A Deeper Kind of Healing: How Getting Under the Surface Helps us Break Down our Walls

Written by Child & Family Therapist Holly Gilbert, MA, LPC

This Spring, I performed the dreaded task of weeding my garden. With my gloves on, I dug into the dirt, determined to pull the entire root up from the ground. There were several times that I was unsuccessful and would only grab the stem. I noticed that after some time, the weeds that were not fully uprooted grew back. This got me thinking about superficial care—when we only treat the surface layer of issues and expect long term results: when we confuse convenience with a cure.

I realized that in most areas of our life we are encouraged to address underlying issues; however, when it comes to mental health, we simply focus on symptoms. Why is this? If we knew we had a termite problem, we wouldn’t solely patch the holes. And we certainly would never prescribed surface level treatment to our landscaping. Yet, when it comes to our mental health we often are seeking to treat issues with skills, techniques, and easy fixes.  So, what exactly is the price we pay for this surface level approach?

  • We fail to go deeper into the therapeutic process and, therefore, focus on the breadth of solutions rather than the depth of the hurt. Superficial care is often more concerned with the outcome than the onset of issues. However, in Gestalt therapy, we recognize that instrumental change can only take place when personal insight is met with an awareness to present experiences.

For example, let’s say Mark comes into my office and shares that he is struggling with social anxiety. During our interactions, I notice that he breaks eye contact whenever I initiate a conversation. I begin to gently point this out to him in order to facilitate some awareness. Eventually, we explore his upbringing and the more volatile messages he heard in his home. As a result of his upbringing, he learned that to withdraw from social interactions—through means such as avoiding eye contact—was self-protective.

This past exploration deeply informed Mark’s present experience and will help produce more sustainable, long-term change. From the onset, I could have prescribed skills to address Mark’s anxiety or improve his level of intimacy. However, I believe that when we get to a person’s “truth” three things happen: 1) they develop a deeper layer of awareness to their hurt; 2) they encounter a greater sense of power over their experiences; and 3) they experience an increased level of investment in their change process. All of these things lead to a more sustainable and deeper process of healing.

  • We begin to view the person as a problem to be fixed. In our modern era, therapy has become less about the root and more about the results and this is detrimental to both how we view the healing process as well as how we view the person in general. In a conversation I had earlier this week about superficial care, I came to the realization that when we assume that people can be “fixed” through a series of tools, there is a level of dehumanization that takes place. To an individual who has already experienced a loss of power—whether through trauma, anxiety, or “normal” life transitions—this is unhelpful and can be detrimental to their sense of self.

In Gestalt therapy, we focus on the entire person being present to themselves as well as the therapeutic relationship and encounter. We expect and encourage the person to grow deeper in their awareness and rely on them to share their insight into their experience. I firmly believe that if therapy is not used as a platform that strengthens a person’s sense of empowerment rather than diminish it, we will not only impact their sense of self but also compromise their ability to encounter past, present and future experiences.

As someone who has experienced both the superficial care as well as the long term, sustainable care that promotes awareness, insight, and investment in the change process, I advocate for the latter. It is a privilege to spend my days sitting across from young men and women who have chosen to dive deeper than their surface level issues and invest in a longer but more sustainable therapeutic process. After all, don’t we owe it to ourselves to benefit from the same depth of healing that we offer our wood floors and our garden beds?

The importance of play therapy and playing with your children

Why am I playing games with your kid? (And why you should too)

Written by Child and Family Therapist Libby Steele, LPC 

If you’ve placed your child in therapy with us, you may have noticed or heard from your child that we “played games.” They may even be more specific, telling you about beating me in UNO, having good luck with Guess Who or losing a close game of Life.

The decision to put your child in therapy to begin with can be an emotionally charged situation, a logistically draining endeavor and an investment. So why would we be spending this precious time playing a round of Crazy 8’s or listening to music?

Here is what I know to be true about working with the developing brain: There is power in just letting the kid’s interest be their interest. In his book, “Killing Monsters,” Gerard Jones explains: when a child shows a genuine, or even passing interest in an activity there is real power in our “shared immersion” in the action.

