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VOL. 16 NO. 1


Editorial. The Gestalt Research Tradition: Figure and Ground Susan L. Fischer, Ph.D. A Phenomenologically Based Theory of Personality Todd Burley, Ph.D., ABPP Commentary I: Whither Meaningfulness? Lynne Jacobs, Ph.D. Commentary II: Phenomenology, Or Not? Reflections on Burleys Proposed Theory of Personality Mark McConville, Ph.D. Holism in Gestalt Theory: A Response to Jacobs and McConville Todd Burley, Ph.D., ABPP Gestalt Therapy for Patients with Schizophrenia: A Brief Review Sidse M. H. Arnfred, M.D., Ph.D., MSc A Cross-Cultural Exploration of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Assessment, Diagnosis, and Recommended (Gestalt) Treatment Dilani M. Perera-Diltz, Ph.D., John M. Laux, Ph.D., and Sarah M. Toman, Ph.D. Shame in Organisations Trevor Bentley, Ph.D. Reviews Aggression, Time, and Understanding: Contributions to the Evolution of Gestalt Therapy (Frank-M. Staemmler) by Des Kennedy, Ph.D. Gestalt Group Therapy: A Practical Guide (Bud Feder) by Maria Papacostaki, M.A., MFT In Memoriam: Anne Teachworth, DAPA, CGC Morgan Goodlander, M.A.




Gestalt Review, 16(1):7-27, 2012

A Phenomenologically Based Theory of Personality


ABSTRACT Evaluation of psychotherapy and its application requires a lucid theoretical base. Part of that base must be a clear and testable theory of personality that fits contemporary scholarly criteria. Such a theory must not only must provide a description of personality function but also allow for discrimination that can be descriptive of pathology. This article attempts to provide a foundation for a theory of personality which, with reference to the person, is both phenomenologically and process based. The relationship of this theory to current thinking in personality theory is introduced, along with possible applications to psychopathology. A theory of personality is an attempt to describe the functioning characteristics of persons as a group and, at the same time, provide a system to describe the functioning characteristics of the individual in a manner that will allow us to discriminate between individuals, and to predict both meaning-making and behavior of individuals. Any complete theory of
Todd Burley, Ph.D., ABPP (American Board of Professional Psychology), trains Gestalt therapists in the USA as well as internationally. He is on the graduate faculty in Psychology at Loma Linda University, where he teaches courses in Gestalt Therapy, Neuropsychological Assessment, Treatment and Research in Schizophrenia; and team-teaches courses in Cognitive Psychology and Cortical Functions.

2012 Gestalt Intl Study Center


personality also addresses the manner in which general and individualized meaning-making, and characteristic ways of behaving, are developed over time. Consequently, a theory of personality has crucial implications for classification in psychopathology as well as for interventions to induce change or treatment. The statement of a personality theory should also be of use in generating confirmatory and disconfirmatory research, and in opening up new ideas to stimulate further investigation. Until recently, it was acceptable for theories of personality to be somewhat vague unsubstantiated empirically and yet to serve as a general guide for clinical applications of psychology such as psychotherapy and assessment. Theories varied in whether they were clear enough to allow aspects to be operationalized and subjected to research. The last two decades have changed that state of affairs in dramatic ways. In psychology, the cognitive revolution has made it possible to study the internal workings of cognitive/affective function in ways that greatly reduce the need to use speculative methods such as those inherited from schools of thought like psychoanalysis. The neurosciences and neuropsychology have opened doors to understanding the underlying processes of cognition, emotion, and behavior. Our understanding of the process of development of behavior and meaning-making has also taken large strides. Health care has become, and psychological care is becoming, increasingly integrated; with those change have come new demands for accountability and treatment forms that are efficient and supported by research-based demonstrations of efficacy. Both treatment and assessment must be supported by clear and verifiable conceptualization of how the system in question functons, in this case the personality or character structure. To provide a base for such a conceptualization is the purpose of this paper. The Importance of Personality Theory for Clinical Work It is of course impossible to carry out good research without a well-thought out theory grounded in the current knowledge base. What may be less obvious to some is that good clinical work also requires a well-based theory. In an informal study, L. Diamond (personal communication, 1971) interviewed therapists with a reputation for outstanding clinical work, and compared their articulation of the personality theory upon which they based their work with that of therapists with an average reputation for clinical work. He found that therapists who had the reputation for doing the best work had the most developed and wellarticulated personality theories. Average therapists had much more difficulty in articulating their theories. In the research and theoretical arenas, the trend has moved away from theories of personality to pockets of research elucidating unrelated islands of knowledge which will, at some point, help build a coherent


