There is an existential unease, an anxiety closely related to doubt—doubt about our safety under the gaze or at the hands of another—in almost every encounter with someone else of our own species. It can range from meetings with strangers to relations with parents, from dealing with authority figures to lovers and spouses. This phenomenon often leads to defensive measures of psychological self-protection that can close off our capacities for curiosity and intimacy, for alliance and collaboration. In general, attempts to keep ourselves safe from the other can prevent us from being and expressing our full selves in relationships of all kinds.
Such issues seem endemic to the human condition and its developmental trajectory. True, fears appear and clashes occur between members of the same species among other animals. These tend to be rather well-defined so far as we can tell: territorial disputes, sexual rivalries, power and status struggles. But there is no evidence of anything so pervasive and far-reaching as the difficulties that arise between humans. Are they necessary and inevitable? Or have certain basic evolutionary survival instincts gone off the track in human societies? These are questions of importance to psychotherapy. To what extent can Gestalt therapy in particular, with its emphasis on the ratio between the security of self-support and the risk in contacting the next unknown, help people enter the world of relationships more fully?
My presentation involves revision, amplification, and a broadening of scope around themes I have been concerned with for a long time, although these had a more specialized focus in the past: namely, the difficulties in long-term intimate relationships as portrayed in my book of twenty years ago, Intimate Terrorism. Now I am taking up a wider focus that I hope will apply fruitfully to all our relationships, including that of therapist and patient.
Michael Vincent Miller, Ph.D. has practiced and taught Gestalt therapy for thirty-nine years, currently in New York City. His own training was chiefly with Fritz Perls, the Polsters, and for many years with Isadore From. After ten years of teaching at Stanford University and M.I.T., he co-founded the Boston Gestalt Institute, where he directed training. He has also trained psychotherapists in Gestalt therapy in a dozen countries. He was on the editorial board of the Gestalt Journal and was Consulting Editor to the International Gestalt Journal. Besides contributing numerous articles to many journals and magazines, he reviewed books on psychology and related areas for the New York Times Book Review from 1985 to 1994. He is the author of four books: Intimate Terrorism: The Crisis of love in an Age of Disillusion (Norton, 1996), which has been published in eight languages; La Poetique de la Gestalt-therapie (Exprimerie, 2002), which was published in France; Teaching a Paranoid to Flirt (Gestalt Journal Press, 2011), a collection of his writings over thirty years on Gestalt therapy; and A Gestalt Therapy Testament (Casaperlarte, Milan, 2014), published in English and Italian.