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A Gestalt Approach to the Self as Process





Do I exist? Who is the entity that is writing these words? What is the I that I bring to the Gestalt Centre each week?


I know I have a body, but it’s not necessarily me. I identify with it strongly for sure. There has been enough consistency in the way it appears (same sex) and operates (no accidents) that I feel in some sense I am my body and yet it’s possible to imagine ‘me’ – or what I believe to be me – could be transported elsewhere and still exist, as a large-beetle, robot, or potentially  – and testing the paradoxical theory of change to its limits – even on a floppy disk. And this despite knowing the body is an intelligence of its own, heavily intertwined with the brain.


I also know that modern neuroscience has proven no single centre of the brain or master-controller exists. There is no point where it all comes together.


Habits, for example, are executed from neural networks that exist in the basal ganglia, an older more primitive part of the brain stem (Duhigg, 2012). Language, movement, breathing all operate from different parts of the brain. The later most patently not operating under conscious control – I cannot choose not to breath, at least not for long. But the millions of computations needed to make me move or make decisions also exist outside of my awareness. Moreover, reflex actions short-circuit the brain, something I was reminded of when I recently watched my body autonomously save me from a fall to the ground.


Or there is the other time this semi- autonomous entity my conscious seems to inhabit reached out and grabbed a falling vase with such a speed and force I am still shocked at it’s temerity.


And then there’s language, where experiments on split brain patients show that the right half of the brain can be instructed to do something like get up and walk, leaving the left part of brain, which, since the link between to two hemispheres is cut, is unaware of the initial instruction, to construct an answer in unknowing dishonesty. All suggesting the function of language is to justify behaviour that originates in other parts of the brain to others (Wright, 1994).


So perhaps I should drop the pronoun.


What is I after all but a mental state, a fleeting image of a symbol that floats across the mind.


Let this writing be by energy.





Energy unfortunately knows, however, that even if no single-centre-of-self exists, a sense of self, a sense of agency, can arise through a nested hierarchy, where the higher functions of self, such as self-consciousness, are produced by, and interdependent on, lower functions, such as basic environmental awareness (Baggini, 2011).


Energy enters the body as chemicals, electricity, light, or sounds. We only sense what we are capable of detecting through our nervous system, constructing models of the external world from noisy signals and missing information, some of which leaves a lasting impression in memory.


These images of past events give a sense of continuity over time. I know with some certainty, this body, this brain experienced things in a specific place and time, even if my current representation of that time is fragmented, incomplete and inaccurate. Furthermore, through constructive use of memory I am able to create images of what this body or brain might do and how it might feel in years or decades hence. Even if there are enough known biases and inaccuracies in these projections (Gilbert, 2006) that make this future body and brain unlikely to be grateful for today’s efforts.




Here and Now


Energy is not of the past or future. Energy exists in the present. Consciousness thus emerges in the here and now.  Through contact sensory input from the environment is translated into neurological signals, which enter a network of thousand of millions of conscious moments from which self-awareness is generated. In this sense the self is emergent: bundles of sensations, perceptions and thoughts piled on top of one another, different in each environment (Philipson, 2009).


Yet, as we have just seen, one of the contacts we have is with our own memory, which always intrudes conscious awareness. Thus the here and now self, is always engaging with a autobiographical narrative and in doing so experiencing oneself as existing over time.


What am I then? What I see, hear and experience of the world are mental constructs generated by the brain from corrupted data it receives from the external world. From trillions of neural connections and such complex calculations that makes the prospect of artificial intelligence a still distant prospect, the brain generates the sense that I act and I am in control.  But the calculations and decisions are made outside of awareness, I make decisions, but it’s not the I that I think it is making the decisions. My concept of myself is a illusion. Despairing enough to take one’s own life, perhaps, if it where clearer who would be taking life from who.


Even memory is slippery. It is selective and altered each time it is retrieved and experienced. Thus, not only do I choose to form memories that fit with my sense of self, I also experience memories differently depending on the environment at the time. (Hood, 2011).




The Gestalt Approach


“Let us call the ‘self’ the system of contact at any moment” wrote Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (1951). The “self is flexibly various”, “it is the system of responses”, “[it] is the contact boundary at work, its activity is forming figure and ground.” (pg. 284).


In Gestalt the self is an organizing process, which is constantly changing. It is a person’s contact and response with the environment. It is the assimilation and growth that results from contact.


The individual organises his entire environment – figure and ground – in terms of both the prevailing environment and his own dominant interests in that environment. The field is the coexisting, mutually interdependent factors of a person and his environment. A person’s behaviour can only be understood holistically, in terms of his interdependence with his environment because his social, historical, cultural field is intrinsic to him.


In organising the field a person creates the meanings which they endow it. Phenomenologically they form meaningful perceptions of objects through selective attention to certain stimuli over others.


