Levels of Contact Boundary in Gestalt Psychology

Categories: Psychology

A student of Gestalt psychotherapy; a professional sales person; a qualified trainer; a wife; a dutiful daughter-in-law, or the author of this essay? Am I all of these and more? Or can I only be one without the others? How do I know which of these I am at any one time, and how do I know what effects each have on who I really am? Am I always me?

Such musings have occupied the thoughts of many a psychologist, philosopher and religious theorist over the centuries.

A quick flick through the ages reveals that there are many theories of what ‘Self means (Gaarder, 1996). This paper does not attempt to answer these opening questions categorically. Instead, it offers an analysis of what Gestalt theorists and practitioners mean by the term ‘self’, and how this influences the clinical practice of a Gestalt psychotherapist. In order to arrive at a definition of ‘self from the Gestalt perspective, it is first necessary to define what is meant by the terms ‘contact’ and contact boundary’.

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By examining the interconnectedness of these major concepts in Gestalt theory, we will be able to assess whether ‘Self is discovered at the contact boundary’.

So what is me and what is not-me? How do I know what is part of me rather than that which is separate from me?

“contacting occurs at the surface-boundary in the field of the organism/environment…. The definition of an organism is the definition of the organism/environment field;” (Perls, Hefferline and Goodman, 1977:303)

This implies that it is in the contact boundary that a clearer sense of self as an organism emerges.

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The contact boundary both ‘contains and separates the person from his environment while at the same time being his contact with the environment’ (Clarkson and Mackewn, 2002:54). Latner (1992) clarifies this by stating that the contact boundary takes into account both the differences between the elements which are meeting and also the unity of their meeting, and thereby creating a whole. In addition to this, the quality and nature of contact can be different from moment to moment, as can the boundary itself. Philippson (2001a) explores the contact boundary further and suggests that there are in fact three boundary levels: the physical contact boundary, the self/other boundary, and the personality boundary.

The first contact boundary is as described above. Since there is no sense of ‘T’ or ‘Me’ in this boundary, it precludes any sense of experience by the organism. It is simply the physical boundary between the organism and its environment. Philippson (2001b) aligns this boundary to the theory of the Id function which Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (1977) speak of, where the Id function remains passive and acts as the field from which figures emerge. At this boundary it is possible for an organism to be aware that they are a separate entity from their environment.

The second contact boundary is that of the self/other, implying the existence of a sense of l’ and ‘not I’, and is the operation of identification and alienation in the field of the organism’ (Philippson 2001a:41). From a psychoanalytical Freudian stance, this is the Ego function where I am able to experience the contact I make around me through my acceptance or rejection of my environment (Perls, 1969). At this boundary, I am able to experience what it is to be a separate entity to my environment, and can chose to focus my attention or divert it away on an autonomous basis. Thus, the Ego function is about the choice an individual has and their sensory awareness in relation to their environment. Furthermore, it is conscious of itself as isolated from its situation’ (Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman 1977:442).

The third contact boundary is that of personality, and it is here that we can get a sense of who we are in terms of ‘me/not-me’ (Philippson, 2001a), and involves using the ego functions of identification and alienation in a retroflective manner. It is at this boundary where I am able to judge myself and others and form opinions of who I am and what I am like. For example, at this boundary I may say ‘I am a confident person’ and identify with the confidence in me and at the same time alienate the shyness in me, turning this into values and belief. It is important to remember that contact at all three boundaries may be occurring at the same time, none of which are fixed, and it is precisely this complexity which must be remembered when discussing definitions of ‘self’ particularly in relation to field theory, later on.

