Tuesday, October 4, 2011



The Gestalt Cycle, describing the fluid, changing and sometimes interrupted process of the contact boundary that in theory surrounds the self, models a) at the micro level, the transactional nature of our interaction with the environment including others, and b) at the macro level, the arc of longer processes with a beginning and an ending, such as a vacation, a course of therapy, or one's time at college. Each such transaction or arc represents a whole or gestalt.

Our sensory capabilities, not being able to apprehend everything in the environment simultaneously, filter the constant incoming bombardment of sensory information. Out of this fertile void, some part becomes prominent or figural against the rest, the ground. The Gestalt Cycle follows the stages of response of a perceiver to a figural stimulus through mobilizing to interact with it, taking action to approach the stimulus, continuing on to engagement or contact, satisfaction or closure in the interaction, and ultimately disengagement or withdrawal, allowing, from the perspective of the perceiver, the figural stimulus to merge back into the field. Several representations of the Gestalt Cycle have been proposed; an excellent review of them is presented by Mann (2010). The cyclical model of the Gestalt Cycle proposed by Clarkson (1989, Fig. 1 below) includes the recognizable organismic responses to stimulation: sensation, awareness, mobilization, action, contact, satisfaction and withdrawal. Though we may refer to them as stages, each is a mini-process, all in sequence making up one complete Gestalt Cycle. Clarkson's model is detailed and sequentially structured, organizing and expanding upon the processes discussed by Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (1951) in their definitive volume, Gestalt Therapy.


The contact boundary is a theoretical construct, not something that can be objectively examined and measured. It is described as forming and dissolving over the course of a complete gestalt, shifting constantly in between like the boundary between smoke and air, lake and beach. The contact boundary is central to the psychodynamics of the interaction of the self with the environment including others and its changes are thought of in ways that are tightly coupled with observed changes in awareness. The contact boundary forms concurrently with the perceptual process of a stimulus becoming a figure in contradistinction to the surround of other less prominent stimuli that comprise ground. The contact boundary disappears with disengagement from the stimulus. The Gestalt Cycle models the process cycle of the contact boundary.
Clarkson's delineation of the Gestalt Cycle is paralleled by a corresponding sequence of psychodynamic processes identified by Perls Hefferline and Goodman (1951) reflecting psychoanalytic theoretical roots –confluence, introjection, projection, retroflection and egotism and supplemented by the processes of desensitization (Clarkson) and deflection (Polster & Polster, 1973) All of these psychodynamic processes are in principle non-neurotic if passed through on the way to the next or occasionally interrupted, but neurotic of chronically interrupted and inappropriate. To be clear confluence, introjection, projection, retroflection, egotism, desensitization and deflection may be thought of as completely non-neurotic contact boundary processes, but they become contact boundary disturbances. neurotic psychodynamic processes at the contact boundary between self and the environment, when “...they are fixated on impossible or non-existent objects (or) when they involve an impoverishment of awareness (or) when they prevent meaningful integration of needs and experiences” (Clarkson, 1989, p.46).

What is significant is that when one of these psychodynamic processes fails to resolve normally, a corresponding organismic process is also altered in some way both in the moment and possibly in later similar circumstances. When the normal fluidity of these processes, psychodynamic and organismic, becomes habitually disturbed or interrupted, a pattern of neurotic thinking, feeling and behaving is established. For example, incompleteness of introjection (as in failing to differentiate whether a stimulus is relevant and not relevant to the self) goes hand in hand with a disturbance of normal mobilization (the organismic process) in response to stimuli.
Contact boundary disturbances describe habits in which a response (e.g., retroflection/avoidance of contact) manifests in the individual even though the original circumstances under which the disturbance may have had adaptive value (e.g., threat of punishment for speaking out) are not present (e.g., speaking the truth to others will not engender punishment). When one of these contact boundary disturbances occurs, the Gestalt Cycle is interrupted: a gestalt remains incomplete. In the sense that the post-disturbance phases of the Gestalt Cycle do not occur or may not occur fully, there remains unfinished business, a phrase common in Gestalt Therapy.
One may debate whether confluence occurs at awareness or withdrawal on the Gestalt Cycle. The discussion of Perls et al. suggests the former. Clarkson favours the latter, breaking the post-contact phase of the Gestalt cycle into satisfaction and withdrawal with respective boundary disruptions, egotism and confluence. Clarkson's inclusion of deflection (see below) early in the Gestalt Cycle may in part explain her placement of confluence later in the sequence. A complication with this is that in general discourse, confluence is mentioned in contexts that involve circumstances other than interrupted withdrawal such as:
  • being confluent prior to awareness. There is no I/Thou or I/It relationship. The contact boundary has yet to form: the stimulus has yet to fully emerge as figural and differentiated from the self, and the other is never outside the contact boundary of the perceiver. We are often confluent with the physical environment in this way, for example, as we might be with the controls of a familiar automobile. This contrasts with confluence at the end of the Gestalt Cycle at which point the boundary has formed and then been displaced or transgressed and is not allowed to dissolve to make way for new stimuli to become figural.
  • being confluent with the needs and desires of another in codependency (mobilization / introjection).
  • being confluent with one's social location as in interpreting a situation without awareness of one's biases which are projected onto the environment (action / projection). It can be argued that all perception involves some element of this type of confluence and thus confluence cannot be completely eliminated.
  • being confluent with one's projections such identifying with a character in a stage play (no contact occurs).

