Spheres of awareness of Gestalt psychotherapy
In the Gestalt psychotherapy, we distinguish three spheres of awareness – all are equally important and valuable. There is even a commonly used comparison of the human being to a table with three legs (Francesseti et al., 2016).
For many people, this is the most favourite sphere because it is not limited by anything – this is its potential and, at the same time, danger.
The intermediate sphere of awareness are our thoughts and imagination – everything that is “produced” by our brain. It allows us to plan, reminisce, expect and learn. We use it all and it is particularly useful to scientists, all types of analysts, artists, teachers or the clergy as they often navigate abstract areas. On the other hand, thoughts are what makes it difficult for us to stay mindful in the so-called here and now. They take us not only into the realm of our dreams, but also fears. Note that we are usually afraid of what can happen, not what is happening. It is our images on the future that make us worry (or be hopeful).
Where does the notion of “intermediate sphere” come from? Our thoughts mediate internal experiences (body and emotions) and external ones (senses), imparting meaning to signals derived from them. At times, we get into a vicious circle because of this, e.g. by interpreting neuralgia as a heart attack and worrying that we will soon die. In turn, experience of stress leads to worse functioning of our nervous system and our heart. Think freely, then, without losing touch with the reality when this is not required.
Senses are responsible for the content found in our external sphere of awareness. They help us read information flowing into us from the external world. It has always been the condition for survival of the entire species and individual organisms. This obvious statement is relevant for instance when you are reading this text or crossing the street.
Using your senses significantly supports orientation in the world, but it also serves other purposes. In the Gestalt modality (not only in psychotherapy, but also in the approach to life), it is important to experience life fully. This means deep curiosity and openness to the objects that surround us, the smells carried in the air and the people around us. Oftentimes, children are masters at this – they “finger” toys in shops or even lick objects like doors, door handles and walls.
When was the last time that you looked at your partner with the mindfulness of a person being in love? What colour are your children’s irises? Of course, this is neither needed or possible to be curious about all stimuli which our body could potentially capture. This is why the optimal situation occurs when we use the selectivity of perception consciously, having the courage to deepen that sensual experience of the world simultaneously.
The internal awareness are emotions and body signals such as stomachache, sadness or a joyful movement in the solar plexus. It is good when you treat such sensations as information from yourself, for yourself and about yourself. For instance, when you feel that your stomach is very tight, you can start to realise your stress or worry and start to “work on it” – accept it, understand its causes or simply take care of yourself and relax. It happens that we forget about ourselves and only serious disruptions in our functioning pose an opportunity for us to make changes, see our needs and receive help. Emotions are similar – which are actually easily “transformed” by the body into somatic symptoms and the so-called muscle blocks. For example, if you do not relieve your daily anger or frustration, you can experience migraines “of unknown origin.” Is the origin actually unknown, though? Conscious experience of emotional states is not only healthy, but also useful. By openly listening to your gut, it will be easier for you to recognise what is important to you, what choice to make and what your needs are.
Remember that caring for yourself is not egoistic.
Connections between spheres of awareness
The way of thinking is closely connected with our emotions, bodily reactions and behaviours. A simple example: a man “knows” that a woman that he likes thinks that he is a failure (a fantasy, or more professionally – a projection). Therefore, when he meets her, he starts to be ashamed, be afraid of how she responds to his greeting (emotions) – his hands are shaking and he is sweating profusely (body). There isn’t a remote chance of having a chat with her about the weather, not to mention inviting her for coffee (behaviour). As he abandons action and does not engage with the woman, he confirms his original belief: “I’m a failure, she won’t even look at me” (thought). A reverse example: a woman is waiting for a job interview during which she will be tested on topics she would have to deal with at the job. She really wants to get the job and she has heard that the recruiter is extremely strict. She is starting to experience, to feel terror (feelings), her stomach shrinks, her intestines work like crazy (body) and her head is filled with chaos and the expectation of failure (thoughts). Instead of following the possible scenarios of what may happen – including how she will pay off the loan if she does not get the job – she focuses on her breath, sits upright and presses her feet hard into the floor. She is breathing more and more deeply and freely, counting the seconds of each inhalation and exhalation or perhaps repeating an uplifting sentence to herself. The thoughts, of course, keep flowing in (this is their nature). The woman notices them and lets them flow by. She still feels slight uneasiness in her stomach, but the stress is decreasing and, most importantly, is not escalating.
Francesetti G., Gecele M., Roubal J. (2016). Psychoterapia Gestalt w praktyce klinicznej. Od psychopatologii do estetyki kontaktu [Gestalt psychotherapy in clinical practice. From psychopathology to aesthetics of contact] Publisher: Harmonia Universalis.