The impact of emotions on personality and society On the many ways our civilization depends on the refinement of our feelings

This list could certainly be extended and differentiated. The important point is that we need internal signposts and stop signals for when and where the expression of aggressive emotions might become harmful to another person’s physical integrity.

As Norbert Elias pointed out, the eventual internalization of such psychological brakes against violence is a second stage in the historical civilising process, following the successful establishment of external rules of behaviour. But today it seems that this development does not take place with necessity. There is always a danger of regressive setbacks, even catastrophic breakdowns of civilization in a culture. The civilizing process is always a struggle at all levels and must always be carefully protected. This is particularly true in times of anxiety fed by the threat or reality of economic loss and the dangers of climate change against which most people feel powerless. An interesting case of this struggle is the recent charge by two French lawyers of mass murder against a number of prominent European politicians at the International Criminal Court of Justice in The Hague because of their tolerance and indirect support of the drowning of thousands of refugees in the Mediterranean Sea. Not that anybody believes that the court (claimed to be illegitimate by Trump) will actually take action against these people (including the president of the European Commission, the president of France and the chancellor of Germany) - but to direct public attention to the guilty parties in this dramatic break of human rights is a courageous step forward in the endless struggle for a civilized world.

Some Gestalt therapists argue that Peris & Goodman would have been better advised if they had made an effort to distinguish between “good” and “bad” aggressive attitudes and emotions, or at least had drawn a clear line between healthy aggression and violence. But in the middle of the last century sociologists had discovered the “over-socialized” conception of man (Wrong, 1961) as the dominant ideology not only in American sociology but in the Western post-war societies mirrored by it. This ideology is just what Peris & Goodman criticized in their book of 1951. They developed the concept of “creative adjustment'' in which the assertive elements of aggression have an important role. Today, psychotherapy could not work with depressive processes or with the many kinds of “retroflective” behaviours without these notions. If the emotional life of people becomes repressed by strict and internalized rules of expression, the civilizing process becomes suffocating.

Neither can a distinction between “good” and “bad” kinds of aggression be supported by phenomenological analysis. Of course, we should draw a red line against violence but even this is difficult to do clearly. What about rebellions against oppressive political regimes? Where are the limits of self-defence, so differently interpreted in Europe and in the States? And do we agree with the modern state’s claim to have a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence if this includes the development of a society in which electronic surveillance of everybody is the norm? All these questions may be answered in different ways - even within the framework of agreed rules and values defining a democratic society - but they must be openly discussed and therefore made public. It is a failure of democracy if the state feels legitimized to put its citizens under surveillance secretly and then pursues so-called whistle-blowers as criminals.

In fact, the experience in Gestalt therapy is that no amount of repression and self-control will be a sufficient safeguard against violence because repressed emotions tend to re-appear the moment our psychological organism becomes over-strained by experiences of frustration, anxiety and insecurity. But on the other hand, the phenomenology of emotions shows that the more emotions can be expressed with appropriate intensity, the more likely it is that the expression will reach its point of saturation without manifesting itself as an “attack” or “outbreak”. For instance, many people have difficulty in simply saying “No!” with conviction or giving enough weight to their voice when expressing justified demands. But the very same people can readily be encouraged to shake their fists, shout loudly, stamp their feet and possibly even kick out when they are in a crowd and encouraged by political “cheerleaders”. In the realm of aggression, too, there are more mature behaviours corresponding neither to regressive ranting nor to repressive silence. Our capacity for emotional sensibility can only develop when we manage to steer between the Scylla of childishness and the Charybdis of repression in our search for means of self-expression connecting subtlety with intensity.

This may sound somewhat naive in a world which appears to be filled with violence, wars and terrorism wherever we look. But this is a wrong impression. In fact, we have less violence in the world in spite of prevalent Islamic terrorism and growing violence emerging from the extreme right. Statistics show that crime rates have declined in all Western societies, even in the United States, and worldwide death rates from wars, epidemics and famine have declined considerably. This is proven by the huge research effort presented by Harvard historian Steven Pinker in his remarkable book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined (Pinker, 2011). Its findings have been confirmed by many statistics since. But how do we explain the extraordinary brutality of IS fighters and terrorists, or for that matter, of youth gangs and criminals in our own cities? There are no naturally born killers, torturers or suicide bombers - they have all been trained and indoctrinated by fundamentalist religious or fascist ideologies. In other words, systematic violence always has its roots outside the “nature” or the “personality” of human beings.

Of course, there are individual cases of failure of the civilizing process. But a larger re-occurrence of violence is usually caused by repression enforced by a ruling minority abusing state power and religious ideologies, or a whole culture failing to provide satisfying values and meaningful standards of behaviour, especially for the young - as is the case with those IS fighters who come from Western countries. Their passionate hatred is caused by a combination of frustration with the perceived lack of meaningful values in the West and political and ideological indoctrination by Islamists combined with the unleashed greed for sex and power typical in still insufficiently civilized youngsters who respond to being given a legitimizing ideology and the opportunity to follow their instincts to become violent. The same was true in the case of the extraordinary brutality inspired and legitimized by the Nazi ideology during the Second World War.

2 Unintegrated affects and emotional habits

Emotional attitudes and character

We cannot fully explain the efficacy of cultural rules of expression by referring to the existence of inhibiting emotions alone. Even while we frequently touch on emotions of anxiety and shame in the therapeutic contacting process, they are still relatively rare in everyday situations. Most of the time we live without even noticing these guardians of the temple of our expressive desire. How is this possible? Emotions of anxiety and shame cannot be avoided by an act of will, but only through appropriate emotional attitudes and the stances we take. These emotional attitudes, as 1 call them, are specific forms of reaction formation which develop when excess affects connect with introjects. This process results in affective character structures - rules of expression become independently operative.

This needs an explanation. Of course, we cannot always immediately discharge our anger or immediately express our joy. No special external or internal pressures need conjuring to understand that the fullness of one’s emotions cannot always be completely expressed and when not so expressed in one situation, they tend to flow over into another. Joy is a good example: how wonderful to meet somebody who - for reasons unknown - is full of joy and allows me to participate in their laughter and dancing! Feeling like that, a person may give a kiss of joy to an unsuspecting stranger or hand them a flower. Unfortunately, and far more commonly, negative emotions spill over into a new situation: we may encounter unexpected anger, puzzling tears, sometimes without a cause, sometimes apparently quite disproportionate to the occasion. Apart from joy, anger/rage and grief can most easily become excess affects - perhaps because all these feelings are naturally expressed with a ferocity which makes them easy targets for rules of behaviour geared towards reining them in. What is problematic with these excess affects is that they neither have an orientating function nor do they adequately fulfil the normal communicative function of the emotions: cause and object of the emotion in such moments do not belong to the current situation; the person one is angry with has not necessarily given just cause for one’s reaction. Furthermore, this person is now wrongly informed about the angry person and vainly looks for a cause in themself. In this way, excess affects easily cause irritating situations instead of preventing them, since they represent instances in which interactional competency is in short supply.

That is why - being subject to the same expressive limitations in the new situation as in the original - the excess affects rarely become visible outside the therapy situation. But when emotions cannot ever be fully expressed, gradually our emotional sensorium becomes blunted and we are less and less able to rely on its orientating function. In the end we are strangers to our own emotions: they have become alien to us and in therapy, when emotions are just beginning to arise, excitement anxiety shows itself. Societies with very restrictive rules for emotional expression become emotionally desensitized. Consequently, people suffer from general motivational weakness and need more and more stimuli in order to warm towards anything or anybody. In fact, the capacity for experiencing excitement can be blunted but it cannot be repressed, and everyday triggers activate rage and hate, grief and joy, impotence and pride, so that over and over again we experience the frustration of emotional expressivity being impossible to assimilate.

In this situation the classic defence mechanism of “identification with the aggressor” offers itself. If we manage to cross over to the side of repressive rules of expression, our own emotional desolation can - as a “cool” life style or an ability “to keep things in perspective” - even add to our sense of self-esteem. But this kind of identification cannot easily be assumed today; our culture is highly inconsistent as far as rules of emotional expression are concerned. After all, what is frowned upon in public is just what is required in intimate relationships: the capacity for intense emotional experience. And even in the public sphere there are not only the enforced routines of the working world and traffic flow, but also media and sporting events entering into ever more experiential realms and requiring varying degrees of sentiment, concern or Dionysian emotional expressiveness as for instance in football.

When emotional expression is connected with early introjects, emphasizing the value of self-restraint as a character attribute, and if such a world of values has been maintained (for example in military or economic organizations) and continues to have currency in the membership groups of this person, then they are still able to achieve a “smooth” “identification with the aggressor”, and emotional desiccation is still experienced as a victory over oneself. In fact, such mostly paternal introjects - characteristically rules for living, frequently passed on in the form of family sayings or school slogans -are becoming old-fashioned. Today, the demand “to pull yourself together”, “to grit your teeth and just get on with it!” - as well as derogatory descriptions like “you are wet!” and appeasing remarks like “he has thrown in the towel” are mainly identified from their literary uses. In other situations, away from therapy, like sports or the military, this social character still thrives in slightly moderated form. Our current culture of emotional expressiveness shows such enormous fissures that a direct encounter between these antagonisms usually generates violence: we see such escalations in police operations confronting youthful rioters.

In this context 1 must return to the problem of guilt feelings. For these are an aspect of what the Frankfurt School of Critical Sociology importantly has called the “authoritarian character” (Adorno et al., 1950) that characteristically, constantly develops neurotic guilt. The “aggressor”, with whom they are identified after all consists of those un-assimilated introjects which as alien bodies have lodged themselves in the organism and are directed against one’s own self, against one’s very own needs and emotions the moment they stir. They cannot be extinguished; they awaken with every stimulus and unconsciously assert themselves in a multitude of ways. Authentic guilt feelings grow from hurting others; neurotic guilt is generated by one’s own compulsions and defences against being attacked. In comparison with authentic guilt feelings, no desire to make amends grows from neurotic emotions of guilt, but merely a gnawing discomfort with one’s own fallibility and an unconscious inclination to quickly repeat the process. Neurotic guilt feelings emerge through sabotaging one’s own introjects. And - of course - that is connected with secret pleasure, the pleasure fed by repressed needs (H. P. Dreitzel, 2019).

Through attention and experiment in Gestalt therapy, this fact allows us to clearly distinguish authentic from neurotic guilt. Even as the client tells the story which triggered the guilt feelings the first time round, the attentive therapist will notice what in the end - after telling the tale several times as requested by the therapist - the client will also be able to experience: forcibly restrained excitement will be apparent in an animated voice tone, sparkling eyes and frequently in a half strained smile. Through working on authentic guilt, self-accusation gradually turns into the seriousness of a new, more mature responsibility, whereas in working on neurotic guilt feelings the first step is to liberate whatever gleeful pleasure is part of the deed itself, which drives the perpetrator to keep repeating it. Therapy of neurotic guilt moves on from “identification with the aggressor” (introjected rules of behaviour) via identification with the “saboteur within” to a resolution of those introjects through assimilation or evacuation.