When their hands are busy, when we are occupied in a friendly competition, more profound conversations easily emerge surrounding a host of topics. These may include:

  • How do I feel when I lose?
  • Do I sometimes experience rejection? Or Loss?
  • Do I ever get embarrassed and what do I do with that difficult emotion?
  • How do I experience anger and what does it look like to express that in a productive way? What about a damaging way?
  • Am I competitive? Do I like that about myself? Can I channel it appropriately? Does it ever get me into trouble?
  • Am I especially good at this game? Something else? How does this affect my self esteem or self confidence?

Adolescents, especially, may seek privacy and use provoking behaviors to create separation between them and their parents. Their job is to grow up and out into the world, AND they still WANT to know you’re hanging in there watching over them. Listen to their choice of music in the car, hear them out about a recent video game success, be openly curious about what it inspires in them. It is tempting to reject their choice of entertainment when it evokes a powerful response in us (especially if that response is anger), but there’s a reason teenagers gravitate towards music with a powerful “counter culture” message. It’s thrilling and validating to hear their fear, anger, jealousy and sadness parroted back to them in song. It makes them feel heard, and seen. Likewise, joining with your child over a familiar game is creating a venue for the safe exploration of harder topics and challenging emotions. When we are in this space of “shared immersion,” we have created a safe bubble around the interaction allowing the child or adolescent to be heard, seen and known in a way that facilitates growth.

All Change is Incremental…

…and sometimes change is large, noisy, aggressive, and intense.  This is something we have all dealt with lately in our Gestalt community here in Columbus.  Losing our leader, mentor, trainer, supervisor, and friend, Norman Shub, left a large gap in our hearts.  It also threw us into a tailspin of organizing for the future while honoring the past and the legacy Norman had created in 45 years of changing people’s lives.

As most know, we have moved offices due to being in a space that became too large for us to manage.  We are happily adjusting to our new office space and supporting each other through the ups and downs that come with major life changes.  The special ability to support each other was instilled in us from working with Norman and it has helped us become a close knit group of therapists that know how to love and support each other.

What we’ve learned from Norman and Gestalt Therapy has also helped us be the best therapists we can be.  We are here to serve the community and continue the legacy of Gestalt Therapy and Norman Shub, but in our own, authentic way. We are constantly learning and constantly growing. We are excited about the future and everything that is to come.

By Matt Dunatchik, MSEd., LPCC

Gestalt Therapy in Columbus Ohio

From Band Aids to Foundational Change: The Power of Gestalt Therapy

By Stacy Ingraham, MSEd., LPCC-S

I am often asked why I decided to invest in learning and practicing Gestalt therapy, after utilizing other popular counseling techniques for several years as a clinician. My quick answer – I didn’t want to put “band aids” on my client’s symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other struggles anymore. Instead, I wanted be an agent of real, lasting change by helping clients get to the root of what’s keeping them stuck. This is Gestalt therapy. Now after two years of postgraduate training workshops, hours of individual consultation, observation of Gestalt therapy sessions, pages of reading, and working through my own stuff with Gestalt therapists, I’m starting to get it (while also realizing I have a long way to go) and am leaving most of my old counseling habits behind. Here are a few things I’ve learned:

