By Laura Wilson
My world is changing
My favourite local bric-a-brac shop has closed. The owner would wave as I walked past and bring cups of tea to the regulars. My garden is peppered with ceramic pots and wrought iron furniture that I lugged home after exchanging a few quid for as much as I could carry. Old and young mixed in Junk n Disorderly, and the transmutation of items (probably from a home clearance) from forgotten junk to coveted vintage centrepieces reflected the value that gets exchanged across the generations within my community. This is to me what makes a community strong, vibrant, and healthy. Today, my experience of shopping has become more sterile, as I exchange browsing with neighbours to queuing to enter the supermarket when the green light permits, the omnipresent acidic taste of antibac hitting my nostrils as I enter. Old and young don’t stop to chatter anymore, the elderly that aren’t too terrified to leave the house are afraid of me. And of course, the masks.
What is palpable in these public spaces is a tension that wasn’t there before. There is a potent fear and apprehension; an underlying sense of discomfort being around other people. Much of what has happened this year worries me, but this fear of other people is what concerns me the most.
I am aware that I am writing this from a reactive place. I feel an urgent desire to break through the confusion and confluence that I have witnessed among the various gestalt communities to which I belong. And as I consider how to approach what I want to say, I am caught between a desire to express and give shape to my experience and a desire to find a way to connect and overcome the sense of isolation that I am feeling. I worry that in giving shape to my experience I will be misunderstood, outcast and persecuted, and even more alone. But what’s inside of me needs to come out. I want to counter the controlling narrative with my voice and demonstrate that I do not consent to the new ways of living. This voice inside me is a writhing torrent of indignation, worry and fear. It wants to scream and shout. I want to scream and shout.
Over the last twelve months a narrative of health has overshadowed much of regular life. And yet, health and illness have not been figural to me. My health has benefited from some of the changes of the last year. I sleep an extra two hours a night, my stress is reduced without a commute and rushing to get places, and home cooked meals and lunch breaks in the garden have soothed me. Drawing on my sensory experience, what I notice is a contrast between feeling more relaxed and yet aware of the restrictions that have been imposed on me. This is what is figural to me. Prohibitions to work and play, I have been imprisoned by instruction to stay at home, unsure when my freedom of movement will be restored. I have a sense of navigating a web of constraints and finding new ways to side step and pull my way through, without hitting any trip wires.
I’ve noticed the visible changes in other people’s behaviour: parents afraid to kiss their children, children afraid to kiss their parents. People stepping out to walk in busy roads lest they rub shoulders.
I notice how what people talk about has shifted. Talk of bubbles and lockdowns and tiers, familiar words assuming new, ominous meanings. Language that promotes a new set of behaviours, whilst precluding others. I am confused and shocked by the readiness to acquiesce that I observe by the majority of people to behaviours promoting fear, isolation and sterilisation that were generally recognised as unhealthy before the television and politicians told us otherwise.
How I’ve seen this take shape in the gestalt community
These behaviours and language have permeated my gestalt communities. In more than one instance I have been asked to disclose my private medical decisions to determine whether I was “fit” to work in a building. I don’t believe that asking after another person’s medical information in such a direct way is okay and I know that it hasn’t happened to me before. It is, for very good reason, protected information. It makes me feel safe from judgment and discrimination and protects my right to decide with whom I share information about myself. Where I work as a counsellor, policies have been put in place which respect client’s personal choices. Counsellors are expected to behave in a uniform way: to opt-in to vaccination, that is to agree to an experimental procedure that, like all vaccines, comes with serious risks to health and long term effects we have yet to understand. Those that choose not to are treated differently, unable to work with clients in the same way and rejoin the community; so perpetuating the fear, polarisation and isolation that are part of the field.
Informed consent is an essential part of a therapist’s ethical practice. I’m not aware of anyone who is informed about all the possible impacts to them from social distancing, routine and regular exposure to antibacterial sterilisation agents, long-term mask wearing or experimental gene therapies branded as vaccinations.
I am struck by the incongruence within the psychotherapy community. I am floored by the contradictions in the gestalt community, who respect their client’s capacity to find their way to health and yet expect all colleagues to be vaccinated and disclose their choice to be vaccinated before returning to see clients. Under the ‘Therapy during Covid-19 Guidance’, the UKCP provides information only about how to get an appointment for a vaccination, leaving no space for other precautionary measures nor space to question the need or appropriateness of this as a healthy response, despite the public debate. This seems to me like an explicit denial of individual responses to the collective experience, an attempt to construct one model of health for all.