knowledge base about how personality functions and be clinically useful. But such research must have a theoretical base to guide it. Unfortunately for Gestalt theory Fritz Perls, in an effort to confront an overintellectualized culture, and to place affect and feelings in a more balanced perspective, led the way into a general devaluation of theory and follow-up research. This point of view culminated in Hatcher and Himelsteins (1976) Handbook of Gestalt Therapy, which devoted no space to the theoretical and scientific underpinnings of Gestalt therapy. Part 2 of the handbook, entitled Contemporary Theory, pointedly illustrated the problem: with the exception of seven pages excerpted from Yontefs A Review of the Practice of Gestalt Therapy (originally copyrighted in 1971), it contained nothing truly theoretical. Literature in Gestalt therapy has tended to mimic the speculative methods of psychoanalysis, or to borrow fairly directly from concurrent psychoanalysis (e.g., Wheeler, 1991; Yontef, 1993). The reversal of this trend has been spearheaded by the standards set by journals such as Gestalt Review, British Gestalt Journal, and the newer International Gestalt Journal, all of which carry an increasing number of research articles. To be fair, Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman (1951) attempted to update and redefine some psychoanalytic concepts such as ego, id, and self. They defined personality as follows: the system of attitudes assumed in interpersonal relations, [it] is the assumption of what one is, serving as the ground on which one could explain ones behavior, if the explanation were asked for (p. 160). Perls et al. were obviously struggling toward something new, which unfortunately ended up poorly defined and lacking in logical consistency with the rest of their theoretical work. Although some of the more valuable pieces of this attempt were picked up by Hall (1976), Zinker (1977), Joyce and Sills (2001), as well as others and elucidated as a contact cycle (sometimes misnamed as an experience cycle, which compounds some of the logical inconsistencies in building a theory) it lacked the precision and specificity needed in todays clinical and research world. That attempt seems to work best as a sociological concept from an observers point of view and, consequently, has been extraordinarily fruitful in the fields of organizational consultation and couples therapy. However, it does not integrate well with psychologically based theory, nor from the perspective of the experiencing organism. As a result, Gestalt therapy has lacked a clear and concise theory of personality or personality development from which to draw new ideas, provide a position that could be tested and refined by the scientific community, and offer guidance in the delivery of therapy. Rather, it has found itself drawing much of its theoretical nourishment from contemporary psychoanalysiss reiteration of early Gestalt concepts, cognitive behavior therapy, and schools of thought that currently devote more attention to theory and research



regarding personality function and treatment. Nevertheless, when one looks at the whole of the Gestalt literature, it becomes clear (Burley, 1981) that Gestalt therapy contains the seeds of a promising and useful theory of personality which can generate important researchable propositions and a helpful understanding of psychological disorders, fit well with the current literature in psychology, and be a useful guide or map for treatment. Maddis Paradigm for Comparison of Personality Theories Maddi (1996) has created a paradigm to facilitate theory comparisons, defining personality as a stable set of characteristics and tendencies that determine those commonalities and differences in the psychological behavior (thoughts, feelings, and actions) of people that have continuity in time and that may not be easily understood as the sole result of the social and biological pressures of the moment (p. 8). According to Maddi, a well-constructed theory of personality should include statements regarding core tendencies, core characteristics, and concrete peripheral characteristics. He distinguishes between what he calls the core of personality, or those attributes which all humans have in common; and the periphery of personality, or those attributes which are acquired and thus used to explain differences between people. Maddi states that in the core aspects of a theory of personality, the personologist makes a major statement about the directionality, purpose, and function of human life (p. 14). In classical psychoanalysis, for example, the core statement would be to maximize instinctual gratification and pleasure while minimizing pain, punishment, and guilt. Peripheral aspects of personality, or those aspects of the person which differentiate an individual from others, are also important to Maddi but we shall postpone a discussion of them with respect to Gestalt therapy. An example of peripheral aspects of personality would be character types such as the oral character to follow through on our psychoanalytic example characterized by traits like gullibility and greed. The process of molding the core characteristics into peripheral aspects of personality is the process of development. Gestalt Core Tendency: Completion and Resolution of Gestalten A thorough review of the Gestalt literature, along with the observation of the work of Gestalt therapists, reveal a useful and robust core statement for Gestalt theory: the person has a tendency to form and complete or resolve gestalten evoked by organismically based needs and interests. The observation of this process is phenomenological in the sense that it places questions of individuals current experiences of themselves and their world at the center



