Excerpts from
by Adam J Weitz, LCSW
Presented January 10, 2016

I have been recalibrating to treat the phone and what goes on with it as central to many people’s functioning and not ancillary.

This topic emerged from the ground of my personal life. I was criticizing my partner for looking at his phone constantly. I felt as if he wasn’t with me. He assured me that he could be doing social media on his phone and still be with me, that he hadn’t gone anywhere.

I disagreed. My ‘felt sense‘ of his presence and absence into his phone told me that some real shifting was going on.

He holds that smartphones are useful tools and that we humans are a flexible species, which will evolve to integrate personal tech into our way of being- and not necessarily to disastrous result.

He and I have been encountering the novel differently: He, “all in” and I, “cautious”. Our conversation on this has been ongoing for several years and has heightened our awareness. Our positions have evolved, and we’ve grown, I am happy to say.

Then I started noticing, and talking to people about the ways cellphones are influencing how we live and work. I’ll be throwing out questions as I speak, not for answers in the moment, rather to let them float as what I am wondering…


Now, Gestalt Therapy is the deep ground of our Institute.

Quoting from Perls, Hefferline & Goodman (PHG): In the HEALTHY Figure and Ground Process, we are aware of emergent figures with “attention, concentration, interest, concern, excitement and grace” (xxvi). When a figure is fully attended to, it recedes into and enriches the ground from which it came. A new figure emerges and the process continues.

A DISTURBED figure-ground process is marked by “confusion, boredom, compulsions, fixations, anxiety, amnesias, stagnation, and self-consciousness.” (xxvi).

This is bedrock gestalt theory (hands doing layer of bedrock), well known and explored by most of us in this community.

In a “Real Life” therapy session, a client’s phone dings, chirps, rings, lights up or vibrates. The client stops to see what the alert is (brain stem), then decides (prefrontal cortex) to apologetically turn off the phone, or occasionally or often says, “I have to answer this” or do something with the alert. Perhaps they try to ignore their phone or put it aside in a position that makes it so they can’t perceive any more alerts.

In life outside the therapy room, this sort of interruption of “Real Life” occurs for many clients and therapists in the same way. The amount or type of alert depends on how this person has decided to set up their phone – that is, how or if, they are self-regulating in terms of its use.

Each instantly emerged alert is a figure of attention for at least a moment
Attending to the alerts as figures – or the phone as figure- occurs alongside whatever is going on in real life. People suddenly abandon attention to figures of interest, (the people they are with; the workout they are doing; or the blog they are preparing, Lol). Figures are left unfinished creating ongoing unfinished situations. People have to re-find their “Real Life” thread.

Depending on the person’s style of phone use, this becomes more or less chronic. I hesitate to use the word “chronic” because it is disease-like and I don’t quite want to go there.

You may be familiar, through observation or experience, with people’s compulsive reaching for their phones. The compulsion may be an effort to finish unfinished business – to attend to all the competing figures “in”, or represented by the phone…This may be the “compulsion” of “disturbed” figure ground formation as described in PHG. Or maybe, it is a way of removing oneself from an uncomfortable relational moment.

Here I want to mention FOMO, F-O-M-O, an acronym meaning “Fear Of Missing Out”, that is used in text based communication to explain constantly being fixated on the phone… not only when alerted, but needing to check out of an “internal” impulse – to be sure not to miss anything going on in the virtual realm.

I suggest that the fear in FOMO is the anxiety of what PHG calls “disturbed” figure ground formation.

Our theory acknowledges competing and overlapping figures, sure. What I am saying is that for many people the pace, the quantity and the variety of the attention grabs – the momentary figures – is higher than ever before living with cellphones in what Nicholas Carr, in his book, The Shallows, calls, an “ecosystem of interruption”.

I wonder:

Q: What is the ongoing affect of more and more people living with progressively more fragmented attention to figures and what may be happening in the ground?

Q: Do we need to consider the word “health” as described in PHG – is full attention and sustained concentration in the cellphone age an appropriate way to define health in terms of the figure/ground process? Or does our theory simply label our global society, “unhealthy”, for its progressively more distracted norm? Maybe.

