An Interview with Sydney Gestalt Therapist Rhonda Gibson Long
Clinton Power: Hello, this is Clinton Power, founder of “australiacounselling.com.au”. I’m speaking today with Rhonda Gibson Long who is a Gestalt psychotherapist and former Director of the Sydney Gestalt Institute for 15 years. She’s now in private practice in Kingsford New South Wales. Welcome, Rhonda!
Rhonda Gibson Long: Yes, hello Clinton.
Clinton: We’re here today to talk a little bit about Gestalt therapy and in particular the creative aspects of Gestalt therapy. For those that don’t know perhaps tell us briefly in layman’s terms what is Gestalt therapy?
Rhonda: Gestalt is a German word and means “Whole” or “A sense of becoming”. Actually it has no direct English translation. It’s a sense of using all parts of the self and looking at how we respond in relation to the other and how this affects us as a self.
Gestalt was created in the 50’s by Fritz Perls as a response to the very strong tendency in psychoanalysis where people were quite passive. He wanted people to be more active, more involved, more engaged with each other. There is a sense that good contact is nourishing for both, for both the therapist and the client. That it’s this engagement, this relationship that you develop between the therapist and the client that’s very supportive, very nourishing.
Essentially Gestalt differs from other therapies. All therapies are around understanding yourself, increasing your awareness, learning to accept and value yourself. I think what Gestalt offers is a sense of working at what we call the “contact boundary” and maybe in increasing your strength and your sense of yourself by your engagement with the other. We can do this with what they used to call “Experiment”, now people are calling it more “Exploration” of what you could do differently.
This experimental nature is always done in a very respectful and compassionate way. It’s bringing your curiosity alive and your sense of excitement about yourself in relationship to others. I think Gestalt is unique in offering that approach.
Clinton: What is good contact? What does Gestalt therapy consider good contact is?
Rhonda: Good contact is about coming from a place of authenticity. It’s looking at, “What is me? What is not me?” What has been taken on over a number of years and probably swallowed whole by yourself around, “This is who I am,” which may not be true. It’s like we’re looking at untangling what has been given to you, from what is in a sense your true self and your truth.
Good contact is about engagement and about listening and responding. There’s a loop that’s set up between two people which is: someone says something to you and you hear it. You take it onboard, you listen. You have your meaning to what that is. You have your feeling associated with that. You have your response. That impacts them. You notice how it impacts them. You look at their process how they listen, how they feel and how they respond.
There’s a loop that’s set up that is a contact-ful loop where you notice your impact on the other. You check it out. You’re also aware of your thoughts and your feelings and your actions, your behavior. You hopefully become more authentic and spontaneous and more capable of intimacy in this process. It’s often about slowing down processes too and looking at the elements that are involved when you make connection with another person or connection with yourself.
Clinton: That sounds like Gestalt therapy is very helpful in helping people identify what I think you said, “Swallowed whole.” What they’re carrying from their history or their experiences in their lives, growing up and looking at what is useful and what’s not useful today. Is that part of what you’re saying?
Rhonda: Definitely! It’s often out of awareness that we have rules that we live by. They are rules passed down verbally and non verbally from the environment. This is something that was formed in us in relationship with our parents, our teachers, the religious groups and our peers. These rules often go unnoticed.
A simple example would be a belief that you’ll never achieve what you want or be successful, as fed to them by a parent.
It’s interesting to unpack that and see where that comes from and what the impact is on the person, what the impact is on the other. Sort out where they are actually, what they feel, “This is me and my authenticity,” and where it’s about the other and pleasing the other.
Clinton: Great! Many people I think are looking for something more than talk therapy aspect with lots of people who have done six or ten sessions of CBT and feel highly dissatisfied with what they’ve got out of that. Talk to us a bit about what are some of the creative ways that Gestalt therapy can be used as a therapeutic approach.
Rhonda: Gestalt often involves creative media. I can invite people to use art, to draw something, to put out some cushions to represent different parts of themselves or different people in their lives or we might do sand play where they choose a figure, a little figure or a number of figures and work with those in a tray half-full of sand. Again these can represent parts of themselves or members of their family or work situations.
I may use two-chair work which is a classic Gestalt technique where someone is talking about their mother and the therapist can say, “Put your mother in the chair. Talk to her as if she’s here.” That will raise the anxiety level often in a person but also the excitement level. They can get stuff off their chest that they wouldn’t normally talk about in just talking therapy. The work becomes much more direct and immediate and relevant I think often moving to the real issue.