It is also important to note that the quality and nature of contact at any of these boundaries may be determined by the individual’s varying contact styles, which may influence and be influenced by these modifications to contact. Gestalt theory believes that an important element of healthy functioning is to have ‘good contact with self and others’ (Joyce & Sills, 2001: 112). The process by which we make contact is what is of interest to the Gestalt therapist. Following on from the theory of the contact cycle, where an individual follows a process of contact often depicted as a seven stage cycle from stimulus to completion and where contact is made and then a process of withdrawal occurs (Zinker, 1978), certain patterns which disturbed the completion of this cycle were identified. These disturbances were originally interpreted as a hindrance to full contact and became known as interruptions to contact. Further study and understanding, however, of these disturbances revealed that it was not always a negative process, and that indeed there are times when these disturbances provided a positive outcome. Furthermore, these disturbances were unique not only to the individual, but also to the situation at the time. Consequently, these interruptions were redefined as modifications to contact, which simply describe the creative adjustments adopted by individuals in order to make sense of their environment. More importantly, it was understood that;

“A healthy person needs to be able to move along a continuum between completely avoided contact, modified contact and full contact, depending on each new situation. All these positions are potentially healthy and can only be judged in relation to the field conditions and the person himself.” (Joyce & Sills, 2001:113)

This implies that any contact in any contact boundary is phenomenologically driven. The meaning which is taken from any given situation depends on the field which the individual draws from. According to Parlett (1991), field theory is a set of principles which depicts the interconnectedness of everything from which meaning is derived. The meaning of any given situation depends on its organisation, its meaning in the present moment, its uniqueness, its relevance and its changing process. For example, I know of a building in Manchester which used to be a Christian Church, complete with a bell tower and steeple. For many years, I used to walk past this building and think of it as a Church and linked this with my own memories of what that meant. I had images of an alter, an aisle and pews, perhaps a lingering smell of incense and candles. In its organisation, this building was clearing a Church. I now know, however, that it is in fact the local Islamic Academy. Clearly, the church was de-consecrated and the building’s use was modified and with this reorganisation comes a change in the remaining principles relating to field theory until the meaning assigned to the church becomes dramatically different for me and the people who frequent it now.

With this in mind, what happens when there is more than one person in relationship with their environment where each of them bring their own fields? Parlett (1991) suggests that a new field is cocreated between all the individuals, incorporating elements of each field building a ‘common communicative home, which is mutually constructed’ (ibid:75).

So how does this connect to the theory of self and contact boundaries? Gestalt psychotherapy pays attention to the whole person; the physical, emotional, psychological, historical, social and cultural elements of an individual all make up the whole. Based on the idea of field theory where everything is connected to everything else, how does one stabilise oneself, and thereby achieve a sense of self?

According to Latner (1992), the field is organised by where our attention is drawn and thereby creating that which is figural and the other which is in the (back)ground. This means that, 

“In contact situations, the self is the power that forms the gestalt in the field; or better, the self is the figure/background process in contact situations.” (Perls, Hefferline Goodman, 1977:436)

This is a good starting point from which to unravel the complexities of the Gestalt notion of self. In its interconnectedness with the theories already mentioned, the Gestalt theory of self implies that it is a continuous process which has little meaning in itself (Perls, 1969; Philippson, 2001a). In its passive Id function, the self is only distinguishable from its environment by its physical boundary. It is only through the ego function, in the process of the polarisation of identification and alienation that a sense of self appears. The polarities define each other: night and day, cold and hot, me and you. There can be no ‘self’ without ‘other’. The self is relational and intersubjective, changing and growing according to the contact with the environment and/or another person (Mackewn, 2002). This self then becomes very choiceful for the individual. There is scope for growth through choosing in awareness what we configure for ourselves from the experiential field, thus choosing our reality (Parlett, 1991). Relating back to Philippson’s self/other boundary, that is the ego function in action. In choosing where I focus my attention, T begin to emerge. Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (1977) expand on the ld and Ego functions to draw attention to the middle mode where both ld and Ego are at equilibrium and spontaneity prevails. It is in this middle mode where we are truly at one with our experience.

