Monday, January 9, 2012

The Safe Emergency of Therapeutic Situations: Fritz Perls and Gloria (and me)

Recently I wrote about Carl Rogers. While putting together that blog post, I rediscovered the "Gloria" tapes that every psychotherapist-in-training has likely had some exposure. The tapes were therapy demonstrations filmed in 1965. "Gloria," a young recently divorced women, volunteered to meet with Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls, and Albert Ellis.

I haven't watched this tapes in years--the last time was perhaps sometime in the late 1990s. They are fun for me to watch. It is also interesting to see a lot of myself--both my history and my current practice--embedded within the words of these three men.

Let's start off with Fritz Perls. Along with his wife Lara, he founded the school of Gestalt psychotherapy. It's not a theory I think a lot about anymore--that's probably because the theory itself sits deep in my bones and works behind everything I have learned. In the early 90s I started hanging out at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland, took several workshops, worked individually with a gestalt therapist for several years, and later participated in a gestalt therapy group for several additional years.

I'm indebted to this early teachers--Jody Telfair, Barbara Fields, Karen Fleming, Mary Ward, and Jackie Lowe Stevenson. There have been many teachers since then but none so central as these.

On to the show. Here is part one of the the full Gloria tape with Fritz Perls.

A friendly sort, eh? Before judgement sets it, put Perls in his time. This was 1965. It was a time of great social change and liberatory movements. Confrontation was in, as was, apparently, smoking.

I'll share my reactions about the clip here. I hope you do, too. I'm curious what you think.

I found myself with a bit smile on my face at the 4:20 mark. I remember my first day in my gestalt group. One of the members  confronted me about my smile nearly as soon as I sat down. "I get confused when you talk about sad things and you smile," she said. "It makes it hard for me to connect." This woman was much kinder that Perls, and I learned a lot about myself. I'm wondering if the smile intervention is some sort of standard thing.

Roll the tape forward to the 7:10 mark and you'll hear Perls saying "what are you doing with your feet there?" Forward again to 9:15 and Fritz imitates Gloria's hand gestures and says "what does this mean? Can you develop this meaning?"

Gloria, looking a little vexed, expressed that she is worried that Perls is going to notice everything she does. I've seen that same look in my office. While I'm not nearly as aggressive or confrontational as Perls, the importance of observing the ever changing tableau of the moment is part of what settled into my bones from my early gestalt training.

Gestalt therapy, beyond anything else, is about learning to pay attention to what is figural--that is, what part of the environment (and what parts of my clients' experience) is reaching out, grabbing at me, and wanting to make connection. The mild look of shock that Gloria gives--it's really not so bad to experience. When I'm paying attention and something jumps out at me and grabs my attention--and I fully notice it and share my experience noticing it--the magic of therapy happens. What was unknown becomes known. The hidden becomes viewed. The shame melts in the light.

A non-gestalt teacher of mine, Glenda Russell, talked a lot about the velvet glove.  Paraphrasing her:
"You have to learn how to lovingly hold clients with one hand and gently spank them with the other. Without this balance, you can't do anything."
I don't think Perls understood this balance. Rather than a velvet glove he used something that felt more like nails. I think he was a little too enamoured with the showmanship aspects of therapy. He seemed to be unable to deeply hold a client while sharing his confrontations and observations from a connected place of love and respect.

My favorite part, where I actually laughed out loud, was at 13:52 Fritz says "ahh, you don't have enough courage to come out by yourself. You need someone to pull the little damsel in distress out of her corner."

I wasn't laughing out of a sense of schadenfreude. Okay, maybe just a little. Mostly, though, I was laughing because I was immediately transported back to a moment of my training that is etched deep into my memory. In many ways I was acting like a little damsel in distress. I was a young 20 something taking an intensive gestalt weekend workshop. One of the participants in the group was walking around shaking at his finger at each of us demanding that we all offer him some sort of help.

I was annoyed beyond measure and filled with all kinds of righteous indignation. Who was this guy, anyway? What was up with the group leaders? Why weren't they doing something? I was paying a lot of money to have some strange guy shake his finger at me.

Karen Fleming, one of the leaders,  asked me what I was experiencing.

"Nothing," I said. I was good midwestern boy. I didn't get angry. I was always nice. I held the door open for people too (I still do, in fact). Karen said, "that's strange. Every time [the finger pointing group member] speaks your face and neck turn purple."

Oh crap. Busted!

"I'm a little bothered, that's all. I don't think it's my job to take care of him. I'm wondering why you are letting him shake his finger and yell 'shame' at each of us?"

At this point Mary Ward pipes up saying "ooohhhhh, you poor baby. You think it's my job to take care of you?" I think my face turned so purple it nearly exploded right off my skull.

