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Contact Forms: Confluence & Introjection

In my previous blog I discussed the Contact Cycle, mentioning how disturbances to the cycle can take different forms other than contact. These disturbances are called confluence, introjection, projection, retroflection, and deflection. Here, I'll discuss the specific contact forms of confluence and introjection, once again referencing Hanne Hostrup and her book, "Gestalt Therapy: An Introduction to the Basic Concepts of Gestalt Therapy". This book does an exceptional job explaining gestalt concepts dating from Fritz Perls to today and if these concepts interest you, I encourage you to pick it up.

Since gestalt therapy places emphasis on context and the interdependence of environment and organism, the dynamics or patterns of behavior we find disagreeable are not categorized as generally good-or-bad. Instead, contact forms are discussed as both skills and disturbances because they can be either, depending on context. Hanne writes "The difference between a healthy and an unhealthy contact form is not the nature of the contact form or the contact disruption but the way in which it is applied (its purpose) [p 146]." One way of determining purposefulness has much to do with anachronism - whether or not that specific way of relating is out of time and place. This is like an old coping skill that is no longer needed, or at least in this moment - it might have protected you in the past but if it's a habit without awareness and utilized without choice, it can be in the way of contact.

Confluence is two becoming one, a perception that boundaries do not exist (although boundaries, or the difference between two things, always exists). It is necessary for caregiver and infant in the first six months of life to have a oneness so the baby’s needs are "felt" by the caregiver and met with an urgency as if they were the caregiver’s own needs. This develops the “We” experience, so the baby can later develop the “I” experience. Both experiences are necessary for meaningful contact and withdrawal – “we” functions to meet needs for intimacy and connecting with humanity, and “I” functions to meet needs for withdrawal and self-support. If this development is stalled by neglectful, abusive or suffocating parenting, an incomplete gestalt forms in the “need arises” phase of the contact cycle (see my previous blog, "The Contact Cycle"). As Hanne describes, “The I-function cannot reconcile the experience of own needs and the experience of separation [p152]”. In other words, this inability to differentiate my need from your need encourages a confluent contact form as a habit to ward off the deeply painful experience of abandonment. This anachronism - a coping mechanism learned early in life applied out of time and place – is an avoidance of showing one’s difference or accepting another's difference, in exchange for a false closeness. What is most wanted, deep intimacy, is tragically thwarted in the fantasy or assumption of oneness.

An introject is often a belief, a concept about the organism or their environment, that's "swallowed whole" (as Bob and Rita Resnick say). It's often accepted early in life without discernment, without awareness of one choosing to believe it over something else. Hanne describes introjection as like confluence, except in confluence the boundary between I and You is not perceived and with introjection it is partially perceived. There is a subtle awareness that the concept doesn't fit, perhaps on the sensory or emotional level, but it's not a completely conscious cognition and the person takes it in "uncritically without resistance" (Hanne's words). Introjects can interfere with the contact cycle at any point, however one place this contact disturbance becomes noticeable is in the "scanning the field" phase of the contact cycle. To paint a picture of this, imagine having subtle awareness of an introjected belief, "people think I'm stupid". You "hear" this internalized critical voice as shame, but the original voice came from a critical family member or friend earlier in life. Now you hear it as a habit in new social situations. Even though you're not around that original critical other in this moment, you're also in the habit of not challenging this belief by scanning your environment for new/different feedback. This is how a negative introject causes harm - it blocks the helpful influence in the present that would enable the organism to grow beyond a hurtful past. Again, something out of time and place messes with the moment.

We can all unknowingly exhibit confluence or introjection. Remember, the issue is not the contact form itself. If there's a pattern, a habitual reaction to the environment by an organism, one is likely doing these things without awareness. This lack of awareness in the moment is what makes it an unhealthy contact disturbance. Building awareness of what triggers these disturbances and being able to notice them as they're happening is an important step in the process of changing and having more meaningful contact.

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