Who’s preventing you except yourself?
The final instalment of The Gloria Films.
Gestalt therapy is odd. It’s evident why that is, however, when you watch one of its founders in action.
Friederich Perls, usually known as Fritz Perls, was a German psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who founded Gestalt therapy with his wife, Laura Perls, but no one is really bothered about her for obvious reasons, those reasons being the patriarchy.
The Perls’ therapeutic modality is unlike most psychotherapies in that it focuses solely on the here and now. Not in the CBT way of working through your current problems and anxieties, but the absolute immediacy of the moment. In Gestalt therapy, you focus entirely on your feelings and reactions in the room, and that also naturally puts a lot of emphasis on the relationship developing in real time between you and your therapist.
In The Gloria Films’ running order (quick recap for my recent new subscribers: these are films from 1965 where 31-year-old Gloria has a therapy session with three different, up-and-coming therapists demonstrating their new techniques), Gloria comes to Fritz Perls second after having met with Carl Rogers first. It’s clear this is a shock. She’s gone from Rogers’ calm, empathetic and warm approach to Perls’ barrage of questions. He seems to relentlessly peck at her, bringing her always to the present moment. “Now do this again.” “What you just said, talk to me like this.” When Gloria says she’s feeling picked on, Perls says, “Okay. Pick on me.”
thanks for reading the mumble and muse. this bad boi is free as a bird, so subscribing won’t cost you a penny
It’s been identified, time and time again, that the most important thing in therapy, the thing that most often brings about real change in the client, is the relationship between therapist and client. Rogers states that if clients feel accepted, validated and seen as a whole person in the therapist’s eyes, they will make the changes they crave. So what’s Perls’ deal then? The idea behind Gestalt is authenticity - Gestalt aims to bring out your most authentic self and stop you playing life’s complicated, unnecessary games.
Perls goes through this at the start of the video, when he materialises nonchalantly brandishing a cigarette and all but threatening to set his paper notes on fire. He espouses that Gestalt aims to help the client rediscover “lost potential” and “rely on his own resources”, though he doesn’t call them clients, he calls them patients - a whole other discussion topic in itself.
But watching the session with Gloria unfold, it felt like all of Perls’ aims were backfiring. His attempt to refuse to ‘play a game’, his insistence on making Gloria answer her own questions without at least some support or attempt to hold a safe space, just gets Gloria more and more worked up. In fact, years later, Gloria would say that it felt like “a vicious circle of game playing”.
It makes you think, what kind of results were Perls and his wife getting? Their therapeutic approach must work else why would it still exist. In fact, immediately after the taping of The Gloria Films, Gloria herself said she found Perls the most helpful! It’s like Gestalt starts off on the right track, aiming for the client develop “greater and greater self support”. That’s what therapy kind of is, really, at the heart of it - a safe space occupied only by yourself and an empathetic listener whereby you can muddle through your problems and reach your own solutions without judgement or pressure. Rogers believed we have all of the answers inside of ourselves.
So Perls is right - we are often the ones standing in our own way, but most of the time it can feel almost impossible to step out of the way. It’s no wonder that we then turn to others for the answer - “How do I get out of my own way?”
You get the sense with Perls that he’s pretty sure he does have all the answers, and it’s also clear he’s well aware of the way he’s acting - “We had a good fight?” he laughs at one point. He makes some good points too - he gets Gloria to look at some things a little differently, a little more rationally, but we’re all different, and what we might think is the best course of action in one situation might look like the worst possible choice to another in that same moment. We have to do what’s right, what’s best, for us.
I used to be a habitual advice-seeker (and I still am a bit). When faced with a dilemma, I’d ask others: “What do I do? What should I say?” I thought that their answers could be trusted more than my own. I thought I could hand off responsibility for my life to them and that would make everything better. It rarely does. And whilst that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ever ask for advice - a lot of the time it is helpful - but do you ever get that feeling when you ask someone for advice, and they confidently tell you what you should do, and your insides seem to deflate like a balloon? They’ve given you what you wanted, but it wasn’t what you needed. Their advice doesn’t fit. It doesn’t fill that puzzle-shaped piece in your mind, the space where you’d like to fit the answer to your dilemma. Because, most of the time, only you have the right piece.
I think that’s somewhat like what’s happening for Gloria and Perls in their session, except Perls is forcing Gloria to follow his script, his way of thinking. He’s saying, “I know the answer, you silly woman, but let’s play a game to see if you can work it out too.”
I want to bring this mumbling to a close with some advice, funnily enough. Take it with a pinch of salt, of course. If you start therapy, and you and your therapist just don’t seem to click, or they leave you feeling like that saggy balloon someone’s forgot to pop, leave them. The most important aspect of therapy is your relationship with your therapist, not the type of therapy they provide. You’ll need to put in the work and be open to change, but to help you do both of those things, you need to feel unconditionally respected and cared for by your therapist. You might have to try a few, and doing that might leave you feeling deflated too, but when it comes to picking a therapist, don’t settle - you deserve to be listened to and understood.
Watch the video
Other posts in this series
Just a last note to say thank you to my recent subscribers! Feel free to hop over into the comments if you have something to say. And another big thank you to the subscribers who’ve been with me since the start of this ride - this is my 19th newsletter of the mumble and muse. and your encouragement as I dabble with imperfection is hugely appreciated.