Five Layers Alive - Explosion into Joyful Creativity

By Dawn Gwilt

In the summer I attended a women’s gathering for a weekend of community living and support. I took my cello along - might there be an opportunity to play? I know the role-playing layer very well – where I perform and others listen. I’m ready for something different, but I don’t know what will be possible. I feel open and vulnerable.

The role-playing layer has served me well. Performing and the resulting sense of identity as a cellist has given me a sense of self when other supports were lacking, and this brought genuine satisfaction for many years.  Things are different now.  Performing no longer serves me as it once did, no longer carries the same life-force. I guess I am now in the impasse/ phobic layer. It’s an impasse because I don’t know what something more authentic looks like, or what form it would take. I want to move forward, but I am stuck in the familiar. I am hopeful that by being present with my experience something will open up.

On Saturday my friend will be doing a guided meditation/ body awareness session before we all gather at the fire. Would I like to provide gentle background music for this? I am excited, but also unsure. This is new!

We meet to try out some ideas. I play some familiar pieces, and try some improvisation, but nothing feels quite right. I’m frozen by too much choice. This freeze takes me towards implosion, described as ‘a vertigo of possibility’ (Philippson, 2002). I feel paralysed by a sense of loss and failure. Bloody hell, I’m a good cellist who has spent her life playing and performing, and yet I can’t find a way in to this simple ceremony? What kind of musician do you call yourself? Lots of “I should be able to do this” going through my head.

In the field there is so much expectation and pressure to maintain the role. “You play the cello. That is a gift. Why would you not want to share that?” These well-meaning comments are the opposite of support, and bring up shame. Shame leads us to submit to the expectations of others, and I can feel the pull back into role-playing, but I’ve moved beyond that stage and there is no turning back. I’m in limbo.

The Enduring Relational Theme, or ERT (Jacobs, 2017) around my not wanting to perform goes something like this: If you ask me to perform, I am afraid of being engulfed, that I will be used for your pleasure at the expense of my autonomy. (This is an example of the narcissistic wound, where the child receives the message, “Don’t be who you are, be who I need you to be. Who you are disappoints me, threatens me, angers me, overstimulates me. Be what I want and I will love you” Johnson, 1994, p156.) I am caught in this layer of object and objectifier, and I am unable to connect with honest creative expression.

On Sunday morning I take my cello to one of the big downstairs rooms, close the door, and play through some of my favourite music. The acoustic is great, and my cello resonates and inspires me. I am in the flow. When I finish I discover a small group has gathered to listen outside the door. I had no idea. Something in the semi-private enclosure gave me a sense of safety and freedom. I’m surprised that others were listening, but secretly pleased. My longing to be received without having to perform is satisfied. Notice how support, the right level of exposure, and graded contact have enabled me to move towards authenticity.

Maybe this was a gentle explosion?

This makes me think about the intensity we generate with our clients simply by looking. So much goes into seeing and being seen, inevitably echoing our first experiences of ‘the gaze’. In secure attachment, the experience is, “When I look, I see you seeing me, and I know that I exist.” Many of the people who come into therapy have experienced something more like, “When I look, I am not seen, therefore I don’t exist” (Firman & Gila, 1997).

I have written more about this experience of the gaze in 'working with a client'.

The facilitators ask if I’d like to play as women enter for the final closing circle. I am wary of this becoming another role-playing experience, and I’d like to try something different.

My friend and I meet to try some improvisation. She has a Hapi drum - a small steel drum tuned to 7 notes. I find these notes on my cello over the span of 3 octaves. This small amount of structure makes all the difference between - uncontained panic and confusion of the implosion, and a safe enough containing structure. We set up and play together as the women enter for the final circle. From the first few notes, we are engaged in communication – playful and serious, ebbing and flowing, leading and following.  This is not performing, more like speaking together through our instruments. We experience contact, intimacy and dialogue – the opposite of ERT territory.

Speaking, dancing, playing, delighting. It was an explosion into creativity, into joy.

One aspect of implosion is the paralysis of fear caused by too much choice.  This experience is an example of how introducing the right structure and containment lends enough support to find a way through implosion.

When I shared this experience with the group, Karen commented on the importance of presence and absence of support in moving through the layers towards explosion/ satisfaction/ contact. This example brings us into the territory of relationship with others, and the possibility of intimacy and dialogue through moving through the layers.


Firman, J. & Gila, A.(1997) The Primal Wound, Albany, NY: State University of new York Press

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

Johnson, S.M. (1994) Character Styles, New York: W.W. Norton and Company

Philipsson, P. (2002) Contemporary Challenges in the Application of Perls’ Five-Layer Theory

Wip SG music.jpg

Adventures in Being

Gestalt Therapy and Counselling for Growth in Edinburgh with Karen Nimmo