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  • Writer's pictureRudy Bauer

The Effects of Gestalt Awareness Training on Experiencing Levels

International Journal of Group Psychotherapy

ISSN: 0020-7284 (Print) 1943-2836 (Online) Journal homepage:

The Effects of Gestalt Awareness Training on

Experiencing Levels

Stephen P. Barrilleaux & Rudolph H. Bauer

To cite this article: Stephen P. Barrilleaux & Rudolph H. Bauer (1976) The Effects of Gestalt Awareness Training on Experiencing Levels, International Journal of Group Psychotherapy, 26:4, 431-440, DOI: 10.1080/00207284.1976.11492276

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Published online: 29 Oct 2015.

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The Effects of Gestalt Awareness Training on Experiencing Levels


MOST THEORIES OF THERAPY state that patients must come into contact with and make active use of their feelings for therapy to be successful. The intellectualizer and externalizer tend not to succeed in therapy (Gendlin et al., 1968, p . 217).

The degree to which an individual has access to feelings and can make use of these feelings in therapy is referred to as the level of experiencing (Gendlin, 1964). The process of experiencing (Exp) h11s been shown to be related to success in therapy. Patients success

ful in therapy have a higher level of experiencing initially than less successful patients (Gendlin et al., 1968; Kiesler, 1971 ; Rogers, 1967). Some studies show that the Exp level of successful clients increases over sessions in therapy (Kiesler et al. , 1965 ), while other research indicates that initial Exp level is not as crucial as the general trend of the client's Exp level (Ryan, 1966). Although research findings do not agree as to when in therapy the higher levels of Exp should take place, there is agreement that for successful therapy to occur the individual must come into contact with his feelings.

Dr. Barrilleaux is a clinical psychologist at York County Counseling Services, Sanford, Maine.

Dr. Bauer is Assistant Professor of Psychology, Department of Pediatrics and Child Psychiatry, University of Maryland Medical School , Baltimore, Md.


432 S. P . Barrilleaux - R . H. Bauer

Therapy consists of exploring many problem areas and feelings that may be threatening to most people. The behavioral dimension of repression-sensitization (Byrne, 1961) places individuals along a continuum with respect to their responses to threatening stimuli, i.e ., repressers tend to avoid these stimuli, while sensitizers tend to approach them in an intellectualizing way. One who tends to approach threatening problem areas and feelings should be more able to explore and "work through" these feelings than someone who avoids them .

Spencer (1970) stated that self-analytic groups are too unstructured to bring about significant individual growth and are not effective in group therapy. The level of Exp was found to be very low in the self-analytic group . Spencer recommended a more directive leader and a more structured group experience in order to effect Exp level.

Experiential-Gestalt groups have proved to be an effective modality in bringing about psychological growth in college students who volunteer to take part in these experiences (Foulds, 1970; 1971a; 1971b ; 1973). When compared with another treatment mode , Transactional Analysis, Gestalt therapy significantly increased creativity, tended to increase risk-taking, and decreased authoritarianism in its participants; both group methods increased self-esteem and personal adjustment (Goodstein , 1971). Gestalt techniques were also found helpful in increasing openness and contact behavior in high school students with negative school behavior (Gannon , 1972).

The purpose of the present study was threefold: ( 1) to investigate effects of Gestalt awareness training on the Exp level of group participants; (2) to examine the relationship of the Repression-Sensitization Scale (RS) to Exp ; and (3) to investigate the possible differential effects of group treatment on RS personality type . The hypotheses tested were:

1. Gestalt awareness training will effect a greater increase in Exp level than an unstructured encounter group .

2. There will be a positive relationship between RS and Exp , i.e ., sensitizers will be higher on the Exp scale .

3. Gestalt awareness training will effect a greater increase in the Exp level of sensitizers than of repressers.

Gestalt Awareness Training 433

4. Sensitizers will have higher Exp levels than repressers after taking part in a group experience, regardless of treatment.



Ss were 26 volunteers, 14 males and 12 females from Catonsville Community College who were enrolled in either an introductory astronomy or psychology course . They were between 18 and 30 years of age , except one Sin the comparison group who was 61.

Training of Leaders

The two co-leaders were trained in Gestalt techniques in two-hour weekly sessions for a total of sixteen hours by a Ph.D. Gestalt therapist. The sessions were both experiential and didactic. The didactic material was based on Gestalt awareness exercises (Stevens, 1971) and the rules and games of Gestalt therapy (Levitsky and Perls, 1970). The trainer led the co-leaders, the experimenter, and a staff member at the counseling center through the exercises to be used in the next group session . The leader elicited reports on individual awareness and assisted the members in furthering that awareness by means of Gestalt techniques. Didactic periods followed each exercise session, and the rationale for the exercise and the technique was given.


