Expanding on the traditional experiential and creative approach of Gestalt, I have designed my own unique style of working. It is saturated with my bias that people heal in an environment of love, forgiveness and compassion. In this sense, I have deviated from the more harsh and confrontational, traditional style of Gestalt that was developed by Fritz Perls in the 1960’s. Regardless of his personal and stylistic failings, the basic theory of Gestalt remains brilliant and efficacious, especially when it is heart and soul based.
So as they say, in taking the best and leaving the rest, my approach is experiential and supports my belief that as people are damaged by experience, so are they healed by experience. To this end, all my clients participate physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually in their own healing process. Words are not enough. Imagery is not enough. Human support is not enough. After more than 35 years of working with people, I know that when I was offering insight, it was not enough. The organism of each client holds the secret to what it needs and what is enough. People have to return to the source of the injuries to discover whatever it is that they needed back then; the missing piece. If they need the experience of bonding with a loving mother figure, they will need that all the days of their lives until they get it—the quality of their lives and all their relationships will be adversely affected until they do. This work is powerful, dynamic and almost always profound.
Because we are all unique in our life experiences and therefore our emotional injuries, the response to a client’s need is always specific and individualized. There are a lot of quick fixes that suggest a “one size fits all” cure—talk show hosts, radio interviewers, newspaper columns are filled with them. A new approach every week. Pre-fabricated formulas. No one approach can possibly fit multitudes of people.
To this end, when developing an exact moment of healing, I must be willing and able to risk being creative and innovative. I must listen carefully, and help my client access inner wisdom, so I may accurately assess the burning need. I may need to supply a person with a loving mother, resurrect a deceased spouse, create a judge and jury, create a live choir—whatever it takes, whatever is needed, I must design it.
Let’s talk about compassion. When the word compassion is broken down, com-passion, it means to have passion with, or to feel sympathy with another. When you receive compassion, it moves you out of isolation and into a state of interrelatedness, where you are embraced in the arms of understanding and empathy. Compassion opens you like a love letter; it gives you the safety to risk. Whether with groups or individuals, I work hard to model and establish an environment where people can trust they will be offered support, respect and love, and will be honored in their struggle to heal. Anything less is unacceptable.
One workshop had a number of participants who had been sexually abused, and so it was shocking and jarring to them when one man revealed he had sexually abused his sister. It was also confusing to many who had become close to him. He worked on his deep remorse, actively simulating a dialogue with his sister in which he apologized with such gut-wrenching sincerity, that the truthfulness of his apology could not be in doubt. This was such a sacred moment; unanticipated compassion poured forth from the group. One man, who had been violently and sadistically sexually abused as a child, was so moved that he could barely speak the words, “I didn’t think I could ever sit in the same room with a perpetrator, much less have empathy and forgiveness in my heart. Thank you—I needed to hear those words of apology so much.” Extraordinary transformational power resides in the heart of forgiveness. Mercy showers over the forgivers and the forgiven. In that moment we all heal.
This insistence on loving compassion flies in the face of more traditional Gestalt models that leave space for whatever is to emerge, and avoid direct leadership from the therapist. They are more existential, less interactive, and have no expectations of high-level contact functioning. I don’t have the time or tolerance for less. I’m out on a limb here, and open to criticism from the existential purists. I want to set a course that raises the bar high—modeling and insisting on ways of being with one another that are enriching and safe, while consciously stretching our self-imposed boundaries of restraint.
When people work with me, they know they will be expected to rise to their highest selves and give what they can to others. I’ve been criticized for controlling the group therapy environment by being an active leader with clear biases. To that I say, yes, that’s exactly what I want. I do use evocative music to set a tone. I do open every group by forming a circle with everyone holding hands. I do lead group exercises that build in and promote mutual support. I do interrupt and redirect destructive interactions in a group. I do lecture and teach on the power of love, gratitude and forgiveness. And within this structure, I still follow the organic unfolding of each person’s experience.
People often ask me how I do it, listening to people’s problems all day long for over 35 years, without getting burned out, drained or disheartened. When I look at someone, I don’t see pathology; that is, I don’t look for what’s wrong with a person. Rather, I see people reaching out for health, looking to grow, attempting to create resolution to the issues in their lives. Even the repetition of ineffective behaviors is an attempt to create resolution. People unconsciously put themselves back in the same old situation and patterns hoping to get it right this time.
My model is not illness-based. It is based on the potential for health and wholeness that we all possess. I assure my clients that I am more enthusiastic and hopeful than ever before for the human capacity for growth and healing. Fueling this optimism is my freedom to utilize the full breadth of my creativity. And my focus is always directed toward what can and will be achieved, that is, the healthy outcome to a frequently desperate situation. I always have my eye on the prize.
The immediate impact and permanent and profound results of this work has been staggering. I am awe-struck by how, when given the proper tools and environment, the human spirit can heal itself.
The presence of Death has fanned the flames of my passion for healing, clarified my personal and professional priorities, and directed my compass when I have felt lost. It has been my teacher, co-therapist and friend. It has propelled me into the arms of those I love. Most of all, the counsel of Death has heightened my awareness of and presence in the here and now, which is all have for certain.
— Mariah Fenton Gladis