With Gestalt you can cut through to really essential issues very quickly, whereas with talking therapy you can go around and around and talk “about” things quite a lot without getting to the underlying essence. Whereas with Gestalt we’re really focusing on the complexity of emotions like an emotionally focused therapy, but also broadening and examining the relationship to the other and also what meaning you give to things.
Yes, what I was doing there was explaining that some of these creative ways can open doors for people. It can really lead them into another place that they hadn’t considered before. It can also be quite playful and not so serious at times. It’s an exploration of yourself or others. It’s an invitation to play and develop your curiosity for, “Let’s see what happens!” The therapist nor the client, knows what’s really going to happen next.
Clinton: It does make me wonder if some of these … the creativity of the Gestalt allows people to access different areas of their brain, if we think about the neurobiological aspects. It sounds like what you’re saying is sometimes these creative approaches get to the heart of the issue very quickly and so simply.
Rhonda: That’s right! Yes, thank you for that. Definitely! In art therapy, when you have something where you come to a place where you’ve come to before you may feel stuck. I might invite the person to draw that situation. It may be tapping into something even preverbal that they don’t have words for. It may come out on the page. It will be apparent that it’s got a color and it’s got a form. It’s something here that you can talk about and go deeper into and understand more about yourself. Somehow by naming that, giving it a form, giving it a name it makes it easier to deal with it.
Clinton: What do you say to people that perhaps say, “I’m not creative,” or, “I don’t have a creative bone in my body?” Can they still benefit from Gestalt therapy?
Rhonda: That’s an interesting point because I think we’re all naturally creative. I think that along the passage of life we’ve been told – we’re not creative, that we’re not good at art. A lot of people are reluctant to draw because they feel they’re not good at drawing. I think that’s a process in itself and I wouldn’t force anyone, of course, to do it. It’s a suggestion. It’s an invitation.
The process of exploring that creative part of you is interesting in itself. It’s like if you can let go the judgment and let go the expectation of what it’s supposed to be like and go with your feeling, something new emerges. I always check in with the person how they’re feeling, what it’s like in their body before we start to do this sort of process. So yes, it’s a very interesting process to go through to be with someone who’s reluctant because they don’t think they’re very artistic and then to be drawn into it. We are both often quite impressed with what can be revealed.
People’s curiosity is often sparked by this process. If someone is truly not interested, I don’t push it. I probably would use creative media with say 60% of my clients. There are quite a few who are very sensitive, very traumatized and very reluctant to do that kind of thing. They need the comfort of just sitting and talking and building up their strength. Maybe further down the track you could do it, but it doesn’t always happen. It’s not something that we always do within a session, indeed not every session, only occasionally to develop a theme or to develop an issue.
I think that’s interesting when someone says that, “I can’t draw! No!” I say, “Stick figures are fine. Draw your family.” They see their family. They see that dad was a really the huge figure and mom was tiny and in the corner, and they were off somewhere in the distance. It’s clear. That tells me a lot about your family that I wouldn’t have found out just by talking. They can see that. “We are in this process together. We are on this journey together.”
I also think that this process of drawing can be very supportive. A lot of people think more the experimental sides of Gestalt can sometimes distance you from the person. I believe if there is a sense of compassion and care and inclusion around the whole process it’s not to set up someone to fail at all. It’s around curiosity and inclusion and care. From that on a lot emerges, a lot of new stuff can emerge.
Clinton: Do you have a favorite creative media that you use, Rhonda?
Rhonda: I go through phases, Clinton. (Laughs) For years I loved two-chair work. I just thought the experience of sitting on that other chair and answering (Laughs) that was amazing for me when I was in my therapy and when I first started as a therapist. I don’t do that so much anymore. I loved art therapy for a long time, I used to do workshops with art therapy for my institute and other institutes.
At the moment I’m very interested in sand play. I’m interested in that notion of complexity in that we live in a very complicated world. There are a lot of factors. With sand play, the figures often represent aspects within the person. They can also represent people outside. It’s layered. There are many layers within a sand play. We can sit and reflect … it’s like we hold those figures and their relationships and what they mean in between us, we can reflect a lot. The therapist and the client can both give their reflections on what it’s like. It can be very deep and very interesting work. I’m taken with that at the moment.