Distinguishing between authentic and neurotic emotions of guilt has a tradition. It is now known that some of the neural cells in our brain are actually capable of renewal even in old age, a discovery that has altered our understanding of ageing history. Although Freud never gave up his strange theory -developed in Totem and Taboo (Freud. 1912) - of guilt originating from patricide committed by the Ur-horde: he later also developed ideas and theories of the civilising process in Civilization and its Discontents (1928), where he differentiated between the general emotion of guilt, the immediate reaction of a strict Super-Ego to sinful thoughts, and the specific emotion of guilt followed by remorse after an actual deed. This distinction however was never taken up properly by psychoanalysis, which perhaps became blinded by too many other constructions about “guilt neuroses”. Guilt is simply a terribly painful and damaging emotion which needs to be healed by involving the self in reparative actions (Lifton, 1979). From the perspective taken here, our capacity for responding empathically to any disruption of the organism/ environment field is the socio-psychological basis for taking responsibility as an aspect of social competency.

Looked at in this way, neurotic guilt feelings are indeed “incomplete”. They keep the capacity for taking responsibility enchained in introjects, so that instead of becoming part of the driving force and a desire for responsible action, repressed needs turn against this capacity and sabotage it. Lifton graphically speaks of “static guilt” - where self-accusation or strategic manoeuvres of avoidance in fact prevent the experience of real responsibility -and “animating guilt” “through which we may gain energy for renewal and free ourselves from self-damnation” (Lifton, 1979:139). After all, liberating the animating power in our capacity for responsibility is the aim of all therapeutic work on guilt - neurotic as well as authentic.

Where smooth identification with such controlling character norms is not successful, since culturally they are gradually fading, we quite often see the emotional habits of a more modern form, the “sullen” social character emerging. What is being introjected here are not the norms and value standards of a disappearing patriarchal world, but the experiences of frustration and discouragement of a childhood in a “fatherless society” (Mitscherlich, 1969). If spontaneous expression of elementary contacting emotions is perennially choked off, curbed or disregarded by a dominating, yet weak and irritated mother, and when this experience is again and again fuelled in the course of one’s life, then emotional habits may develop where the contradiction between emotional irritability and a curbing of emotional expressivity is fused into one behavioural Gestalt.

Here are some examples: A persistent indicator of this kind of emotional habit is sullenness. Such a temper is particularly marked in people whose sense of delight was often spoilt, as if spontaneous expression of joie de vivre was inhibited by exhortations like “Not so loud!”, “Watch where you are going!”, “Stop larking around!”, “Look how you messed yourself again!” Part of the motor expression of joy is jumping and leaping, and in adults it is singing and laughing. And how many people feel shy and awkward, “self-conscious”, as the precise English word will have it, when - with sullen envy - they watch dancers move on the dance floor! And even more importantly, part of joy is wanting to share. That pre-supposes a minimum of attention. For example, a child wants to share a discovery, tell what has just happened. Often, adults react with sullenness to their own inability to share joy when they respond with a blank stare to a child full of the joys of life. It is comforting to see how children in this respect often become educators of the adults; they are able to light up even shrivelled hearts.

Repeated experience of remaining alone with one’s joy and having its expression inhibited by perennial nagging, or respectively as an adult being ridiculed as “childish”, eventually leads to an inability to experience joy at all. Eventually these limitations are anticipated when emotions want to be expressed, and one limits oneself to so-called “silent” joy. But even this can be spoilt when perhaps a slight smile shows on the face and evokes enquiry and exposure: “What have you got to be happy about, then?”. When, having been told, the emotional attachment figure - the “significant other” - decides that the whole thing is ridiculous, the destruction of joy is complete. Eventually, reasons for joy are excluded from perception or at least stubbornly avoided. What we encounter now is a person of slightly grey-weather-sullen character.

In the realm of emotional habits, the best-known phenomenon is the result of perennially repressed anger: irritability and resentment, and on a physical level stomach problems. Irritability follows most strongly where continuous frustration originates from a beloved person whom one does not wish to irritate. This is often the origin of irritability between marriage partners or in mothers overtaxed and rattled by their offspring. True resentment goes deeper though: it is an emotional habit in people who permanently repress their anger and destructive rage. A person full of resentment wishes for the other person to change - of their own volition. Since change cannot or will not be achieved by direct aggression, one reverts to the indirect route; one projects one’s own inhibition for expressing anger and blames the other until they become angry, thereby legitimising one’s own anger.

Especially in couple relations this can lead to an escalation where the people concerned are helpless and cannot change except through intervention from outside - as has been shown in systemic family therapy (Watzlawick et al., 1967). What is being avoided in such situations is actual contact with others as people. This can take the form of an angry explosion or an act of generous forgiveness. Often actual contact-making is inhibited by fear of aggravating a conflict which may lead to a separation. But the repression of whatever fuels the conflict is an act of self-conquest. The weakened self then usually projects and constellates a game of guilt and reciprocal reproach, immediately raising neurotic guilt feelings which are forever the accompaniment to each new violation of an introjected inhibition of aggression. Thus the spiral of reproach is endless, since reproach triggers neurotic guilt in the reproaching person instead of triggering authentic guilt in the person towards whom the reproach is directed.

The other kind of anger - that which can escalate into a cold rage, hatred against the obstacles to be removed at all cost - if held back and dammed up is channelled into another kind of emotional habit, contempt. Whoever I cannot destroy and remove, in contempt at least I can feel superior to them. In this way projections always become part of contempt. Contempt dismisses in two ways: it refuses appreciation, and also simply disregards the other, not finding something/someone worthy of attention.

But when the object of disdain does not disappear from sight - it could be one’s boss whom one encounters daily; a competitor amongst one’s colleagues or certain characteristics of one’s partner - when even contempt does not succeed, then we see contemptuousness or at least disparagement, a habit of considering everything with a degree of disdain from the start. Disparagement is the product of one’s “removing” aggression failing to achieve its object, when neither leaves the field. In any case this constellation has its worst effect when directed towards one’s partners or other emotional attachment figures, since

We can’t afford to destroy, to annihilate what we need, even if it frustrates us. Permanent anger results where appetite and removal are interconnected, leading to an inhibition of appetite itself, thus becoming a wide-spread cause of impotence, withdrawal, etc.

(Clynes, 1976:60)

The anonymity of the internet provides new opportunities to express resentment and to experience frustration: it affords safety from the reactions of the objects of one’s hate - and frustrates because this object does not react and in effect remains untouchable. Whether this leads finally to violence is an open question.

Emotional habits are as diverse as human character. Most of the time it is not possible to recognize clearly which kinds of excess emotions have combined with which introjects to form specific emotional habits. Possibilities are almost endless - and everyone will have made their own observations. For example, refusing to surrender to grief - teeth clenched and tearful eyes - in conjunction with earlier experiences of renunciation of something to which some value was attributed - can lead to generalized bitterness about anything or anybody. Or pride which could not be displayed can - in conjunction with introjects about achievement - become deformed into conceit with exhibitio-nistic tendencies. Probably the emotion which most frequently becomes visible in therapy is sadness, displayed in set facial traits as an emotion which is forever re-stimulated. The real grief hidden in this chronic sadness must be discovered in therapeutic exploration; it may well be a traumatic experience. Often it is a mixture of unexpressed anger and unexpressed grief, connected to resignation and introjects like “There’s nothing to be done!” and “That’s life, sadly!”, i.e. mild depression.

If one gets caught in the fore-contacting emotion of longing, one can gradually turn into a sentimental character - as happens with passive people in whom the aggressive functions are inhibited. Conversely, in active people longing may coagulate into hope which then becomes their psychological form and character orientation. 1 have already mentioned that gratitude can turn into hate when the recipient makes themself physically and/or emotionally unavailable - or if they subtly devalue the emotion of gratitude. An inability to truly surrender to the emotion of love, especially when there are introjected ideals about motherliness, can turn (love) into a caring/worrying

helper’s attitude. 1 have already mentioned the connection between disgust in conjunction with certain introjects and some phobic attitudes. And finally, very secretive people who keep everything to themselves and sometimes have an inclination towards meanness have often experienced too much disappointment and discouragement when they wanted only to spontaneously show pride and joy, to share such emotions.

These are a few observations from my own therapeutic practice: 1 mention them in this context to stimulate reflection on how to find one’s way in the endless complexity of human orientations and characteristics. Every therapist will have different experiences helping them to orientate themself. It is true that we can offer general descriptions about the structure of emotions, but rules of expression introjected socio-culturally and historically vary to such an extent that even in our own society, a therapist’s observations and experiences with specific emotional habits depend on the patient groups they are working with. In this respect, too, there is a world of difference between lower-class patients in a psychiatric clinic, formerly drug dependent young people with a petit bourgeois background in a “Release” community, and upper middleclass New Age tourists with a mid-life crisis. On occasion, even successful high-tech entrepreneurs who have never felt a tear in their eyes, appear in a Gestalt therapy workshop. And beyond that, everybody works with and through their life experiences in their own way.

More useful than any system of personality diagnostics is the grand world of literature with its rich and nuanced descriptions of human character. We can learn more from Balzac’s novels, his Comedie Humaine, or Tolstoy’s War and Peace than from psychological teachings about character. A theoretical map can only draw attention to what one should be alert to, what one should focus on, which elements enter into typical conjunctions and may have done so in this specific human being - who just now happens to sit in front of me -and on what is going to be catalysed between us in our singular encounter. What we can finally say is that in any therapeutic attempt to dissolve or loosen up specific excess emotions, we have to pay attention to three factors: to the specific excess emotions from a specific unresolved situation; to the partly assimilated, partly introjected rules of expression; and to the characterforming introjects from a person's early socialization milieu.

3 Forms of sympathy

Contagious emotions and shared emotions

Emotions have an orientating function, not just for the person who feels them but also for their co-players, the people with whom they act and share experiences. Motor expression of an emotion, increasing the intensity of an experience for oneself indicates to the exterior world the action intention and relational quality of the subject feeling the emotion. This is exactly the reason why emotional expression is socially regulated and repressed: anyone unable to control their emotions cannot rein them in; whoever immediately shows what is going on with them is immediately considered capricious and transparently obvious - which in our society means childish. It is a functional requirement of modern societies with their long action chains and their profoundly intertwined functions that behaviour should to be predictable.

Relative inscrutability on the other hand is part of the character requirements for specific interactional strategies aimed at gain or conquest. Sociologist Erving Goffman created the concept of "impression management” for this situation where people frequently show a “poker face”, an impenetrable mask of emotional indifference, i.e. a form of social “mimicry” - Manfred Clynes’ fitting name for the art of dissimulation.

In mimicry the “sentic drive” is not connected to its motoric expression. Producing the expression is a purely intellectual act, without the no experience of an emotional state which would correspond to the expressed form. Neither does mimicry lead to a process of empathic attune-ment. It is an unemotional production of expression. Its funny aspect, wherever it occurs, is based in just this disconnect.

(Clynes, 1976:7)

There are good social reasons for fearing “to show oneself’ and “letting go” emotionally. But without the possibility of sharing emotional experience, we can neither begin to think about collective action, nor about work when it is based on division of labour, nor of interacting in personal social roles. These possibilities rely on the fact that we can use the other’s emotional expression to orientate ourselves. It is not necessary to intellectually comprehend the forms of emotional expression - we don’t need to learn to read them, since we experience the other’s emotional state empathically and intuitively. Clynes called this phenomenon “the principle of complementarity”; production and recognition of “sentic forms” are coordinated in our brains in such a way that a precisely expressed form triggers the same form in the person who perceives it - on condition that the capacity for emotional apperception in turn has not been blunted by introjected rules of expression.