of analyses of personality functioning and change (VandenBos, 2007). Some definitions may be helpful in order to make this statement clearer.  Person is used here to imply the whole of the biological organism and its experiential or phenomenological field, or its understanding of itself and the context or ecosystem within which it resides both over time and in the moment.  Gestalten is the plural of the German word Gestalt, which describes how one forms perceptions based upon the stimuli present, combined with the current synthesis of ones past experience. For example, I have learned from past experience that a certain shakiness and narrowed attention means I have missed a meal and my blood sugar is low. That Gestalt then becomes central to my awareness when I notice I feel weak and a bit shaky.  Needs and Interests are based in the organism itself. That is, they arise from the persons biological processes and are organized roughly in the same hierarchy identified by Maslow (1970), who postulated needs such as physiological, safety, belongingness and love, esteem, self-actualization, and aesthetic. Examples may be as basic as hunger or thirst; or as complex as the experience of boredom and the need for stimulation, or even the need to go to a museum to see expressionist paintings because we seek a certain limbic stimulation. These examples have in common that they are available to awareness in some form (close to synonymous with descriptions of attention in current psychological literature, though the term might best be reserved for focus of attention as it turns briefly to relevant aspects of ground). Because awareness is based upon the body in general (Damasio, 1994), and the nervous system specifically (Damasio, 1999), we say that they are organismically based: that is, based in the nature of the organism itself. This may at times present confusion because the organism may be stimulated by the environment, so that it would appear that the gestalt is environmentally based. For example, as you are reading this paragraph and you stop to listen closely, you will notice that there is a background of noise you had not been aware of a moment before. The process and mechanism for noticing, or not, happens in a chain of events part of which functions in the inferior colliculi the section of the midbrain constantly examining auditory input and information for familiarity. In short, Is this sound something I am used to, or should I be alert for what may signal something scary or important in another way? If a sound is heard that is unfamiliar, or signals danger, like rustling outside a window, then the mind directs attention to that sound. In other words, the environment does not decide what is to be attended to; rather, the organism based on its experience determines what is figural and creates the gestalt.



Unfortunately for classical theories of personality based solely on need, it has become clear that need is not enough to explain behavior. It is now evident that, even when all basic biological needs are satiated, organisms still behave. In other words, it takes more than a narrowly defined need to motivate doing and being in the world. Ones attention tends to wander to interests that seem to satisfy no need other than simple limbic stimulation. In their monumental review of the literature on motivation, Cofer and Appley (1964) provide ample documentation for the importance of activity and interest as motivators and organizers of experience. They cite the work of such diverse researchers as Harlow and McClearn (1954) on manipulation; and Berlyne (1957) on investigative responses and orienting or attentional responses. The determiners of these responses are well described by Woodworm and Schlosberg (1954) and Berlyne (1960) demonstrating that the process of manipulation, exploration, and orienting or attending to various stimuli is interesting and reinforcing; and that this process seems to constitute needs in their own right. One has only to observe ones own behavior for a few moments to verify the importance of interest and attention. Taking these clarifying definitions into account we can now state Gestalt theorys core statement in more simple language: the needs and interests of the individual in his or her context (ecosystem) will determine what is central to the persons awareness, and will guide that persons cognitive/affective and physical behavior to resolution of that need or interest, so that the need/ interest driven figure ceases to be central in the persons awareness. Gestalt Core Characteristic: Process Although many gestalten in the process of formation may be aborted in the interest of more pre-potent needs or interests, those gestalten that do progress through to completion or resolution follow several distinct, predictable, and continuous steps, which are the basis of what Gestalt therapists call process. Thus, each Gestalt has a trajectory or natural history it follows from need-generated figure, through resolution, to its destruction or disappearance. These steps or stages (the boundaries of which are, of course, frequently fuzzy) constitute the core characteristics attendant to the above-mentioned core tendency and will be described in detail below. Figure 1 presents a schematic which may be useful in understanding what follows. Figure 1



The Structure of Phenomenology The structure of phenomenology from a Gestalt perspective is one more major concept crucial to understanding this process. The basic functional definition of Awareness from a Gestalt perspective is that it is the outcome of contact and movement at the ego boundary. This notion fortunately coincides with definitions current in cognitive neuoroscience (Damasio, 1999, 2010; John, 2003). Unlike psychoanalytic theory, Gestalt theory does not assume that the ego boundary is more or less synonymous with the body boundary. Rather, it is a boundary that indicates the edge of what one experiences as me or I-ness, as differentiated from what one experiences as other or otherness. Thus, I might regard classical music as me-ness and Latin jazz as other-ness. Alternatively, if I am a transexual, I might regard my sex organs as other-ness. So, this boundary floats at the interface of exchange and negotiation between the me and not me. Therefore, awareness occurs wherever there is difference. This is not difficult to confirm, if we turn to the psychological literature on sensation, perception, and psychophysics. If, for example, I plunge my hand into a bucket of cold water, the difference between me or warm and not me or cold will be quite sharp in my awareness, perhaps even painfully so depending on how cold the water is. Now, suppose I leave my hand there motionless for fifteen minutes. Soon the water will no longer feel cold to me, not because the water has ceased to be cold, but because I have habituated my hand has become colder, and without movement the water surrounding my hand has warmed to some extent. Indeed, I may no longer have sensory awareness of the water itself, until I move my hand again and feel the friction against the resistance of the water. Thus, in Gestalt therapy we say that contact at the boundary is necessary for awareness, whether that contact involves some kind of internal dialogue, or contact with another person or with some aspect of the environment or ecosystem of which I am a part. The Phenomenological Field is composed of all that is available to awareness. This includes, memories, current sensory experiences, feelings, visceral sensations, fantasies, meaning systems developed over time, current meaning systems, and other thought or experience forms. Let us represent this Phenomenological field as an oval, which contains all that is available to and for awareness. If you take a moment now to observe your own Phenomenological field, you will notice that your awareness comes in contact with one thing after another as that line between me-ness and otherness continues to dance, depending upon your needs and interests of the moment. Figural awareness is remarkably narrow. The current understanding in cognitive psychology is that attention can carry about four bytes of information unless processes such



