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Layers of the Neurotic Personality

by Alan Cohen

In the late 1960’s Fritz Perls spoke about something he called “the layers of the neurotic personality”. It was essentially a phenomenological description of the experience, identifications, and behaviors of people who have substituted what he referred to as “character” for the fluid self. Perls saw “character” as being a product of adaptation to the expectations and requirements of the external world. This adaptation then becomes frozen, or reified, so that it is not a temporary adaptation, but rather a “self concept” which the person believes is who s/he “is”. So, while Perls (and Gestalt theory) saw a healthy “self” as that which is always forming, changing, and creatively adjusting with that which is new, “character” is stale, unchanging, and persistent. And, Perls believed, character is primarily responsible for people’s need to come to therapy – since their unchanging view of self and world interferes with their capacity to fluidly engage the changing world in the most optimal manner currently possible. So, Perls’ focus turned to looking at how people experience themselves and others in this rigidified way; how they tend to act, feel, think of themselves, effect others, and satisfy (or even know) their needs. Unfortunately, when he spoke of this, he was not particularly consistent when speaking of the particulars of his schema. Perls was not someone who was able (or perhaps interested) in focusing on details, but rather was taken with large, paradigm changing ideas. (Thus most of the writing of the original text “Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality” was done by Paul Goodman – to whom Perls gave his ideas for elaboration). In looking at Perls’ “Layers” formulation over the past few decades, and looking at his inconsistencies, I have come to a formulation that I believe is both consistent, and true to Perls’ intentions. The following “layers” describe a rough sequence of the person’s experience of and engagement with themselves and the (external) world, as we systematically engage in their construction. Cliché Layer: This way of being and engaging in contact is best described as a manner of interacting with and acknowledging another without requiring or revealing much personal information. It may involve commenting on the weather, the elevator music, or the amount of pollen in the air. It is a functional way of interacting with people who one has no intention of engaging further with, or as a preliminary “feeling out” of another’s availability for further contact. But this is a transitional form of making contact for most people – and if not, is an indicator of a fairly phobic attitude toward human engagement. Games Layer: While Cliché Layer reveals very little of the person, Games Layer begins to reveal the person’s way of organizing self and world. Perls borrowed the term “Games” from Eric Berne’s “Games People Play”, which described reified patterns in how people engage in “inauthentic” and “dysfunctional” behavior. I think that “Games” is no longer an optimal descriptor, and can be confused with accusing people of purposely “playing games”. Actually, most often people are not aware of their reified patterns of behavior, and their role definitions that characterize this “layer”. So, I prefer to describe this as the layer of Constructed Self and World. While not as catchy as “Games”, I think it is more descriptive. In this Layer, or mode of functioning, people tend to have fixed ideas about themselves, and fixed ideas about others, and even the larger world. These ideas are pre-constructed, so they do not take into account the ever-changing nature of self or world, and they preclude the person even noticing any other possibility. These pre-constructions tend to be introjected elements of the world they have lived in. So, they may be ideas of self based on how their early environment treated them (“I’m the stupid one”, or “I’m the golden child”), what they were told about themselves (“I need too much”), what they were told about the world (“you can’t trust anyone”), etc. They may also be reified experiences of how things were for them (“everyone has more than me”), or reifications of successful creative adjustments – “I’m a joker” (e.g. for someone who learned to use humor to ease an explosive family environment). But in any case, whether based on experience or what they were told (which then becomes an experience), these are pre-constructed ideas which are super-imposed on both the person and others, and are usually out of awareness. So there is a script that tends to repeat, regardless of the environment or the circumstance. And where the script cannot fit, the person tends to be disinterested in engagement. These constructions of self and world tend to be set up along various polarities, some of which are identified with, and some of which tend to be dis-identified from and projected onto others. So, the “stupid” person will tend to be “stupid” in relation to the “smart ones”. The “hard worker” will notice all of the “lazy ones”. The obsessive type will look for someone who is more “artsy” (and be attracted to their spontaneity and/or be critical about the other person being “flighty” and “irresponsible”). The alienated polarity will also exist within the person: one might have two seemingly opposite parts which battle with each other – e.g. the sensitive person who derides himself for being “weak”. In this layer of Constructed Self, we relate to ourselves in fixed polarities, and to the world in complementary polarities. The “in crowd” person will point out and avoid the “outsiders”, while secretly fearing that rejection will make him one