Phenomenological Psychology

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Is Fritz Perls Just Crazy or Does He Have Something to Say?

August 19th, 2009 by David Kronemyer · 6 Comments

It was 1968 and the height of the “human potential movement,” itself an outgrowth of the generalized thawing of psychological theory characteristic of the time.  Freudian psychoanalysis increasingly was perceived as a fusty collection of obscuritanist doctrine.  Behaviorism had more to do with sociology and less to do with any theory of mind.  CBT still was in development and psychotropic medication had yet to emerge from the laboratory on anything other than an experimental basis.  Psychedelic drugs such as LSD on the other hand were freely available.  Even though women still were treated as objects the birth-control pill had redefined the terms of sexual relationships.  Protest over the Vietnam War had catalyzed a process of social reorganization.  Recognizing they had other, more urgent interests in common, constituents parsed themselves into narrower affinity groups, which nonetheless retained the style and dynamics of their mass-movement origins.  Pop-culture analysts such as Carl Rogers, R.D. Laing, Herbert Marcuse, Norman O. Brown, Christopher Lasch and David Riesman were all the rage.  Generalizing broadly the main themes of psychological concern were: “Who am I?”  “What is it to have a self?”  “What (concrete, operationalized) steps can I take to be all that I can be (become more authentic, realize my hidden/true/untapped potential)?”

Into this fertile environment parachuted Fritz Perls.  His background and experience were unremarkable, certainly nothing to indicate he would become a darling of the self-realization movement.  Through his seminars at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur though he became highly influential, cementing Esalen’s reputation as a kind of third-wave hippie commune of extra-terrestrial, vibration-centered experience.  I distinctly remember reading “Gestalt Therapy Verbatim” from cover-to-cover, annotating and tabbing what seemed like important insights and the time, Perls’ gnome-like countenance smiling at me from the front cover (quite a contrast to the jowly, insular figure from only a few years back, before he changed focus to something far more potent and, I dare say, more lucrative as well).

I recently re-read “Gestalt Therapy Verbatim” as part of my investigation into mid-to-late 1960s cult movements.  Frankly I found it incomprehensible.  It comprises series of brief dialogs or vignettes during which Perls prods, provokes and instigates participants into revealing “insights” about their dreams.  None of the dreams are particularly interesting and Perls’ method gets old after awhile.  It might best be characterized, as “hit-and-run” as none of the dialogs would last for more than a few minutes, if played out.

Insofar as he has a method Perls’ main technique is what I would characterize as “dream reenactment” before an audience (nominally constituted as a “group,” as in “group therapy”).  This consists of the dreamer adopting and then elaborating on various characters and objects that show up in her/his dream.  If one dreams about a table, for example, then Perls invites one to assume the table’s perspective.  “I am solid, I have mass, I sit on the floor, people put things on top of me.”  If one dreams about one’s sibling: “Imagine you are that sibling.  What is she/he saying to you?  Repeat it; speak louder; shout it!”  Perls even invites participants to assume his identity in the process: “What am I now saying to you; how do you perceive my role; does it annoy you?”  These characterizations are cycled through quickly.  Perls often says phrases like “change places” or “change chairs,” after only a few lines of dialog.  “Play it this way again.”  The objective of this exercise is to gain insight into the nature of one’s existence; the “hang-ups” (repressed aspects of personality) that inhibit being a fully-activated person.

Perls’ method must be sharply distinguished from a classical, Freudian-inspired psycho-dynamic approach.  He eschews interpretation of dreams.  “Please.  There’s one thing that’s taboo in Gestalt Therapy – mind fucking, interpretations.”  For Freud on the other hand, “every dream reveals itself as a psychical structure which has a meaning and which can be inserted at an assignable point in the mental activities of waking life.”  The way one does this is to impose a “connection … between the content of a dream and reality.”  Such a connection is not “bound to come to light easily, as an immediate result of comparing them.  The connection requires, on the contrary, to be looked for diligently,” through a process of psychoanalytic dream interpretation.  This in turn will reveal the dream’s psychological characteristics, with particular emphasis on how they conceal schematic modes such as denial, repression and wish-fulfillment.  “Interpreting a dream implies assigning a meaning to it – that is, by replacing something which fits into the chain of our mental acts as a link having a validity and importance equal to the rest.”  Such an interpretation necessarily must be offered by the therapist, not self-discovered by the dreamer.  Only the therapist has sufficient background and experience to devise an interpretation.  Only the therapist has the requisite “knowledge of symbols” and can resolve and integrate their use.  In this respect the therapist’s job is analogous to that of a doctor treating a patient who is injured or who has a disease.  [Quotes are from “The Interpretation of Dreams.”]

Says Perls on the other hand: “In Gestalt Therapy we don’t interpret dreams.  We do something much more interesting with them.  Instead of analyzing and further cutting up the dream, we want to bring it back to life.  And the way to bring it back to life is to re-live the dream as if it were happening now.  Instead of telling the dream as if it were a story in the past, act it out in the present, so that it becomes a part of yourself, so that you are really involved.”  The substantive propositional content of the dream is wholly sufficient: “Every dream or every story contains all the material we need.  The difficulty is to understand the idea of fragmentation.  All the different parts are distributed all over the place … If you’re capable of projecting yourself totally into every little bit of the dream – and really become that thing – then you begin to reassimilate, to re-own what you have disowned, given away.  The more you disown, the more impoverished you get.  Here is an opportunity to take it back.”

This is important because if the semantic content of the dream is all-inclusive then any interpretation is extraneous; it simply confuses the process of reenactment by adding additional, superfluous elements.  “You see how you can use everything in a dream.  If you are pursued by an ogre in a dream, and you become the ogre, the nightmare disappears.  You re-own the energy that is invested in the demon.  Then the power of the ogre is no longer outside, alienated, but inside where you can use it.”

Another way in which Perls is different from Freud is in Perls’ emphasis on the “now” (present tense), which is unlike Freud’s project of excavating the past.  Perls: “If you are in the now, you have security.  As soon as you jump out of the now, for instance into the future, the gap between the now and the then … is experienced as anxiety.”  “Any resistance is no good.  You have to go full into it – swing with it.  Swing with your pain, your restlessness, whatever is there.  Use your spite.  Use your environment.  Use all that you fight and disown.”  Paradoxically the goal of the “now process” is to decrease awareness.  “The now process which we like to reach, [is] an unawareness of one’s activity.”  In this way one can circumvent constraints imposed by intermediate dialog and self-talk (“I’m rehearsing;” “I am playing the fitting game;” “I am out to fool you”), and move directly to the experience of sensations – “to discover what’s going on in the world, to discover colors, people, and so on.”  This emphasis on the here and now, though, tends to eliminate any role for deliberate, planful thinking.  Under Perls’ formulation, all of us would be happy if we just were zombies, meandering about the world, colliding with people and objects that could be meaning or information-revealing, if only we had the facilities to discern it.

In summary, Perls’ method strikes me as being of dubious therapeutic validity.  It may not even be ethical; one seriously must address the issue of whether Perls was more of a quack or a charlatan than a genuine therapist.


Fritz Perls