as chunking are involved. Now, let us look at the formation and destruction or resolution of a particular Gestalt on a time continuum (as represented in Figure 1), and let us suppose for the sake of clarity that we are starting with a fresh Phenomenological field (an unusual condition, of course). We will represent the Phenomenological field again with an oval form (Figure 2 ).

Figure 22 Figure @@3

The small circle in our hypothetical phenomenological field (Figure 2) represents whatever the focus or center of awareness may be at the moment. That focus we will label Figure (as in Figure/Ground). (The author is aware that there is significant disagreement in the Gestalt literature regarding the locus and nature of the figure. In this paper, the choice has been made to stick closely to the original research as reported by Kohler [1947], and to subsequent crucial experiments by Vygotsky and Luria as reported by Luria [1976].) The Figure has taken a central position in our awareness and attention because it has been triggered by an organismically-based need or interest, as described above. The emergence of a need or interest polarizes the phenomenological field into figure and ground. Thus, the rest of the space in the oval will represent the portion of the phenomenological field which is Ground to awareness (composed primarily of memory systems, but including attendant sensations, feelings, memories, concepts, associations, etc.). Some aspects of ground are vitally important to what is figural at the moment and, therefore, would be represented spatially as close to the symbol for figure. For example, if I am tired, remembering where a comfortable chair is will be closer to the figure than where the nearest workout center may be. Collins and Loftus (1975) provide an excellent description and validation of this process, based upon a series of careful experiments. Indeed, their visual



representation of the time the brain takes to access related and unrelated concepts replicates the figure above. Following a Figure through its Trajectory Now it is time to introduce two important concepts regarding figure and ground, which not only help to describe the experience of the moment but also have important descriptive implications for psychopathology, a dimension that is beyond the focus of this article. First, recall that the figure is brought about or triggered by a need or interest which is biologically or organismically based. This need or trigger polarizes the Phenomenal field into Figure and Ground. Figure operates on the basis of several psychological processes: sensation, perception, imagery, awareness, attention, and intentionality. The figure functions in the phenomenological field in such a manner as to organize the ground. The Ground, on the other hand, gives meaning to the figure. Psychological processes associated with Ground are primarily, but not exclusively, memory systems including: eidetic and echoic memory, working memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory (for reasons of precision and application to therapy and psychopathology, I prefer Tulvings [1985] nomenclature of episodic, semantic, and procedural memory to the formulations of Schacter [1995] or Squire [1986]). The process of functioning Figure and Ground can be illustrated as follows: I am in one of the occasional California earthquakes, and it is relatively strong; figural for the moment is the shaking and noise that accompany an earthquake. That Figure organizes the Ground at the moment in such a way that I remember I have heard that the safest place in an earthquake when one is indoors is a doorway (because of its structural reinforcements), and I move towards such a doorway. Also available to my awareness is that my knee is hurting, but this information is moved to the periphery of my consciousness. Thus, my phenomenological field has been organized by what was figural at the moment. The Ground, meanwhile, has given meaning to the Figure. The shaking and noise cited above indicate danger to me, and I must take action. This same shaking and noise would have an entirely different meaning if I were riding in a pickup truck on a rough road on my way to a mountain lake. The shaking might still be figural, but the fact that the context is anticipation of a peaceful mountain lake organizes my phenomenological Ground. And so rather than taking action, I sit back and enjoy the ride and scenery. Thus, our hypothetical figure/ground oval remains constant over time, but its internal configuration changes moment to moment (aspects of ground may become briefly figural) as my awareness changes moment to moment. Imagine for an instant that we can turn that oval 45 degrees, and that the



Gestalt Formation/Resolution process travels through it or, alternatively, the oval travels along the time line of the Gestalt Formation/Resolution process. That constant moment-to-moment change of configuration becomes clear as the Gestalt is processed at various stages. Using the concepts just discussed, let us now follow the natural history of a hypothetical Figure from its initial formation to its completion or dissolution. Although the truth is that real life seldom follows the models we construct, and that the stages of any process description are singularly arbitrary, as with fractals (Kelso, 1995) they are frequently useful in analyzing processes and events for clinical and scientific purposes. To begin with, we will postulate a relatively unlikely event, an undifferentiated phenomenological field. In other words, there is no figure in awareness and, therefore, there is no polarization of the field into figure and ground. As improbable as this may sound, it does occur naturally under conditions where the person is adept at certain forms of meditation, or when ones needs are seemingly satisfied or satiated. I recall a specific experience when growing up in the Andes. After breakfast, I would sit out on the porch in the morning sunshine and rather quickly zone out. I would come to in a few moments, aware that for some period of time I had been aware of no sensations, fantasies, thoughts; in short, no awareness at all. We will represent this Undifferentiated Field (Figure 3 ) as an empty oval. Figure 3

