I am passionate about gestalt therapy as a grounding theory for the treatment of adopted persons because gestalt therapy takes a fundamentally relational approach. I have found in my practice that the issues that adoptees face, whether they conceive of them as internal problems (I’m depressed, I’m anxious, I’m a workaholic, I take everything too personally) or external problems to do with relationships (I can’t make meaningful connections with other people, I’m obsessed with the thought that my wife will leave me) are actually relational issues, having to do with how adopted persons negotiate the space between self and other. In fact, I would argue that all issues are relational issues, that we are always in relation to something, and that adopted persons can face special challenges because of any number of disruptive factors in our early relationships including profound early losses of biological and genetic connection, birth parents and family, and sometimes losses of country, culture and language. The fundamental problem of adoption is one of how well adopted persons are able to cope with the disruption of early, important relationships, and onto that ground we layer on top the many challenges of life as a young adult and adult that can trigger some of the hurt and pain around those early disruptions, or the discomfort of a life lived with adaptations to that early loss that perhaps no longer serve the person the adopted adult has become.
Gestalt therapy theory was revolutionary in bringing the attention of the psychotherapist to the space between self and other and to the process by which we engage with all that is other, which we call contact but could also conceive of as the ability to make connection in the present, here and now. Prior to the writings of early gestalt therapists, particularly Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (1951), psychotherapists had looked to find the problem internally in the patient, for example, in repressed unconscious material or an uneasy truce between different structural parts of the self (Freud’s structural theory of ego, id and superego). Now this new therapy provided a theory and tools for paying attention to our process of contacting and a lens for looking at where it is difficult.
This kind of therapy also made the case for mindfulness and awareness as a therapeutic tool and paved the way for so much of the relational focus that has permeated the various schools of therapy today, and even connects to some aspects of behavior therapy, for gestalt therapists are interested in what we are doing and how we are doing it, what purpose it serves for us. We are less interested in exploring why we do what we do; knowing the why can be interesting and important, but in itself is rarely enough to generate lasting change, we must address our attention to the workings of our behavior and in its unique details.
Gestalt therapy also promotes a deep change process in its focus on the experiential. Through exploring what is going on in session between client and therapist, and through experiments created by client and therapist together, the client is invited to experience more fully what he or she is actually doing, which then allows them to find new possibilities. So while language is a main modality of the work, it is not the only one, and non-verbal elements, the movement and feeling in the body, sense perceptions, and imagery are all incorporated in a session.
I work in a special gestalt therapy informed modality called Developmental Somatic Psychotherapy which looks at the experience of self and other and the process of contacting the other through the lens of early movement patterns of babies, which we continue to experience in our bodies as as adults. The reason I love this particular modality is that it welcomes the non-verbal experience of the client and the therapist to enter the therapy and influence it, even lead it sometimes, and brings so much vital material for adopted persons, particularly those who experienced their adoption-related losses in a pre-verbal state, to have access to that part of themselves and to experience that part in relation with the therapist. As in all good therapy, the relationship with the therapist is vital and in this case the ability to contact and work on early developmental material within a relationship has the potential to help adopted people heal the part of themselves with another, where once they might have been left alone with their pain.
Perls, F. S., Hefferline, R. F., & Goodman, P. (1951). Gestalt therapy: Excitement and growth in the human personality. New York: Dell.