In his classical treatise of 1923, still worth studying, the German Philosopher Max Scheier, a leading representative of the phenomenological school, analysed the different forms of sympathy and empathy as the glue that holds society together in the emotional realm (Scheier, 1923). Importantly, he made the distinction between sympathy and empathy which Clynes, too, follows in his studies.

Scheier defines sympathy as the development of a similar or equal emotional state of another person based on the common existential ground of being a human being with the same potential for emotional experience. In his analysis each of these emotional states appears in two forms:

Sympathy as a form of going along with others appears as

  • • Emotional contagion or as
  • • Intuitively shared emotion (“unmittelbares Mitfiihlen”).

Empathy as a form of emotional identification with another exists as

  • • Compassion (“nachfuhlen”) or as
  • • Pure empathy (“einfuhlen” or “Einsgefuhl”).

In the following pages 1 will explore these fruitful distinctions.

We are most familiar with emotional contagion from experiencing the contagious character of laughter. Everybody has had the experience of helplessly joining in with the laughter gripping people around us, even if we have not understood the joke and cannot tell what is so funny about it all anyway. Apparently the gap we experience as human beings incarnated in a body in this world constitutes such a tense existential situation that we are easily seduced to take advantage of a chance to recuperate through laughter whenever possible. Laughter - like crying - is a direct expression of a temporary break-down of this inner distance or gap.

Crying, too, can be contagious, even if less readily than laughter; here, one’s own self is not directly involved and only the outer circumstances are relevant. In crying, though, a person has to let go of itself in order to loosen up, which is hard for adults, especially in public. Therefore, we may find emotional contagion in crying under the protective cover of darkness in the cinema, when there is a gradual increase of sniffing and blowing of noses. A teacher told me how during a school excursion and just after everybody had gone to bed, one child started crying - most likely from home sickness - and after the shortest time the whole class was crying. When the teacher asked why they were crying, the children answered “Don't know!”- Having tried in vain to reassure them, the teacher could only think of drastic measures -getting them all out of bed again, and sending them to take another shower.

Emotional contagion is not limited to laughing and crying but also occurs in conjunction with actual emotions - precisely because they can be experienced as pure qualities - that is without psychic or social triggers, without an object. Just seeing an intense emotional expression can touch off a resonance, a similar emotional disposition in the observer. The evolutionary function of this phenomenon most likely consists in the fact that through this kind of readiness, groups can be quickly motivated to action. Emotional contagion is an important element in a group’s coherence, its cohesion. In that fact also lies its danger. When emotions like curiosity, longing and destructive rage are perennially frustrated through social, political and economic circumstances, they are ready to be whipped up into enthusiasm by demagogy and diverted towards the most absurd of aims.

Emotional contagion creates a felt experience of collective unity (“Gemeinschaftserlebnis”), a we-emotion, which can drown out any rational consideration of the action’s aims and consequences. Unforgettable are the roars of “Yes!” in the Berlin Sportpalast in response to Goebbels’ rhetorical question: “Do you want total war?”. Violence is always close to breaking out when aggressive moods become contagious - if an enemy is at hand, be it the fan club or the football club “we” don’t support. Of course more than one person is necessary for this phenomenon - and so it is not surprising that it happens most easily in mass situations; if animated and agitated in this way the joy of one person turns into a “storm of enthusiasm”; the anxiety of one turns into mass panic reactions; from various personal emotions of anger, anonymous collective violence can be generated. And in the age of mass media, of mass tourism and mass advertising there are many experts who know how to fuel moods to fit the desired purpose (Perhaps this is also the only antidote against totalitarian demagogy!?). Emotional contagion is so dangerous because it usually doesn’t stop at objectless emotional experience per se but activates otherwise frustrated and repressed emotions, offering scapegoats and other compensatory objects. Open and hidden persuaders can more successfully build on this in societies which cultivate an overall “cool” image.

It is crucial to note here that possibilities for being manipulated through emotional contagion increase the more a person shows neurotic object avoidance constituting an unrelieved reservoir of emotional dispositions. It is very important to work on this kind of avoidance in psychotherapy. We mustn’t be satisfied with the client gaining insight into such behaviour: instead Gestalt therapy must focus on enabling the client to experience through their senses how they block their emotional expression. We can start with the knowledge that inhibiting emotional expression and avoiding objects -including fixations on substitute objects - are two sides of the same process. At the very moment that expressive blockages, introjects carried by the body, start melting, the person discovers and develops new and unfamiliar ways of expressing their emotions, and such expression automatically finds the right objects, since only through that process can the promised satisfaction of unmet needs become possible. Unfortunately, psychotherapy is often limited by cultural boundaries. For instance, one might speculate that the violence of young men who turn into Islamist fanatics is fuelled by the sexual frustrations generated when contact with women is forbidden outside marriage, forced on them by their family culture.

In a more subtle way we perennially succumb to the emotional influences of our environment. Our lives are always embedded in what Clynes calls our “sentie environments”. Wherever we share a group environment with other people, we are influenced by their specific emotional atmosphere. In therapy workshops, when small groups are together for a few days and share intense experiences with each other, it is possible to observe this as if under a microscope. Sometimes the whole group is overcome by an atmosphere affecting the theme of all further work on that day. And if the therapist is themself strongly pre-occupied with a subject - as ideally they should not be -this has an even greater effect on the group. But therapeutic groups can cope with and even benefit from a high degree of emotional intensity, since the contract which underlies all interactions allows making the atmosphere itself the theme for exploration.

This is not easily possible in other kinds of situations: indeed, everybody knows that emotional environments can be hostile as well as pleasant, not just cheerful but also depressive, not just loving but also rancorous. In addition, it is a characteristic trait of our civilization that we are exposed to rapidly alternating emotional climates: emotional frostiness in the public realm and emotional shock in the media. In such a climate the individual’s sensitivity cannot help but gradually become blunted. People who try to seal themselves off from these influences might pay for doing so by becoming socially isolated and losing the chance to influence what goes on. Clynes describes the consequences:

We have to create a society where the individual isn't under sentic attack from all sides and so that he is liberated from an avalanche of sentic insults which from his own creations and re-creations rushes towards him in such a way that essentic forms can be enjoyed in relation to that specific, human Gestalt from which they emerge: the single/specific individual.

(Clynes, 1976:71 footnote)

This is one good reason to protect all victims of “shit storms” and uninhibited hate mails in the social media! One step on the long road towards this goal is the recovery and continuing development of the individual’s emotional sensitivity, and one of the vehicles towards this end is Gestalt therapy. But before this goal could ever be achieved it is - in my opinion - necessary to overcome the taboo against abolishing the protection which everybody enjoys by the guaranty of anonymity in the internet. After all this rule undermines the basic norm of reciprocity underlying all socialization processes.

At first glance, Scheier’s second type of sympathetic emotions, the intuitively shared emotions (“unmittelbares Mitfuhlen”), seems less problematic, in it there is after all an object triggering the emotion which is shared by the interacting partners. Examples may include people sharing the fear of a danger threatening everyone at once (people clinging together in cellars or basements during a bombing raid; refugees trying to cross a river or even a sea); a group of people experiencing shared anger about an authoritarian leader, or gratitude about their boss (perhaps there will be a decision for a shared protest action or a shared present); or people feeling deeply connected after a shared loss (the shared character of the loss has a comforting quality). And of course there is joy associated with projects accomplished together

(which may be expressed in a shared party). In all these examples the individually experienced emotion is strengthened by the experience of sharing the same sentic expression with other people, being present. Thus we can say that synchronous expression of the same emotion on the same occasion has a sympathetically strengthening effect.

But here we encounter some problems too. Closer, more detailed observation reveals that a group of people having been affected by the same emotion can also react with a reciprocal strengthening of their affective controls, as is quite frequently observed in a group of mourners. Here we encounter an interesting sociological problem. The way people control affects is always relatively homogenous, and the public nature of the group space in itself creates a shame barrier containing personal emotional expression. But the degree of intensity, and what forms of expression are chosen differs widely, even while they have the same “essentic form”. Shared emotions therefore need a medium, so that whatever it is that is shared can be actualized as such - and that is precisely the social function of ritual. Depending on people’s expectations and needs, such a ritual can consist in particular kinds of music, hymns, threatening or submissive gestures, battle cries, presents, the quotation of holy texts, prayers or acts of devotion like the kissing of feet.

History offer boundless examples of such rituals. They say that in antiquity armies directed volleys of insults and diatribes at each other before actually engaging in battle, doubtless in order to get into an aggressive enough emotional mood to summon up courage for action. In the present -and in a society where many traditional rituals have lost some of their significance - it is interesting to note that we need to invent ever-new rituals able to carry and express a shared emotion, most obvious where a social form is founded in emotion. The fan club and its more widespread minimalist variety, the couple relationship, offer themselves as fields for observation, showing the marvellous creativity which goes into people creating their own rituals. In any case, the emotionality of smaller groups (as long as they are not the theme of reflection, as happens in therapy groups) is under pressure from two directions: they need to find a collective way of expressing shared emotions, which tends towards ritual; and on the other hand there is a danger that emotional experience is hollowed out when emotional expression becomes a repetitive habit.

A more special case of shared emotion with particular significance has still to be mentioned: reciprocal emotions. In them, the feeling subject is at the same time the object of the same emotion in the other - and the other way round; we love each other, we hate each other, we are frightened of each other, we are sexually aroused by each other, or we are grateful to each other. This reciprocity of the subject-object relationship in the contacting process generates deepening intensity of emotional experience, based on the fact that here we are not just experiencing our own emotional expression but also that of the other person, creating a feedback effect on what is experienced together. We are particularly familiar with this phenomenon in sexuality; the arousal of one person provides an added stimulus for the other and vice versa. This increase in intensity is the organic expression for the peculiar tension which grows from reciprocal emotions, due to the fact that each partner is also the object of the other’s emotionality. Through this the contacting process gains a dialectic which points beyond its normal intention - satisfaction of needs, balancing a lack in the individual. This dialectic also operates in many other contacting processes, and always when the subject of one contacting process also becomes the object of other people’s contacting processes. It therefore will pay to continue tracing this dialectic where reciprocal emotions are concerned.

As far as the praxis of our interactions is concerned, they are stamped by attitudes and theoretical positions referring back to a stock of cultural traditions. There are three possible positions we can take with respect to reciprocal subject-object relations in specific interactional contexts: It is possible to emphasize the importance of either the (1) object, the other, or the (2) subject in the contacting process, or (3) one can stress what they have in common and through this go beyond the dyadic relationship. Freud for example focused on the role of the object. While his libido theory remained vague even as psychoanalysis developed, it is his teaching about the psychic positions, about resistance and the content of consciousness and particularly that of objects of drives which has been continually developed, reaching a climax in Kohut’s theory of object relations.2 In consequence, we now find a pseudo-scientific language of “objects” instead of processes, which has affected psychotherapeutic thinking to such an extent that Gestalt therapy and this writer have a hard time freeing themselves from it! But Freud indeed was part of the tradition of enlightenment; we still have to thank this tradition for achieving some freedom from ideological ties and promoting greater precision of thought, as for instance Kant - completely object related - without further ado declared marriage the legitimate mutual possession of sexual organs - and so surely added one of the few clarifying words about this ineradicable social form.

