Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. — Philip K. Dick
Walter Kempler, not to be confused with the California serial killer Edmund Kemper, is a noted psychiatrist who expanded on the ideas of Fritz Perls and Gestalt therapy. Although Kempler is a contemporary and former cohort of Perls, Kempler parted ways with his holistic sidekick regarding the therapist’s role in the process of experiential therapy. Kempler argues that the therapist should be an active participant during the therapeutic process while taking advantage of confrontation during sessions. Kempler’s psychoanalytic approach is to focus on the immediate feelings of the client by challenging them to reveal emotional content underlying verbal and non-verbal language (as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein noted, one of the remaining tasks of philosophy is the analysis of language).
Resistance to experience is one of the primary factors examined in Kempler’s design for experiential and existential psychotherapy. In other words, the client must not discount the “now” and action is emphasized as a methodology for eliciting transformation. Kempler believes that perceptual modification is produced by the active momentum of experiencing events while discouraging the avoidance of therapeutically productive disputation. Simply put, confrontation often leads to adaptive reconciliation. Kempler’s philosophy and orientation are derived from the theoretical position that people gain clarity by seeing things in meaningful “wholes” (Gestalten), rather than focusing on the particularization of specific events.¹ Likewise, understanding the principle of psychophysical isomorphism (the correlations between experience and cerebral activity) provides leverage for maintaining psychodynamic continuity and a resilient sense of identity when future events go awry.
Being emotionally centered to offset the vicissitudes of life demands authenticity of form, but our unwillingness to confront the world as it really is often keeps us mired in the minutiae. In Kempler’s world, consistency and congruency are de rigueur.
1. Becvar, D., & Becvar, R. (2006). Family Therapy. New York: Pearson publishing/Allyn & Bacon.
There appears to be a colloquial trend in modern therapeutic language that creates a false dichotomy between the intellectual and emotional components involved in psychotherapy. For the sake of poetic and metaphorical imagery, it is often emphasized that a client must “feel with the heart” rather than “staying in the head” as a means of eliciting cathartic breakthroughs and achieving insights into behavioral patterns. Certainly one cannot dispute the way the body responds to anxiety, fear, and the multifarious symptoms of internalized trauma. The core of experiential therapy relies heavily on re-experiencing emotionally provocative stimuli and assimilating it as a means of adaptive processing. This is not to be discounted. However, it is my contention that critical thinking should be valued as much as critical feeling (making your feelings count) during therapeutic encounters. After all, without sufficient contemplation and conceptual visualization, Cognitive Behavior Therapy or Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy would simply become Behavior Therapy. Processing emotional content necessarily involves discursive reasoning skills, or at least the capacity to be guided towards congruent and auspicious modes of perception.
I want to be clear about the difference between the words rational and rationalization. The former, for purposes of client-centered interactions, embodies a process or method of gathering, considering, and analyzing contextual information, while the latter refers to a conscious manipulation of information in an attempt to justify maladaptive behavior. Furthermore, I am not writing to argue that thinking should necessarily precede emotion. What I am proposing is that critical thinking should not be dismissed or pathologized as a form of resistance when it is properly applied to fostering or eliciting emotional release. Catharsis depends on a synergistic cooperation involving the brain’s pre-frontal cortex and limbic system. Likewise, when one hears such phrases as “language of the heart,” it is important to remember that the heuristics of emotional dilemmas are not actually being worked out in a metabolic muscle the size of a fist. Nonetheless, the symbolic heart can be a useful metaphor to signify honesty when communicating visceral experiences. In the final analysis, don’t let your feelings do all of your thinking and don’t let your thinking inhibit all of your feelings.