Now, let us suppose that a biologically-based need arises, thirst in this case. Remember, Gestalt theory is about process. So, we have a process we will call Figure Formation. Thirst does not come on or off like a switch. It arises over time. As the need for liquid arises, it begins as bodily sensations that may not be immediately interpretable. It may start as a vague sensation. It may even be misinterpreted as hunger, the possible consequences of which are obvious. So, while a biologically based Need/Interest gives rise to a new figure in the phenomenal field, the figure itself may not be entirely clear, and it may be necessary for that figure to come into sharper focus. We will call this stage of the process Figure Sharpening. Once the need-based Figure is clear in the phenomenological or experiential field, it requires some kind of resolution. In order to reach a



satisfactory resolution, the person has to consider how that need and Figure fit the current relationships and conditions of the Field. But a brief word of explanation is required here. Gestalt theory is a Field-based theory rather than an intrapsychic theory that postulates states and traits. Gestalt theory postulates that behavior is not the product of the personality or the field, but rather a product of the combination of the person and the rest of the field. We are interested in the whole ecosystem in the larger sense (as opposed to a systems theory sense), of which the organism is simply a part. The phenomenology is a property of the organism. In a sense, then, persons scan both themselves and the environment to see how the need and the Figure might be best resolved, given the context. We will call this stage Self/ Environmental Scan. To illustrate this point, let us imagine I am lecturing and the clear Figure is that I have a full bladder. The ground organized by that figure will hopefully include the facts that: this need is on an ever declining time line, I am in a public place, I am at a certain point in my lecture, I am not alone in the woods, I have learned certain social conventions about this kind situation. These all give meaning to what is figural for me. So, I scan both my environment and myself for acceptable resolution. I could walk over to a corner of the lecture hall and come to a resolution, but that has its downside. I could walk silently out of the room down to the restroom, but ground tells me it is not pleasant to me to be thought of as weird. I could wait until the lecture is over or, perhaps, set a time for a break. In the process of doing the self/environmental scan, a number of processes are occurring. Ground, which contains a lot of procedural memory (Tulving, 1985; Burley and Freier, 2004), is altering the meaning of the figure, searching memory, imaging a future, and relating all of these things to the present. Once I have found a possible resolution that seems or feels appropriate to the field conditions, and seems like a good fit between my Ground and what is figural for me, I move on to Resolution of the gestalt. At one time this appeared to be a stage all of its own, but from a neurological or neuropsychological perspective it is clear that things are not so simple. According to what we currently know about brain function, several functions subsumed by the frontal lobes involve the sequential and intertwined steps of Intending, Planning, Execution, and Verification of the resolution. These steps are all a part of the resolution process. They may be seen as sub-stages, and indeed clinical work underscores the importance of considering them in observing a client deal with needs as they come up. This reinforces the fact that all of the processes, or the Gestalt Formation/Resolution trajectory, are rooted in brain processes. Assimilation takes place when one has completed the resolution and is taking in the results of the changes in the self/environmental field. At this



point in the process, the person is taking in the effects of the resolution, whatever they may have been. In the case of a fly that is annoying me, my pride at having made the catch and the relief at no longer being bothered may well be offset by my disgust at the smushed remains in my hand. I will store the assimilated aspects of this experience and use them again in similar, or perhaps more loosely associated, situations in the future. Gestalt formation and destruction cycles are linear in time but not necessarily bound by time. In other words, an entire cycle may take place in less than a second, while another might actually take a number of years to reach completion. So is it with the resolution portion of the process as well. The intention to grab a fly out of the air may be present, but the actual plan and act are the process and product of an instant. Notice the difference in pacing with the verification, however, as one attends to the sensations in the hand, listens for a buzz, and slowly unclasps the hand to see if the fly has indeed been grasped. In a simple and idealized world, I would then return to an undifferentiated state, because the figure has been resolved or destroyed. Of course, that would be a rare occurrence. Life and living have a way of keeping us busy. Usually, as soon as one figure has reached its completion, we are onto the next interest or demand for our attention. Gestalt Peripheral Characteristics: Interruption Patterns Since ones awareness is guided by the needs and interests that arise, ones phenomenological field is continuously polarizing into a constantly dynamic and fluctuating coordination of figure and ground, as one goes about the business of organismic-self-regulation in a constantly evolving field (which is also self-regulating) with numerous relational factors. In observing that process, it will quickly become clear that each organism has a characteristic way of executing the process of figure formation and destruction or resolution. When the organism or person functions in a healthy, normal, and responsive manner with the ecosystem and situation of which he/she is a part, then the whole process of figure/ground formation and destruction or resolution will appear to be a relatively smooth or wavelike process (see Figure 4 ) depending on the observers focus as the person moves from figure to figure or from resolution to resolution. Figure 4



