The Contact Cycle
Attuning to, following, and understanding "contact" is probably the most important figure for a gestalt therapist to track. Contact is considered a process, often described most basically as a cycle from no contact, to fore-contact, then full contact, and ending in post-contact. The language of gestalt, in general, does not assume "disfunction", instead it assumes there are important reasons for the ways we adapt. Hence, this cycle is considered a connect-and-withdrawal process we need for ourselves with others. At any point of the cycle there can be themes that can create a disturbance and interrupt the completion of the cycle. Understanding these disturbances/interruptions gives us the opportunity to accept rather than judge or shame ourselves, then identify a need we have and choices we have to meet that need. In other words, the contact cycle can be a way to identify personal empowerment.
Hanne Hostrup, a contemporary therapist and writer who is highly respected in the gestalt community, does an excellent job explaining the contact cycle in one of her books ("Gestalt Therapy: An Introduction to the Basic Concepts of Gestalt Therapy"). She describes it in nine stages: (1) Rest, (2) A need arises, (3) Figure intensifies, (4) Scanning the field - moving toward, (5) Fore-contact, (6) Full contact, (7) Post-contact, (8) Withdrawal, and (9) No Contact. I like this description because of it's language of "rest" and "need" that remind me of infancy and how what we needed as babies, met or unmet, has a range in influence throughout our lives. I see this as a to be gentle, and empathize with parts of ourselves.
Here's an example of how I understand Hanne's stages as a hypothetical dinner party:
(1) Before arriving at the party, a moment of ease or no apparent need for something; (2) Arriving at the party and being surprised by how many people there are and how many are strangers - some worry/anxiety is felt; (3) Anxiety becomes obvious, and perhaps attempts to self-soothe are made (ex: take a break to breathe by one's self in privacy) - either way, it's determined that this anxiety (ex: an unmet need for familiarity/security) is in the way of connecting with self and other; (4) Looking around, a familiar face is recognized and associated with comfort; (5) This person is approached and some small talk begins; (6) Comfort deepens and it feels safer to share how much anxiety was felt just before talking, and how in connecting with this person that anxiety is at bay - this is taken in by the other person and there is a mutual relating; (7) Walking away to grab some food and talk to someone else has more ease associated with it; (8) In the process of leaving at the end of the evening, time is taken for goodbyes; (9) After leaving, there is no more contact with others and there is a sense of closure to an event and one's role in it.
At any point of this hypothetical dinner party a need may go unnoticed, or maybe it's recognized, but it's not attended to regardless (this is called a "contact disturbance" such as introjections, projections, retroflections, deflections and confluence - to be discussed in a later blog). Perhaps that would look like leaving the party before scanning the room for a familiar face, or skipping the small talk with someone once you reach out and reading their reaction to your suddenness as "they don't like me". Or maybe it's leaving at the end of the night without saying goodbye because of a belief that "they won't care because they're all idiots anyways". Or maybe it's not going to the party in the first place, to "avoid awkwardness". Assumptions about self or other may go unchecked and therefore the opportunity to learn about yourself (ex: I am able to get my needs met even when anxiety makes me feel bad) and specific others (ex: I want to be closer to that person, but I don't like the way I feel around that other person, based on experience) isn't recognized. One has to have awareness of a dynamic to be able to consciously address it, and the contact cycle is one framework to use to identify such dynamics.