The Therapist’s Use of Self from a Gestalt Perspective

By Kay Ferriter

When I listen to therapists talk about their work, particularly experienced therapists, I do not hear much theory. What I hear are instances of their struggles to be real and more themselves in the therapeutic relationship. “There is a lot going on in me (when I am with clients), what am I supposed to do with it?”. “Why do I leave some sessions energised and others weighed down and heavy?” “When I come out with things from inside myself it seems to work. I want to be able to do it more often”; “How do I?”. “At present a lot of what happens to me ends up in the file. I would like to be able to make use of my experience”. In these questions and reflections I hear how therapists are already using themselves in the therapeutic relationship. However, they lack a model in which to locate these experiences. The process of working illustrated below is one such model of therapists use of self.

In this model the therapist is recognised as a participant in a here and now relationship (Kaplan. N,&Kaplan.M, unpublished). In Gestalt therapy the health of the relationship manifests itself in the energy and liveliness of the contact. Contact is defined as the process of touching, exploring, discovering something new either inside yourself or in how you relate to others (Humphreys. V, unpublished). The goal is to shift the relationship with support, out of the familiar and into what is new and unfamiliar. In other words support change. The therapists use of self plays a key part in this process.

This article is an illustration of some of the main focuses of this way of working. The body of the article is a composite of more than one client, taken from the early stages of therapy and presented as a process recording of a session. First I note what is actually said in the session. Then, in italics, I note my awareness of my inner process. I use this inner process to illustrate three things. Firstly, there is the client’s impact on me. Secondly, there are the choices I make about my interventions. Thirdly, there is my awareness of my impact on the client. Finally, I illustrate the ebb and flow of contact.

The Session

The client has been talking for some time about her stage of life and what it is that she is looking for from therapy. At those times when I have tried to come in to say something she has neither looked at me or paused to hear what I might have to say. I am aware that a feeling of being slightly ignored is growing in me and I am finding it hard to come in when she says the following;

C.”I want a place where I can come and look at the stupid things I am

K. The strength of the statement grabs my interest; suddenly I have no
difficulty coming in.

K “What are you aware of as you say that to me?”

C. “Nothing. I just said it. Its true. Why, what were you aware

K. This is all said quite fast and with a bit of a challenge to me. I
recognise that I feel challenged as something in my stomach tightens
slightly and pulls in. I also recognise that I came in quite quickly
and have been pushed out again just as quickly. It occurs to me that
she may feel challenged by me.

K. “Well, what I am with right now is that maybe I came in too fast
and you feel challenged by me”?

C. “No”

K . This is said very fast and in a strong voice and with that one word she discards me and what I have said and moves on. She continues talking about some of the so called stupid things. Feeling discarded, I sit back looking and listening. As I do, I notice I loosen and have a feeling of warmth towards her. This surprises me a bit. Because after all I have just been feeling pushed away. But there is something refreshing in her ‘no’. It is not the ‘taking no notice’ of earlier. She has definitely taken notice of me even if it feels to me like, ‘back off’. I can feel myself looking at her with interest . I want to ask about the stupid things. Now, however, as she is talking she is looking at me much more. I become interested in this looking. Given what has just happened I am curious as to what the looking might be saying about how she is relating to me now. K “I noticed you looking at me, were you aware of that?”

C “Probably not, but I was probably wondering what you were

K. To my ear this is said quite openly. I use it to focus on my
interest and say quite strongly .

K ” I was feeling interested”

C. “Oh….. that’s nice”.

She sounded and looked surprised. So I told her what I saw and how I
heard her as she said ‘Oh that’s nice’ . I am trying to support
her to stay with her experience in the here and now.

K. “Your voice was raised and for a second you looked at me with wide
eyes. Then you seemed to move away from it quickly.”

C . (Nodding) “I don’t think I expect people to be interested”

This comes out quite fast and at the same time stops her in her tracks. I wonder if I am included with these people. As she pauses, I see feeling come into her face. However she appears to gather her composure quickly and continues with her narrative. I sit in silence – a bit nonplussed by all that has happened. In quick succession, she has gone through surprise, shock, vunerability and composed herself and continued talking. I notice my energy has dropped as I am unsure of what to go with. I sit in silence, listening’ but now staying more with my own internal experience of my energy dropping. As I stay with myself and tell myself to breathe, I realise I am holding back. If I stay back my energy will probably fall even more and I could end up being uninterested, thus fulfilling her expectation that people will not be interested. Furthermore, by holding back I will be supporting her to stay away from discovering more about her less composed self , that self of which I got a quick glimpse before she moved on. I interrupt her to say:-

K. “I am listening but I am also aware that I am holding back”

This is a bit of a half-baked intervention on my part because I don’t say what I am holding back. It could have gone anywhere or nowhere but the client actually uses it to bring out what is happening in the moment. This supports me to stay with and trust in my experience C.. “Yes, (pauses, and at a slower pace makes a motion with her hands around her middle), I am tense …maybe holding as I perhaps get closer to things…the things…I want to talk about …, (pauses) maybe I am protecting myself? …or there’s a fragility..”
As she says this, I become aware that far from holding back I am riveted. How I know this is that I am quite forward in the chair and I am holding my breath, as if waiting on each word. How she accepted my previous intervention supports me to go on sharing my experience with her so I tell her this.

