Gestalt theory states that “Change happens when one becomes who he really is, not when he tries to become what he is not” (Beisser, p. 77, 1970). This principle of change implies that in the process of maturation, an individual interjects familial and societal attitudes and beliefs about himself that may eventually interfere with healthy organismic self-regulation. Messages (gremlins) such as: “You’ll never amount to anything,” “You are just like your father,” “Girls don’t do that,” “You should be nice to your mother,” “You are so selfish,” “You shouldn’t be such a sissy,” “Don’t tell,” abound in difficult family or social systems and are believed and absorbed as truths by healthily egocentric children. The inherent potential for developing is often truncated and the capacity to realize one’s inherent strengths is diminished.
Children who internalize these parental messages often feel conflicted, unnatural, and bad as they are maturing. Eventually, self-alienation becomes the foreground and may be expressed in addictive behaviors and poor mental health during and after adolescence. They feel disconnected from their actions and statements such as the following abound: “That’s not like me,” “I can’t believe I did that,” “I don’t know where this was coming from,” “I’ll never amount to anything no matter what I try,” “I am not fit to live!” These unhealthy internalized beliefs are visibly supported and observed in a client’s posture, tone of voice, and unhelpful repetitive behaviors.
Therapist/coaches provide clients the opportunity to explore experientially and question the validity of their belief systems and behaviors for their usefulness in the present context. With this process clients can experiment with new possibilities and discover opportunities to modify or replace parts, or all, of a given belief with a synthesized, more ego-syntonic alternative that can be assimilated and eventually integrated.
John had been told all his life that he was a lazy bum just like his father. When ready to graduate from high school, he wanted to take advantage of a job opportunity that started at 8 a.m. John didn’t want to get up that early and wanted different hours but was denied the request. Initially, with his usual “I want what I want and how and when I want it” attitude, he laughingly dismissed the job offer. His therapist/coach explored the wisdom of his polarized decision-making attitude and invited him to a two-chair experiment with the goal of exploring his contradictory attitudes. One position really wanted a good job, the other, the “but” side, was afraid of failing, as he discovered. Working this process, John was able to say that he really wanted a job AND that he was afraid of failing—a very deep fear that he learned early and throughout his childhood. He said that he could still hear his drunken father yelling at him that he’ll never amount to anything in life and that he’ll become just like him (the father).
John took the first steps in undoing a long-standing personal belief by accepting the reality of the complex situation. Now he could begin to explore truth from fiction, use his inherent strengths of courage and perseverance and begin differentiating what belongs to him and what does not. He may succeed only partially, or get to like starting his day early, in either case, rigidified behavior changed. This experiment required creativity and skill in establishing the appropriate yin and yang and to proceed with sensitivity and focus, considering the usefulness and practicality of each. And, cognition alone does not create change; rather awareness of what is and synthesizing beliefs and wants supported by a strong emotional charge, allows for change to occur.
Clinicians must have the patience to stay with a client’s process. It bears repeating that rather than to attempt to fix a client’s problems and symptoms, staying with the client by getting out of the way and allowing the process to unfold on its own is ultimately more helpful. Professionals must be sufficiently tuned in to know when contextual confrontation or challenges are called for. They must have the skills and confidence to be intuitively creative and flexible when attempting any experiment including the huge experiment of addiction treatment (Zinker, 1977).
A therapist/coach gives only as much support as is necessary and only as much as the client truly wants. The individual must be afforded the opportunity to look deep inside to find the answers while the therapist/coach accompanies him on his journey to realize inherent potential in his own way and in his own time.