Emphasising the role of the subject in the contacting process is always the concern of those who justly or unjustly feel disadvantaged. For in this case, it is the lack in one's own organism, the significance of one’s own needs getting a raw deal, which is emphasized. This perspective is characteristic for all emancipatory movements; the first concern is to get to know one’s own needs properly, followed by “self-realization” via better need satisfaction. Gestalt therapy, too, as it was developed and represented by Peris & Goodman, understood themselves as advocates of the needs of individuals. They conceptualized the greatest disturbances as arising from people’s inability to experience their own needs; normal neurotic disturbance here is a failure of specific ego functions when need satisfaction is attempted in the organism/ environment contact. However, this way of accentuating the issue becomes problematical when we fail to acknowledge that where a person is the object of a contacting process, this object is also a subject; that there is a reciprocal relationship. Or when (as with some radical feminists) in the heat of the battle for liberation and during such journeys of discovery into the world of one’s own needs, the “object” of such needs is simply experienced in an instrumental way and therefore in principle becomes exchangeable - this is a problem since in this case reciprocity is gone. The danger in an interactional perspective of over-emphasizing the subject is that it leads to a narcissistic overvaluation of one’s own needs - a danger we have to take seriously, especially in psychotherapy.

The third possibility is seeing the relationship between subject and object dialectically, resolving itself either in the partner’s similarities (“Your desire is my desire, too”) or through a third, arising from an integration - for example, a child comes from the sexual congress of its parents. Initially, this perspective clarifies for us that the reciprocal contacting process between human beings is an encounter not completed in mutual need satisfaction, but having a character sui generis. Such encounters have their quite specific Gestalt which here, too, is more than the sum of its elements. What develops here cannot be predicted and described in general terms; it is always a new Gestalt, a unique sound created by two people in resonance.

The danger is that a Hollywood (even more so, a Bollywood) type of love ideology suggests an emotional melting of two individuals which in fact leads either to paralyses or to frustration and separation. In our present social reality another concern may be more pertinent - a tendency towards instrumentalizing human encounter for the purposes of mental hygiene, which can be seen in co-operative relationships whose participants understand themselves as sporting comrades and as more or less well-functioning components of the system “couple relationship”. Gestalt therapy here speaks of “confluence”, neurotically holding on to an Ego-less mutual entanglement, which prevents encounter even as it moves. There is a lot to learn from systemic family therapy; it hasn't only shown that where two or more people continually interact, more things happen than they ever wanted individually, but also that what is happening now is not the same as what they had intended and are intending together. In other words, the properties of a dynamic, continually moving system of role relationships asserts itself behind their backs and often against the intentions of the people concerned, determining their actions and behaviour in non-transparent ways.

Understanding these extra-individual systemic forces is core knowledge for therapists today, and should also be part of the social knowledge of clients. However, systemic family therapy is committed to maintaining the system, which is their true client. Whatever new Gestalt arises from the mutual and always conflicted emotional engagement with the other, it too has its time and grace and. short of mummification, cannot be protected from change. What remains is not the shared riches of what one perceives individually, but the individual richness of awareness gained together in the process.

4 Forms of empathy

To be emotionally sensitive to others and to identify with them

This now is a particularly difficult issue, because it reaches into the yet unexplored depths of subconsciousness/consciousness/awareness, and because the capacity of humans to share even dimensions of their consciousness seems unfathomable.

When we feel in sympathy with somebody, usually it takes no effort to emotionally be with and alongside the other’s emotional expression and resonate to it, since our attention is attracted to the same stimulus and is responsive to the same emotional trigger. We then share a mood or atmosphere. Often we notice this “tuning-in” only in post-contact or even after separation as an afterglow - or else when it is interrupted, perhaps by the unexpected presence of less sensitive (or merely embarrassed) people. This is different in empathic emotions, where emotional expression is itself the object of attention. As a stimulus it can be so strong that it is almost impossible to get away from it, or - more normal nowadays - so weak that it requires an effort of attention to even recognize the emotional tone of the over-contained emotion, as for instance in the strange behaviour of gaping spectators at street accidents and other public horrors. Everyone unintentionally turning away from or blunting their attention is emotionally affected by a strong emotional expression. This being touched by the inner experience of another is completely different from just being swept along, as for example by infectious laughter. It is barely possible to remain emotionally cold when we see another person shaken by desperate crying or painful moaning. Even if we do not know the person nor the cause of this pain. When we talk about the “heartrending” crying of a child, we do not mean the heart of the child, but that of the person who feels with the child. Apparently there is always an aspect of identification which enters into empathic emotions, even if the other person and their circumstances remain anonymous.3

There are two forms of empathic identification:

  • 1 when we recognize and enter into what the other person is going through -something we have experienced ourselves. What 1 experience as the same or similar, entering into someone’s experience does not have to have the same particular trigger; it could be the same general situation (affliction, loss, threat, etc.) or just the emotional state which feels familiar. This can easily be demonstrated: A child yelling their pain to the world - bitter pain about a broken toy or the existential anxiety following losing their mother in the crowd. We can easily enter into this emotional expression, not because we are still touched by those triggers, but because we emotionally recognize the situation and can spontaneously relate to it, because for almost everyone these archetypal experiences of unhappiness and being lost are familiar memories - and also of course, because the uninhibited emotional expression of a small child appeals to our sentic sensibility.
  • 2 when we attune ourselves to such an experience, even if it is alien to us, thus truly putting ourselves into the other’s position, “taking the role of the other”, as George Herbert Mead has called it. We slip into their skin. This astounding capacity of human beings may be easier to understand if compared with the quite different experience of identifying with what is causing the felt emotion because in this case we know it from our own life. What is striking in case of pure empathy is precisely that there is no spontaneous emotional recognition from our own experience but at best it stimulates some part of our cognitive experiential memory bank. That is the case when we cannot really feel another person’s physical pain. (If the trigger had been the same, we would be dealing with a shared emotion, but that would in many cases be hardly bearable, probably evolutionary impossible as in case of the pain of giving birth; a midwife will know how the woman she is helping feels but she will not at this moment experience her pain).We might say “I can really feel for you!” when we are in a general way familiar with the kind of misery displayed but it isn’t a problem for us right now. Therefore the emotional intensity of this sharing is of a lesser degree.

It is quite different and we are more emotionally distressed when another person goes through what we are frightened of ourselves; experiences which we know will or could happen to us, too: death, accidents, illnesses. Of course there is a touch of projection in this moment of emotional identification with another person (the psychoanalytically-orientated reader might recognize a special case of transference), since identified emotion may become very intense when we recognize ourselves in the other, truly enter into their experience. But it is more important to acknowledge here that in this sympathetic sharing we receive a shocking reminder that both of us, 1 and the other, are subject to the same conditio humana.

In this way entering into somebody’s experience always contains some human solidarity. The more I can identify with the situation, the more I’m affected, the more easily compassion grows, motivating us to offer comfort, support and help. There is a difference in explaining compassion as solely reflecting the survival interest of the individual or seeing it rooted in the fact that this individual is also a member of our species and only able to survive in a community of others. Peris & Goodman illustrate this inconsistency impressively, and perhaps inadvertently, by offering two contradictory statements about compassion: Completely caught up in the psychoanalytic perspective, they remark “Compassion is avoidance or over-coming of a personal loss by helping another” (Peris & Goodman: 187). Yes, avoidance importantly plays a role when the experience of seeing and hearing a fellow human being in pain fends off the feeling of sympathy to protect oneself against infection - a necessity in medical helping, when emotional neutrality provides the necessary distance.

Elsewhere, however, Peris & Goodman describe compassion beautifully as the concern of the therapist, differing from other kinds of concerns due to its process character:

Compassion is the loving recognition-of-the-defective-as-potentially-perfect, and what is processual about him is the realization of the possible in the object. [...]. Compassion in action is not based on some interest of the Ego, but in the process of integration of the Thou.

(Peris & Goodman: 198)

This means that true compassion is neither about being kind to another person, nor is it intellectual understanding. Also it is not about love, whose intentionality it is lacking, nor is it pity, which is the sentimental version of contempt. In compassion 1 am completely myself with all the ego functions and resources accessible to me since 1 am not directly affected. Precisely because that is the case, true compassion entails no distancing. At the same time - and that just isn’t clear in the psychoanalytic perspective - one’s resources are fully utilized in the interest of the Thou, since it is this Thou, feeling this or that, which fills me, which creates a unified Gestalt with me: compassion is a therapist’s Eros, completed in moments of full contact with the client. Entering into the experience of another and its special climax in compassion is generated as we perceive the “essentic form” of an authentic emotional expression and identify with the other’s experiences, problems and situations. In order to share someone’s emotions by sheer identification we must keep our attention focussed on them - and we will be carried along with the other’s emotional expression, rather like hearing music. Yet the therapist paradoxically needs to keep a certain amount of distance in their work not to become confluent and hence disable themself from the task of alleviating the patient's misery and facilitating their growth. Thus I was told that Isadore From excused himself for “making a mistake” when, listening to the misery of the childhood experience of his patient during the Nazi occupation in Poland he had begun to weep. Still that was genuine empathy, true compassion. There are occasions when this is more important than to regain the necessary distance for doing therapy - in my own experience especially if the patient suffers from being caught in a narcissistic process disabling them from giving up the emotional self-control for a moment of full contact. The capacity to experience emotions without attachment to objects discovered by Clynes helps to understand this phenomenon.

Compared to this process, empathic attunement is an intentional act where the encompassing constructive element of perception in a receptive mode is dominant. For this, the process of attunement does not require the strong stimulus of an intensive emotional expression. Indeed, to be able to take the position of another person is one of the most amazing capacities of all human beings, which does not mean that it is highly developed in everybody. Cognitively this capacity has been conceptualized as “reciprocity of perspectives” and has become a basic element in sociologically understanding human interaction.

On an emotional level we are dealing with the ability to experience in ourselves the emotions which the other person is experiencing in their contacting process with the environment. The necessary pre-condition for both processes is, in Clynes’ words “that we must project the condition and the personality of another human being into our own awareness, so that in imagination we are this personality” (Clynes, 1976:71); in other words, full identification, a complete experience.

Of course we are building up this identification from the reservoir of cognitive and emotional experiences we have had with this person. But this does not only lead to a static picture but to a personality with a life of its own in our imagination; able to act and decide; with attitudes and opinions not (yet) realized by this person, but consistent with it. In other words, in attuned identification with the other we are potentially capable of perceiving in this person possibilities as yet unrealized. Attunement goes beyond stepping into somebody's shoes in that it does not just makes intelligible what is possible, but it allows us to recognize what might become so.

This doesn’t of course lead to giving advice - another kind of fantasy cheaper than the reality of experience. Empathic attunement is special in that it also shows the other’s limitation. But it makes us well disposed towards this person, and strangely, well-disposed also towards people whom we otherwise hate, despise or even just experience as a nuisance. “As we make the decision to allow another being to live in us, we also turn our own survival powers towards this individual which now is alive in us - in short we have good will” (Clynes, op. cit.:72). Empathic attunement is non-judgemental. It is interesting to note that we can no longer judge somebody - or for that matter something - with whom or which we truly identify, neither can we admire them or it any longer. In identification we have left behind our usual standards of judgement and are completely filled with this other person but still keep our own norms and values.