of “those”. These identifications are not necessarily conscious or in awareness, but become apparent in on-going contact. And if one asks someone to describe who they are, they will likely give a series of such role identifications, rather than a description of their ever-changing complexity. The limitations on experience and choice that are imposed by these pre-fabrications greatly reduce the possibility of satisfaction in life. They do not allow for an expansion of how we experience ourselves, and they limit the possibilities that we can see in the world. This “layer” tends to create a two dimensional picture – and one that has in all likelihood become outdated! And if it allows for some initial satisfaction, that tends to become dulled because sameness is reinforced in one’s on-going living (since interest and growth require contact with “the assimilable novelty”). People come to therapy when the limitations of these pre-definitions lead to a sense of dissatisfaction, deadening, or pain. Many approaches to therapy seek to improve the person’s functioning within their world view. So, the person who feels worthless unless s/he is “the most successful one” may learn how to support him/herself to strive in a more effective way. Someone who lives in relation to a world full of bullies may get help in being more assertive and standing his/her ground. In this way change happens incrementally, without changing world view: “the world is still populated by bullies, and I am not caving in”; or, “what creates my self esteem is being more successful than everyone else, and I am now better at that”. That’s probably what Fritz was referring to when he said that people do not come to therapy to get better – they come to get better at their games! But this Constructed Self is what people believe they are; they don’t see that it is something that has been constructed. And the Constructed World is what they believe the world is. And the relationship between the two remains stagnant – the only change is how the pieces are arranged. So, the self is identified with specific ideas, and this has significant consequences, including the following: other possibilities literally do not exist in the person’s awareness; and when they do (and are not dismissed as foolishness or whatever), they are literally experienced as a threat to one’s existence! This reminds me of the story of Columbus’ voyage, in which the crew believed that going beyond the boundaries of the known world would result in falling off the edge of the earth into nothingness. And that is a perfect metaphor for the impasse… Impasse: Of course, we all know that Columbus and his crew did not fall off the edge of the earth, but rather found a New World. If they only knew that, there would have been so much less anxiety! But this is true for us as well. We experience tremendous anxiety when we approach the edge of our known self/world construction. We mistake the dissolution of that construction for the destruction of our actual being. We avoid this in ways that we are mostly unaware of, and sometimes quite purposeful about. This is likely why Fritz often referred to Impasse as the “phobic layer’ – people are generally phobic of going beyond their known world, and do not believe that there may be a “new world” which will emerge. Perls, in his way of having broad ideas, but not clarifying the details, spoke of impasse in some apparently contradictory ways; these contradictions leave the impasse insufficiently understood. I would like to clarify what I think he might have been talking about, and certainly what I am talking about when I speak of impasse. Since in the neurotic personality self is not fluid, but is reified into a concept of self/world (see Constructed Self), that person’s ability to see the actual is impaired. There is also a belief (not necessarily in awareness) that one’s actual existence is dependent on this construction. It is “who and what I am”. And we tend to do what Columbus’ crew would have liked to do: we stop before we go over the edge. We make progress in the process of change, and then somehow we get stuck. We return to old ways of being. We feel hopeless about things ever changing for us (while we continue to act in old, unsatisfying ways). In this case, Fritz would say that we are at an impasse. That is, we have gotten to the edge of the impasse and then stopped. So, we feel stuck – and we are – because we intuitively fear what would come next if we did not stop. If we did not stop, we would move into and through the impasse. We would experience a sense of disorientation, of the world as we have known it no longer being familiar, of a state of confusion that reflects not having prefabricated ideas of self and world to cling to. We would dissolve the constructed self/world. Wilson Van Deusen wrote a beautiful article “Wu Wei, No Mind, And the Fertile Void”, in which he spoke of this state of no-thing-ness, this state of existence itself being primary, allowing for a renewed contact with the actual – not the conceptual. In this state the old ego identity actually does die, and what is simultaneously born is the fluid self – that which is based on direct experience. So, it is no surprise that emerging from this state colors seem more vivid, sounds seem crisper, sensations feel more alive. And the world that we contact may well seem surprising – there may be greater kindness than we believed in; we may be more resilient than we thought we could be – the implicit restrictions and limitations that we lived with are (for this blessed moment) not restricting and limiting our experience. I say for this blessed moment because even this new experience will tend to become reified – as if this new way of seeing is now a