K. “Far from holding back I feel I am waiting on your every word.”

C. ” I was waiting to hear what I was going to say too”

This comes out hesitantly and more slowly. Again I hear the surprise, and see the emotion return to her face. This time she stays with a unfamiliar but deepening experience of her interest in herself

K.. “You sound surprised to be interested in yourself”!

C. “Yes.. Yes. I am surprised. I am”

This is said very fast and with a lot of laughter . She moves around looking slightly amazed, laughing but shifting around in her chair as if there is something maybe exciting or maybe uncomfortable in all of this. She gives me a very direct look and though still laughing says in a strong voice.

C.“ why wouldn’t people be interested in me?” .

I smile back and say something meaningless like indeed, which suggests that I am in agreement. She continues talking about peoples’ interest and lack of interest but I am unable to move on from my experience. As I stay with myself I discover not only am I unsure of my agreement but what I actually hear is something like ‘I dare you not to be interested’ or ‘I demand you be interested’. I interrupt her.

K. “I am actually not able to follow as I am still back with something that happened.

As I do this I see something in her face

K “You look interested as I say this”

C. “Yes I am”

This supports me to keep going and I realise I need the support as what I am about to say feels risky.

K. “ There was something in the tone of your sentence, ‘Why wouldn’t people be interested in me’, that felt like I was being put on notice to be interested, and I think I’m feeling uncomfortable with that”.

C. “Well… Sorry,..I didn’t mean it like that”.

K. “That’s O.K. “Do you know how you did mean it”?

C. “I really don’t know. …pauses, goes inside herself and with some hesitation says in a deflated way, “I just don’t expect people to be interested”.

I now also feel myself deflate. The statement has the heavy quality of being written in stone. My hunch is that I have hit against a core way of being for this client. What makes me so sure of this is the way the energy has drained from my body. However, competing with this hunch is another thought , ‘Why didn’t I keep my mouth shut and keep the feeling of being put on notice to be interested to my self.’

There is quite a pause, we are both silent and with ourselves. I am looking at how she is in the chair. This then becomes figural for me so I come in I tell her how I see her.

K. “Your body is slumped, you look sort of rag-dollish in the chair as you go back to your statement, ‘I don’t expect people to be interested’.”

To my self my voice sounds concerned but unsure.

C. “Yeah.. I sound a bit pathetic to myself”.

I notice she looks directly at me as she says this and in the process be becomes slightly less deflated.

C. “ It’s my mother, It’s not like I don’t know where it comes from.

As she continues talking I can see her gathering her composure. I interrupt her.

K. “I am noticing that when you said you were pathetic you looked at me and I felt something, I am not sure what it was. Then you gathered yourself back to talking like you normally talk.”

This again feels like a half baked intervention but I am going with something I feel in my gut, a look I notice on her face and a slight change in her body posture.

C “Well actually I thought, well, you looked sort of interested”

This supports me to keep going, I notice I no longer feel deflated.

K “ I was certainly with you and yeah, now that you point it out, I am

There is a pause during which we look at each other. I have the experience of her seeing my interest in her.

K.“ What is it like to see my interest.?”

C. “ Yeah hm..It’s good…. I am glad you were interested”

K. “What I am glad about is that you could see it”

This time there is no laughter or moving around in the chair. In the silence I feel her stay with her experience of my interest in her and with herself. There is a warm easy feeling between us.

The ebb and flow of contact.

As previously stated, contact is an active process of touching, exploring, discovering something new, either inside yourself or in how you relate to others. In contact with ourselves we are aware of what is happening in the
moment. When there is contact in a relationship there is energy and a feeling of momentarily being with, or a feeling of being met. The process of contacting (that of discovering something new or unfamiliar) in this session is centred on the theme of ‘interest’.

The first touching of something new is when the client says, ‘I don’t expect people to be interested in me’. This statement comes immediately after she lets herself feel just for a second my interest in her. This touching something new is too much for her, so she reverts to the familiar and continues with he narrative.

As she backs off so do I. However, I become aware that if I continue to back off I will fulfil her expectation of people not being interested in her. I come back with a statement about my holding back. This leads to her second touching of something new around the theme of interest. She becomes interested in herself with the sentence, ‘I was waiting to hear what I was going to say’. Again
this seems too uncomfortable for her and she immediately flips to the other
side pushing away her contact with herself and pushing me away with the
statement, ‘why wouldn’t people be interested’.

As I bring out my discomfort, that is the effect of this statement on me, she touches back to the familiar, ‘I don’t expect people to be interested’. This time, however, she can let herself experience the deflating nature of this statement. Paradoxically this grounds her in herself – while letting herself see and stay with my interest in her.

This way of working calls for the therapist to be aware of her own emerging process in all its uncertainty and of her impact on the client in a moment by moment basis. All the while she is making choices about what to bring in, or not bring into the relationship. The choices are motivated by the therapist’s desire to help the client to risk experiencing the new and unfamiliar in a supportive way, at the same time as she risks staying true to the integrity of her own experience.

Kay Ferriter. M. Soc.Sc.Dip.Gestalt therapy.

For eleven years the Dublin Institute of Gestalt therapy has trained professionals in this way of working. Kay has been a co-facilitator on the course for the last nine years. She is a founder member of the Dublin Gestalt Centre,(formerly the Dundrum Gestalt Centre) where she has her private practice.