Psychoanalytic Concepts in the Light of Gestalt Theory
An Analysis of Selected Defence Mechanisms

Thomas FUCHS
University of Bonn

Abstract of the lecture at the 10th Scientific Convention of the
Society for Gestalt Theory and its Applications (GTA)
Vienna/Austria, March 1997

This lecture has been jointly developed by several members of a group of Gestalt Theoretical Psychotherapists (Thomas Fuchs, Michael Ruh, Marianne Soff, Bernd Gerstner). This group was trained in psychoanalytic theory by Karl-Herrmann SCHÄFER, who died in 1996. He was a psychoanalyst at the Sigmund-Freud-Institute of Frankfurt, member of the GTA and member of the training staff of the psychotherapy section of the GTA.

Psychoanalysis and Gestalt theory have theoretical and conceptual links regarding their dynamic conceptualization of psychic processes. Defence mechanisms play a major role in theory and therapy of both schools.
The defence mechanism projection in its classical psychoanalytic sense is compared with the Gestalt-theoretical view of this concept. For this purpose, the epistemological orientation of Gestalt theory - Critical Realism - is outlined. Exemplified by a simple case study, possible effects of a projection on the phenomenal world and the transphenomenal world are described. Compared to the psychoanalytical perspective, Critical Realism provides a broader system-view and a clearer distinction between "inside" and "outside".
The person is inevitably viewed as part of a specific situation: This situation contains forces that do not "come" from the person itself but are merely part of the context and thus influence the person's experience and behaviour. These forces - KÖHLER and WERTHEIMER called them "demands of the situation" (Gefordertheiten) -have to be taken into account when we try to understand an individual's present behaviour.

The field-theoretical analysis of the conflict underlying a projection identifies the needs, the barriers and the substitutive goals of an individual in a concrete situation. The phenomenon projection can be explained systematically in Gestalt-theoretical terms without referring to "historical solutions", such as early childhood traumata or the Oedipus complex.
The possibility of past events influencing the present behaviour of a person is by no means denied, but there has to be a clear distinction between the systematic approach and the historical analysis.

The same is true for a more complex defence mechanism, the so-called projective identification, first described by Melanie KLEIN (1946). She believes that this early form of projection has its origin during the first four month after birth.
In therapy, this defence mechanism can be found in psychotic or borderline personalities (KERNBERG, 1978). It is a very intensive projection of primitive aggression of internalized self-images or object-images. At the same time the person identifies himself/herself with the object. Due to this "empathic" relationship, the object becomes very threatening and must therefore be permanently controlled in order to avoid the feared attack of the object.
This process is linked to a loss of ego-boundaries, because - due to the identification - the projected aggression is still seen as a part of the person.
The projective identification poses a serious problem for the therapeutic relationship because it will force the therapist into what KERNBERG (1978) called "empathic regression", re-activating early identifications on his side. The therapist may perceive feelings that seem to have nothing to do with the present communication. ROSENFELD (1990) emphasized the interpersonal and comunicative function of projective identification: The therapist is forced by his/her "own" inner experience to deal with the experience of the projecting person.

How can a phenomenon like this be explained in Gestalt-theoretical terms?
KOFFKA (1935) proposed a theory explaining how one person´s feelings can be perceived by another person. He differentiates between a geometrical point-to-point representation and a dynamic organisation of the psychophysical field and thus the phenomenal world. The perceiving person experiences in his/her phenomenal world a specific pattern of motion that "contains" as Gestalt-qualities certain affective states. That means, like "sad" pictures or "delightful" melodies the affective state is immediately perceivable. There is no need for interpretation or association.
So it is possible that an empathic person experiences in his phenomenal world disassociated affective states of another person, although it seems that there is actually nothing to be seen, to be heard, to be felt. The affective state as a Gestalt-quality is located within the phenomal field of the perceiving person but cannot be connected to the perceived person. Instead, the feelings are transferred to the own person.

Like before, the phenomenon projective identification can also be explained systematically in Gestalt-theoretical terms without referring to "historical solutions". There can nevertheless be the need to explain which biographical events may have contributed to a person's disassociating of parts of her personality. But the Gestalt-theoretical frame seems sufficient to explain the dynamic process underlying a projective identification.
The particularity of this defence mechanism seems to be that in empathic situations persons have difficulties in distinguishing aspects of the own self versus aspects of others within the phenomenal world, especially when one person has no access to certain parts of his/her phenomenal field.
The psychoanalytic explanations emphasizing early childhood experiences remain vague and hypothetical. We have to be cautious in connecting present pathological phenomena in adult persons with hypothesized early developments. At least some of the theoretical assumptions of FREUD and KLEIN have to be corrected in the light of empirical developmental psychology (e.g. STERN, 1985).

In contrast the Gestalt-theoretical approach tries by means of phenomenological methods to identify the important personal and contextual conditions that may contribute to the understanding of a person's behaviour. This corresponds to a view of man that is principally capable of recognizing the "demands of the situation" and behaving according to the needs of the situation, rather than being permanently trapped between pleasure and denial.


This is a provisional abstract of the lecture. The final and complete version has been published in German in GTA's journal GESTALT THEORY (Vol. 19 (3/97), pp 178-196): Fuchs, Th., Ruh, M., Soff, M. & Gerstner, B.: Psychoanalytische Konzepte im Lichte der Gestalttheorie. Eine Analyse am Beispiel ausgewählter Abwehrmechanismen.

Back to conference program 1997 in English.
Zum Tagungsprogramm 1997 in Deutsch.


Click here for a list of on-line abstracts of lectures at the Scientific Conventions of the GTA since 1997

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