I was asked a few days ago about what the Gestalt Cycle of Experience meant. Fritz Perls, one of the founders of Gestalt Therapy, believed that every organism is self-regulating, and that this self-regulation is necessary for maintaining the organism’s internal equilibrium.
Today this is referred to as the Cycle of Experience; Perls called it the Organismic/World Metabolism – how we achieve internal balance as we interact with our world.
How does it work? I hear a sound outside my window that attracts me; it’s the sound of tires, and I wonder who it could be since I’m not expecting anyone; so I decide to get up and take a look, and see that it’s my neighbor, wave hello, and go back to what I was doing before he arrived. Then I hear a shrill noise to my right; it’s the phone, and I’ve been expecting a call from my sister – our mother has been ill and I’m worried. I pick up the phone; it is my sister, and she’s calling to let me know that Mom is on the mend. I hang up, relieved. Then I feel a fluttering in my stomach; it’s nerves and I decide to get a tea to counter this.
We begin by sensing something in our environment, which brings it into our awareness. Then we decide if it’s meaningful to us at that moment. We act: if it isn’t important, we withdraw; if it is important to us at that moment, we energize and deal with it until we are satisfied. Once we feel complete, we withdraw from that contact and that particular cycle is complete. In life, we are always going through this cycle: we sense, become aware, make contact and then withdraw; then something else grabs our attention, and so on throughout the day.
The diagram shows a cycle, but in reality it’s a continuous wave, beginning with sensing and ending with withdrawal, making room for the next sensation.
This is how we would function in a perfect world, where we have no issues, were raised perfectly, and could interact with anything that came into our awareness with complete presence.
There are people like that. But most of us sometimes get stuck along this cycle and aren’t able in that moment to complete it. For instance, what if the last time I heard tires late at night it was followed by an attempted break-in. Now when I hear a similar sound, I might start worrying and stressing, and stop the cycle long before there is any real contact. If I do this often enough, I begin to lose my internal balance, my equilibrium. In place of this contact, I will reach out in different ways to achieve equilibrium using coping mechanisms. I might decide on a shot of scotch, or a cigarette, or find some distraction that occupies my mind away from worry.
We call this “unfinished business”, or in Gestalt terms, a “fixed figure”, and means that the cycle remains unfinished (a topic for another time).
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Maryanne Nicholls is a Toronto based, certified Psychotherapist offering a balanced approach to mental health. Please visit http://www.thejoyofliving.co for information on her services, or contact her directly to find out how she can help you reclaim the joy of living.