What is often regarded as pathological behavior, or poor organismicself-regulation, will manifest itself in a disruption of the relatively smooth, efficient movement of the process. Such a disruption will tend to look habitual, in that from iteration to iteration it occurs at a similar stage of the process and in a similar manner. In other words, the interruption will likely occur in a similar place in the process, and the interruption will be brought about through, or associated with, similar behaviors regardless of the content being processed. For example, if a number of situations make me anxious and I wish to avoid the anxiety, I will employ the same methods or behaviors to avoid the anxiety regardless of what I am anxious about at the moment. The greater the emotional charge associated with the need, the more pronounced the interruption. We are not looking here at diagnoses. That could be done, but it would require more detail than is possible in this paper to avoid the failure of other such attempts. Let us look now at how some interruptions of the normal process might occur at various stages of the Gestalt Formation/Destruction process. One way the normal process often gets derailed in the Figure Formation Stage is that the person has been taught that the need driving the figure formation is inappropriate or not acceptable. For example, one might learn (introject) that it is unacceptable to experience hunger (to stay with a simple need). Therefore, any sensations that might arise associated with hunger and that cannot be eliminated must be interpreted in such a way as to be acceptable. One such misinterpretation might be a need to exercise. Consequently, the person arranges to workout or jog. As can readily been seen from this example, everything experienced as figural is not necessarily a legitimate figure in the sense that it is not based upon an organismically or biologically based need. Some figures might actually be substitutional. Several other important points are illustrated here as well. First, disruptions at this stage will have fairly profound and serious consequences for ones ability to function healthily or in congruence with the rest of the field. Consequently, disorders growing out of this stage will tend to have quite serious consequences for the persons life in general. Rather serious disorders such as severe depression and some aspects of schizophrenia exhibit major disruptions at this stage of the process of gestalt formation and destruction. Second, there are implications for treatment. If we look at the stage at which this disruption takes place, it will become obvious that treatment strategies oriented towards encouraging or reinforcing eating behaviors, or simply encouragement to eat, are doomed to failure. Such interventions are aimed at too late a stage in the chain of phenomenological/behavioral events. As a result, they will lead repeatedly to frustration for both clinician and patient because the manner in which the lack of interest in food is constructed has not been addressed. Treatment



must be oriented, not to the end or outcome behavior as is so often the case, but to the interruption process itself. What is needed is an awareness of need, rather than a masking of need. A disruption of the Figure Sharpening Stage would result in a very different set of outcomes. The classical stereotype of the hysteric is that of a person who does not allow figures to become crystal clear (see Shapiro, 1965). Instead, the person moves immediately into action without a wellfocused figure. Since the action taken tends to be stereotypical and not well based upon a clear figure, it cannot be based upon a good self/environmental scan. Thus, the outcome of the action does not satisfy the motivating need. Obsessive-compulsive individuals are able to achieve a good clear Figure with a well-differentiated ground. However, they are not able to maintain the figure as they get drawn more and more into aspects of the ground, which are important and relevant to the figure. At some point, the figure itself is lost, and since the ground has no need-based impetus or trajectory of its own, the person cannot move onto a resolution of any kind. If, for example, I want a red Chrysler Sebring, cost and the reputed interest highway patrol officers have in red sports cars are important and relevant aspects of ground. But if they become so important that I lose clarity about what I want, then I get stuck obsessing about cost and the eye-catching characteristics of the color red, and I am unable to move on to a resolution. The scenario is probably all too familiar to most academically oriented people, for whom some modicum of obsessive behavior is necessary in order to survive graduate education. In this example, one can see that the mutually determining balance of the figure and ground in the phenomenological field has been disrupted. The therapeutic focus would then be to ask how the disruption is created, what its purpose is. This information would lead to relevant treatment interventions that fit the structure of the disorder. Once polarization and adequate differentiation of the phenomenological field have occurred so that what is figural is clear, the person is prepared to do a Self/Environmental Scan in preparation for resolution of the figure or need. At this time, issues of self and environmental support are of paramount importance. What experience does the person have and how confident can she be with regard to her own capabilities, and to what extent has she learned the healthy realities of interdependence with the rest of the Field? Individual differences range from Dependent Personalities persons who are constantly seeking confluence to persons who are so confluent phobic that they can never accept assistance, support, or cooperation from others. If, for example, I am lonely and need companionship, I will consider who is available at the time and what kind of companionship I need. It maybe that I am interested in a more intimate conversation than is safe with a particular colleague, who



