The Gloria sessions

I’ve written posts about my education as a psychotherapist in the humanistic psychology program at the University of West Georgia, and my exposure to a variety of therapeutic modalities. These included Rogerian (client-centered), gestalt, and cognitive behavioral therapy. I remember watching a videotaped film titled “Three Approaches to Psychotherapy” that I’ve always thought of as “the Gloria sessions.” For many years this film was only available for viewing by professional therapists, faculty, and students of psychotherapy; but now all three sessions can be viewed on YouTube.

In 1965 a courageous young woman named Gloria – a divorced single mother – agreed to be videotaped in brief therapy sessions with three of the most influential American psychotherapists of the twentieth century: Dr. Carl Rogers (client-centered therapy), Dr. Fritz Perls (gestalt therapy), and Dr. Albert Ellis (cognitive behavioral therapy). Watching the sessions again, I was reminded of Gloria’s courage and candor. The production quality isn’t always good and following the Perls  session takes concentration, due both to poor sound quality and Perls’ thick German accent. But if you want to see three masters of psychotherapy at work, this film is a treasure trove. Their approaches to working with Gloria are very different.

In each segment, the therapist briefly describes his approach to therapy, then works with Gloria, then comments on the session. In the first segment Carl Rogers says that if the therapist can establish certain conditions in relating to the client, “therapeutic movement” will predictably occur. The first condition is genuineness, and the second is congruence – meaning that your non-verbal communication is congruent with your verbalizations. The third condition is transparency , meaning that the therapist hides nothing and can be easily “seen through.” Rogers states that if these three conditions exist, and the therapist can be in tune with the client’s “inner world” (how she experiences herself in the world) insights and growth will follow.

During the session Gloria keeps trying to get Dr. Rogers to give her advice about making a decision, and dealing with guilt feelings related to the decision. He never accedes to her request, but keeps accurately reflecting on what she’s saying, allowing her to eventually take ownership of the issue, and to trust her own judgment. (Contrary to popular belief, good therapists seldom or never give advice.) Rogers is comfortable with silences, and at one point asks, “What do you wish I’d say to you?” She gets it. In his commentary, he remarks on how her “then-and-there” orientation at the start of the session quickly becomes a “here-and-now” focus. He highlights the “I-Thou” quality of their experience, rejecting Freud’s intellectual concept of transference/counter-transference in favor of Martin Buber’s term for authentic relating. He concludes, “Gloria and I really encountered each other” and says he thinks that both of them benefitted from their brief encounter. Watching again, I can’t help but agree.

Perls puffs on a cigarette while he describes gestalt therapy, and Gloria lights up at the beginning of the session, admitting that it’s a response to anxiety. In his introduction Perls, like Rogers, endorses the I-Thou relating essential to the therapeutic relationship, and the idea that therapy should not dwell on the then-and-there, but should always focus on the here-and-now of direct experience. He states that a gestalt therapist never offers interpretations, but provides clients with experiential opportunities to discover things about themselves, often by interrupting the client’s verbalizations and calling attention to automatic behaviors that the client is usually unaware of. Early in the session Perls labels some of Gloria’s behaviors as “phony” – which has a specific meaning in gestalt therapy. She’s initially bewildered and angry, feeling judged. She’s very defensive, but Perls doesn’t back off, and Gloria appears to catch on to what he’s saying by the end of the session. He was never judging her; he was giving her an experiential lesson in her automatic, typical defenses. It’s known in gestalt therapy as “being on the hot seat.” It was Perls who wrote what became known as the Gestalt Prayer, which starts with: “I am not in this world to live up to your expectations and you are not in this world to live up to mine.”

In his introduction, Albert Ellis expounds upon the notion that – contrary to Freudian psychodynamic theory – the past isn’t the primary determinant of present-day distress or dysfunction. The past may have a role in its formation, but it’s present behaviors that maintain the problem – specifically, the irrational things we tell ourselves about our experiences and their consequences. As I’d remembered, Ellis came across like the  stereotypical pushy, fast-talking New Yorker, but his words were precise and logical. In his short session with Gloria he manages to convey the principles of rational thinking, by applying them to Gloria’s anxieties about dating and seeking a life partner. She appears to grasp the notion that she makes undesirable situations worse by catastrophizing. “Don’t beat yourself over the head or convince yourself you’re a no-goodnik, just because you didn’t get the outcome you wanted.” He explained how he gives his clients behavioral homework assignments to complete between sessions, and suggests that Gloria should set up opportunities to take some small risks, instead of holding back in social situations. Its a behavioral technique called exposure, and Ellis was one of its early proponents.

