Case #76 - The drifting client

Anne was a young woman, with lots of passion when she spoke. Her parents divorced when she was 10. She described how her mother was outgoing and dramatic, while her father seemed quieter. But internally, she spoke of her father as being ‘twisted’ as his communication looked supportive; in fact, it was often about his need or self interest, but expressed indirectly.

She described several situations where she lost respect for her father because of this style of communication, and her consequent disappointment. She felt somewhat superior to him, in that she had exposed his indirectness and manipulativeness, and he couldn't deny the underlying agenda.

This alerted me to the dynamic between us. I pointed out to her I was a male, probably around the age of her father, and I was, therefore, interested in how she experienced me. Her experience was positive; so I pointed out some of the ways I have indirect communication. After doing this, she said that now I was no longer on a pedestal, but more on a level.

That was a good start. But it was important to get directly into the interpersonal dynamic itself. So I told her some of my responses to the way I had seen her communicate, from the point of view not of my criticism of her, but of my critique of myself in response to her. She had been asking a lot of questions, and I appreciated her energy and enquiry, and at the same time, found myself a bit frustrated by the way she was ‘all over the place’.

So by giving her my perspective on myself, I gave her an insight into my own indirectness - normally unexpressed, and likely to be invisible to her. This required a willingness on my part to expose my own ego. I told her “I am giving you ammunition here.” I then enquired about how she felt in relation to me. There was a combination of her being relieved at my honesty, as well as some feeling of superiority.

This was important, as it deepened the contact between us. This kind of authenticity allows us to get to the heart of the relational dynamics, in the here and now.

As we were talking, I notice she kept drifting off of the subject, and in her high-energy style, moving to other topics. I reported to her that I was feeling lost on the other end, and she remarked how she got that feedback from many people.

We had already achieved a lot in the session - not resolved anything, but brought some deeper aspects of experience into relationship. I could see that if I followed her direction we could move away easily onto other topics…I experienced this as an ungrounded movement, because it didn't stay with a clear figure.

So I drew the session to a close. It is important not to allow too many issues to arise in a session, in fact, it’s better to just select one, move through the emergent Gestalt, and then close, to allow the person to digest. People often want ‘more’ before they have really taken in what has been covered, and so as therapist it’s important for me to hold the container, draw a limit, and leave them to stay with what has been achieved, rather than moving onto the next topic of interest.

We had generated material for many further sessions already, and this builds a base to move from. Much of therapy involves building this base, and in many ways it is the base itself which provides a lot of the ultimate value, beyond the specific topics and interventions.

In the face of her difficulty staying with a clear figure, I moved into dialogue, rather than continuing to try to facilitate her. That would only lead to a ‘tussle’ - me trying to focus her, and her using her style of what we call ‘deflection’ in Gestalt. This is a way of making contact that dilutes the intensity of the contact. In order to work through figures of interest in Gestalt, the awareness needs to stay present and focused. People have different ways of interrupting that flow of awareness (what we describe as the awareness cycle), and thus not achieving completion. This leads to unfinished business, and a lack of satisfying contact. But just offering or supporting good contact is not enough. People do their customary interruptions, and generally do so without awareness. In this case, I brought some awareness to this process of interruption - sometimes that’s enough, and sometimes, the work needs to be slow and very careful, otherwise a person can ‘resist’, which means, they feel unsafe.

That’s where the longer term aspect is necessary, to build the ground of safety.

Posted by Steve Vinay Gunther