is well known for his presence on the local gossip circuit. The person I really wish to spend time with may not be available, and I may decide to forgo spending time with anyone at the moment and wait until later, or turn on the television. I have not found a good match between what is figural, and what is available, and decide to postpone or take care of the need in a less than optimal way. Resolution requires the ability to act within oneself or within the Field itself. Therefore, it requires the ability to reflect, as well as motor and social skills. Involved here is the aggression it takes to do something, or to modify the environment or the self, in a manner consistent with the need underlying what is figural at the moment. Often, persons who have worked through the neurotic aspects of a problem still cannot act competently because they have never observed an adequate model. Others may be embarrassed by the awkwardness that necessarily accompanies trying new actions for the first time. The modulation of aggression (in the sense of activation level, not hostility) is crucial here, so that one is not too timid in the Field nor, on the other hand, too aggressive and insensitive to the Field so that one is acting destructively within ones own ecosystem. Frequently, individuals who have been depressed have to be taught to act effectively in the world. People with character or personality disorders also have some difficulty here. For example, they may not have the self-soothing or emotional regulation skills necessary for actions that work ecologically for them. Here the therapists teaching skills are more important than their sensitivity. I have often seen therapy fail at this stage because, while therapists were experts at helping to smooth out process interruptions, their own interpersonal skills were such that they had little to teach in terms of acting in the nonphenomenal aspects of the Field. Assimilation is an aspect of the Gestalt Formation Process that is sometimes impeded by the design of the adult brain. The brain is not efficient enough to reanalyze every stimulus and every new event. Consequently, it takes certain over-practiced actions and perceptions fore granted. After a spending some time with a new car, one does not double check to see if one has indeed shifted into a particular gear. One begins to assume that, without any information to the contrary, one has accomplished what one has set out to do. Similarly, one often fails to take in the fullness of an experience to let oneself be affected by it. If, for example, I have learned in the environment in which I grew up that a particular act on my part is of little value to some people in my life, I may not take in the impact the act has on someone in my current environment who may be especially appreciative of me for what I have done. The Assimilation process or stage is the point at which Posttraumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD) develop, because the person is unable to assimilate an experience that is too big or shocking to take in. The result leads to symptoms such as intrusive



thoughts, disturbing dreams, and inability to focus. In a sense, PTSD is a disorder of assimilation. The astute reader may have noticed that, as we move from the beginning of the process of gestalt formation and destruction to later stages, interruptions at the beginning of the process generally result in fairly severe disorders, while interruptions occurring in later stages are associated more with what we would ordinarily call growth issues. As therapy progresses, therapists find themselves working more on the right end of the hypothetical process: that is, with concrete actions and the making of new meanings. The exception to this tendency is evident in Posttraumatic Disorders, in which the inability to assimilate an experience causes frequent disruptions in future cycles of figure formation and resolution. Gestalt Personality Theory and the Five-Factor Model of Personality When a new theory in an area of psychology emerges, the obvious question is: How does this theory help us predict or understand behavior in a better way than other theories currently available? The current, dominant understanding of personality theory, based upon numerous factor analytic studies done in disparate cultures over an extended period, posits that personality is best understood as the interaction of five identified factors (Digman, 1990; John, 1990). While different authors use slightly different names for each of the factors, their descriptions are such that all are usually accepted as describing the same general factors. Although the content of the factors is not germane to the current paper, it is mentioned here for the interested reader: 1. Emotional Stability or Neuroticism; 2. Extraversion/Introversion or Surgency; 3. Intellect or Openness; 4. Friendliness/Hostility or Agreeableness; and 5. Concientiousness or Will to Achieve. The five factor model assumes that a relatively small number of basic personality dimensions exist and can be found in both normal and clinical populations, which are presumed to differ quantitatively and not qualitatively (OConnor and Dyce, 1998). OConnor and Dyce have found variations in these factors to be discriminating and capable of identifying some well- established personality disorders, while not identifying others. The five factor theory and the Gestalt theory presented here do not stand in opposition to each other, as do so many competing theories. Rather, four out of the five factors seem to be modifiers of process in an adjectival manner. In other words, the factors seem to describe general characteristics of how the process outlined above is carried out. For example, what is the level of introversion-extroversion, or the intensity with which the person goes



