Keep it real. Or don’t.

Right now I’m contemplating the concept of keeping it real.

“Keeping it real” can mean many things to many people. To its proponents, “keeping it real” means being honest – brutally honest, if needs be – in order to show your true self. The “real” in this sense is meant to be an opposite of game-playing – or, to use the parlance common today a decade ago, “fronting.” That’s one end of the spectrum.

Over on the other end, there are people who think “keeping it real” is nothing more than another level of game playing. The banner of “keeping it real,” to some, is nothing more than excuse to say intentionally hurtful things, all under the guise of just being honest.

So what is keeping it real really? Both.

I’m reminded of “keeping it real” often when I’m volunteering at the crisis line. Sometimes I do keep it real. Often, I don’t. When I do and when I don’t depends on a host of variables – the topic at hand, the emotional state of the caller, the projected impact of the revelation.

There are good times to keep things real on a crisis line. If someone calls up and is clearly and actively suicidal, it is often a good idea to dispense with detachment and disclose my true feelings. I’ve said many times something to the effect of, “I’m really, really worried about you right now. You said that you’re holding a gun and that scares me. Could you please put it down?” I’ve admitted to crying sometimes, when the plight of a caller truly affects me. In these cases, keeping it real means letting someone know that another person cares for them. And this is a good thing.

Then there’s the kind of caring that’s not so warm and fuzzy. There are callers who are horribly, painfully lonely and can’t figure out why. In the course of the phone call, the “why” sometimes becomes apparent. Sometimes it’s a person who has been hurt too often before and would rather rush to assume ill intent rather than give someone a chance to earn trust. Sometimes it’s a person who blames anyone and everyone for circumstances in his life, taking on no responsibility of his own. There are all manner of ways that we manage to shoot ourselves in the foot.

Do I share with these people my perceptions on what is wrong? Do I keep it real with them? Not often.

There are many reasons for this. One – the most obvious – is that I’ll likely just anger the person and that will be the end of any useful conversation. Believe me, I’ve made that mistake many times. Or if they’re not angered, maybe they will be hurt, piling one pain on top of another, and that’s not quite the goal of a crisis counselor, either. And ultimately, these little revelations tend to mean more when a person manages to suss it out for him or herself. Having someone tell you exactly why you are alienating people likely won’t carry the same weight as coming to that realization on your own.

So I often hold my tongue. I’m not real. It’s not that I’m being fake, either. There’s just a time and a place for everything.

Or at least, that’s what I think.

Others, including some Very Important People in the world of counseling, have another idea on it. Fritz Perls, for one.

Perls was the developer of Gestalt therapy. I’m nowhere near qualified to give a full explanation of what Gestalt is and how it works, but its highlights are familiar to many.

Gestalt is very much rooted in the here-and-now. Gestalt therapists aren’t so much interested in whatever has happened before, outside the therapy office, years ago. Gestaltists probably don’t want to know about your relationship with your mother or the kid in kindergarten who laughed at your liverwurst sandwiches (thanks, mom), unless you can bring that stuff into the present (“I still feel left out because no one would trade stuff with me for lunch, because all I had to offer were liverwurst sandwiches.”)(And really, mom, liverwurst?)

The goal of Gestalt therapy is to help people become their true authentic selves. As such, Gestalt disavows “game playing” or being “phony.” If you are angry at something in the here-and-now, say it! Keep it real, or it becomes unfinished business. To not express it just adds another layer of phoniness and puts you one step further away from your true self.

There’s an arsenal of fakery that keeps us from being who we truly are. We wear masks to become what we think others want us to be. At my former job, I wore the reporter mask and went on gut-wrenching assignments, like turning up and then being loudly turned away from the doorstop of a family whose child was just killed in a drunk driving accident, acting like it didn’t affect me at all. That was the mask I wore because my employer expected it of me. In my years of marriage, I tried to wear the wife mask and be someone I ultimately could never happily be. Mask upon mask upon mask.

Gestalt wants to get us all on the I-Thou level, where one authentic person has a genuine relationship with another authentic person, and both can be exactly who they are without demanding that the other person change to please them. Perls summed it up in what he called his “Gestalt Prayer”:

I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
If not, it can’t be helped.

While it sounds beautiful, Perls in person could be brutal.

There’s a well-known film in which a woman, Gloria, experienced a therapy session with three leading therapy theorists of the day (1965). Perls was one, as were Carl Rogers (Person-Centered Therapy) and Albert Ellis (Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy). The film very interestingly shows how three therapists approached the same subject in very different ways. You can view Perls’ segment here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kae5RK3JQCs . Prepare to be shocked.

In it, Perls comes across as quite a tyrant, belittling Gloria, accusing her of being phoney, insinuating she is childlike (and not in the good way, either). It’s uncomfortable to watch.

Perls was also known for telling people at mixer parties “I don’t like you” as they were in mid-anecdote and then abruptly walking away from them.

But for all that, Gestalt has endured as a major influence in therapy for decades. So something about it must work, right?

I had a therapist once who was steeped in Gestalt, and he helped me more than any other I’ve seen. He helped me to understand that people are who they are, and that no amount of wishing will make them change. He helped me to let go of a destructive and violent relationship. He helped me find my way back from the brink and get on with my life.

The crisis hotline also borrows from Gestalt, too, even if we are trained to never be so aggressively confrontational with someone in a moment of crisis. On the other hand, we are encouraged to keep our callers in the here-and-now, to focus on their feelings in the current moment rather than to elaborate on long backstories and discussions of other people. And I’ve seen it work. Many times.

So. Keep it real? Whenever possible. But please, gently.

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