One of the early contributions of Gestalt therapy theory was a phenomenological description of the sequence of contacting, from earliest arousal through action, through resolution. As with everything theoretical, there has been dispute and controversy regarding the details of this description. But I am less interested in the details of this formulation, and more interested in the frame that it gives us when looking at healthy behavior, and therefore at unhealthy behavior.
Contact is the basic and essential experience of being aware of some element of the field (whether internal or external). It includes awareness of and behavior toward, and it is essential to consciousness, survival, and being human. So any awareness of some-thing is consciousness. And it is what allows us to be engaged with the world that is our de facto and life sustaining context.
Contact tends to be organized around needs, whether the needs are biological, relational, intellectual, or whatever. We become aware of needs, whether through contact with a growling sensation in our stomach, which becomes hunger; or a pulsing sensation in our groin, which becomes lust; or a dryness in the mouth, which becomes thirst; or an open and whimsical feeling, which becomes playfulness, or…
We start with a sensation that “catches” our awareness. This sensation, when noticed, becomes an expression of a need. So, dryness in the mouth and throat may be “figural”. But when we notice the dryness, it leads us to the need – so “thirst” becomes figural. And in noticing our thirst, we begin to “organize the field” around sources of quenching our thirst – so the bottle of water in our refrigerator becomes figural.
At that point, motoric action is required: we must move toward the refrigerator, open the door, remove the bottle, open the top, and…drink. The water, which has been our “beckoning figure” now becomes one with our dry tongue. We melt together with the cool, quenching water, as our need is satisfied and recedes.
For a brief moment, almost unnoticeable, we disengage from contact. And when we re-emerge, we become aware of the next emerging need.
So, healthy functioning involves an ability to stay aware of and actively engaged in contact with, and satisfaction of our emerging needs. We may need water, we may need affection, we may need an intellectual challenge, we may need soothing, we may need to rescue ourselves – or another – from danger. To the degree that we can remain engaged in this process of contacting and resolving/satisfying our emerging needs, we are healthy and self-regulating. But when this process gets interrupted in a chronic way, we start to see “pathology”. I’ll list some of the ways this can happen:
1) We might not notice the initial sensation. So, the feeling of dryness goes unnoticed, or the pain in the lower back, or the sense of emptiness…
2) We might notice the sensation, but not identify the feeling or need that it is communicating.
3) We might notice the need, but assume that a source of satisfaction is not possible (“this is a world without comfort”), or that the need is itself a sign of weakness (“I shouldn’t need that”)
4) We might notice the source of satisfaction, but deem it too difficult to pursue (“It’s too hard” or “too dangerous”).
5) We might pursue the source of satisfaction, but not allow ourselves to experience the sating of the need – so I might eat compulsively, without experiencing the fullness that would signal a resolution of the need, or I might have sexual encounters without allowing myself to experience the intimacy of the encounter.
At every stage in this sequence of contacting lies the possibility for healthy engagement in noticing needs or problems, and resolving them in a way which produces feelings of satisfaction and mastery. And at every stage in this sequence lies the possibility of chronic interruptions to this process emerging, leading to symptoms of deadening, of depression, of anxiety, of social isolation, of addictive/compulsive behaviors, etc.
Needs are constantly arising from within, and are constantly being pressed on us by our external world. Those needs that we interrupt are constantly pressing for completion. Our ability to notice this process is what we seek to heighten in our work in Gestalt therapy. To the degree that we are able to allow this emergent process to move through us, and to actively engage with (and identify with) it, we are relatively self-regulating as people – noticing and taking care of our maintenance, our safety, and our curiosity for newness and growth.