The fundamental characteristics of the self is gestalt formation and destruction. The self works for the making and finishing of gestalts. It’s concern is process and is orientated toward health, which is the satisfactory formation and destruction of gestalts.


It is a unitary concept engaging our physical, emotional and cognitive aspects, forming at the part when the field begins to separate into discrete parts of difference, the part at which self and other meet. The boundary is not the the part between the self and other, it is of both parts formed on their contact. There is no previously existing ‘I’ to do the experiencing. The only self that exists is the one in the process of contacting the environment.




The Self Functions: Id and Ego


Depending on the requirement of the situation and our ability to act in accord with them three different aspects of the self are readily and regularly recognizable. These three functions are the different ways we experience ourselves as we live our lives in contact with our environment.


As figures develop the system of contact varies. Sometime we feel ourselves as agents. These are the ego function of self. The self in which we feel we are acting on the environment. The ego functions are expressed in an active voice. I choose, decide, insist. “It is deliberative, active in mode, sensorically alert and motorically aggressive, and conscious of itself as isolated from its situation.” (Perls et all, 1951, pg. 379).


The id function is our natural intuitions and impulses. We feel ourself acted upon and responsive to the environment. All feelings, for example, are experienced this way. The id function is expressed in a passive voice. I felt, I was moved. It is implicit that we had little control. “The Id then appears as passive, scattered and irrational; its contents are hallucinatory and the body looms large.” (Perls et all, 1951, pg. 381).


Both the id and the ego, which together the middle functions seem to represent (Latner, 1973) exist in the moment each mediated by the environment, by contact, by the places of figure formation. The self is the system of creative adjustments, the situation is always changing, new equilibriums always sort.


The Gestalt cycle of contact is thus the process of selfing – of the creation of the self. The id function becomes aware of all that it can sense. It is a collection of potential figures (Mann, 2010).  The self is co-creation with “other,” where the ego  function focusses attention, identifies with a figure and alienates the ground. The ego thus chooses, identifying a ‘I’ that is experiencing and the other, that which is experienced. “I become myself in relation to that aspect of otherness that I now make figural.” (Philipson, 2011). This is the contact boundary where we meet and withdraw from our environment. It is a ever changing fluid place, which we experience ‘me’ in relation to ‘not me’. A place where we impact and act on the world and a place where we can, with other sentient beings, create emergent acts of increased complexity. Dancing, jazz and civilizations.



Reflections on Self as Process


Reflecting on my personal experience I am aware that group work is a co-creational field event such that the field induces feelings and desire to say certain things. My ego function then plays an active role in deciding whether to act on these impulses or not. In such a manner, things, which I or others say or do are not necessarily of the self as a single unitary organism, but of a self which is also out there existing as part of the field.


I am aware of tendency to deflect from contact when passive feelings are ones that I do not want to responsibly own. I am aware too of how different I am in different situations and of how much the middle function (id and ego) cause behaviour. I notice, for example, facial expressions happening, words forming and feelings arising, but cannot locate a choice to have them. The only choice I am aware of seems to be the ego function deciding as to what to do in certain situations and how to relate to the id (and personality, see below) function.


But that’s not all. I am aware of a tendency to become confluent with other people’s pain, experiencing it as my own. Desensitising, shutting down contact by motoric retroflecting, meaning the details of others’ experiences are missed. Since people’s pain is passively experienced as my own (confluence) I see it as a matter of my id function, although the desensitisation and retroflection are likely the result of the ego function. From the id function projection also arises. For example, I passively feel a sense of guilt at being unable to give my fullest to my day job (is there an active introject there too?), and I then project that guilt out onto my colleagues assuming that, at some level, they must be angry at my weakened work ethic.


On the subject of introjects, I am aware of thoughts that passively occur to me that I do not like. In some contact environments they are negative toward a person with whom my feelings toward are actually warm and loving. I presume this is mostly because I passively feel full of excitement and are the result of choosing to retroflect when no other healthy outlet for this excitement is met. They could also, however, be due to introjects that I am not yet aware of. I take responsibility for these  experiences, but recognise that they happen to me. The quality of relating to these thoughts, agreeing or disagreeing with them, acting or not acting upon, them is more important. It is hoped with increased awareness of my distortions to contact they can be made more healthy and less figural.


Also, since thought is language and cannot but be memory, is it not the third mode of functioning: personality? And since PHG (1951) wrote that a healthy person “does not have much personality” (pg. 427), does this mean the role of thought is diminished. If so, we see how Gestalt concepts of self and personalty overlap with those of the worlds major religions, Buddhism and Taoism.




Personality: The Third Self Function


Latner (1973) refers to character and personality as the same thing and reading PHG they do seem to be used similarly. At the time of writing, most analysts practised analysing the structure of observed behaviour along the lines of Character analysis, as first systematically developed by Reich, where character was seen as “ a sort of abnormality, a kind of mechanization of a particular way of reaction, rather similar to an obsessional symptom.” (Becker, 1973).


