Thanks to Peter Mortola, Ph.D. for sharing an excerpt from BAM! (published by Routledge and available at www.bamgroups.com)
Peter is Associate Professor of Counseling Psychology for the Graduate School of Education and Counseling at Lewis and Clark College.
Chapter 2 Making Contact
Underlying many of the problems boys face, such as alienation from school, their persona of indifference, low levels of empathy, and difficulties managing social interactions, is the more fundamental problem of their disconnection from their own emotional experience and
the social environment that surrounds them. The Gestalt notion of contact offers a useful model to understand how boys become disconnected and provides a theoretical basis for remedying their disconnection. This chapter defines contact from a Gestalt perspective and describes how this theory influences what we do in BAM! groups. We will discuss the importance of relationship in BAM! groups and how the ability to make good contact is at the heart of establishing therapeutic relationships. We then highlight communication styles that help draw boys into good contact. We conclude this chapter by illustrating how we create an environment of rich contact using strategic storytelling and physical challenges.
Relationship and Contact
From a Gestalt perspective, healthy contact takes place at the boundary where the individual meets the world (Oaklander, 1978; Perls, et al, 1951; Wheeler,
1991). We make good contact with the world using all of the aspects of our organism: our senses, our emotions, and our minds. Good contact is necessary for us to engage with the environment and get our needs met.
For example, when Ramon, a boy in our group, lost a valued pet, he reached out to us emotionally. He made eye contact with us and he spoke eloquently about his loss. He conveyed this loss in a way that allowed us to empathize with him. He used an appropriate tone of voice, a congruent facial expression, and the telling movement of his hands. By using his body, his senses, his emotions, and his thoughts in such a “contactful” way, he strengthened our relationship to him. We felt close to him and we were, therefore, able to respond to him in ways that were helpful to him. Another boy told him how he also cried when his pet bird died. The whole group gave Ramon the time and attention he needed to feel supported, and he left the group feeling a little less alone and a little less sad.
So, as Ramon demonstrated, good contact is the ability to be fully engaged with our world. Good contact with the self, however, is a necessary prerequisite for us to make good contact with the world. Ramon couldn’t ask for understanding about his pet dying if he wasn’t first aware of and in good contact with his feelings of being sad and lonely. Ramon demonstrated contact with himself through his ability to first be aware of his own needs, his own feelings, his own thoughts, and his internal process of grief. Ramon provides an example of what we mean when we say that the boys in our groups need to have good contact with themselves as much as they need to have good contact with us as leaders and with the other boys in the group.
Simply put, we know contact when we see it: contact looks like presence and may reflect a multitude of feelings, it is animated, and it is an honest representation of a person’s inner world. In contrast, the inability to make good contact looks frozen, insensitive, guarded, stoic, and aloof. Not surprisingly, these are the very words we use to describe the stance of traditional masculinity. Contact is knowing who you are inside and bringing that knowing to interact with others. It is showing up fully, being present, allowing others in and letting yourself out. Contact is possible when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.
In contrast to this authenticity, boys often censor aspects of themselves that they fear do not meet social expectations for men. Guarding against hurt and shame, many boys develop a coat of armor to protect themselves. The armor boys wear to defend against what they see as a threatening world separates them from healthy contact with others. Over time this chasm between boys and other people causes an internal splitting for boys as well. In other words, boys may feel something, perceive danger in expressing it, and then repress it. This process
teaches boys to deny their own feelings and results in boys losing contact with themselves, leaving them susceptible to peer pressure and unwise influences.
Further, as boys deny their feelings and experiences, they lose opportunities to practice identifying and expressing them. This loss cuts boys off from their inner experience and access to their emotional world. Unable to navigate their own emotional landscape, boys lose their potential to empathize with others as well as their ability to know what they need and how to care for themselves in healthy ways. For example, if a boy is feeling lonely but cannot identify and “own” that feeling, he may push it away as something only “sissies” feel. Lacking access to his feelings, he cannot muster what is necessary to make real contact with another child on the playground, to ask if he can join a game, or to simply start a conversation.
To address these problems related to contact, BAM! groups offer many opportunities for boys to relearn to make good contact with themselves and their environment. The remainder of this chapter describes the methods we use to draw boys into healthy contact.