Fritz Perls, the World Needs You More Than Ever
On March 14th, 1970 — fifty years ago — Fritz Perls, the man behind Gestalt Therapy, died. Few people reading this will know who he was, let alone the significant influence he had on the world of psychology. He was a complex and interesting man. He could be manipulative, grumpy, dismissive and harsh but also funny, insightful, sentimental and warm. His parting words to this world were: “Don’t tell me what to do!” He barked that to a nurse who demanded he get back into bed after surgery. He dangled his feet over the side of the bed in defiance and promptly died. That is classic Perls. Nobody told him what to do. His personality was not always agreeable, but he devoted his life to helping people live well in the “here and now” before modern mindfulness was even a thing.
As I write this article my Gestalt Therapy diploma hangs above my desk. Completion date 2004. Even when I trained in Gestalt, there weren’t many schools teaching it. As a therapy it had fallen out of favor for more thinking therapies like CBT, which Perls would have rolled his eyes at. Even back in the sixties, he warned that too much was going through our thinking-computer, and because of that, we were losing the ability to be aware of our senses. To feel and be whole. Seventy years on, he’s more right than ever.
I think the other reason Gestalt therapy fell out of favor is because it wasn’t a fad. Gestalt never promised a quick fix. Gestalt therapy is about growth, and growth can feel painful and takes time. There is also nothing easy about being a client in Gestalt therapy. Many days I dreaded going to my therapist. And yet I found the journey incredibly worthwhile and to this day, I am grateful to Fritz Perls and the Gestalt community for all I learned about myself.
But here we are, fifty years after his death, and I think the world needs him and Gestalt therapy more than ever. I see a fragmented world, where thinking is everything and our senses have dulled. I imagine Perls wouldn’t like seeing how far from the “here and now” we have traveled. How everything is about selfies and instant-happiness, instant-health, instant-cure. But that’s not growth. That’s all surface stuff that distracts us from what is really happening within.
Everything is on-demand, and you demand the world be as you want it. We focus on those bits of us we like or can at least tolerate, while hiding the parts of ourselves we don’t like. Just think positive! But running away from situations or feelings that challenge us only increases the likelihood we won’t address our own discomfort. You fly to Facebook to complain how slighted you are by someone you don’t even know, rather than diving into what it is about them that creates such anxiety or anger in you. What are you feeling and not resolving?
But we don’t do that. Instead of asking questions of ourselves we wait for the likes and comments to confirm how righteous we are, and what a pig they are. Good and bad. Those conflicting polarities pushing hard against each other. You consistently eliminate the parts of your self that don’t fit into a glossy social-media narrative. You post idealized pictures on Instagram while behind the lens your world is falling apart. Do you really think people live such fantastic lives all the time? And instead of engaging in group therapy — something Perls thought would replace individual therapy because of its benefits — you hide in online groups that support your singular worldview. You stick with people like you, who rage against those who don’t share your ideology. Typing disparaging comments like you’re engaging in meaningful dialogue, yet you are not listening because we are not meeting. All this action is inauthentic.
Gestalt therapy showed me how to pay attention to those parts within me that are unfinished and unsatisfied. To explore those parts with excitement and creativity, rather than keeping them split off because they don’t feel good. I learned to accept and bring that discomfort into my center, making me as whole as possible. Many times, I bawled like a baby as I touched these parts; talked to them and found a way to bring my Gestalt to a close. It isn’t easy — never was and shouldn’t be. There’s something deeply healing in the pain of acceptance. And if we can do that with ourselves, we can then see others for who they are and the struggles they fight. Accepting these fragmented parts completes us, enabling us to grow as healthy humans — warts and all.
We all know our world requires attention, and yet, the way I see people addressing these problems, I think, is unhelpful. Everything is another’s fault — they have to change. I understand wanting to live in a safe world, but safety doesn’t come from control. That’s called authoritarianism and that’s bad. With your demands on others, you may not realize it, but your children are growing up weak. You don’t teach them to be robust enough to find support for their problems from within. You teach them problems get resolved by outside-forces like schools, parents, social-justice-warriors or government. You teach them that those who shout loudest get what they want. If they are frustrated or in discomfort you teach them others will come running to their rescue and solve all discomfort. Enforcing control over others by creating rules and calling it progress. But this retards the maturation process. Without taking responsibility for our own discomfort and supporting ourselves in the face of personal challenges, we learn to be ineffective in our ability to deal with the world. The more we demand chaos be controlled, the more we fear chaos. And make no mistake, life is chaos.