Case #159 - Getting unstuck

Linda raised her issues with her mother, who had come to stay with her recently. She said she didn’t like being around her mother, who she found ‘sticky’. Her mother would ask her for advice, then reject everything she said, and then later ask for advice again. Her mother would take a kind of child role and tone of voice with Linda, who couldn’t stand this. I sat for a while with this. It seemed a clear situation, and a difficult one. There were ‘answers’ - this was a case of a double bind, and there are various ways to deal with this in therapy. It’s also clearly a case where the parent-child roles were being reversed, and the child needs to ‘give back’ the burdens the parent is putting on them. But I didn’t simply want to follow a theory here, give a glib answer, or provide a clever intervention.

I felt my own sense of ‘stickiness’ in the situation, and did not want to simply pull myself out of it with my knowledge, or my enthusiasm for helping Linda.
So I sat for some time, letting the ‘creative void’ be there, waiting to see what emerged. After several minutes I remembered the ‘Gestalt prayer’ which Fritz Perls had been so fond of, even to the point he would get people to repeat it before a group session.
This goes:
You are you, and I am I
I am not in the world to live up to your expectations
and you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I
If by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
If not, it can’t be helped.

This is very much a statement of differentiation. It has fallen somewhat into disrepute in the Gestalt world now, as it is seen as too extreme an emphasis on the individual, without enough acknowledgement of interconnectedness. So I was a little reluctant to mention it.
However, what is important is the needs of the client, not the controversy of the Gestalt world. And in this circumstance, it seemed relevant.
So I introduced it to Linda.
As I spoke it, I asked what she felt. She said she felt stronger.
So I invited her to say it, repeating it after me.
She reported feeling more settled.
So I asked her to say it again.
She said that she felt good, but something was stuck in her throat - a hardness.
We explored this - it was related to a cultural introject to ‘always be soft’ in the way one expresses things.

The Gestalt mode of dealing with such ‘shoulds’ is the exercise I then gave to her: to make two sentences:
“I want to be soft”
“I don’t want to be soft”
This brings in the element of choice.
She said she didn’t want to have to always be soft.
So then we went back to the ‘prayer’, and I invited her to say it in a ‘harder’ way, imagining she was saying it to her mother.
She was able to do so, and felt stronger.
Linda wanted more.
I felt to stop there.
She wanted me to go through, explain to her what this meant, and how she could apply it.
I declined.
Sometimes such support is relevant.

But in this case, I simply said to her - the core issue is differentiation, and this gives you a sense of the spirit of it. But I am not going to spell it out further for you. I could feel myself otherwise moving into the ‘sticky’ position, giving her move ‘advice’ as she found herself doing with her mother. Linda was not really satisfied, but I drew my limit. This was important, as my own act of differentiation in the connection. Differentiation is not something that can be put into a formula; it’s a shift in a way of being, a movement into a sense of oneself, without needing to be defined by others, yet not moving to isolation, but staying in contact.

It’s an essential ingredient in maturing, and in family relationships of all types. It can’t really be ‘taught’, but only pointed to, and practiced. In this case, my own practice - in a non reactive way - could provide an example for her, and a felt experience, that would help her further in differentiating from her mother. In that sense, it’s important not to be ‘too’ helpful to the client. We are here to assist them, but if we lean forwards too far in being helpful, thats not ultimately in their best interests.

Posted by Steve Vinay Gunther