Five Layers Alive - Explosion (or surrender?) into Grief

By Dawn Gwilt

So many clients are turning up right now with an attachment wound centred around “I must do it right.” I describe it as an attachment wound because these types of injunction come into play in our earliest relational experiences. I am interested in developing the links between attachment and five-layers theory, as how much we are stuck in one layer is very much about where the wounding is.

As so often happens, today I find myself unexpectedly experiencing something similar to my clients’ wound. It comes out of nowhere and takes me by surprise. I feel it full strength and it’s very uncomfortable.

I recognise this experience as projective identification (MacKewn, 1997, p95). My client’s experience links with my own history and relational patterns, resulting in unfamiliar feelings and sensations rising up strongly in me for no apparent reason, giving me a taste of the strength of my client's feelings and experience.  Linking this with five-layers theory, projective identification helps me to understand the impasse, where the habitual pattern comes into awareness, but there is no sense of what can happen differently.

I know that if I stay with it and give it time, I will learn something useful for both my client and me. I'm aware of a sad, scared part, and also a holding protecting figure. As I stay with this dynamic, I realise the young scared part doesn't trust that she will always feel safe.


I picture the film Jack which I watched recently. Jack ages at 4 times the usual rate, so at age 10 he looks like a 40 year old man, played by Robin Williams. He has been home-tutored up to this point, but now he will be attending a normal 5th grade class. On his first day he is teased, ignored, called a freak, run away from in horror, laughed at, and of course he is very upset and withdraws. But his parents stay with him in close contact, helping him to bear the pain and humiliation, and to get through to the other side – to supportive contact.


This is secure attachment – not that the child is always safe (unrealistic/ impossible), but that his caregivers are there when things go wrong, staying with his experience, helping him modulate extreme feeling states until the situation or conditions are resolved.

Ah-ha! This is a glimpse of the strength of terror my clients feel when they come up against that injunction, “Do it right, or else...” In that moment they have no felt experience of “X will be there for me when things go wrong. X will stay with me, hold me, and not abandon me.” These primitive fears can feel overwhelming, and lead to the myriad ways that we escape from our experience.  This is the nature of the impasse or phobic layer, “the catastrophic fantasies, the fear of the risk...Afraid to be who you are” (Perls, 1970, p27-29).


As I stay with my fear and rising panic, I come to the edge of my trust – the edge of an abyss. I am approaching implosion, where I can neither pull back nor go forward. Pulling me back is this Enduring Relational Theme, or ERT (Jacobs, 2017): If I imagine an influential other is judging me to have not got it right, I experience fear or terror, and I pull back from creative expression to a perceived safer place. This sort of process is commonly encountered in avoidant attachment.


On the other side I see the possibility of something ‘safe enough’. This requires a leap of faith because it can never be 100% safe. Can I stay with my experience in spite of my fear? The implosion happens when I hang in there, staying with the dirscomfort of the archaic fear aroused by the ERT. I am experimenting in the safety of my own home, but the feelings are coming up full strength, offering me a chance to try something different. My chest is incredibly tight with a pounding heartbeat. My animal brain and nervous system respond as though the danger is very real and very present.

I've never stayed with this process in awareness up to this point before. I reach a distinct choice point where I can turn back to safety or make a leap of faith. I choose the leap, and everything happens very quickly. This is the moment of implosion/ explosion. It feels like a literal leap across a chasm to the other side. Instantly, the artificial structure collapses, implodes, and I explode into tears of grief. Wow, that was unexpected - hot and messy tears for what was then missing, but can still be experienced now.

When we discussed this as a group, Karen proposed a repositioning of the word explosion and using the word surrender instead: “I’m thinking of Ruella Frank (2011) who writes about yielding - resting into experience. Maybe for grief it is more like surrender, and joy and anger are more like explosion. To explode requires surrendering at the same time. Letting go into beingness.  Maybe surrender happens at the cusp of implosion/ explosion...the letting go of the ERT to move into present alive relationship?”




Frank, R. and La Barre, F. (2011) The First Year and the Rest of Your Life, Movement,

Development and Psychotherapeutic Change, New York: Routledge


Jacobs, L. (2017) ‘Hopes, Fears, and Enduring Relational Themes’, in British Gestalt Journal. 26(1), pp. 12-16

Mackewn, J. (1997) Developing Gestalt Counselling. London: Sage


Perls, F. (1970) ‘Four Lectures’, in Fagan, J. & Shepherd, I.L. (eds) Gestalt Therapy Now. Middlesex: Penguin, pp16-44

Adventures in Being

Gestalt Therapy and Counselling for Growth in Edinburgh with Karen Nimmo