The experiencing scale (Klein, et a!., 1968), a seven-stage process scale, measures the degree to which a client is self-involved in psychotherapy. The scale classifies an individual's verbal behavior into one of seven stages on the basis of the degree of access the speaker has to subjective inner feelings, the extent to which he uses these feelings for self-insight, and the degree to which he can "work through" these feelings, thus creating new meaning and using this in understanding and moving forward in problem resolution.

The Repression-Sensitization Scale (RS) (Byrne, 1961) was used in the correlation with the Exp Scale. The Rs scale, consisting of 127 items, measures a person's characteristic mode of response to threatening stimuli. The behavioral dimension of repression-sensiti

zation places individuals along a continuum with respect to their

434 S. P. Barrilleaux - R. H. Bauer

responses to these threatening stimuli. The repressive extreme involves avoidance defenses, such as denial, and correlates positively with the Authoritarian Scale (low introspection). The sensitizing extreme refers to approach defenses such as intellectualization , and correlates negatively with the Authoritarian Scale (high introspec

tion). Items on the scale are selected from the Minnesota Multi phasic Personality Inventory.

Interviews were conducted in a uniform manner at the first and tenth meetings using items from the Affect Experiencing Question naire (AEQ) (Gorney, 1968), a structured interview protocol. The AEQ consists of 12 questions asking subjects to describe how they experience ten basic emotions (dependency, anger, anxiety, affection , happiness, satisfaction, loneliness, depression , compe tence , guilt , and powerlessness). To draw out their experiential abilities, the Ss responses are probed in a prescribed manner. The interviewers were three female and two male doctoral students in the Counseling and Personnel Services Department at the University of Maryland .

Training of Rat ers

The raters of the taped interviews were three female undergrad uate students at the University of Maryland , College Park . They were trained by the experimenter in eight two-hour sessions using training tapes and the Experiencing Scale Training Manual , (Klein et a!. , 1968) which outlines a standardized training procedure . The procedure involved listening to 90 training segments, from two to sixteen minutes in length, and then comparing the trainees' ratings with the manual's criterion ratings. Since the m anual's criterion ratings set the standard in all cases, discussion of any discrepancies in trainee ratings were directed toward the clarifi cation of the manual's viewpoint . The ratings obtained in the ten -minute seg

ments in the seventh session were used to obtain ra ter reliability. Eight volunteers were trained , and at the fourth session the three that appeared most consistent were chosen as raters. Inter-rater reliability was . 97 for mode ratings and . 94 for peak ratings.


Subjects were assigned to the groups according to when their laboratory sections met (astronomy) or when they were free to

Gestalt Awareness Training 435

attend the group (psychology). Treatment was randomly assigned to the groups. The experimental group was composed of 16 students (12 males and 4 females), and the comparison group had 10 students (4 males and 6 females). The experimental group took part in Gestalt awareness training for eight two· hour weekly sessions, while the comparison group took part in an unstructured encounter group for the same length of time. At the first meeting of each group subjects were administered the Repression -Sensitization Scale and were interviewed for fifteen minutes using the AEQ. The Ss were randomly assigned to interviewers. Afterwards the groups met for eight more weeks, and at the tenth meeting the Ss were again inter

viewed for fifteen minutes using the AEQ. Both interviews were audio recorded , number coded, and randomly assigned to the raters.

T he pre-test data were analyzed by a one-way unweighted means analysis of variance to test for initial group differences. No signifi cant differences were found, and therefore the use of the analysis of variance for the post-treatment data was indicated. A two-way and a three-way analysis of variance (repeated measures design) were used to test for differences between repressers and sensitizers in the Gestalt treatment and between repressers and sensitizers regardless of treatment . The Pearson product moment correlation was conducted to determine the relationship between Exp level and the RS dimension.


The analysis of variance on the post-treatment means of the mode Exp ratings of the Gestalt group (M = 2.87) and the Comparison group (M = 3.00) indicated no treatment differences (F = .24). No difference was found between the two groups on the mean peak Exp ratings (Gestalt M = 2.87; Comparison M = 3.00; F = .40). Therefore, hypothesis 1 was not accepted.

The RS scale scores (males M = 45 .35, sd = 17 .39; females M = 40 .13 , sd = 20.38; all subjects M = 42.91, sd = 20.36) were cor related with the mode and peak Exp level ratings of the subjects. T he coefficient of correlation did not reach significance for either the modL (.06) or the peak (- .01) Exp ratings. Therefore, hypothesis 2 was not accepted.

436 S. P. Barrilleaux-R. H. Bauer

The two-way analysis of variance (repeated measures design) on the mode Exp scores (F = 2. 77) and the peak Exp scores (F = . 68) of the repressers and sensitizers in the Gestalt group did not reach significance. Therefore, hypothesis 3 was not accepted.