PHG’s approach seems “to bridge therapy of the actual situation with therapist’s concepts.” (Perls et all, 1951, pg. 237), where “characters and their mechanisms [are] not types of persons, but taken as a whole a description of the neurotic ‘ego’ in process.” (Perls et all, 1951, pg. 448).  Thus neurotic confluence is linked to hysteria and regression, introjection to masochism, projection to fantasy, retroflection to active sadism and busyness, and egotism to self-conceit and narcissism. (Perls et all, 1950, pg. 457-8).


Personality is the third function of self where an individual relates to the creative images of the past and future we assemble from memory in our mind. It occurs at the boundary we become aware of ourself as a conscious entity. These memories give us a framework of attitudes and beliefs we have about the world. At this boundary are multiple personalty figures we can choose and identity with, alienating others to the ground. “Personality is the created figure that the self becomes and assimilates to the organism, uniting it with results of the previous growth.”, wrote PHG (1951), in the neurotic individual, personalty “consists of a number of mistaken concepts of oneself, introjects, ideals, masks, etc.” (pg 382.)


The definition of unhealthy in gestalt is a person who is unable to close gestalt, thus rigid character / personalty types result when gestalt are fixed, when too much unfinished business is carried over from the past. Physiologically this may manifest itself as character / body armouring. (Clarkson, 1989). Authentic behaviour comes openly when a figure is drawn from what we freely prefer. Thus Perl’s wrote “the most creative, richest person has no character.”


The personalty function then is the mode which paradoxically gives us  both greatest sense of self, but is also the least healthy. In bringing mental processes to the fore of awareness and comparing present to past experiences and future possibilities it diminished the power and uniqueness of the present.


This is the concept of creative indifference, the organism at the fertile void, open to what will come.  All this seems to link closely with Buddhist and Taoist thought which sees the self as impermanent, changing from moment to moment existing in the here and now, but also emphasises detachment as a way of living. Indeed creative indifference seems to loosely correlate with the idea of detachment, as does the void seem to with ideas of the ‘silence’, the ‘space’, the ‘nothing.’


While complete detachment from the world or a total mitigation of the personality function would be perhaps undesirable, disallowing our ability to gain a sense of continuity that makes relationship and productive endeavours meaningful, Gestalt, Classical Psychoanalysis and Buddhism, all seem to agree, individuals can become too fixed in their identifications, closing off possibilities and remaining in familiar areas even when it is unhealthy to do so.



Finding the Authentic Self


As well as Psychoanalysis and Buddhism, PHG were influenced by the existentialist tradition of Kirkegard, Heidegger, Buber and Tillich. (Clarkson and Mackewn, 1993).


In Gestalt Therapy Verbatim (1969) Perls’ perceived the neurotic structure as a thick edifice built up of four layers. The first two layers are the everyday layers, the tactic the child learns to get along in society by the facile use of words to wind ready approval and to placate others and move along with them. The third layer is the ‘impasse’ that covers our feeling of being empty and lost. The very feeling we try to banish by building up our character defenses. Underneath this layer is the forth the fear-of-death layer, the layer of our true and basic animal anxieties. Only when we explode this forth layer do we get to the layer that we might call our ‘authentic’ self.


Clarkson and Mackewn (1993) say this seems to be a departure form PHG in that the self appears reified, but perhaps one way to link the two is to see all the outer, non-authentic layers as originating from fixed gestalts.


Note that the last layer, fear-of-death, can arise only from memory. The knowledge that at some point we will die. The breaking through of the forth layer, also corresponds with the Buddhist notion of letting go of a attachment to life (accepting the impermanence of all things) .



The Artist of Life


For me writing this now. I am aware that the self is a illusion, a partial construct, it emerges from a complex interplay of neurological processes of which I unaware.


I know, too, that I have traits that are both passive, in that they result from genes, upbringing and experience, and active, in being a set of dispositions that I have because I work to develop them. Even here, though, situational factors are often better predictors of behaviour than personal factors. So while personalty is not a myth, i.e. I show measurable predictability over time, it does vary more according to the situation than is generally assumed. Moreover, at least a good portion of my personality I may work actively to create. I do not so much as promise to be a good husband, but to constantly create myself as one.


More consequentially, I accept that I don’t so much as exist in the field, but emerge out of it (Philipson, 2006). My consciousness arises through complex feedback loops, including neurons that mirror the feelings of others, which brings into question “one person psychology”. (Stern, 2004).  I’m still different form others, but the difference is less.


And I emerge in the present moment. Not to face my existential angst would be to be inauthentic. Selfing as I am now, I creatively make an association between personality and vanity and I feel satisfied. I have written this paper through the gathering of the elements of the field, in spontaneity, with directnesses, awareness and skill all in the service of personal growth. I have done this in process – selfing – in full contact with my environment. I contact, therefore I am.





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