It’s very much like constellation work too which is quite popular. You can use sand play for a variety of things. I’m working with some people who are in organizational consulting and I find sand play is very effective there.
Clinton: Can a creative approach be used to treat issues like clinical depression or perhaps more serious mental health issues?
Rhonda: I definitely think so. You have to tread very carefully with severely traumatized people. You have to have a fairly strong or solid ground within your relationship where they feel safe with you. Definitely I with severely depressed people they often feel trapped with no sense of agency in themselves, you’re in a pit, a dark pit.
Using art is really useful. It can give them a sense of agency that they can do something here, that they can have insights into their own process. Can shine a light on something that hasn’t been … where there’s been no light before. That can give them hope – they are expanding their world. Yes, giving themselves space to express different aspects. Often with depression there’s a repetition of the same stuff that goes over and over in a loop of negative thinking. I find that art expression is a really useful way to open up the system. Sand play works well too.
Clinton: Wonderful! Someone perhaps who’s been through a course of cognitive behavioral therapy and is looking for something different. It sounds like Gestalt therapy in particular the creative aspects to Gestalt therapy could really help the person get new insights and new awareness about their particular problem or circumstances of difficulty they’re going through.
Rhonda: Yes, definitely. I think that CBT can be limiting with the focus on short term goal settings and change of behaviour. I’ve been through CBT myself. I was in a bad accident in the States and I had trouble driving so I did CBT therapy around driving which was very focused. It did help me in that area. I have had clients too who’ve been through CBT and sometimes it works. There’s no doubt about it. It’s really good for some people. But for some people it feels too cold. They don’t explore emotional responses so much. It’s more about your thinking and being more positive with yourself, which is good.
That’s part of Gestalt therapy too as we do that also. We set short term goals and look at clients’ thinking – the negative loop thinking – and how they can be more positive about themselves. There’s a step in the middle there where we consider more about the feeling states and what is happening for them internally in a felt sense. We have much more focus on body sensation and body responses and I think that’s really important. The relationship with the therapist is also really important here – and it’s about you letting the therapist know what you need, what works for you rather than being “worked on” like a faulty machine.
I don’t think long term change can happen for some people without them having considered their emotional responses at a body level and recognizing their feelings. I think just thinking about the problem is not going to produce long term changes. For some people it’s got to be that combination of feeling and thinking and support in a co-created reciprocal relationship with the therapist.
Clinton: I think what I hear you saying, Rhonda, is Gestalt therapy is a very inclusive therapy. It’s not just working with the thoughts or beliefs but also working with the imagination, working with the body and sensations, working a lot of emotions and feelings. It’s quite holistic in that regard?
Rhonda: Yes, it’s very much so. I think Gestalt is very inclusive because we do cover some CBT aspects, we also look at body work, emotional development, creativity and field influences. We look at the past and how the past affects the present time. We don’t focus on the past but funnel the client’s present experience through a field perspective. I believe Gestalt is a wonderful therapy in that it is very inclusive and holistic.
What excites me at the moment is a lot of the latest Gestalt research and writing is around the importance of the first 12 months of your life. Ruella Frank is a Gestaltist from New York who works on how important movement is for the baby’s neurological development. For example the crawling phase of a child is so important as it affects their spinal development and their coordination. If these processes are interrupted it can be really difficult and can leave long term influences in your life. They can go unnoticed for a long time. The therapist can uncover some of that from the way a person sits and from their posture as they talk. But then, with exploration and simple movements, people can discover resources they never knew they had.
This is the latest research that I’m very interested in: it is that influence of the early body development along with the relationship with the mother and the resultant neurobiological development and how that influences us. This brings up the importance of the therapist holding the client, of having a posture and an attitude as therapist, of being very compassionate and solid and very present for your client to be able to receive them at a deep and meaningful level. Yes, I love Gestalt for that – it’s very inclusive.
Clinton: Thank you so much for giving us such a wonderful overview of the creative aspects to Gestalt therapy. I hope that the people reading have certainly got a flavor of what’s possible with Gestalt therapy. They may decide to explore further.
Rhonda: All right, thank you, Clinton.
Clinton: Thanks, Rhonda. Bye-bye!
Rhonda: It’s been a wonderful opportunity. Bye-bye!
Rhonda Gibson Long is a member of Australia Counselling and was the director of Sydney Gestalt Institute for 15 years. She is in private practice in Kingsford, NSW.