about passing through the trajectory of a particular gestalt? These factors are compatible with the theory presented here. Take this example: a healthily functioning person may be more or less extraverted, agreeable, conscientious, and open, while moving smoothly from figure to figure and resolving each in a manner satisfactory to the organism and respectful of the needs of the Field. A person may vary along any of four of the aforementioned descriptor factors, as well as get stuck or move smoothly through the gestalt process in a recognizable way. So, we are talking about a kind of person who moves through the gestalt formation/destruction process in a particular way. An exception may be the emotional stability factor, which seems to describe a trait of interrupting the process regardless of the particular manner or stage. Integrating the two theories moves us, from a world where people are describable in terms of traits and states at a point in time, to a model that includes the functional enactment of these traits over time. In short, this brings us to a more powerful model than either alone. The integration provides us with a Trait X Process model, which includes not just the traits but also a description of how the trait is expressed in time, and how it functions in the actual living of the persons life moment to moment. Parenthetically, juxtaposing a trait-based model with a process model makes it clear that the five factor theory is really a product of the methodology (factor analyzing adjectives). It would have been equally appropriate to factor analyze actionoriented phrases rather than adjectives, which would have generated a more process-oriented set of factors. Using a Process-X-Trait-based approach also solves a problem that has bedeviled psychologists for a long time. How does knowing a persons traits dictate treatment methodologies? The uncomfortable fact has always been that such knowledge does not lead directly to treatment methodology. Treatment procedures are clarified, however, when it becomes apparent that access to traits is established through process (R. Resnick, personal communication, 1998). Psychotherapy addresses the how, not the what or why. If clinicians know how certain behaviors are constructed, then they know that by addressing the how they will affect the trait. One additional variable is required in order to predict behavior: the situation and its emotional or limbic loading (Burley, 1998). The greater the amount of affect potentially elicited by the situation or its content, the more stereotypical the persons behavior will be. From the viewpoint of Chaos theory, this would be labeled a control variable, or the variable that controls phase changes. The amount of emotion elicited by a situation would determine whether a person is able to move smoothly, and without interruption, through the process of gestalt formation and resolution, or whether the process was interrupted in some manner. This would permit a Trait X Process X Situation model by which



to predict behavior. It is increasingly evident that behavior is not the outcome of the organism in isolation, or of the Field/ecosystem as a sole controlling variable. Rather, the organism and the Field function in coordination to produce behavior. As psychologists, we have failed dramatically at being able to predict behaviors of importance. For example, a question such as Will prisoner X kill again if he or she is released? is almost unanswerable with a straight linear model. However, a Trait X Process X Situation model would make it easier to answer the question, Under what conditions or situation would prisoner X (with A traits and who exhibits B process) kill again? Such a question is more answerable because it includes the Trait x Process and Situation, and therefore requires a reformulation of the questions ordinarily asked. The Issue of Development One question remains to be answered in order to complete a theory of personality: that of development. How does the person come to exhibit the process-characteristics that mark (her) as unique? The process of development has been increasingly well documented in the psychological literature. The perspective offered in this paper adds emphasis to the importance of experience. The infant is, in a sense, in the ultimate phenomenological position in that she has not yet encrusted stimuli with a great deal of meaning, and is in the position of discovering her own unique world and developing the processes and meanings that make life possible in her small ecosystem. The child is doing this with a brain not fully developed while, at the same time, she must commit an enormous amount of survival-relevant process and meaning to both procedural memory (Tulving, 1985) and implicit memory (Burley and Freier, 1999). That such experience is necessary for learning and change is well established in the experimental literature (Wilson and Verplanck, 1956; Brewer, 1974; Lovibond and Shanks, 2002; Shanks, 2010). We know that the childs brain and mind are formed by the interaction of her unique capabilities and the unique complexity of her environment. These complex interactions lead to procedural memory, which grows to be relatively permanent and guides the process that becomes characteristic of the person. In short, our procedural memory identifies us as unique individuals seeking to resolve needs that motivate us all. It becomes our character structure. Gestalt therapy and theory assume a relational process as the foundation of awareness, as do cognitive neuroscientists such as Damasio (1999, 2010) and John (2003); Gestalt theorists such as Yontef (1993, 2009); and a number of others interested in attention, awareness, experience, and phenomenology. Such factors are part of the field process and developmental process of any organism and, for us,



what makes us human. While this paper is too short to detail everything relevant to the topic, it should be understood that both development and process are dependent upon relationship, which makes awareness possible. Ones personality is thus the result of the interaction of the genetics and temperament the individual possesses. It is modified by the experiences one has with the rest of the field, and their influence on the process of gestalt formation and resolution identifying each of us. That process varies in scale, so that one gestalt formation and resolution segment may last but a portion of a second, such as slapping a bothersome mosquito; while another may take years, as in acquiring a graduate degree. As Feigenbaum says, quoted by Gleick (1987): One has to look for different ways. One has to look for scaling structures how do big details relate to little details. You look at fluid disturbances, complicated structures in which the complexity has come about by a persistent process. At some level they dont care very much what the size of the process is; it could be the size of a pea or the size of a basketball. The process doesnt care where it is and, moreover, it doesnt care how long it has been going. The only things that can ever be universal, in a sense, are scaling things.1 Todd Burley, Ph.D., AAPP

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1 The author wishes to express appreciation to Drs. Kelley Morton and Robert Resnick, as well as to many graduate students and postgraduate trainees, for helpful criticism and suggestions regarding this paper.



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