  1. Gestalt therapy really works. While I’ve experienced the power of Gestalt therapy personally, I have seen real, foundational change in clients. For example, a couple who repeatedly blamed each other for their marital problems now owns their part, does not blame (most of the time), and has a more intimate connection than ever before because they have learned to protect the closeness in their relationship (an important concept we reinforce in Gestalt couples therapy). Admittedly, I do utilize other counseling techniques when appropriate or out of habit, yet my foundation is the Gestalt approach, and it really works.
  2. Learning Gestalt therapy is hard work. Integrating the concepts of Gestalt therapy is sometimes like speaking a foreign language (i.e. encountering a client’s behavior, working an introject, pointing out defenses such as retroflection, teaching awareness, building steel rods). And learning Gestalt therapy requires on-going self-reflection and change (i.e. heightening my own awareness, strengthening my own steel rods, being vulnerable, letting go of perfectionism). To be a skilled Gestalt therapist, I need to surrender to the Gestalt way of living.
  3. The Gestalt approach can be used in a variety of professions. The Gestalt approach is utilized by conductors of orchestras, athletic coaches, organizational consultants, dentists, law enforcement officers, educators, and many more. Gestalt child therapists utilize play therapy techniques such as sand tray, clay work, therapeutic games, music, and drawing. Gestalt therapy is also effective when doing family and couples/marriage counseling, and of course, group therapy. Basically, any professional who cares about being a transformational leader, building successful relationships, and contributing in a real way to their organization will benefit from learning the Gestalt approach.
  4. Gestalt therapy is effective when practiced alone and combined with other theories. This idea is debatable, depending on who you talk with in the mental health world. In my experience, mindfulness based approaches, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy, and Motivational Interviewing combined with a Gestalt theoretical foundation can be incredibly beneficial for clients based upon their presenting issues (trauma, addiction, anxiety, etc.).

There are many professional training and certification programs we have to choose from (and I’ve explored many). Deciding which ones best align with our values, goals, budget, schedule, and personality is key. Learning Gestalt therapy has been life changing for my clients and me. And while the struggle to learn and live Gestalt is real, it helps to remember that “all change is incremental.” Thank you, Norman Shub.

How often do you cross the line between caring and taking too much responsibility?

Caring and Taking Responsibility: How Often Do You Cross the Line?

By Stacy Ingraham, MSEd., LPCC-S

Do you have an innate desire to help others be happy and fix their pain? Are you a nurturer and enjoy taking care of others? When you see a loved one struggling, do you work harder than they do to find a solution? If you answered yes to any of the above, you may have a tendency to cross the line between caring and taking responsibility.

Intellectually, most of us know that taking away someone’s struggle is not only impossible, it’s not what they want or need. We all need to struggle if we want to grow. If you’re unsure whether you tend to cross the line, the following breakdown between caring and taking responsibility may help.

Caring for another involves the following:

  1. Listening with genuine care, respect, and an attempt to try to understand what a person is experiencing. If you want to learn how to be a better listener, check out the article, “What Great Listeners Actually Do” by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman.
  2. Offering assistance while setting limits to how much you’re able and willing to do.
  3. Asking someone if they want advice or feedback before giving it.
  4. Remembering that you are separate from the other person. Their feelings and behaviors may not have anything to do with you.

Crossing the line into taking responsibility involves the following:

  1. Helping by completing a task that takes away a person’s opportunity to struggle and therefore, grow. For instance, doing your son’s homework assignment because solving math problems is difficult and gives him anxiety.
  2. Planning or organizing someone else’s life in an attempt to make a day or an event go as smoothly as possible for others. This can involve questioning someone persistently, or asking “are you sure?” multiple times when he/she has stated their decision.
  3. Taking on another person’s emotional pain by taking the fault when it has nothing to do with you. Or, trying to make someone feel better by talking them out of their pain and then feeling irritated when they distance themselves or do not feel better.

Crossing this line over and over again becomes painful, exhausting, and feeds anxiety and depression. It can lead to loneliness, resentment, and frustration in relationships. A powerful gestalt intervention involves helping individuals enhance their awareness. Therefore, if you tend to cross the line from caring into taking responsibility and want to change, practice noticing each and every time you approach the line.

  1. If you feel resentful toward others when they dismiss your advice or help, you may be crossing the line.
  2. Perhaps you start worrying excessively about others and spiral into “what ifs.” You may say to yourself, “If I don’t do his homework, he’s going to fall behind, get teased, fail math, not get into college….”
  3. Perfectionists can cross the line in an effort to ensure that everyone is happy, having fun, and getting along. Along the same lines, if you need people to like you, notice when you start trying to figure out how you can help make things easier for them.

As your awareness increases, you can decide how to care and set limits so you avoid crossing the line. Remember, we can care deeply about others and help them without taking away their pain, fixing their problems, trying to make their life perfect, and enabling their troubling behaviors.

Thank you to Norman Shub for identifying this important theme.