Gestalt Theory and Self-Regulation

January 19, 2018

Self-Regulation

A few months ago, I discussed the basis of Gestalt theory and its practical applications in the workplace. A fundamental principle that underlies Gestalt is the holistic nature of humans, every part having an influence on and being influenced by another part. This means that each person needs to be viewed as a whole, and whether we realise it or not, our physical actions are inextricably linked to our mental thought processes, biases and prejudices.

Organismic need 

We all have needs, and we self-regulate in order to satisfy those needs every day, often without really thinking about it. We have a drink because we are thirsty, going to the bathroom because nature calls or going to sleep because we are tired.

But look beyond these simple physical needs, and the subject becomes more complex when we examine psychological needs. For example, what do we do when we feel trapped in an unfulfilling job, or are faced with someone expressing viewpoints that we find objectionable? Ideally our reaction might be to quit the job and challenge the individual, but that is not always as easy as it sounds.

Self-regulation 

While organismic needs are spontaneous impulses, physical or psychological, there are times when we cannot simply fulfil them or they contradict one another so we have to make a choice. This is the key to organismic self-regulation. Some say that it is what separates us from animals, but when you think about it, even your dog might perform organismic self-regulation to a certain extent. Again, let’s look at some examples and you will see what I mean:

You feel tired, but you can’t go to sleep because you need to finish a report. You need the toilet, but it would be rude to walk out of the meeting now. Or how about this one – you want to challenge the racist views of the guy in front of you, but he looks violent and you also want to avoid exposure to physical harm. In the latter example, you have two contradicting needs and have to make a choice.

Organismic versus shouldistic

Psychologist and Gestalt expert Gary Yontef differentiated between those restrictions we place upon ourselves (I want a biscuit, but I won’t have one because I want to lose weight) and those imposed upon us by the wider world (I want a biscuit, but I won’t have one because people will think I am greedy).

He termed the latter “shouldistic regulation,” meaning doing or not doing something because you should or shouldn’t. I mentioned that even animals exhibit some degree of this, and it is no great leap to apply my biscuit example to a well-trained dog that could easily snaffle a digestive from the coffee table, but knows it shouldn’t.

Exploring the introjects 

Gestalt theory advocates a critical re-evaluation of the shoulds and shouldn’ts we acquire over the years. These can be better defined as introjects – rules we have adopted and accepted without any sort of evaluation, often because they have been forcibly imposed on us.

The thing about introjects is that they can disrupt your organismic self-regulation and create internal conflict. Of course, that doesn’t mean simply rejecting everything you’ve ever been told – that’s where the critical evaluation part comes in, but more on that next week.

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