Phenomenology of absence

By Adam Kincel

Our embodied awareness is wise. We wouldn’t be doing Gestalt therapy if we had no belief that our embodied sensations give us access to a better understanding. We can feel room atmosphere, embodied resonance when interacting with someone or a group, our needs, sense of direction. We attend to the bodies when buying properties or cars, meeting new people or trying to suss out what we’d like for breakfast. The vulnerability of our bodies is also a political force (Butler, 2016), deconstructing the capitalist’s emphasis on invulnerability and self-sufficiency and changing people’s political opinions, e.g. people risking their bodies attending protests.

This is why I got so disappointed and confused when I realised that my sense of embodiment is a poor guide if it comes to my privilege. My white cis-male body hardly ever helps me to identify my own internalised racism or cis-male sexism. I seem to have two modes, either desensitisation or inflated shame.

The desensitisation is often related to privilege in how it blurs the experiences of people who are not like me. There is a historical basis for that. We may be used to certain narratives that seem closer to our hearts. I am easily moved hearing someone speaking with the same accent as my grandmother. However, more often, we may distance other people as they endanger our sense of belonging to a large group (e.g. whites, heterosexuals). ‘A heterosexual matrix […] has a vested interest in preserving its own stability and coherence at the expense of ‘other’ identities,’ writes Salih (2002, p. 76), and this may be extended to the broader sense of privilege. Glorified by many psychotherapists hormone of touch and intimacy, oxytocin, may lead to a higher occurrence of racism and violence towards people who are not like us (De Dreu et al., 2011). My symbolic violence (Bourdieu, 1990) can come through not including other people’s perspectives. My second reaction is shame.

Shame can be a natural and healthy process of noticing that there is not enough support for us (Lee, 2007). In that way, it can be a nourishing feeling of connection with the world, other people, and our own sense of vulnerability, but this is not the shame that I am referring to here. My shame can kick in when racism is discussed, and I want to make sure then that I am not being implicated as a racist. I want to defend myself, blame the other or expect that they will take care of me. The strength of my reaction demands attention and care, and objectifies a recipient into a helper. It is a demand of my inflated shame and ego on women and people of colour, and in fact, it recreates racist and sexist dynamics. With my shame and desensitisation moderating my embodied sensations, can I trust my body?

Yes, I believe I can trust my body… but critically, i.e. taking into consideration power relationships that construct my experiences. As part of that process, I’d like to examine my experiences from racialised perspective, i.e. how racism, sexism or imperialism has impacted my phenomenology and impoverished my life? Built on colonialism, the economic well- being in the UK is not leading to better mental health outcomes. In my experience, our economy leads to more disconnection and self-sufficiency, fuelling even greater divisions, depression and anxiety (Hari, 2018). I often feel emptiness. I call it the phenomenology of absence. I know I am missing something, but I cannot pinpoint what this may be.


Bourdieu, P. (1990). In Other Words: Essays Towards a Reflexive Sociology. Standford University Press.

Butler, J. (2016). Rethinking Vulnerability and Resistance. In J. Butler, Z. Gambetti, & L. Sabsay (Eds.), Vulnerability in Resistance (pp. 12-27). Duke University Press.

De Dreu, C. K. W., Greer, L. L., Van Kleef, G. A., Shalvi, S., & Handgraaf, M. J. J. (2011). Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201015316.

Hari, J. (2018). Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions. Bloomsbury.

Lee, R. G. (2007). Shame and belonging in childhood: the interaction between relationship and neurobiological development in the early years of life. British Gestalt Journal, 16(2).

Salih, S. (2002). Judith Butler. Routledge.

Adam Kincel, PhD, is a psychotherapist, supervisor and a trainer working in London. He holds degrees in Gestalt therapy, psychodynamic theories, philosophy, social work and research. He is the first year tutor at London Gestalt Centre and a visiting tutor in several Gestalt training institutes in Europe. His book entitled ‘Exploring Masculinity, Sexuality and Culture in Gestalt Therapy’ was published this year.

UKAGP Newsletter, January 2022
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