This narrative that has infiltrated my gestalt circles does not mesh with what I know of gestalt. What could be the reason gestaltists have adopted these attitudes and behaviours that run so counter to their professional practice?
To accept that the authorities – the media, politicians, the NHS, and scientific communities – would put in place systems that aren’t in support of health would, for many people, be a challenging idea and deeply uncomfortable. It may even challenge the core of their identity. The theory of cognitive dissonance explains human motivation to reduce the mental conflict that occurs when new information contradicts existing beliefs. Feeling threatened at a deeply personal, emotional level can create an aversion to receiving new information that contradicts what was previously regarded as truth. Studies into cognitive dissonance have found a tendency to highlight positive aspects of the chosen option and negative aspects of the rejected alternatives only after the choice has been made. Just as Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (1951) noted the tendency for the neurotic person to cling on to what is secure, there is evidence of a bias towards defending the familiar. Gestalt theory contrasts this to the healthy role of conflict in stimulating growth.
In a year when immunity has been a much spoken of topic, I have been surprised at the simplicity of the narrative – to stay home, to stay away from people – and how little focus there has been on the things we can each do to maintain our body’s ability to keep us well. This simplification of the messages communicated has fed the population bitesize chunks that have been swallowed whole. And while it follows the field theory principle of organisation as a means to make sense of the world, it is one dimensional and shaped by those with power and delivered through mechanisms (television, behavioural nudges and other marketing tactics) designed to inhibit cognitive processing. I’m surprised by the simplification of ideas pertaining to something so vital and complex and the lack of questioning and curiosity from within the gestalt community.
The lack of differentiated responses in my personal networks as well as the censoring and discrediting of dissenting voices on public platforms which I have observed indicates to me that there is confluence. Confluence inhibits sensing. “In confluence there is no contact, for contact is the appreciation of differences” (Latner, 1986). In surrendering the self to the collective experience, it seems that individuals are happy to renounce their individual needs and shelter in the comfort of the collective experience. Perhaps this stems from a desire to belong? In times of crisis a desire not to feel alone in the battle for survival may be a particularly compelling urge.
Many of us will be familiar with the Asch experiments which demonstrate the ways in which group behaviour can exert a powerful influence over personal choices. Despite knowing the rest of the group was wrong, experimental subjects gave incorrect responses as a means to avoid facing ridicule and minimise conflict; some even doubted their judgment, believing the group were correct, questioning their understanding of reality despite the simplicity of the experiment. The results of this 1951 study suggest that conformity tends to increase as the group size increases; conformity increases when the task becomes more difficult; conformity increases when other members of the group are of a higher social status; and conformity tends to decrease when people are able to respond privately.
It is not hard to see how the government’s response to Covid-19 has structured our lives in ways in which conformity will flourish. When people view others in the group as more powerful, influential, or knowledgeable than themselves, they are more likely to go along with the group. Faced with unclear and confusing information, people are more likely to turn to others for information about how to respond. Restricting access to varied channels of information, whether through conversations in the workplace, school gates or pub, whilst censoring – sorry, fact-checking – online forums reduces the opportunity for people to access a range of views and experiences, relying on politicians, approved medical spokespersons and media outlets to report on matters of risk, infection, and mortality. Mask mandates create a visible commitment to the crisis response, establishing new group norms and erasing the ability to agree or disagree with the new measures privately that is associated with decreased conformity.
Existential phenomenology tells us of the centrality of ideas of freedom, responsibility, death, isolation and meaning as part of the human experience. I find the search for meaning a beautiful aspect of human behaviour: an indication of the resilience and adaptability of the human organism, a sort of dogged determination to make the best out of a shitty situation. How then, might my gestalt colleagues be making meaning out of the new regulations?
Wired to seek meaning, when there is an assumption that one has to follow an order, there could be a desire to find some way to see the sense in it. After all, this makes the experience of following an order easier to bear. And in reducing friction, it is a neat energy preservation technique. Not following the order is then ruled out as desires to find meaning, to belong, perhaps for harmony, trump the various other possibilities. The individual’s needs are supported not by the impact of the rule, but rather the meaning made from following the rule. So when I notice myself behaving differently, I wonder how my ways of making meaning are different. Why, given my desire to belong, am I not drawn to the intoxicating simplicity of going with the flow, swept away by the confluence that I observe? Why, despite the energy I expend in the anxiety it creates, does standing out from the crowd and not following the rules make sense for me?