When I first saw “Three Approaches to Psychotherapy,” I remember that there was a brief interview with Gloria after the sessions; but I wasn’t able to find it online. As I recall, Gloria said that she liked Carl Rogers the best, and learned some valuable things from Albert Ellis; but her session with Fritz Perls was the one she most benefitted from. If you don’t understand the basics of gestalt therapy, what Perls says and does in the session won’t make much sense. It shook Gloria up; but that’s what good gestalt therapists do, and Perls was one of the best. I highly recommend the Gloria sessions to social science students, psychotherapists in training or practice, and people who want to know more about psychotherapy.

Little did I know when I first watched the film that I’d actually meet Rogers and Ellis. I’ve already written about my brief meeting with Carl Rogers. In a later post I’ll describe my encounter with Albert Ellis.

The paradox of identity, Part 2

“Authenticity” is one of the most important words in the lexicon of gestalt therapy, and it’s an essential component of intimacy. I’ve described intimacy as “emotional nakedness” with another person, but that doesn’t imply a sexual relationship. Sexual intimacy is just one kind of intimacy. People in authentic relationships don’t put on acts with one another. They aren’t afraid to be seen as they are, warts and all.  Unfortunately, authentic relationships are hardly ever modeled by characters in TV dramas and soap operas and sitcoms, because it doesn’t make for good drama – which relies on conflict to keep things entertaining.

Dr. Fritz Perls, the reigning guru of gestalt therapy when I was in grad school, wrote a lot about how we’re socialized to be “phony,” in the guise of politeness. He said that it was the job of the gestalt therapist “not to let go unchallenged” any inauthentic expressions by a client in a therapy session. The client of a skilled gestalt therapist often finds himself “sitting on the hot seat,” even in individual therapy. There are some highly effective gestalt techniques that disarm the client’s typical, often reflexive, defenses, leaving him to experience his own “unedited,” authentic here-and-now feelings. Perls said that past and future are fictions; we live our lives in the here-and-now.

If a client started to relate a past unpleasant experience, the gestalt therapist would ask her to relate it in the present tense, to bring it into the here-and-now of her experience. If the client made a statement couched in generalized terms, i.e.”You know how it is when someone gets on your case…” the therapist would ask her to make it an I-statement, i.e. “When somebody gets on my case I ____.” The therapist might interrupt a rationalized response to a question about a thorny issue and say, “Are you aware that you’re  clenching your fists?” This call to be present in her body in the here-and-now disarms the client’s intellectualizing.

When a client “protesteth too much” an inauthentic feeling or response, i.e. “It really doesn’t bother me anymore when my father tells me I’m stupid.” the therapist might say, “Say the opposite. Tell me that it really bothers you when your father calls you stupid.” “But it doesn’t!” “Say it anyway.” Having the client repeat the opposite statement – usually more than once – often produces an authentic emotional response (sometimes tears or rage) and a moment of insight. Probably the best known gestalt technique is the “empty chair,” where you have the client face an empty chair and visualize her father (mother, boss, lover, molester, etc.) sitting in that chair. “Now I want you to tell him what you just told me.” “But he’d never let me!” “He has to listen. He can’t interrupt. Tell him what you’ve always wanted to tell him.” This technique often elicits powerful, authentic responses that the client has typically repressed.

In my last post I wrote about people pleasers and their phony (inauthentic) behaviors. Another mindset that engenders phony behavior is that of the “con,” the bullshitter. Like the people pleaser, the con tries to read you and puts on an act; but unlike the people pleaser, the con wants to get something you have. If he wants you  to like him, it’s only a means to an end. A con is always onstage, performing. Cons and people pleasers pay the same price: they deprive themselves of the opportunity to have an authentic identity. Most of us want to be liked for who we truly are. People who can’t or won’t be authentic in relationships can never know who they truly are. If someone seems to like or admire them, is it really them they hold in esteem, or their act? They can’t come to know the real person behind the masks they habitually wear. It can be scary to enter into a truly intimate relationship, whether with a therapist, a new friend, or a lover. But the more intimate relationships we have in our lives, the better we know who we uniquely are.

“Autonomy” is another important word in the gestalt lexicon, and increased autonomy is a frequent goal of therapy. In my experience, the best marriages and friendships are characterized by intimacy and a mutual respect for one another’s autonomy. This ideal of intimate relating is captured in Fritz Perls’ “Gestalt Prayer,” which was a very popular poster back in the days of hippies and encounter groups:

“I do my thing and you do your thing. I am not in this 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, and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.”