Multiple Analysis of Variance (Repeated Measures) of Mode and Peak Exp Level Ratings of Repressers and Sensitizers in the Gestalt and Comparison Groups


Among Subjects

Gestalt-Comparison (B) Repressers-Sensitizers (C) BC

Subjects (S)

Within Subjects

Interview (A)






Among Subjects

Gestalt-Comparison (B) Repressers-Sensitizers (C) BC

Subjects (S)

Within Subjects

Interview (A)








Mode Ratings 22



Peak Ratings 22






1.27 .53




. 79




1.48 1.38







1.12 .16













Gestalt Awareness Training 437

Table 1 presents the MANOVA summary table for the mode and peak Exp level of the repressers and the sensitizers in both the Gestalt and comparison groups. The results indicate no significant differences between the sensitizers and the repressers in the Gestalt and comparison groups or across groups. Therefore , hypothesis 4 was not accepted.


The fi ndings of this study do not support the use of a structured group approach, such as Gestalt awareness exercises, in increasing the Exp level of participants in weekly group sessions. In addition, the findings do not indicate either a positive or a negative relationship between the RS personality dimension and Exp level. The findings also indicate no differential increase in Exp for repressers and sensitizers who participate in groups using different approaches. No significant differences were found, and the stated hypotheses were not supported.

Hypothesis 1 stated that the Gestalt group would be significantly higher on the Exp ratings than the comparison group . The F-ratio for the main effect of group treatment from the analysis of variance was not significant. These results suggest that neither Gestalt awareness training nor an unstructured encounter group was fac ilitative in increasing Exp level. This finding is different from that of Spencer (1970) who found a significant increase in Exp level following participation in an unstructured , self-analytic group. Also , McMullen (1972) found a significant increase in Exp when using a structured technique , focusing instructions, to direct the client to focus on feelings and bodily sensations. The conflicting results would indicate the need for further research. In addition, weekly experiential-Gestalt groups (Foulds, 1970; 197la; 1971b; 1973) have proved to be effective means of increasing personal adjustment, self-actualization, and other variables related to psychological growth . The leaders in the Foulds' studies were experi enced Gestalt therapists. Although the leaders in the present study were trained weekly in Gestalt techniques (16 hours total), their orien tation and previous training had been in an unstructured group approach . Also , the criterion measures were not the same across studies. These factors may explain the differences when comparing the results of this study with Foulds' research.

438 S. P. Barrilleaux-R. H. Bauer

The correlations between Exp level and the RS personality dimension did not reach significance. Hypothesis 2, therefore , was not accepted. This implies that there is no relationship between repression-sensitization and the level of Exp one attains in a structured interview. Repressers as well as sensitizers were found to be both high and low on the Exp scale. Though sensitizers tend to use approach defenses and use more emotion-laded words in telling stories, their approach is in an intellectualizing and rationalizing manner (Byrne, 1961). The results suggest that approach defenses make little difference when an individual is directed to contact feelings and to explore them. The repressers, who use avoidance defenses, scored both high and low on the Exp scale ratings. Also, contacting and exploring feelings may not have been threatening to all subjects.

Hypothesis 3 stated that there would be an interaction effect between the Gestalt treatment modality and the RS personality dimension . The F-ratio from the analysis of variance did not reach significance. This indicated that Gestalt awareness training did not increase the Exp level of sensitizers to a greater degree than that of repressers. Since repressers use avoidance defenses when threatened, this may suggest that exploring feelings by means of Gestalt techniques may not be threatening to the subjects.

No significant differences were found in the data for hypothesis 4, that there would be differential increase in Exp level for repressers and sensitizers; this was not differentially affected by participation in a group experience regardless of treatment modality. In addition , it implies that the RS dimension may not be a factor in group effectiveness when Exp is the criterion measure. Also , the findings suggest that Gestalt awareness training may not constitute a threat when compared to the unstructured group , thus effecting no differential gain for sensitizers when compared to repressers.


The evidence from this study suggests the following conclusions: 1. The Exp level of individuals, as measured in a structured interview, is not increased by participation in either weekly Gestalt

Gestalt Awareness Training 439

awareness training or an unstructured weekly group. This conclusion suggests that neither type of group approach, Gestalt or a more unstructured approach, has any significant effect on the Exp level of participants. In particular, it may be concluded that Gestalt awareness training is not an effective method of teaching Exp. However , as these conclusions do not support the results of Spencer's study (1970) in which a significant increase in Exp was found after participation in a weekly unstructured group , the findings are not_

conclusive. In view of the conflicting results, this matter should be investigated further in other settings.