Locating personal responsibility
My personal history of seeking and finding effective holistic therapies for a medical diagnosis labelled incurable has made me challenge formal structures with power to curate knowledge and proffer universal prescriptions and prognoses to individuals. These are based on generalised and incomplete data: an abstract and artificial normal. My diagnosis (cancer, rather than the underlying conditions which enabled the cancer to flourish) put the treatment focus on managing not restoring my health and there was no interest in exploring my obvious underlying dysregulation. Through my exploration of approaches outside the medical industry, I have learned how I can regulate my health and, most important of all, that my health is influenced by my actions. I have learned that solutions for health can’t be commercialised; they are internal and they are individual. I increased my awareness of what was possible.
My personal experience of health challenges (what is cancer if not a catastrophic failure of the immune system?) has increased my awareness of health and dis-ease and the limitations, bias and commercial interests of the medical industry. I understand that well-nourished, oxygenated and hydrated cells with a healthy pH, electromagnetic charge and healthy membranes are rarely (if ever) infected by microorganisms. I know that how an individual responds symptomatically to exposure to an external stressor is precisely correlated to their internal terrain, the accumulated toxic loads and stresses that are held in our bodies. I understand that the ways in which our cells and immune systems function are a product of our individual histories, actions and beliefs. Studies on twins have shown how even those with identical genetic make up have markedly different health outcomes. This awareness has changed me. And so the shortcuts that I see others apply – compliance without having full information on the impacts and the acquisition of unhealthy behaviours – are not useful to me.
Medical systems are products of their field conditions. Skewed towards a Western scientific medical model, diseases and diagnoses exist to be treated. However, treatment to manage a single condition, like covid-19, overlooks the complex systemic processing of the human organism. It ignores the difficult work of restoring health, of helping the individual to become whole. I am worried that this wisdom is being erased in the current climate of outsourcing responsibility for health and disease to external factors. The prevailing understanding is that there exists a virus that can be caught with the body a passive recipient of it; the only option to shield rather than to fortify the mind and body, and reduce and address the stresses on bodily systems through systematic detoxification, nutrition and holistic approaches. Blaming external factors for one’s health is not a route to health.
Prominent this year has been a merging of individual voices into a shouty, shamey narrative of social responsibility, a universal prescription “to keep each other safe”. That’s not how health works. Only I can be responsible for my health; what you do does not take that away from me. I am aware that I live in a community and what I do impacts my neighbours and their actions may impact upon me. A strong and functioning community works to provide mutual support to each other. But the narrative to stay at home due to an external virus that spreads through social contact shifts the focus outwards onto a common enemy we all face. It creates the false impression that we are united against a common enemy when in actuality it separates us by creating a fear of the other and increases isolation. The narrative to stay two metres apart frames the threat as an external cause, directing attention to just one aspect; it is a conceit for personal responsibility. There is a collective gaslighting.
The narrative around you-know-what has been constructed around an idea of universality which suffocates efforts to understand and respond at an individual level. It is in marked contrast to understandings of the impacts of individual trauma histories, developments in medicine for the personalisation of treatments and recognition of the distinctive and unique individual microbiome. Not to mention ignorant of the long and esteemed lineages from non- Western approaches such as Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine, which diagnose and treat the individual not the condition. The very concept of public health overlooks the very real differences that exist.
As gestalt practitioners we need to stay true to the principles of awareness, difference, personal responsibility, self-regulation, and holism
As we gestaltists recognise, the human organism is a sophisticated system with an inbuilt design to self-regulate, adapt and heal. The immune system is regulated by other systems in the body, most notably the nervous system and endocrine system. Certain hormones will reduce the immune response and other hormones will increase it. As is well established in the literature on neuroscience, the nervous system works in a similar way: enabling or inhibiting a functional immune response through activation of the parasympathetic (rest, relax, up-regulate) or sympathetic (fight, flight, down-regulate) state. In contrast to the approach of vaccination, regulating the immune system, not enhancing the immune response, will optimise the immune response. This is a nuanced strategy of self-regulation involving physical and emotional health.
I notice the way in which shame is being used to coerce and control, labelling those with information and experiences that don’t align with their reign of terror as “dangerous”, “false” and “conspiracy theories.” And it makes me just as nervous hearing this on public service broadcasts as it would were a client describing a relationship. I worry about the heightened states of fear and anxiety and the very real ways in which these suppress the immune system and impact decision making. I am aware of the ways in which support systems have fallen away by the ongoing lockdowns and that those with fragile safety nets are more vulnerable than before.