Q: And what of the confusion, compulsion, anxiety and fixation our theory is labeling “disturbed”? Just how hard do young people who’ve grown up “connected” have to work to iron out the “disturbed-ness” caused by what they understand life to be: “connected always as normal”?

And it isn’t only young people…

Life is demanding that many people participate digitally through their phones all the time. This line of thinking brings me to a view that phone figures are chronic unfinished situations.


Clients and friends describe ongoing all day everyday group texts. The conversation never ends. Email threads and ongoing social media posting, liking and commenting are other kinds of ongoing conversation that are more and more done by phone.

Q: When clients turns off their phones for therapy – how finished are those situations that they pick up immediately when the session is done?

We know as gestalt therapists that people need assimilation and withdrawal as part of their contacting sequence. Additionally, neuroscience research has demonstrated that people’s brains need down time to integrate learning.

Clients often are bookending the therapy hour with connection. Many – though not all- are self-regulating by choosing to turn off their phone alerts for the hour. Several clients have said that this hour of the week is the only one when they are not actively connected to their phone, including overnight!!!. Clients often report feeling “relieved” turning off their phones during their session.

Q: What are the affects of bookending the therapy hour with phone activity? Is our session undermined by their knowing they need to get back to it, to finish it?

In this day and age, the therapy situation is more and more unique for its lack of or minimized phone connection. Most of the people I work with understand that therapy works better without a phone. But, are we neglecting something? Do we need to attend to clients’ ways of living outside the therapy room i.e. with the phone on? How would that look? What kinds of experiments might we try?


Related to all of this, I am aware that my perception and conception of the contacting experience is changing.

Fore-Contact Contact Final Contact Post Contact (Assimilation and Withdrawal)

I imagine 2 friends sharing a train ride. Occasionally, outside the train window, something would grab their attention, a clap of thunder, a flash of lightening or a rainbow. The developing contact between the people would be momentarily interrupted, the friends would shift focus, perhaps deepen their contact by experiencing it together, and then continue their conversation, their meeting (finger to finger gesture).

Now what if the thunder, the lightening or the rainbow occurs at irregular intervals throughout the trip? And each friend has an independent set up of these variables outside their window? Could be 2 hours between them; could be 3 minutes apart in a succession then 30 minutes until the next one? Again, independent of each other, they each have their own weather! How would contacting between these 2 friends be affected?

I use this as a metaphor for the ways many people are living with phones. I suggest that contact might never move along a sequence and that the friends’ being together would be a fractured experience – over and over left to pick up wherever their conversation was cut. We see a continually interrupted sequence, so fragmented as to render them stuck in fore-contact.
Depending on how a person sets up their phone – how they self-regulate – RL contacting is altered by continually monitoring a personal virtual dimension as well.

Q: How might this be different for young people, who have grown up with internet and cellphones as givens of living and older people who are experimenting with integrating this technology later in life?

These are people who come to us for therapy.


I was sitting in a restaurant recently. The man at the next table was eating alone. He was texting with someone while he ate. He was positively glowing with a huge happy smile and gentle laughing eyes while in conversation via text. I “felt” his happiness.

Q: Is there such a thing as virtual contact or another kind of name for what he was experiencing? Don’t know. “Analogous contact”?

Clients have regularly reported using their phones to carry on major “relating” with their partners via text– Some of this was geographical. Nonetheless, they were discussing things that I could not imagine being contactful over any “chat” medium.

In session, it hasn’t been immediately apparent to me that “interpersonal” situations clients are describing are taking place via text. Clients often speak as if they were 3D human experiences. There is emotional heft in the “intimate text” conversations described, emotion I feel in the room.

In working with some of these people, it emerged that the distress present in the field of the therapy was a longing for person-to-person contact. The work revealed the malnourishing nature of trying to do meaningful relating through their phone and that face to face relating was, for some, new and terrifying.

Some people confused this with a flaw in the relationship… rather than their need to experiment with a more satisfying medium of relating (i.e. face to face).

With clients I saw creative adjustment, a way to say what needed to be said in a way that felt possible, and might otherwise have been unbearable and terrifying. Working in session with this focused on exploring the creative adjustment they were making. The work focused on relating and building awareness of the experiential difference between texting and talking with an intimate other.

We may experiment with this in our own way in a little while.