In dealing with a person, how much experience is required in order to attune ourselves “well” to them? This question cannot be answered in this form, since for any empathic attunement, apart from the experience of this particular person, we need to have a great ability to generate effective projections which entails that our mental constructions of reality are focussed. Such ability grows from and is sharpened by cognitive and emotional awareness while experience of life seems to help. In addition, we need the ability to bracket ourselves, stand aside, and be empty and receptive. Each of the human Gestalts living in our imagination is compounded from reasonably realistic elements as well as others which are not - no different (or perhaps a little closer to reality) from our self-image. When somebody has good perceptual abilities, they also know what they haven’t (yet) seen, what is simply conjecture, and allow the Gestalt as it lives in their imagination to remain somewhat vague and a little out of focus. Only through this do we remain open to the surprises which the creative self of the other is going to offer. One should never deceive oneself to know everything about any other person, including the most intimate partners.

One might make an assumption however that the ability to identify ourselves to others automatically grows with life experience. This is not the case. It is true, however, for being sensitive to sharing somebody’s emotional experience: the more one has experienced, the more emotional states and social occasions generating emotions are part of our portfolio of experience, the more we can feel sympathy with others. In attunement, identification is an emotional process in itself, and therefore it is not dependent on a treasurechest of experiences gathered in life; rather it requires well-honed emotional sensibility. Old people who have a great deal of life experience but perhaps low emotional flexibility are therefore often well able to enter into the emotional experience of a young person, but quite unable to attune themselves to them. Half critical, half tolerant remarks like “1 was young myself once” definitely show an ability to recognize how the young person is feeling, but they remain strangely untouched since their attuning to the whole person is lacking. In order to be able to attune oneself wholly to the current and still unrealized emotional reactions of another person, one has to temporarily separate out from one’s own self and its emotions, which is often harder for older people because their bodies so often become foreground.

Conversely, children will never be able to truly attune themselves, and young people only rarely - on the one hand, because their emotional sensor-ium has not yet developed sufficiently; on the other, because their ego functions are still too weak and they cannot separate from their selves even for a short time. Emotional sophistication is not part of the human endowment with which we are born, but a potential - just like other genetic potentials needing to be developed. If this development remains below a certain standard, the person only has a limited chance of survival; but in reaching the necessary level, the development and refinement of various abilities can continue throughout life. Progress here is often hindered by just those social formations which were particularly helpful in the initial formation of genetic endowments. In this way our emotionality, similar to our capacity to express ourselves in words, is shaped and hindered at once through repressive controls and rules of expression - in the realm of emotionality, too, there is no equality of opportunity. Therefore emotionality is in need of life-long purification and loosening-up, refinement and cultivation. Part of this is the right choice of the “sentic milieu”, which we need to take care of. In this way only, an emotional sensitivity capable of attunement not only in extraordinary relational situations is able to grow.

Bracketing our Ego in empathic identification means we put it aside, step emotionally into the role of the other - and immediately we are touched by this other being in a way that is more and different from resonating with the other when 1 enter into their emotions. It is as if I had touched the subjective centre of the other. The specific “essentic form” of the other in empathic identification is experienced “not just as an expression of a specific emotional state, but as if one was connected to the existential Gestalt of this person”, the place we occasionally term “the inner Self’ (Clynes, op. cit.:70).

Such an experience pre-supposes some kind of continuity of the conception we have of the person whom we can attune ourselves to. This Gestalt of a person can be so well developed even in our imagination that it is alive even in our unconscious^ so that we can dream of a person whom we have not seen for a long time and who now - in the dream - is capable of triggering intense emotions. How much such Gestalt-persons lead a life of their own in our imagination can also be seen in our ability to attune ourselves to people who have already passed away. The technique of identification with dream figures or dialoguing with imaginary significant others, whose role one adopts - a technique widely used in Gestalt therapy - are deeply experiential ways to cleanse our capacity for empathic identification of any contaminations arising from neurotic projections.

Attuning is not really an emotional process, but a still, wide awake and focussed way of concentrating on the emotional part of the subjectivity of the other. Yet it also is an emotional process, but it is not a specific emotion, since it is not driven by need which would be its motivating force. Attuning themselves, the person becomes an empty mirror, they attend and observe the other person with emotional openness, but without any judgemental attitude or orientation and without an interest of their own, just with the still openness for the movement activating the other at this moment, in the actual or an imagined situation. When we are fully empathic we are fully compassionate and fully self-contained (bracketed).

Our ability for empathic attunement gains us an immense amount of openness towards the world, as well as humanity, but for the Gestalt therapist it is to some extent simply a pre-condition for their work - it is an extension of the basic relationship human beings have with themselves and of our relationship to the other. Empathic identification is a main source of compassion.

5 Catharsis and therapy

On the relationship between involvement and distance in emotional experience

All societies have standards for regulating the expression of emotions: recently this fact has attracted increased attention from social scientists, but it has so far been mostly overlooked in sociological theorizing (see however Seyd.

  • 2016. In this last section of this chapter on emotional awareness we are concerned with analysing two issues concerning what I have called “rules of expression” (i.e. Manfred Clyne’s “mimicry”; Ekman and Friesen’s “display rules”; Arlie Hochschild’s “emotion work”; Erving Goffman’s “impression management”):
  • 1 We will be dealing with the intentional or automatic (neurotic) repression of an emotional expression which wants to be embodied; and secondly with the simulation of emotions which are not actually felt (for example “crocodile tears”) or are shown with pretended intensity (as in laughing rather too loudly at a joke which didn’t seem very funny). In the first case, a more intense emotional experience cannot unfold, and the person remains filled with excess emotions at the end of this emotionally unfinished situation.
  • 2 We will analyse what happens psychologically if the orientating function of the emotions becomes blunted through continual misuse of the feedback loop between feeling the emotion and expressing it. The person will increasingly become one with their social roles, becoming a social character mask.

This may sound as if all societies are more or less emotionally inhibiting, emotionally repressive - and also, as if without such modes of social conditioning, emotions could always freely and spontaneously find natural means of expression. This is only partially accurate. In their emotionality, too, human beings are by nature self-cultivating. We are born with certain dispositions towards emotion; universally every emotion has its “essentic form” which also predetermines partly their style of physical expression. Yet only through practice and experience do we learn to find the means and forms of expression which fit their “essentic form” or at least come closer to it. In this regard each human being is an artist of emotional expression, learning to fine-tune the instrument of their emotional sensibility so that eventually they become a suitable sounding board for coming close to an authentic emotional expression of the “essentic forms” of emotions, always resonating to specific conjunctions of need and environmental conditions. And such practice and experience in turn is a process of culturally-shaped interactions. In other words, no society just represses or distorts emotions, it develops and cultivates them, too. Each society has its emotional culture, be it rich or poor in expression, whether the culture appears to be tender or somewhat violent; whether it emphasizes spontaneous expression or goes for studied gestures.

Our own culture - thus my initial hypothesis - is currently characterized by two contradictory developmental tendencies: informalization of manners, and impoverishment of emotional sensibility through the norms demanding that we restrain our emotional expression, that we keep our cool. Compared to that of the 18th or 19th centuries, our society is rather primitive with respect to emotional expressivity, although - or indeed because - it favours spontaneity and authenticity. Additionally, it seems to be caught in an atmosphere of latent aggression, although - or again, perhaps because - it inhibits it. Looking more closely, we see that this culture does not actually repress emotions. There are indeed two very important realms where emotion comes close to being over-emphasized: the media world of entertainment, which also affects a culture of political expressivity; and the world of close personal associations and subcultural group milieus. In both realms (each deeply affecting the other) standards of expressivity are cultivated, which constitute a counter weight to emotional impoverishment and emotionally chilled conditions of our organized public sphere - and actually generate much emotional stress.

During the 1960s and '70s, when the informalization process took root, new therapies including Gestalt therapy responded by providing cathartic methods to unfreeze emotional blocks. This was the time when Shree Raj-neesh, the most popular Guru of the counter-culture at the time, introduced his “cathartic meditations” (among others: Dynamic Meditation, Kundalini Meditation, Gourishankar Meditation) which he considered helpful for people raised in the West in order to loosen up before starting with more serious Eastern meditation practices such as the Buddhist Vipassana breathing meditation or the Japanese Za Zen. Both of which require sitting without moving for long periods of time. Some of the dynamic meditation methods may still be helpful outside or in addition to psychotherapy. In Gestalt therapy however, cathartic methods often served to produce emotional highlights with impressive effects for the group, but they often had little lasting effect on the individual “performer”.

Both the sociologist Thomas Scheff and the musicologist Manfred Clynes developed different concepts of catharsis inspired by the classical Greek theatre tradition which are worth a closer look. According to Scheff (2007), the dominant norm of emotional expression in the public realm today is to be “over-distanced,” while in the media and in the private relational realm “under-distanced” is the norm. In “over-distancing” we talk and think about emotions (Peris called such talks in his Gestalt groups “aboutism”) without properly experiencing them on a psycho-physical level. Perhaps we say that we are angry about something, but this anger does not manifest itself in the voice, and therefore it is more thought than felt. Under-distancing in turn creates emotional outbursts, where self-control is washed away by rising emotions and we are overwhelmed by their expression. In both cases there is a lack of optimal distancing, where psychic and physical involvement in this emotional expressive experience is balanced by an inner distancing through self-observation. It is obvious that in our culture the realms of production and administration are over-distanced, and the realms of reproduction and recreation are under-distanced. Our culture therefore teaches us expressive controls on the one hand, eventually leading us to avoid emotion altogether; and on the other hand, it validates vague surges and undifferentiated bursts of emotion - depending on the social role in which we are currently embodied. It offers few occasions for learning and practising what Scheff calls “aesthetic distance", optimal distancing for creating a balance between the emotionally engaged subject and the self-aware subject which has been shown to be characteristically capable of empathy.

Although SchefTs own theory of emotion (borrowed from “Co-Counselling Therapy”) remains phenomenologically unsatisfactory, his differentiation of these three modalities of emotional expression represents a significant advance. Rightly, Scheff points out that it helps to find more satisfactory answers to some important questions which despite great research investment have remained unresolved, such as the question of whether violence and horror scenes in video and television effectively dispose the viewer towards more violence or whether, conversely, they help the viewer to abreact their latent potential for violent expression: It is probable that a cathartic reaction can only be expected if and when these scenes are presented in an optimally-distanced way, whereas the more common under-distanced scenes of “blood and guts” films seem to lead to a blunting of affect regarding violent behaviour. Our culture therefore seems less to stimulate direct violence than to encourage a habituation to an atmosphere of violence, created by the media’s emphasis on occasional outbreaks of violence which stir up anxieties further embedded in a flood of crime stories littering our television programs.