2. There is no relationship between the manner in which a person approaches threatening stimuli and the degree to which that person can use feelings in problem exploration and resolution. Although sensitizers use approach rather than avoidance defenses when confronted with threatening stimuli, it can be concluded that this makes little difference when an individual is directed to contact and explore feelings. Possibly, contacting and exploring feelings is not equally threatening to all individuals, or it is not threatening, in particular , to the repressers.

3. Different group methods do not differentially increase the Exp level of individuals of different personality types. Neither Gestalt awareness training nor an unstructured group approach effected differential changes in Exp ofrepressers or sensitizers. Until the present study, personality types were not considered in using the Exp Scale. The conclusions expressed in the above paragraph can also apply here. In addition , it may be concluded that Gestalt awareness training constitutes no more of a threat to the individuals involved than does the unstructured group.


Byrne, D. (I 96 1 ), The Repression-Sensitization Scale: Rationale , Reliability. and Validity. J. Personality, 29 :334-349 .

Foulds, M. L. (1970), Effects of a Personal Growth Group on a Measure of Self· Actualization . J. Humanistic Psycho/., 10:33·38.

___ (197 l a), Changes in Locus of Internal-External Control: A Growth Group Experience. ComfJarative Group Studies, 2:293 -300.

___ (197lb), Measured Changes in Self-Actualization as a Result of a Growth Group Experience. Psychotherapy: Theory, R es. and Pract., 8:338-341 .

440 S. P. Barrilleaux - R. H. Bauer

___ (1973), Effects of a Personal Growth Group on Ratings of Self and Others. Small Group Behav. , 4:177-183.

Gannon , W. J. ( 1972), T he Effects of the Gestalt-Oriented Group Approach on the Interpersonal Contact Attitudes of Selected High School Students. (Doctoral dissertation. Case Western Reserve University) Ann Arbor, Mich: University Microfilms, No. 72 -26155.

Gendlin , E. T . (1964), A Theory of Personality Change. In: Personalz'ty Change, ed. P. Worchel and D. Byrne. New York: Wiley.

___ , Beebe , J.. lll , Cassens, J. , Klein , M. , and Oberlander. M. (1968), Focus· ing Ability in Psychotherapy, Personality, and Creativity. In: R esearch in Psychotherapy, ed . J. M. Shlein. Vol. III. Washington : American Psycholog ical Association.

Goodstein , M. A. (1971), A Comparison of Gestalt and Transactional Analysis Therapies in Marathons. (Doctoral dissertation , Illinois Institute of Technol ogy) Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms, No. 72 -22838 .

Gorney. J. E. (1968), Experiencing and Age: Patterns of Reminiscence among the Elderly. Unpub lished doctoral dissertation, University of Chicago. In : Exper iencing in Self-Analytic Groups, L. M. Spencer. Unpublished doctoral dis sertation , University of Chicago, 1970 , and cited by Klein et al. , 1968 , p. 24.

Kiesler , D. J. ( 197 1 ), Patient Experiencing and Successful Outcome in Individual Psyc hotherapy of Schizophrenics and Psychoneurotics. I Consult . and Clin. Psychol., 37:3 70- 385.

___ . Klein , M . H. , and Mathieu , P. L. (1965), Sampling from the Recorded Therapy Interview : The Problem of Segment Location . I Consult . Psycho!. , 29:337-344.

Klein . M . H .. Mathieu, P . L., Gendlin , E. T.. and Kiesler. D . J. (1968). The Ex - periencing Scale: A R esearch and Training Manual. Madison , Wise : Univer· sity of Wisconsin Press.

Levitsky. A. , and Perls, F . S. (1970), The Rules and Games of Gestalt Therapy. In: Gestalt Th erapy Now. ed. J. Fagan and I. L. Shepherd. Palo Alto: Science & Behavior Books.

McMullen. R. E. ( 1 972). Effects of Counselor Focusing on Client Self-Experiencing under Low Attitudinal Conditions. I Counsel. Psychol., 19:282-285 . Rogers, C. R . Gendlin. E. T. , Kiesler, D. J. , and Truax . C. B. (eds). ( 1 967). Th e Therapeutic R elationshzp and Its Impact: A Study of Ps)'chotherapy with Schizophrenics Madison, Wise.: University of Wisconsin Press. Rya n , R . P . ( 1966), The Role of the Experiencing Variable in the Psychothera peu tic Process. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Illinois) Ann Arbor, Mich.: Universit y Microfilms, 1966 , No. 66 -7805. Cited in Klein eta!., 1968. p. 21 . Spencer, L. M . ( 1970). Experimenting in Self-Anz "ytic Groups. Unpublished doc toral disserta tion. University of Chicago.

Stevens. J. 0. ( 1971 ). Awareness: Exploring, Experimenting, Experien cing . Moab. Uta h: Real People Press.

Dr. Barnlleaux ·s address.

Box 142

A !fred, Ma ine, 04002

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