So far we have explored what we mean by the term ‘self’ in relation to the contact boundary and Gestalt psychotherapy in abstract terms. We have not yet mentioned the notion of personality other than in terms of the personality contact boundary of Philippson (2001a). This is because the idea of ‘personality’ is almost a separate issue amongst Gestalt theories and we will examine it now.

Our personality is defined by our attitudes, beliefs and values in relationship to the environment around us. Our environment shapes us through the quality of contact we have with it and others within it. The personality function is both the verbalisation of this system of attitudes and beliefs as well as the more introspective analysis of ourselves (Latner, 1991). This indicates that dialogue occurs between self and other, as well as internally with our own sense of self and is thus a ‘verbal replica of the self’ (Perls, Hefferline and Goodman, 1977:446). This personality function also acts as a memory in terms of identity of self, and is responsible for the structure of self in all its encounters with the environment (Mackewn, 2002). This polarity within the self from changing process to enduring qualities can be seen as the image of waves on a beach; with each new wave hitting the sand, there is an assimilation of the new figure combined with the enduring features of the ground.

In defining the term ‘self’ then, it is necessary to incorporate all the different aspects of Id, Ego, and Personality functions as well as how they all interact with their environment according to their field, at all the different contact boundaries, depending on the modifications to contact present at each contact episode. This intersubjective and phenomenological concept of self means that,

“The self encompasses both variable process and enduring features. It varies, making itself afresh in response to new encounters in the ever-changing circumstances of the field; and yet also manifests background qualities of stability, cohesion, and continuity which provide the support for each fresh contact episode” (Mackewn, 2002:79)

All of which goes towards verifying our opening phrase that ‘Self is discovered at the contact boundary’. Furthermore, if this concept is true then what implications does this have in the clinical arena of Gestalt psychotherapy? How can I as a Gestalt therapist relate to my client in a way which reflects the theories outlined above?

Since the ‘self is discovered at the contact boundary’, the therapeutic relationship in Gestalt pays particular attention to the quality of contact between the client and the therapist. Unlike other forms of psychotherapy, for example cognitive behavioural therapy or NLP, there is no specified ‘goal’ that the therapist aims to move the client towards achieving. The emphasis is on a dialogic encounter between the two people, meeting authentically within their fields and co-creating a supportive and healing environment within which the client can explore their sense of self. It is this authenticity and responsibility which is embodied within Gestalt therapy (Yontef, 1993).

In order to be truly engaged in a dialogic encounter, Yontef (1993) suggests that there are four principles which need to be adhered to: inclusion, presence, the commitment to dialogue, and the lived dialogue. This is inclusion of oneself as therapist without judgment or interpretation in order to work with the client in a phenomenological manner; being fully present in the here and now with the client in order to meet them in a real way whilst holding our own sense of self and our boundaries; allowing the dialogue between ourselves and the client to unfold at its own pace rather than manipulating the outcome, and exploring that which is ‘lived’ or non-verbal through experimentation and embodiment of the theory. Through this dialogic encounter a therapeutic relationship is formed between the therapist and client.

This quality of contact or meeting can also be described as an I-Thou dialogue (Mackewn, 2002; Sills, Fish & Lapworth, 2001). Taken from the philosophy of Buber (1958), this subjective person to person approach refers to a meeting of mutual respect where there is acceptance of the other as they are without wanting them to be different. These I-Thou moments have the greatest potential for healing and change (Mackewn, 2002). In this instance, what is between the therapist and the client is reminiscent of Philippson’s second contact boundary, and it is in the differentiation with acceptance where healing and change can occur.

It follows then that with an I-Thou encounter, there must also be a more objective l-It relationship which includes a more analytical approach as its polarity. This is also necessary within a therapeutic relationship as the therapist does require the ability to self supervise the session in terms of timing, self-disclosure, and clinical issues for example. In reality, many of us live in the l-It relating mode and I-Thou moments can be rare, brief moments in time which cannot be sustainable in its nature. Thus, the dialogic relationship effectively is a constant movement between the I-Thou and l-It contact, enabling the client to discover the self at the contact boundary.