At the awareness, Clarkson identifies the contact boundary disturbance of deflection or rejection of the stimulus whereby “...the person is not fully aware of his or her own needs or the demands and invitations of the environment” (Clarkson, 1989, p.47) as in passive-aggression. Miriam and Erving Polster (1973) describe deflection as a means of avoiding contact which suggests examples such as looking away at an awkward moment or responding irrelevantly to another person's remarks. The critical difference lies in what is considered to be deflected: awareness or contact. Neurotic “not noticing” is a deflection at awareness if no contact subsequently arises, or possibly at contact, if one chooses to ignore some aspect of the other. Alternatively, one may consider smaller micro gestalts (moments of noticing) within the arc of a longer gestalt such as a conversation; e.g., within the conversation (macro gestalt), we fail to notice the stain on the other's clothing because it is inconsistent with our view of them as a meticulous person (deflection at awareness in the micro gestalt concerning noticing the stain); or we may notice the stain and momentarily consciously choose to ignore it (deflection at contact in the micro gestalt) or make an unspoken judgement about the other and abruptly end the conversation (deflection at mobilization in the macro gestalt) .


Perls, Hefferline & Goodman (1951) elaborate the Gestalt language of contact boundaries, boundary processes and boundary disturbances, detailing aspects of boundary disturbances which may occur in conjunction with confluence, introjection, projection, retroflection, and egotism. These aspects of a boundary disturbance are:
  1. the characteristic
  2. the emergency
  3. the satisfaction
  4. the aggression against the organism
  5. the aggression against the environment
For introjection, these five aspects contact boundary disturbances are detailed in Table 1 and for all boundary disturbances in Figures 2a / 2b. PHG also reference other psychoanalytic concept of deflection, repression and sublimation in their discussion of boundary processes but do not elaborate their boundary model as fully for these. 

Table 1. Aspects of Boundary Disturbances. Perls, Hefferline & Goodman (1951, Chapter 15: Loss of Ego Functions)
a key externally observable characteristic rejection of the excitation as it appears dangerous to respond to it
one or more environmental events that will trigger feelings of emergency excitement (danger) or decision making (danger, loss of contact with ego functions)
as a secondary gain of neurosis, a satisfaction masochism (creates a subjective impression of buying safety)
some form of aggression against the organism reversal of affect (consequence of above; e.g., belief that joy may trigger an abuser may lead to the experience of sadness instead)
some form of aggression against the environment Resignation (perceived as safe relationship to self)

   Figure 2a. Aspects of Contact Boundary Disturbances: Characteristic, Emergency, Satisfaction
(after Perls, Hefferline & Goodman, 1951, Chapter 15: Loss of Ego Functions)
Figure 2b. Aspects of Contact Boundary Disturbances: Aggression toward the Organism, Aggression toward the Environment (after Perls, Hefferline & Goodman, 1951, Chapter 15: Loss of Ego Functions)
If the contact boundary is “disturbed,” evidently it is not situated between the person and the environment as it would be in non-neurotic process. The answer to this is suggested in the discussion provided by PHG and is briefly summarized as:
  • confluence: the boundary is sufficiently displaced from the self as to include a significant portion of the field; in the sense of merging, it may seem to be dissolved altogether
  • introjection: the boundary is displaced to include certain other individuals or aspects of them such as their beliefs
  • projection: the boundary is displaced inward such that perceptions or introjected material is experienced as belonging to others or the environmental
  • retroflection: the boundary is displaced inward such as to create a split within the self, one part of which takes the place of the other, the function of which is permit self-comfort or inward expressiveness in place of the more feared contact with another person or the environment.
  • egotism: an attempt to prevent the dissolution of the contact boundary that naturally happens at the withdrawal stage of the Gestalt Cycle
and if we extend this model of characterizing contact boundary disturbances to deflection and desensitization:
  • deflection: an attempt to prevent the contact boundary from fully forming either at awareness or to hasten its dissolution without contact or satisfaction.
  • desensitization: as the stimulus does not commence to become figural and does not register an organismic response such as pain, the boundary, if it can be said to exist at this pre-awareness stage, remains in whatever after-state existing after the preceding gestalt.

Clarkson, P. (1989) Gestalt Counselling in Action. London: Sage.

Mann, D. (2010) Gestalt Therapy: 100 Points & Techniques. New York: Routledge.

Perls, F., Hefferline, R., Goodman, P. (1951) Gestalt Therapy. New York: Bantam.

Polster, E. & M. (1973) Gestalt Therapy Integrated. New York: Vintage Books.