Seen on TV, a passer-by pushing his way towards the scene of a traffic accident, could be heard to say: “I’ve seen it so often on the television; now I want to see it for real!” Perhaps underlying here is a misunderstood longing for authenticity? With respect to the question of violence, recognising that only optimal distance allows catharsis is of great significance, concerning not just the actor’s representation but the story, too. Awareness is the issue here, since in that awareness everybody knows intuitively that they hurt themselves as well as hurting the other. Even in its rawest form, rage could never be released through rape, terrorist bombing and random shootings or by sexual abuse of children (to name the four most frequent damaging violent crimes in our societies). Children would be too immature to possess such awareness, which makes it so particularly heinous to misuse them as warriors or terrorists. But the problem of violence is no more than the crudest example in recognising the value of this differentiation between over-distancing, underdistancing and aesthetic distancing. It applies to all forms of emotional expression. This will become clearer when we study how these three expressive modalities manifest themselves in actual behaviour. A Gestalt therapist needs to be a very good observer, especially of different modes of expressing emotions.

Everyone has the disposition for such balancing capacity, because only an emotion expressed with aesthetic distance creates an authentic impression which comes closest to its “essentic form”. This allows us to enter into other people’s emotions and to show empathy. In other words, apparently it is the very nature of “essentic forms” of emotion that they appear in their purest form when they are expressed with aesthetic distance. Unsurprisingly, Manfred Clynes also distinguished three modalities of emotional expression which coincide with SchefTs categories, although he discovered them in a different context and for different purposes.

1 have already mentioned that Schefifs concept of “over-distancing” corresponds to Clynes’ “mimicry”. “Over-distanced experience is purely cognitive” (Scheff, 2007:67) and has no resonance. “In mimicry, the production of expression is purely cognitive” (Clynes, 1976:61). This reflects a frequent observation that human beings can become almost completely alienated from their emotions, that they are capable of pretended emotions - albeit at the price of creating an impression of inauthenticity. However, nowadays the essentially accurate observation that we frequently talk in a pseudo-rational way - which may come across as intellectual but is completely devoid of emotional resonance - is raised to the status of a norm against the rationality of discourse. In this situation, accurate use of language may be sacrificed in the wake of accusations of apparently pretentious or condescending speech. “Don’t talk rubbish! You are just in your head!” Such remarks reflect intellectual laziness under cover of authenticity. Here the norm of over-distancing is simply replaced by a norm of under-distancing: “Speak from your heart; let it all out!” It is as if two people from different cultures are talking, occupying opposing positions, each despising the other: one celebrating an emotionally impoverished, intellectually-orientated sobriety, while the other celebrates a romanticism of emotionality, often disguised in vulgarity. In times when even business people are trained in silent meditation as well as possibly in “letting it out” as is the norm in therapy groups, it seems as if more and more people secretly help themselves to the resources of both cultures to achieve greater psychological well-being, improving their flexibility by moving between different sub-cultures and so meeting the requirements for managerial jobs.

Under-distancing is just as unhealthy as over-distancing. Clynes, taking up Nietzsche’s well-known complementary concepts, speaks of Dionysian and Apollonian modes of emotional experience, modalities which correspond to Scheffs under-distancing and aesthetic distance. In the Dionysian mode, people physically and psychically surrender to emotional expression; in particular, the whole body is drawn into the expressive act. There is no longer an inner distance to the emotion; the person appears to be “outside themself’, “ecstatic”. Effectively in this Dionysian experience, the person loses themself as a self-governing individual to such an extent that it is clear that there always was and still is a need for a collective setting for such kinds of expression. Today we have a culture of “events” like pop-music concerts or a Pope’s visit which serve as such social frames for Dionysian experiences. In the therapeutic situation, people sense the danger that they might lose themselves; they may begin to develop various catastrophic fantasies, not suspecting that emotions can be experienced just as intensely in the Apollonian mode. “If I allowed myself to cry now, I’d never stop”, “If I allowed my rage to surface, I’d destroy everything”. It is not exactly helpful to see so many under-distanced scenes from the entertainment media, for a person who publicly and outside a collective setting behaves in an under-distanced way is in danger of being considered mad. What would happen, for example, if somebody were to dance as ecstatically in the road and in bright daylight as many do in a disco or at pop concerts around midnight?

In the Apollonian mode emotions are felt and expressed from a different position, meditatively relaxed and slightly removed from any immediately pressing demands arising from one’s needs so that such a moderate expression becomes possible. Clearly, this mode corresponds to Schefifs aesthetic distance. “In aesthetic distance”, he says, “we are participants and observers of our pain, so that we can freely go in and out of it” (Scheff, 2007:65). And Clynes also calls the Apollonian mode the “spectator-viewing mode” of emotional experience and speaks of “sentic fluidity” as the ability to move on from one emotional experience to another without being attached to a particular emotion. In his words

... this mode allows the particular sentic states to be enjoyed in their purity, while retaining control of mental freedom. The exercise of this freedom also allows us to switch sentic states voluntarily and to proceed easily from the empathic viewing of one sentic state to another. The faculty that allows one to switch sentic states in the manner described we call “pre-sentic control”. Free exercise of pre-sentic control implies sentic fluidity; one is not stuck rigidly in any one sentic state, but can experience the spectrum of states, freely and readily.

(Clynes, 1976:61)

And he adds significantly: “It becomes apparent that the condition of sentic fluidity is an important aspect of mental health” This indeed corresponds with Gestalt therapeutic experience.

Scheff and Clynes made the same discovery - Scheff employing hermeneutic procedures in his research on cathartic release mechanisms in drama, ritual and therapeutic emotional discharge, while Clynes used experiments, intending to discover the key to musical experience. This means that we all have in us an emotionally expressive actor and also a spectator, who with all their senses comprehends emotionally what is going on. As an actor who merely feels, one gets lost in the psycho-physical actuality of the contacting process; as a spectator who just perceives, one loses the sensory reality of immediate participation and the involvement which comes from it. Only in the balance of aesthetic distance does it seem that one does not stand in one’s own way, the way of the contacting process.

It may appear strange to call an expressive mode spectator mode. This is based on the quality of stillness, which in this modality is required both for the creation and for the perception of its essentic form. Inner silence may correspond to the intentionality of the Zen Master, who demands walking two centimetres off the floor whilst still fully experiencing the floor.

(Clynes, 1976:73)

This mode of experiencing 1 have called and not just with regard to emotion - embodied awareness (reflexive Sinnlichkeit).

It is important to recognize that the silence Clynes talks about is an inner silence; it can definitely accompany strong intense emotional expression. In aesthetic distance this effect is specifically achieved by the sparing use of expressive means. “The dog’s bark is worse than its bite”, we say; but a certain kind of growl can be a clear warning. The reason for this is that the attention and energy of the actor is gathered precisely at the contact boundary, instead of wasting energy in over-distanced “talking-about” or in underdistanced emotional overflow.

Quite apart from the significance of aesthetic distance for a cathartic reliving of unfinished situations and the cathartic resolution of deep seated emotional blockages in therapy, optimal distancing of emotional expression and experience is important for the contacting process in two ways: it ensures the organism’s concentration on the tasks and resistances of this particular contacting process, and it protects the relevant environment from exploitation and unnecessary violation, thus facilitating reciprocal empathy. From the perspective of Gestalt therapy, therefore, re-constituting and refining our capacity to be sensually aware in the realm of the emotions is definitely at the forefront of our concern.

The social conditions and constellations framing the encounter between client and therapist in doing this work constitute the background from which this task stands out, demanding solution. Therefore, this background too must be clearly understood. The civilizing process which European societies have gone through in the modern era is a path which leads from an initial dominance of the "Dionysian mode” of emotional experience to the ubiquity of “mimicry” behaviours. The “Dionysian mode” is connected to low behavioural controls and great impulsivity. implying that behaviour is hard to predict and may be accompanied by sudden emotional eruptions. Such behaviour always entails danger to the social order and therefore it is contained as much as possible through cult and ritual. One could probably write a history of the gradual dissolution and individualization of cults and rituals, already quite advanced during “The Waning of The Middle Ages” (Huizinga, 1972). Through this dissolution, the “Dionysian mode” gradually becomes dysfunctional. When cults and rituals are no longer embedded in feast days and holidays, this mode loses its meaning as a connecting point with the

Beyond. We also have to remember that right into the 19th century, days of pilgrimage to the church or monastery on the next hill were the only holidays peasants ever enjoyed. Gradually, the significance of religious as well as of secular rituals has been reduced to being considered personal psycho-hygienic measures, including attending special mass events like pop concerts.

The history of our emotionality therefore is also the history of our rituals. In the past, religious ritual - be it Christian or Pagan - achieved something truly great: it developed ways to collectively contain the expression of emotion in the Dionysian mode, where the whole body is fully involved. In the course of modern processes of secularization, religious rituals in churches and villages were initially displaced by secular rituals of state and co-operatives. Eventually their significance was eroded too, leaving private rituals of persons closely connected to each other, family, friends, colleagues, neighbours, where it is difficult to maintain the fine balance between a phobia of rituals emptied of religious meaning and embarrassing sentimentality.

In the course of this development, contacting emotions like joy, grief and gratitude are expressed less often in ritual today, but emotional attitudes are ritually performed instead. National pride and patriotism, xenophobia and class consciousness, but also class solidarity and love for one’s homeland are stages of the modern history of emotions which have increasingly devalued contacting emotions in favour of character attitudes. Eventually, repressing all spontaneous affects became the celebrated ideal of self-control, of the authoritarian personality. Therefore, there are increasing amounts of overflow affects from emotionally unfinished, incomplete situations, presenting a latent emotional reservoir for all kinds and forms of political mobilization. Additionally, there are the instruments of affective contagion, masterfully handled by the National Socialists and now the Islamist fascists and the populist movements on the political Right. The informalization process as the most recent stage of the civilizing process must be grounded in the second stage: informalization requires the internalization of civilized manners - maintained by the threat of shame feelings - in order to work adequately. At present, it is not clear whether this connection is still functioning well enough. If not, there is a danger that a process of de-civilization. strengthened by the new media, could gain ground.

Overflow affects and emotional attitudes are the opposite of a finely tuned emotional sensorium of the self; they always result from self-repression. Even as they sometimes manifest themselves in an impressive way in demonstrations and other mass events, they are not to be mixed up with the Dionysian rituals which express contacting emotions. One could call the one kind real emotions; the other false ones. Indeed, there are no essentic forms for jealousy, envy, contempt and national pride. Therefore, they can find expression only in over-distanced, self-controlled verbalizations or under-distanced mass behaviours or individual eruptions. They do not orientate but rather disorientate: they are alienated from need.

The “Apollonian mode” of emotional experience was always socially embedded in religious-meditative situations and in such places where meditative practice was undertaken, mostly in monasteries and particularly in Asia. In Europe it was not until the Renaissance changed its perspective from cosmic to human-centred that a secular interest in individual experience and the possibilities of expressing emotions began to develop. Throughout the Modern period then, we find two contradictory, but nevertheless socially complementary developmental tendencies in conflict with each other: the civilizing pressure to restrain spontaneous affective expression, and the search for authenticity and naturalness in experience and style. On the one hand there are extreme attempts at disciplining the body, and a trend towards stylizing expressive gestures; and on the other, we find passionate observation and exploration of “natural emotional expression” and its mimetic and kinetic expression.