permanent truth – unless we are open to living in a way that welcomes these impasses, that doesn’t rely on fixed ideas about who we are and what the world is, that sees the self as more than a fixed concept: an awareness that notices the new, that assimilates it, and that constantly reconstructs our mental picture of reality. This is the novel idea that Gestalt therapy first offered the world about the nature of healthy functioning sixty years ago – and it is still as radical now as it was then. Implosive Layer: The Games Layer is essentially constructed due to the paucity of adequate support for the actual emerging self. An environment that is too overwhelmed or emotionally impoverished to offer support for someone who is grieving, or frightened, or even joyous will largely result in a construction of self which eliminates these unsupportable expressions of self. To be sad in an environment that does not offer support is painful. To be angry in an environment which might attack you or shun you for your anger is dangerous. And so we go on as if we do not feel what we feel and do not need what we need. And as long as the constructed self is mistaken for the emergent self, these unsupported parts of experience will be interrupted through the various maneuvers in the person’s repertoire of contact interruption. But largely, they must be retroflected until the experience of them (grief, anger, fear, joy, etc) is deadened. Once deadened, these elements of self are “safely” out of touch – out of awareness. But, as the early Gestalt Psychologists told us, the organism is constantly seeking to complete itself, and these elements, needs, emotions are present, although frozen, deadened. And when the Constructed Self is deconstructed through the impasse experience, often what is emergent is the deadened self, seeking completion. The experience of this may be powerful, or faint. It may be brief or prolonged. In any case, there tends to be some awareness of a feeling that is “inside” of us that isn’t yet moving into expression. Perls called this “layer” the Implosive Layer, since important aspects of self had been imploded in order to keep them out of awareness. He also referred to this as the Death Layer, since the emerging self had been (and continued to be) deadened. I prefer to eliminate this nomenclature and stick with “Implosive”, since many people misunderstand “Death Layer” to mean experiences that can kill you, or a part of the self that is by nature “dark”. This is not so, since these are aspects of self that are completely normal and in the every day realm of human experience. There is no particular drama to this and in current terms (in one’s adult life; in the presence of a safe, supportive therapist) there is no particular danger. We are simply talking about aspects of self which were experienced to be too painful or too dangerous to support in an earlier developmental stage (usually), and a different context. Explosive Layer: I have difficulty with this nomenclature for similar reasons to my difficulty with “Death Layer”. Again, people often think of this as loud shouting, painful wailing, or some such “explosion”. Some people have used “Life Layer” or Expressive Layer” to offer alternative descriptions of this experience; but neither feels quite right to me (although both may be preferable). In thinking of a description of the phenomenological experience of this “layer”, I prefer to use “Emergence” as a way to refer to this, since it describes the literal emergence of that aspect of self which had been deadened and hidden from aware experience. In speaking of this “layer”, Perls is referring to the organism’s tendency to complete the incomplete situation – i.e. to express that which has gone unexpressed. So, that which has been imploded is released and allowed expression. Sadness which hasn’t been felt is now felt, and expressed (perhaps in a single tear, perhaps in a torrent); anger which has been frozen is felt, and perhaps voiced; shyness which had signaled a danger of ridicule can now be felt in its sweetness… In this “layer” of experience, there is completion, and there is also a broadening of self. There is a fuller range of human experience which is available in new contacts. And in this experience, there is no fragmentation of self: Sadness isn’t experienced as a polarity of some other state – it is simply its own state. There is a unitary experience of body and mind, and the contact functions are heightened, or are uninterrupted with fragmentations of self and unfinished business. So sounds, visuals, and sensations are clearer and feel more immediate. The person may also be more free to experience the world with fewer pre-conceptions that would distort his/her ability to see and respond to that which is present. Post Script/Integration: This experience must be integrated with the pre-existing “personality” in such a way that shifts some habitual ways of seeing self and world. We all need some way of orienting, so that external and internal stimuli are not chaotic. We need to have some ground formed by past experiences that lends meaning to the arising figures of the present moment. And as such, we can never be entirely fluid, without pre-conceptions. But we can begin to hold these preconceptions lightly. We can be open to the impasse experience of allowing the emergence of the new to supersede the structures constructed of past contacts. We can be open to disorientation by developing a sense of curiosity and a trust in new emergences. And by developing trust in our capacity to re-orient and form new, yet provisional, roadmaps of self and world. Indeed, going beyond the edge of the world can lead to a New World.


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