There is a danger when discussing the theories of self to focus on either the physical boundary or the self/other boundary or the personality boundary in isolation from each other. It is important to remember that these are interconnected and it is precisely this complexity which allows Gestalt psychotherapy to develop and explore the theory of self in relation to the field. There is also a tendency within the literature to identify with the relational aspects of Gestalt and alienate the more psychoanalytical stances of drive theories. Philippson (2004) recognises the need to integrate these two aspects saying,

“If we have only a drive approach, based on the boundary between organism and environment, the theory becomes mechanistic….. If we have only a relational approach, based on the boundary between self and other, the theory becomes disembodied.” (Philippson, in British Gestalt Journal 13(2):89)

This gap is evident in the lack of literature which identifies the link between self and body process and is reflected in this paper. In addition to this, Yontef (2004) highlights the problems caused by the lack of a clear definition of ‘person’. He suggests that the ‘organism’ terminology used by Perls, Hefferline and Goodman is not a clear enough representation of what is human and cannot adequately express what it is we mean when we say ‘person’. He goes on to say,

“I have yet to see a clear statement that integrates the self-boundary-field perspective and the totality-continuity of a person. I hope we can soon create a theory that integrates our self as boundary emerging at a moment with others and the person as continuing over time and space through many contexts.” (Interview with Sally Denham-Vaughan in British Gestalt Journal 13(2):82)

These critiques suggest that there is still scope for development in relation to theories of ‘self, and indicates that this development of theories is in itself a process which needs to continue and grow.

In conclusion, it can be seen that self is discovered at the contact boundary according to Gestalt theory. This paper has explored what the terms contact, contact boundary and self mean in relation to Gestalt Psychotherapy, and has demonstrated that the contact between the individual and its environment is always context driven, or field related, and it is at and in that boundary where the self is defined. This discussion has also highlighted the complexities around the theories of self in relation to the field and examined the practical implications of this for the Gestalt psychotherapist. It is evident that although Perls, Hefferline and Goodman’s views of self have provided Gestalt theorists with a starting point, their psychoanalytical background may have contributed to some confusion with regards to terminology used. The Id, Ego and Personality functions as described by them are useful in contemporary Gestalt discussions, but do not form the entirety of our work. In terms of the implications of this discussion on clinical practice, it is important to remember that in order for our clients to develop to their full potential, at their different contact boundaries, with their varying styles of contact, to discover them-‘selves’, we must offer a dialogic approach in our work. Most importantly, we must remember that ‘self’ is a process.


  1. Buber, M. (1958) I and Thou. trans. R.G. Smith. New York: Charles Scribner & Sons.
  2. Clarkson, P. & Mackewn, J. (1993) Fritz Perls, Windy Dryden (ed), Key Figures in Counselling and Psychotherapy, London: Sage.
  3. Denham-Vaughan, S. (2004) ‘A Gestalt Integration’, The British Gestalt Journal, 13(2):77-86.
  4. Gaarder, J. (1996) Sophie’s World, London: Phoenix
  5. Joyce, P. & Sills, C. (2001) Skills in Gestalt Counselling & Psychotherapy, Sage: London.
  6. Philippson, P. (2004) ‘Drive Theory in Gestalt Therapy’, British Gestalt Journal, 13(2): 87-91
  7. Sills, C. Fish, S & Lapworth, P (2001) Gestalt Counselling, Speechmark Publishing: Oxon.
  8. Yontef, G. (1993) Awareness, Dialogue and Process: Essays on Gestalt Therapy. Highland, NY: Gestalt Journal Publications
  9. Zinker, J. (1978) Creative Process in Gestalt Therapy, New York: First Vintage Books.

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Levels of Contact Boundary in Gestalt Psychology. (2021, Sep 11). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/levels-of-contact-boundary-in-gestalt-psychology-essay

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