These tendencies are to some extent expressions of class differences. Courtly society was primarily interested in questions of character formation and militaristic body control, whereas the bourgeoisie hoped to find and to legitimize its behavioural norms in the natural sphere. While all forms of "Dionysian” emotional expression gradually came to be seen as pathological (or childish), a need for “Apollonian” modes of expression for secular emotions had to emerge. But while “mimicry” standards were still maintained, sentimentality emerged as a pervasive emotional attitude in society - in the public realm, in the pathos of nationalistic and Royalist feelings - and in private life, the middle classes developed a preference for primarily soft, flowing and rather passive forms of emotional expression.

By now pathos and idyll have been thoroughly discredited. Eventually there was established a mixture of “mimicry” standards in public life, and a tentatively ecstatic level of feeling in the private realm: now people are starting to talk about “emotional needs”. In fact, to some extent we have been “dispossessed” by the media: we live a second-hand version of emotional life. At the same time, it is mainly the media which protects us from relapsing into sentimentality. In the first place, other people and foreign cultures are now plentifully and graphically brought into our living rooms, so an exclusive identification with one’s own group is no longer as easy. Secondly, everything in the media is a play, a possibility, a figure. Emotional attitudes are represented by roles, stars and advertisements which one can partially imitate, partially consume as entertainment; spontaneous contacting emotions are represented as true-to-type. In this way, they both extend and limit the viewer’s own repertoire.

The immense flood of stories told in literature, in reports and in films now also offers new opportunities for practising the “Apollonian” mode through empathic experience. Ever since the Romantic period and until the beginning of classical modern art, for some parts of the bourgeoisie art functioned as an independent medium for offering emotional experience with aesthetic distance. Of course, presentation and story-telling in art, film and literature can be over- or under-distanced, and often is. But it is more important to notice the amazing extent to which “Apollonian” modes of experience have become available, especially through film.

Even more important nowadays is to practise aesthetic distance not just in the role of spectator/reader with passive empathy, but to do so in our own everyday life and experience. This then is the answer demanded at the current state of our civilization. Its great achievement - the internal pacification of wide areas of the world, achieved less by the state taking over the monopoly of legitimized violence than through people managing their affective lives by restraint - has to be maintained and developed. This is definitely not going to happen without affective controls, although hopefully, not through controls rooted in repression and in blocking emotional experiences but rather in the manner of Clynes’ “pre-sentic control”; in our ability to make conscious choices between modes of emotional expression.

Controlling our affects does not necessarily have to be identical with impoverished emotional sensibility. Clynes has shown that we can even increase this sensibility by practising the experience of objectless emotional states - “generalized sentic states”, since through this practice greater emotional flexibility is generated in two ways: firstly with regard to the ease with which we can move into an emotional state and then leave it behind; and secondly, we can learn to choose creative new modes of expression, no longer attached to whatever we

Table 5.1 Emotions - a summary of the concepts used in Chapters IV and V

Bodily Sensations


Contacting Emotions

  • 1. Fore-contact
  • 2. Orientation and manipulation
  • 3. (Integration) => full contact
  • 4. Post-contact

e. g. pain/hunger

love as passion


Emotions of aversion and attraction: curiosity, erotic

attraction, longing, surprise, fear, disgust

Aggressive emotions: rage/hate, sex

Timeless emotions: joy, love, grief surprising beauty, awe,

Aha-experiences, bliss

Appreciative emotions: pride, gratitude, impotence/des-peration, guilt feelings

Inhibiting Emotions

Sympathetic Emotions

Excitement anxiety, shame and embarrassment

Sympathy: emotional contagion, empathic emotions Empathy: entering into somebody's emotions, being attuned

Overflow Affects

Mostly anger, joy and grief, but also for instance: neurotic guilt feelings, sadness, resentment, contempt, bitterness, sullenness

Emotional Attitudes = character traits resulting from

introjects or unfinished expression of emotions

envy, meanness, frivolity, helper syndrome, neurotic jealousy, hope, permanent worrying

and many others

have learned in the past. The task is to learn in which situations to choose which kind of mode (Apollonian or Dionysian) and medium (facial expression/mime and/or movement and/or music, dance, singing etc.); what to choose to express my feelings to come as close as possible to the essentic form, to make it most fitting with my own motivation and orientation as well as to that of others.

Therapy groups working with a growth model of psychological experience rather than with a deficit model offer a good milieu for this kind of learning. The reason is that they have already instituted something to replace ritual in the modern world - meta-communication, reflecting on how we communicate and enter into relationship with each other. Meta-communication does not have to consist in talking about something any more than does its subject, communication. As we talk, we do not only communicate through our language but at the same time we use our senses and feelings, our posture and facial expression. Sensuous awareness is both medium and aim of the process of cultivating the orientation function of our senses and emotions, experimenting with art as well as with therapeutically guided self-awareness practices, but specifically through everyday practice in our own lives.

6 Aliveness and the joy of life

General goals of Gestalt therapy4

Gestalt therapy is concerned with two general endeavours for achieving something more encompassing than the complex work of treating individual neuroses. The first is, of course, to increase the patient’s level of awareness, especially regarding their own body in the context of its relevant social and natural environments. From the beginning, one of Gestalt therapy’s central concerns was heightening awareness - long before awareness training, arising from the contemporary trend towards self enhancement, began to be part of the cultural market. The second general goal of Gestalt therapy is to liberate our natural joy of life from its culturally generated paralysis, from the dimming of our senses, from the routinization of our contacts, from our creativity - all frequently remaining dormant. Clearly, the second overriding goal of Gestalt therapy is to awaken our joy of life by stimulating our sense of aliveness through intensifying our capacity for awareness. Gestalt therapy is well equipped with methods and situationally created exercises and experiments to pursue this second goal with which the reader will be familiar.

But what actually is aliveness, this natural basis for any joy of life we might experience? As with the concept of time, everybody seems to know what we mean when we use the word “aliveness,” but hardly anybody can define it.

If asked to think about it - or asked to develop a feeling of the feeling of aliveness - most people will spontaneously produce images of movement -perhaps of running children, people dancing or engaged in a passionate embrace or erotic pleasures. Or else one might associate aliveness with inorganic forces like the bubbling waters of a stream or the sparkling drops of a fountain. I assume that most of us will either come up with images of moving bodies or objects being moved by water or air - the only two natural forces which we spontaneously associate with aliveness. We can observe these phenomena within the time frame of our own life - unlike the growth and disappearance of mountains or the movements of geological shifts, or stars.

Moreover, few people would spontaneously think of machines here, though they too can and do move - but they are not alive: they are not living beings. Life is at the heart of the notion of aliveness, which is immediately plausible if we approach the word from its opposite. Words like freeze or paralysis come to mind but also fright or shock: experiences that stop the breath, this elixir of life. Rigor mortis is the extreme opposite of aliveness. The common denominator of all these opposite associations is the lack of movement or inability to move. So deeply rooted in our consciousness is this connection of life to movement that to be tied up is generally dreaded, while to be buried alive represents the ultimate horror. When freedom-loving Antigone, who had preferred to obey the gods, was punished by King Creon for her disobedience, he pitilessly stuck to the law and walled her in. Bereft of movement, she killed herself. That is the story Sophocles told us in his tragedy.

In addition to our ability to move in space like all other animals, our love of movement is also rooted in the fact that internally our bodies are always moving. This we take as a sure sign that we are still alive: without pausing, our hearts beat 70 times each minute for as long as we live; our lungs continuously pump the amount of oxygen we need for survival - just like all living beings on our planet. We take our daily food from the environment and our bodies’ juices and bacteria busily help to digest it. Moreover, there are countless streams moving inside our bodies which we hardly notice as long as they function without disturbance: our blood always circulates, our brain communicates with billions of cells within itself and also with the rest of the body; hormones shower through our organism, exciting or calming us; our cells constantly grow, die, and renew themselves. The famous sentence by Heraclitus rings true, particularly about bodies: Everything moves!

Another property of the living body is quite familiar from Gestalt therapy theory: that it is involved in constant exchange processes with its environments, not just regarding food and oxygen. Our legs and feet carry us through space from one area to another and our arms are capable of reaching out, so that we can grasp and touch. And then we have this incredible gift of our senses! They provide the link between the outer world and our consciousness. In close cooperation with the brain - from the data they collect - they construct the image of a reality usually consistent enough for us to find our way through. This collaboration between brain and senses produces a vague but very powerful image of that Self which psychologically for all of us is the centre of the world. Stabilized by our sense of balance we walk and reach out into this world, directed by our eyes which mostly have already grasped the object out there. Hearing, too, has its role, often making us aware of what we could or did not see, but may also be an important information for us about the environment. We have sensory equipment for smelling, tasting, and last but not least for touching, with its most intimate functions of contacting the external world.

Gestalt therapy theory calls our senses the most important of the "ego functions of the self," that strange phenomenon which Peris & Goodman defined as the “contact boundary in movement”, i.e. a process rather than an area or a substance. The self then is the process of the living encounter of the human organism with its ever-changing environments energetically charging us by the constant challenge to generate new creative adjustments. This process helps to distinguish digestible aspects of the environment fields from its unhealthy aspects (Peris & Goodman’s “alienation” and “identification”). That is where aliveness is to be found - and Gestalt therapy is most eager to re-vitalize this potential.

1 have said before that the core of the word aliveness is life. So it will be necessary to understand what life really is to extend our exploration a little beyond the particulars of human life. But before we come to the biology of life, a special property must be mentioned which in this particular intensity may be unique to human beings: our curiosity and urge to gain knowledge and comprehend the world. This urge can be muted early on and it may fade in old age, but it is a source of aliveness and joy of life which never vanishes completely. This is the reason why one of the most important goals of Gestalt therapy is to reanimate and support curiosity, even when it is deeply buried and showing no sign of survival.

The urge to know is a gift, a potential with which all human beings are born. For proof of this assertion, just observe children. If left undisturbed they relentlessly explore their world, starting with their own body and as soon as they begin crawling, they extend their search to the limits of their environment, using all their senses and powers of grasping, biting, tasting, pushing, pressing and tearing to comprehend how things function. Later, when they begin to have some command of language an endless stream of questions follows, many of them unanswerable by adults due to their existential nature. Etymologically, the word curiosity has its roots in the Latin cura - care as for instance in custody or curator or even cure. So the original meaning of curiosity is finding something worthy of attention, worthy of careful inspection, worth knowing more about. Indeed, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries during the Enlightenment the adjective curious denoted something of special value.

But slowly, at the same time to be curious also became a negative trait, meaning inquisitive, prying, and nosy. In German, the Latin curiositas completely disappeared and was replaced by “Neugier” which literally means “greed for the new.” This was due to the influence of Protestantism, especially in its Lutheran version. Martin Luther is reported to have answered the question: “What was God doing before he created the world?” with "He was sitting behind a bush cutting rods for idiots asking stupid questions!” But today the question of what was happening before the Big Bang is one of the hottest in cosmological research - and not attested to have been “thanks to God”

The American writer Ambrose Bierce, known for his critical comments on his contemporary society in the middle of the nineteenth century, defined curiosity as “an objectionable quality of the female mind”. But then he continued surprisingly: “The desire to know whether or not a woman is cursed with curiosity is one of the most active and insatiable passions of the masculine soul.” And with this shift in perspective Bierce almost sounded an early feminist note.

