  • is language: (Loc: 5,781)

  • is supported in a number of ways by seminal work in this area by Vygotsky. (Loc: 5,783)

  • Vygotsky L.S. (1966), Development of Higher Mental Functions, in Leontyev A.N., Luria A.R. and Smirnov A., eds., Psychological Research in the USSR, Progress Publishers, Moscow. Vygotsky L.S. (1978), Mind in Society, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA. (Note | Location: 5,784)

  • Human learning presupposes a specific social nature (Loc: 5,784)

  • While Piaget may have focused more on the maturation of the individual (Loc: 5,787)

  • Vygotsky’s focus was on the dialectical effects of the human organism within a social environment: (Loc: 5,788)

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