Some of you may have noticed that I got exiled just off the coast of Dover on Friday. Due to hurricane winds (oh yes my friends, my appalling luck is not limited to matters of health) we were stuck at Calais for three hours, then couldn't dock at Dover for another two.
The water was a little choppy and one by one, most of the other passengers succumbed to seasickness. I'm afraid it was too much for my black humour to resist, and I lit up twitter with my hilarity at being the only person NOT being sick on a boatful of vommers.
Simon, a twitter friend (@SilverCat) wrote this fascinating post about something called "Reversal Therapy. He's a gestalt therapist who blogs at http://www.lechatdargent.wordpress.com' and has given me permission to re-post it here :
Reversal experiments: @suey2y vs the seasick
An illustrative example of accessing disowned/underused aspects of self, spontaneously enacted, and viewed from the perspective of gestalt therapy theory. This post is published with @suey2y's permission.
The first half of GT consists of a series of experiments that allow the curious reader to test out gestalt theory. I'd just come to the part about exploring polarities and imagining being in the reverse of my current life-situation, when I saw a highly appropriate series of tweets.
Definition of irony : I am stuck on a ferry, 6 HOURS late docking due to hurricane gales. Am only person on board NOT feeling sick! #crohnie
Sue Marsh, aka @suey2y, is a well known campaigner for disability rights, who first came into my awareness through the Spartacus Report. The irony of her situation as the only person not to be seasick is intense seeing as nausea and sickness is part of the daily grind for someone with Crohn's disease.
The stage is set for a living, breathing reversal experiment. In terms of a polarity, we could say that Sue is more used to being identified with sickness when it comes to issues of general health and well-being. In terms of gestalt theory, this is seen as a continuum; we could work with this as the sickness-wellness continuum and ask where on that scale Sue would habitually see herself.
Now, the statement 'I am sick' or 'that person is sick' carries with it the unspoken 'I am not well' or 'that person is not well'. Wellness is denied to the person identified as sick. What gestalt therapy has to say about polarities is roughly that the whole of the continuum exists within the person. By identifying someone as sick and not well, we are accepting one aspect of their self and denying another. Sickness and wellness only exist in contrast with each other; one cannot be sick without having a well-being with which to contrast being sick.
As a consequence, when we identify with one side of a polarity, and deny that part of ourselves that must embody the other side in order for us to occupy the side we do, we lose access to that part of our self. It's a bit like only hanging out in the parts of a city that feel most reflective of who we are; we immediately lose access to sights and sounds and experiences further removed from our habitual sense of who we are. And the more aspects of our self we lose (read: deny ourselves) access to, the less vitality we have to draw on.
In gestalt, the way to regain access to these parts of ourselves is to re-identify with them, hence the reversal experiment. It's mind-bogglingly simple, yet often very difficult to do in practice. It goes like this: having identified an aspect of your personality that is disowned (experienced as not-me), identify with that aspect by acting it out. This can be as elaborate as standing up, walking around, and getting fully into character. As a lighter touch, it can be thinking of I-statements to make from that perspective. The stronger the dis-identification with that aspect of personality, the stronger the resistance to the experiment; boredom steps in, you become tired, or shame blossoms up in the form of embarrassment and feeling silly.
But if we manage to get into some creative play with what it would be like to occupy that reversed perspective, we will quickly tap into some potent energy:
Who dares me to high jack tannoy, and tell every vommy lightweight passenger to go to work NOW you lazy bastards?
BAM! Now this is powerful stuff; having reversed position, we get a cathartic release that expands the ego boundary to re-include a part of self that is usually denied. This is particularly valuable for me as a therapist, because I then get to experience first hand what it is that the person I'm working with is keeping at bay. Sure, we can talk about it, and makea lot of headway, but nothing is as valuable as direct here and now experience, of inviting the subject under discussion into the room.
It's their illness behaviour. They aren't actually seasick
Hopefully, you get the point. Somehow, the reversal experiment is more effective at getting across how someone experiences themselves than them explaining that experience. This is for two reasons: 1) the switch of positions allows for greater contrast, and 2) the reversal releases more energy than exploring the familiar.
Essentially, the reversed position is a part of self, and so seeks expression. However, it is a denied part of self, so its expression is resisted. In order to resist expression effectively, that resistance must be at least equal in energy to the desire to express the denied part. Hence the energy released by a reversal experiment.
There are many different reasons for introducing a reversal experiment in therapy. The aim is pretty much always the same though: to bring the disowned material into awareness, and promote a greater integration of the whole of the person. And in the context of public attitudes towards and between different social groups, the empathy generating power of this reversal becomes not only apt but urgently needed. After all, as one person tweeted:
if you don't follow @suey2y please read her tweets from about 1hr ago, and then hope you never get ill in the uk#itcouldbeyou
Maybe if people who identified themselves as being generally in good health, in contrast to 'the sick' or 'the disabled', or if people who are 'employed' in contrast to being 'unemployed', played this reversal game for themselves, our society as a whole might be less willing to stomach the NHS and welfare state being shredded before our eyes.