For a long time, curiosity was eschewed as a dangerous folly of children and the vice of female addiction to gossip. From a sociological point of view, it should be noted, however, that gossip and the exchange of rumours always have a survival function for the powerless who desperately need information about their oppressors. This is why harems were supposed to be breeding places of gossip and rumours: the women were dependent on the whims of their male owners. Today it is a political issue: Just think for instance of the fate of intellectuals and journalists in Erdogan’s Turkey today or indeed in any other non-democratic society.

In essence, being inquisitive is searching for truth and knowledge. Or to put it differently as quoted above: in Gestalt therapy, curiosity is what in psychoanalysis used to be libido - this is the brilliant insight of Michael Vincent Miller (1987; 18-32).

Clearly curiosity is the heart of aliveness. There is a joy inherent in searching for truth and gaining knowledge, not least because it empowers us to better deal with the problems of life. After all we are borne into this life without any instructions and with a complete lack of information. And although we will receive instructions from our seniors and will endlessly discover and learn new data about the world surrounding us, these are never ever sufficient. Even in our contemporary scientific culture trial and error remains among the main cognitive means of survival. In the end we die - one of the very few things we safely know about our existence - without having learned many of the important secrets of life. And yet there is this urge to know about them, to decipher what we experience and do not understand - and to go on asking questions even while we know that all answers generate new questions.

This passion directly relates to our joy of life. Nothing is sadder than meeting people whose curiosity has got lost in depression or is imprisoned by ignorance, because the passion to know was suffocated early on, like in the story of a father wandering with his little son in the mountains: The child asks: "Dad, what is really behind these mountains?” and the father puts him down by saying: “Shut up and don’t ask such metaphysical questions!” - If, however, that passion for knowledge is supported (even when the adults do not know the answer) it may inspire the life to persist right into old age. There does not have to be an end to learning with growing age, even though memory weakness will impede the process. Also, one may experience symptoms of tiredness - a sense of deja vu occurs, related to having seen and lived through so many situations. Much seems familiar and too boring to engage with yet again. The excitement of curiosity will diminish with the weakening power of our senses - that is the tragic fact of getting older. But always many secrets remain and so there is some consolation in the recent discovery that for a limited period of time some brain cells are capable of recovering even in old age.

There is, though, one new and significant problem with this positive view of curiosity. Now that the smart phone has become a household item, it can no longer be dismissed as a passing craze for the new, though it does indeed have a new plausibility: the pressure to constantly look for new messages, news, “likes” and all kinds of information has made many people dependent on this small but powerful instrument. This is a neurotic addiction, not a healthy curiosity in search of relevant knowledge! To heal it most likely the same drastic therapeutic methods we have learned in working with drug addicts will have to be applied.

To avoid getting overloaded by information, we need to distinguish between data and knowledge. The flood of data we are exposed to via the media or the internet is in itself meaningless, just burdensome to our brains. Real knowledge consists in knowing how data are interconnected in systems and feedback loops, allowing us to decipher meaning.

It seems to me that the pleasure of seeking and gaining knowledge can be a companion in life even through the dying process, if one is receiving the gift of a conscious death. In any case, the faces of the dead occasionally show a light of sheer astonishment.

There is pleasure in attaining knowledge, in the process of learning, discovering and deciphering, but pleasure is also the gift of having found the solution: Archimedes’ Eureka! The excitement of knowing, of finding the truth is, like all joy - a very enlivening experience.

The core of the word aliveness is, as I have said, the word life. So it will be useful to learn what this actually is, if we want to understand the joy of life. This, however, turns out to be not an easy task. There are two unmistakable signs for knowing whether we are alive or not: the sense of physical pleasure and the feeling of pain. This is due to the dual tension which is a property of all life. The Cartesian “I think - therefore 1 am” no longer rings true in an era of dementia. In fact, we will find that to decipher what life really is demands phenomenological descriptions rather than a scientific definition in which something always will be missing - just as when we try to define love.

Newton’s physics are not applicable to biology, to the study of life,5 if only because they have different notions of time within which their objects exist. Life does not flow in a uniformly progressing unalterable linear stream, but always has a beginning and an end; it is developing, growing and vanishing; it organizes itself in irregular cycles. “Life is not a succession of cause and effect but a decision” (Weiszacker, 1997:212). Or rather it is an irregular sequence of bifurcations, as biologists call these intersecting branches where new decisions happen. Life is not structured by causal connections but by functional connections compressed in dynamic networks of feedback loops in which processes of decay are continuously compensated for by processes of reconstruction.

But each decision at an intersection is irreversible: it cannot be taken back. Even in pre-natal life, cells die. They are just part of an ontogenetic stage of development through which the foetus has to pass. The human body is constantly involved in an incredible, moving process: in the course of 4 to 7 years, all 50 to 70 billion body cells die and are renewed. This, though, is not a rejuvenating cure, because the renewed cells, too, are subject to ageing. This means that these processes of renewal become slower over time and eventually fewer and fewer new cells are produced - even if we know today that some of our brain cells, under certain conditions of training, are capable of renewed growth even in older age.

Living systems are highly complex. “Just to build a single germ,” says medical researcher Cramer, “the order of one billion pieces of DNA, i.e. genes, has to be reconstructed flawlessly. This high degree of order represents an extremely improbable state.” Living systems can only survive by a steadily flowing input of energy from external sources. But even then, they will not escape the law of entropy which entails that all higher order systems will dissolve, or if they are living systems they will decay. Death marks a state where the input of external energy breaks down, either because the sources of nourishment have dried up or because the body has become unable to absorb this material (Cramer, 1997:50).

Precisely when this state is reached in human beings is a hot topic in medical research at present. Leaving aside transhuman fantasies which blossom mainly in Silicon Valley, expectations are modest because it seems that the weakening of the cell’s power to absorb input is part of its genetic program. Reasonable hopes focus on the possibility of somewhat postponing this process of weakening - which, considering the immense time spans of evolution, seems meaningless. A different question is whether this hope for slowing the process of ageing might also hold true at the psychological and cultural levels of human life. A prolonged span of life does not guarantee more wisdom, as we know - but it may improve the chances for those who experience the joys of learning.

What then is life? Let us first keep in mind that living organisms always exist in an eternally ongoing struggle arising from forever changing geological, climatic, and - for humans - cultural environments. Evolutionary life develops through accidental mutations, some of which achieve adjustment to the new conditions and will procreate. Most however will prove to be unable to adapt, condemning their species to extinction. The number of species of animals and plants living today is estimated to be 5 million - but palaeontological research shows that the number of already extinct species is about 500 million!

Nature displays no constancy as far as life processes are concerned. In modern biology, the famous statement of Leibnitz natura non facit saltus -nature does not make jumps - is as wrong as Albert Einstein’s belief that God does not play at dice. 1 do not know whether today, after the discovery of quantum leaps and singularities like the big bang, this insight has also arrived in physics. In any case, physicists are busily looking for the universal formula which is to explain “everything.” Strangely enough, that formula should conform to the aesthetic criteria of mathematical elegance and beauty. Considering life with its eternal shifts of looking for prey and becoming prey and other fierce procedures, 1 have my doubts whether God is really an aesthete.

In spite of nature with all her abundance of forms sometimes produces repeating structures - for instance the imitation of plant forms which some animals use to camouflage themselves for protection - she never produces two identical individuals because each body develops according to its genetic instructions, beginning with the first division of cells, and in an endless sequence of decisions, each of which may go in a different direction - that is, if humans do not interfere by attempting to clone a living being. So far, nature has punished such attempts with high rates of mortality. Let us recall that genes only determine 50% of a living being, the rest being generated by more or less creative adjustments to the relevant environments. Even identical twins are not completely identical.

Of course, the capacity to reproduce is one of the major properties of all living beings. This potential promotes each species’ survival, while a successful mutation overtakes the older species in favour of the new. For this astounding capacity, in the past a vis vitalis or an elan vital was held responsible. But it is more plausible to assume a power inherent in life itself; there are no known living beings not driven by this urge to live, other than human beings who can say NO to life itself. Knowing our mortality, we are capable of suicide - and have now succeeded in gaining this important freedom to destroy our own individual life for our whole species - a very doubtful “achievement” indeed.

“Living organisms multiply as long as the external conditions, mainly its sources of nourishment, suffice for doing it. In favourable circumstances bacteria divide approximately every 10 minutes so that one individual multiplies into several billions within 14 hours” (Cramer, 1997:49). Humans needed a little more time to reach a comparable number - but to make up for it, we -for better or worse - have now become the most powerful of all species. Conditions for life in nature are never the same as life in the laboratory. Life always meets limits; it always tends towards self-destruction or self-transcendence - producing more than it can properly cope with.

An analogue can be found in our culture; people who are compelled to test their limits, push up their hormone levels, thus risking their lives. Over time, I do not think that we can maintain life in a culture of overstimulation. More and more people seem insufficiently alive unless they overstimulate themselves. The normal challenges of life seem no longer to create enough excitement to feel intensely alive, and indeed, special challenges provide ways of stimulating excitement.

But we might do well to heed the biologically imposed advice of older people - to be moderate - which is also age-old philosophical wisdom. Our consumer culture cannot imagine it - but it may indeed be possible to live more moderately without losing any joy of life! The path leading to that possibility is not always another kick but through becoming more intensely aware - the gift of embodied mindfulness.

It appears that the existential simultaneity of order and chaos, of life and death, of an overriding urge to live and self-consuming growth is the hallmark of life and hence the original source of our aliveness, our joy of life. The method for protecting them consists in developing a more sophisticated awareness.

One last remark about aliveness', it should not be mixed up with happiness! Which has a taste of fullness, of satisfaction, of rest. Happiness belongs to the stage of post-contact: one feels satisfied, a little tired, well taken care of, or even feels loved. One enjoys restfulness or holidays, feels that things have gone well. To achieve happiness was never a promise made by Gestalt therapy; it was to be our patients’ endeavour - after therapy. Aliveness and the Joy of Life in contrast belong to the vita active - in Hannah Arendt’s word (Arendt, 1989) - of the more energy-mobilizing processes of creative adjustment. It is an active life which produces joy of life, because it strengthens the creative power and competency needed to master life’s tasks.


  • 1 For more information see: Kelly (2014).
  • 2 Compare Kohut (1971), and Kemberg (1986). Regarding the reception of Object Relations theory in Gestalt therapy, compare the debate initiated by S. Tobin (1982) and continued by Yontef (1988). Particularly critical about this incursion of the newer psychoanalytic personality theory into Gestalt therapy is Joel Latner (1983, 1984a). Also compare Sheldon Cashdan (1988).
  • 3 We might ask at this point how it is possible that human beings can systematically torture and plague other human beings, if in identification they hurt themselves. But nobody is born a torturer; instead, torturers have to be trained through methodical desensitization under extremely authoritarian conditions to do what they do. Mika Haritos-Fatouros thoroughly investigated these mechanisms and practices, when she looked at the Greek dictatorship under Papadopoulos (Gibson / Haritos-Fatouros, 1986). It may be, though, that some persons are borne with brain damage blocking their capacity for compassion.
  • 4 This chapter is part of a lecture I gave on the occasion of the New Year celebrations at the Institute for Gestalt Therapy and Gestalt Education (IGG) in Berlin, Germany, on the 11th January 2019.
  • 5 The following text parts regarding biology are mainly based on the German medical biologist Friedrich Cramer (1997).

Chapter VI

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