Differentiation and Contact

Table of Contents:

In Gestalt therapy, a healthy individual is one who can differentiate self while also making contact with others. Contact involves the ability to be fully present, in the moment, and available (Lobb & Lichtenberg, 2005). In fact, life is described as a constant process of contact and separation between a person and those with whom the person is in relationship, such as family members and loved ones, colleagues, and employers. Contact and differentiation, and connection and separation, define a goal of Gestalt therapy, which is to help clients become more integrated within themselves and in relationship to others – in other words, to help clients to create differentiated unity. Differentiated unity for the client as a whole person means awareness of thoughts, feelings, and senses (i.e., taste, smell, hearing, touch, sight) or an integration of mind and body (Gaffney, 2009).


When people cannot become differentiated, often what happens is confluence. This is the process whereby a person loses sight of himself or herself by incorporating too much of the environment or others into the self (Pack, 2009).


For survival, the organism – that is, the individual – must make contact with the environment. The function of the individual's boundaries is to simultaneously be firm enough to differentiate self from others, yet open or permeable enough to make contact with others

(Pack, 2009). In this process, the individual assimilates nourishment from the environment and rejects or keeps out that which is not nourishing. Therefore, differentiated contact naturally leads to health and development (Kellogg, 2004).

Boundary disturbances occur when boundaries between self and others are overly rigid, creating isolation, or are overly permeable, creating a merger in which differentiation of self is lost to confluence with the other (Pack, 2009). An example of a boundary disturbance is retroflection, an internal split within the self in which elements of the self are rejected as "not-self." In this situation, the individual does to self what is normally done to the environment – that is, differentiating between nourishing and toxic elements in the environment, assimilating the former and rejecting the latter (Lobb & Lichtenberg, 2005). The individual in this case disowns parts of self. This undermines health and functioning.

Introjection occurs when material from the environment is taken in without discrimination concerning its nourishing or toxic qualities (Ginger, 2004). Projection involves taking parts of self and directing them outward onto others (Kellogg, 2004). Some people are unaware of disowned parts of themselves and routinely project them onto others. This interferes with self-awareness, coming to terms with these disowned elements of the person, and accepting them.

Deflection is the avoidance of contact through diversion (Clarkson, 2004). That is, instead of being direct and genuine in a relationship, the individual may present a disingenuous, false image of himself or herself to others, as a way of avoiding contact. However, deflection also occurs when the individual fails to receive, attend to, or be aware of information coming from the environment.

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