I learned a lot about anger that day.What it signals to me, how to know when I am getting the signal, and how to express it.  I also learned that sometimes confrontation is good in therapy. Mary said the right thing, the right way, at the right time. She landed on just the spot that she needed to to propel me forward. I still think, however, she could have been a little nicer.

Some of the Gestalt types too close to Perls missed a few lessons on kindness, compassion, and a gentle touch. That's okay though. We can learn from them too. And therapy doesn't always have to tickle, right?

Let's look at part two. There used to be a part two. The whole video is in the same clip because the original clips I used were removed from YouTube. There is a lot more smoking that needs to be done.

Fritz is showing a lot of Gestalt theory here about connection and the cycle of experience.

When we get to the 8:55 Gloria and Fritz are in the middle of a piece of work which is really flowering. They are talking about closeness and navigating just what that means. I found myself transported back to the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland. I was maybe 27 or 28 years old at the time.

Months before, during what I thought would be a normal psychotherapy appointment, my therapist said "I'd like to talk to you about my summer schedule." I remember she mentioned something about a vacation coming up, so I figured she was going to tell me about that.

What she ended up telling me was that at the end of the summer she was moving away. I was pretty shocked. In fact, I'm fairly sure that (a) I stopped breathing and (b) she noticed it an mentioned that it might be helpful if I continue to respirate.

I remember our last few appointments vividly. In one of them, she had asked if I minded if she ate an apple. She was hungry and felt she wouldn't be able to focus her attention on me without a little food

Feeling a little sad, I thought about the different ways I could look away from the experience. I could blame my therapist for leaving. It wasn't her fault, though. People move. I knew that. I also knew that she would know I was looking away and she would gently show me that I was. Okay. Blame wouldn't work. Maybe pity? Why didn't she seem upset? Maybe she should be. Right? No. Not really. I already knew she cared. We worked that out before. I knew this was my emotional experience. It was mine to have. It was also mine not to have. I knew I had that choice. I knew if I took that choice she would be there, observing me looking away. She would also be there just the same if I walked into my sadness. She would notice it and me. There would be no expectations other than I show up and be fully present in my experience (avoiding or not).

No where to go. I could see no good reason to avoid where I was. I gave into the moment--and my feelings-- and spent the better part of the hour sobbing in despair. I was filled with so much sadness that day I could barely remain upright. It was about nothing in particular. No romantic upset was happening. No squabbles with friends or family. I was sad at the end of my therapeutic relationship but it really wasn't the cause of my unrelenting loneliness.

I was making contact with the void--the end of the cycle of experience--a tiny death. It's a scary place to hang out. It's a place that most of us avoid at all costs. I distinctly remembering doing nothing to avoid the void. I looked right into it with all its dark despair. I looked and Jody and cried and cried and cried. She looked back silently, eating her apple, fully present as always.

Jody didn't really need to speak. Our prior work and built tightly woven cocoon around us. I knew she paid attention to me--all off me. It was unnerving at times. She noticed my breath and taught me to understand its own unique language. My body language also told her things I didn't know I said. I learned how I spoke through  my physical body. I also knew she would always be there in the room--fully and completely.

We created a place that was safe enough for a therapeutic emergency. While I didn't plan on having one on our last session, it ended up being the perfect occasion for me to create one. Having found a safe enough cocoon to be in, I was able to push (and be pushed) into looking at experiences I would have rather avoided. I looked into that scary dark void of nothingness.

She said a handful of words to me that day. The only ones I remember were her first, about being hungry and eating the apple, and her final words, about my experience. They were all I needed to hear. they were the right words, at the right time, said in the right way:
"Thank you for sharing this with me and choosing to be so present. We have to end now."
I fully inhabited one moment in time, connected with another, with no agenda and little distortion.  Nothing to be afraid of. Nothing to avoid.

Beginning, middle, and end. The cycle of experience.

That is the gift of Gestalt (with or without the velvet gloves).

...and you know what, that void isn't so bad after all. Something always comes next. We just don't always know what it is.


  1. Thanks Jason, I enjoyed seeing Fritz and Gloria again and reading your commentary.

  2. Wow, this is so timely for me. My long-time therapist just let me know she's moving in a little more than a month and I have had such a roller-coaster of emotion in reaction. This was a very interesting piece for me to read and reflect on. Thank you!

  3. @John. Thanks so much. I've enjoyed watching all of the Gloria tapes again. It's been awhile! When I get some time I'll do some more writing about the Ellis and Rogers portions of the film.

  4. @A. You're welcome. I'm glad that my experience could offer you some timely support as you go through your experience.

  5. brought back a lot of memories. I have had several therapists leave over the course of 10 years. My reaction was similar to yours, though I didn't break down in the office. We didn't have the connection that you had. But when I saw her years later at a conference, I was happy we parted ways and I have my current therapist with me.