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Contact Forms: Retroflection

Retroflection is the last contact form left to be discussed in my recent series of blogs on this subject. In many ways, Retroflection is one of the most common contact forms I see in my office because it's a process that can help shape depression. It's a process that says "hold back and stuff it down", or in other words "depress it", rather than share something that's meant to be shared. The energy meant for the environment is sucked in and trapped in the organism rather than processed outward, finding some closure.

Thinking of contact forms as both contact skills and disturbances, depending on awareness and therefore choice, Retroflection can help us be flexible in what we choose to share with the environment. Developmentally speaking, Hanne Hostrup says when the child has established "differentiation between I and We through projection and deflection and achieved the initial separation between I and You, the development of contact skills continues [p 183]". Retroflection is that skill learned later on, as the process of "differentiation between self-image and the image of the other and... differentiation between ideals and reality [p 183]." As we grow, we are trying to get clearer about the self support we provide ourselves alongside the support others provide us while shifting who we want to be into who we are. I think of this as integrity. Retroflection is a complex process that takes the full zone of awareness (self, other, and space the between) for the organism to decide how to have contact with their environment. This process forms our personality as information compiled "becomes part of the the child's 'story' about him/herself... [which] helps the child recognize 'what I have become and how' [Hostrup, "Gestalt Therapy" p184]."

Healthy Retroflection involves each phase of the contact cycle therefore the impact of the organism on the environment, and vice versa, is assessed and meaning is made throughout the cycle. This is how we learn to like aspects of ourselves or challenge parts that aren't aligned with our core values and integrity. Consider a conversation with a friend where you're consciously (or subconsciously) modulating as you go what to share and what to withhold, perhaps due to the lack of privacy in a crowded restaurant or because your friend is having a difficult time and needs to be heard more than you. Maybe afterward in the car together you chose to share more, or you decide it's a conversation for another day because you want more time than today's timing allows. This is healthy Retroflection at work, modulating with awareness and choice when to share something that should and will be shared. The focus is context and timing rather than IF you should share that thing, ever.

Unhealthy Retroflection can be a product of what Karen Horney (a pioneering and contrasting female contemporary of Freud's) spoke about as "the tyranny of the shoulds", where the ideal self doesn't live up to reality so a "despised self" is formed. One can be tricked into believing the "despised self" is the "true self" (for more on Karen Horney's theories read her book, "Neurosis and Human Growth"). Hanne gives the example of a child being reprimanded consistently and sternly when they act outside how they should act, and the child learns to prioritize what their parents want over their own need. This can form a fixed gestalt whereby, as an adult, they automatically show "restraint whether that is appropriate or not. The person may feel the urge to respond (unlike the process of deflection) but is unable to 'release' the response. Energy enters the organism. But no energy is allowed to escape [Hostrup, "Gestalt Therapy" p186]".

Some behaviors that we generally consider "passive" or "passive aggressive" may fall into the camp of Retroflection, such as going to bed instead of expressing your frustration or hurt toward a partner or huffing and sighing but not outwardly stating disappointment. Another example is "picking a fight" over something seemingly trivial, without addressing the real issue that's upsetting you. If there's awareness, perhaps a choice was made to behave this way now in hopes of addressing the conflict later, but if there's a habit of avoiding conflict then one runs the risk of "depressing it" within themselves where it can be trapped as underlying hurt and resentment. This is why the Gottman's encourage couples to address conflict head-on and have even created tools such as "The Aftermath of a Fight" to encourage this type of processing. However, doing something different only occurs if there's awareness and a deeper understanding of why change is important. That's when integrity has the opportunity to shine.

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