It is impossible for me to ignore these figures of shame, dogma, an externalised threat, and fear of the other: they are gigantic, shouty bullies, stomping over other experiences. Different perspectives outlawed and approaches effective for some classified as disinformation and dangerous for all. It is the opposite of my experience and expectations of a gestalt approach, where expressing and hearing difference is contactful. Where polarities are named and explored, expected and respected. Gestalt places a focus on supporting the individual to explore what is possible, to broaden the field, and to find their authority and autonomy to follow through on their authentic needs.
So how am I responding to this struggle that I am experiencing? I am taking risks at voicing my experience in environments where it feels safe to do so, like in writing this article. Where I anticipate exclusion or feeling misunderstood, I retreat. Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (1951) write about this moment after conflict when one accepts defeat. I feel defeated by the dominant narrative and resign myself to being unwelcome and judged. I anticipate that people reading this won’t support me, will feel shamed by me naming their confluence and reject what I have to say. I recognise that it’s with good reason that I am resigned, I am in the minority. I don’t feel safe to voice dissent; it feels like an unsafe environment where I am uncertain what the consequences will be.
When things aren’t being expressed in a group, it creates room for projection, for speculation. I don’t know how what I am writing here will be received because there hasn’t been a dialogue. I don’t know what other possibilities there are because there hasn’t been a dialogue about the new rules and the different ways in which people can choose to manage the threats that they may or may not feel that they face.
There is an epidemic of illness anxiety being stoked by fear, isolation, shame and herd mentality. Individual, differentiated needs and experiences are being pitched against a one- size-fits-all narrative. The fundamental principles of gestalt are needed now more than ever. A recognition that health is individual, that people are different, that we are wired to self- regulate but that the work to become whole is layered and multi-faceted. And that what is in the part is in the whole. How is it possible, through a gestalt lens, to address “public health” without addressing individual health? We cannot restore balance if we do not first address the deficiencies inside us at the individual level which lead to seeking solutions from outside. To restore health, we must place the emphasis on agency and responsibility, just as we would with a client.
Public health is a misnomer, a dangerous red herring. Immune health, like all health, is individual. This is what our community stands for. This isn’t the time for gestalt practitioners to be confluent with the government and the media by shutting out difference and dialogue, abandoning informed consent, disrespecting an individual’s right to choose, and betraying their right to privacy and the protection of private medical information.
I urge my colleagues to tap into their awareness and to act in ways congruent with their individual needs and the principles of gestalt. Just as the public health system is in need of more holistic approaches, how can we, within our community in the business of healing, promote health by highlighting the need to focus on individual needs, facilitating awareness and enabling personal responsibility in a safe environment?
This is an urgent call for greater dialogue and challenge, for a gestalt approach to working through the challenges we face. We can transmute tension through contact to make our community vibrant again. Let’s invite different perspectives and be up for engaging in the conflict that might arise, rather than sticking with what is secure. We know that is not a route to growth. The world is changing and what we accept now will set the foundations for how we will relate to each other in the future. If as a community we are unable or unwilling to confront these issues, we will be unable to shape what comes out of them. We will submit to the interests and authority of someone else.
I was prompted to write this piece after noting the tone and assumptions in the email inviting submissions. This message implied that a vaccine will lead to progress and a route out of our current collective discomfort. I believe the opposite; my concern is that the arrival of vaccines will lead to new exclusions and new threats to individual health. Believing that there is a sugar pill or novel medical treatment to absolve our collective malaise is, I believe, a deflection from the real issues we are facing. A disconnection with our bodies and with each other, a lack of individual awareness and internal authority to know and act on our own interests. An expectation that it is someone else’s job to keep us safe. We have lost touch with who we are. Let’s not shy away from the real work, that’s not what we do in gestalt. Let’s stay with the discomfort a little longer and be autonomous agents of change. Being confluent with this narrative impacts us all.
Perls, F., Hefferline, R.F, and Goodman, P. (1951) Gestalt Therapy. Excitement and Growth in Human Personality. New York: Julian Press
Latner, J. (1986) The Gestalt Therapy Book. New York: The Gestalt Journal Press
Laura is training at the Metanoia Institute alongside her work as a public sector leader. She has an advanced degree in statistics and public policy research methods. She is grateful to be surrounded by networks of trails and wide open spaces in the South Downs that allow her to roam and connect with the land.