International Gestalt Journal 2002, 25/1, 15-34
The Relational Attitude
in Gestalt Therapy Theory and Practice
Abstract: Gestalt therapy theory is relational in its core, although some talk and practice of gestalt therapy is not consistent with the principles. This paper reviews core relational philosophical principles of gestalt therapy: existential phenomenology, field theory, and dialogic existentialism. The implications for practice are explored. Practices and attitudes about gestalt therapy that are inconsistent with these principles are discussed. The article studies the triggering and treatment of shame in gestalt therapy and gestalt training. The article clarifies what relational gestalt therapy is and what it is not. Keywords: Bracketing, dialogue, field theory, individualism and interdependence, metatheory, phenomenology, relational gestalt therapy, shame, subtext, therapeutic relationship.
Gestalt therapy is systematically relational in its underlying theory and methodology. A relational perspective is so central to the theory of gestalt therapy that without it there is no coherent core of gestalt therapy theory or practice. Recently much has been written about a relational approach to psychotherapy both in the gestalt therapy and the general psychotherapy literature. In the general professional literature there has been a discovery of a relational perspective (Aron, 1996; Mitchell, 1988; Mitchell & Aron, 1999; Stolorow et al., 1987). In gestalt therapy, "relational gestalt therapy" has been revisiting the relational perspective built-in to gestalt therapy theory (Hycner, 1988; Hycner & Jacobs, 1995; Jacobs, 1989, 1992, 1998; Staemmler, 1993; Yontef, 1993, 1998, 1999). The function of the current discourse on relational gestalt therapy is to differentiate among significant variations in how gestalt
therapy theory is talked about and even more significant variations in how gestalt therapy is practiced. Some common ways of talking about and practicing gestalt therapy are not fully consistent with the basic relational theory of gestalt therapy. Moreover, there are relational implications implied in the foundational theory that are not consistently, or sufficiently explicated. In this article I will review each of three fundamental and indispensable philosophic principles of gestalt therapy, that is existential phenomenology, field theory, and dialogic existentialism, and then discuss the variations of talk and practice that warrant taking a fresh look at the relational implications of each of them. I will then discuss shame as it relates to a relational perspective, and a concluding section on what relational gestalt therapy is and what it is not.
2. Existential phenomenology1
Gestalt therapy is based on the philosophy and method of phenomenology (Yontef, 1993). In gestalt psychology the phenomenological method refers to "as naïve and full a description of direct experience as possible" (Koffka, 1935, p. 73). The phenomenological method is a discipline to identify and enhance direct, immediate experience and to reduce the distortion of bias and prior learning. An important aspect of phenomenological discipline is methodically refining awareness, reducing bias as much as possible, especially bias about what is valid data, bias of what is real. Edmund Husserl (1931) refers to this as putting it into "brackets". There is a kindred attitude in contemporary psychoanalysis: "holding one's interpretations lightly". One special feature of gestalt therapy phenomenology, as in gestalt psychology, is that phenomenological study includes phenomenological experimentation. Phenomenological theories are relational theories. In phenomenological thought, reality and perception are interactional co-constructions; they are a relationship between the perceiver 1
For the discussion in this paper I use the terms existential phenomenology and psychological...
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