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Contemporary Relational Gestalt Therapy — Advanced training

Interview with Julianne Appel-Opper

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In preparation for Julianne Appel-Opper’s coming to Paris for the Master Class and the extensive training to the Psychotherapy of the Relational Living Body she is offering at IDeT, Vincent Béja conducted an interview with her in February 2019.
We ask our readers that any reproduction, in whole or in part, of this text on their part, make explicit mention of the following reference :

Appel-Opper, J., Béja, V. (2019), Interview with Julianne Appel-Opper


Vincent Beja: Dear Julianne, I have seen you working in Berlin almost 9 years ago. I still remember how I was touched and impressed by your little piece of work, there. In my view you are the very one I know working truly relational through/with the bodies (the client’s and yours). That makes me curious about you, Julianne. Who are you and where do you come from?

Julianne Appel-Opper: Hi Vincent, thank you for remembering my work. Thanks that this touched you. I am a 59 year old woman living in Berlin, enjoying the city and my local neighbourhood. I grew up in a small village in Germany, studied Psychology, trained as psychotherapist, lived and worked in other countries for quite some time, 12 years. Integration has been my theme throughout my life. I love moving, walking and dancing.
During my first work in psychosomatic clinics, I got fascinated about how bodies speak and communicate beside words spoken. I saw patients whose only way to communicate feelings, conflicts, trauma was via their bodies, e.g. tensions in the back, neck, shoulders. Experiencing stress at work or in the family, the muscles who had been beaten up as a child would tense up as if expecting the same beating as this child. Transgenerational stories lived in some of my patient’s bodies and traumatizing experiences were held in the body to which words cannot find an access.
Years later I worked in the U.K. in a language which was not my first language. At first, I could not understand every word a client said but I could hear what was communicated to me at a bodily level. The Do’s and Don’ts, the nonverbal behaviour can be quite different. It is like two realities in the room with two bodies dancing with different rhythms and melodies. Every movement is really also cultural.

Vincent: And how did you decide to become a therapist and how have you been trained? Why Gestalttherapy?

Julianne: I studied Psychology at the University of Gießen, back then, in the 80s, a city with more psychoanalysts per inhabitant than New York. My fascination for psychoanalytic theories has been with me since then. Through meeting the wife of my husband’s colleague, Ina Rösing, a trained gestalttherapist and a Professor of Cultural Studies, I came into contact with Gestalttherapy.
I recall that I was curious and so attended conferences held by Gestalt training institutes. At the end, I believe that I chose my training institute from the way the people danced at the conference parties: lively, expressive and relating. The German Fritz Perls Institute which at that time offered a training in Integrative Gestalt Psychotherapy gave me a solid theoretical foundation spanning from philosophy, developmental psychology, gestalttherapy, psychoanalysis, psychodrama, depth psychology. I felt enriched with the elementary orientations of gestalttherapy as existential, experiential, body-oriented, creative and dialogical and also by the lived therapeutic styles especially from Ute Wirbel and Dr. Hildegund Heinl.

Vincent: What drove you to work so intimately through the bodies, via the sub verbal ongoing communication?

Julianne: (Living) Bodies communicate so much of what has happened to them as rhythms and melodies of their movements, breathings, eyes and voices. The embodied stories are broadcasted and need a bodily-with to sense that there is another body and to carry on speaking. Bodies are scared and nervous about being exposed. Pointing to/focusing on a movement can so easily stop the movement and with this the communicating of a story. This motivated me to look for new ways of working with body-to-body-communication. I believe that it is in this area in which the client’s fixed gestalten can be physically moved on.
Over the years, I have developed embodied interventions and experiments. First, I announce with words the intervention so that both bodies hear what might happen next. This also enables me to monitor how the client’s body reacts to my intention. Instead of drawing attention to the client’s body, I show my own bodily impulses and resonances within the embodied in between enabling the client’s body to choose how much to take in from a secure distance. Working in small steps allows the two bodies to staying within the window of tolerance. In this process, a relational self-agency can develop further.
For example, if my client speaks about her mother and her relationship with her and her arms are hanging down as if both would not be alive. Let us assume that the arms play a musical variation of the relational theme that she felt alone in the company of the mother. Then, an embodied intervention would be that I announce wanting to move my arms, for example touching both elbows. Often then, the client wants to do the movement and thus defreezing the held arms and with this, to dilute the feelings held in the body. The process can be described as we are impressing each other in a new dialogical rhythms of arms.

Vincent: Having read some of your papers, I have the impression that the verbal expression of the meaning of the situation can happen at the beginning of your intervention or in the middle or at the end. But sometimes that may stay implicit. Could you say something about the verbalising of the story held in the body of the client?

Julianne: Yes, this is right, sometimes clients were able to speak the unspoken at the beginning when I expressed my intention and at other times, the words could come up after the intervention right away or later.
The embodied stories held in the body need to be acknowledged with words too, again and again. I see this as a process similar to the Gestalt Cycle, which therapist and client go through. From the mute embodied gestalten/stories - for example from the frozen movements of the arms of a 7-year old – both client and therapist explore the rhythms and melodies of what happened to the 7-year old and how both bodies can find ways to interbodily acknowledge this. At a bodily level, my arms tell his arms: “We see you”. Then, the next step is to reply as arms to these arms, thus moving the frozen arms. This also needs words, telling the two adults and the four arms (both therapist and client) what might happen next. And yes, telling the intention with words can already help to speak the unspoken.
The embodied stories contain another body and the bodily inbetween with this other, the movements done and held, the reactions and resonances. These embodied gestalten colour in what we expect from another body, how we can make use of the other body, how we contact. I see a living body as an orchestra with all these different tones, rhythms and melodies- from different times and with a range of gender. With violent stories, I can hear the Doer, the aggressor and the Done-to, the victim child.
In this way, both therapist and client move from first noticing, acknowledging, welcoming, replying to these embodied mute/voiceless unspoken stories being held in the body and waiting to be spoken about. This process is Fritz Perls’ integration. I see integration as an ongoing, life-long process, becoming fully who we are.
The way we speak, what words we use and how we speak is crucial. With the example of the 7-year old, I can sense the pride of doing everything on his own. Words can open up an embodied story and words can also close a story. In this cycle of working with embodied stories, there is another important part in which both client and therapist say: ”Thank you arms for what you have done to protect me as a child and to keep me safe”. Creative adjustments need to be acknowledged so that the arms hear a “well done” instead of a “why couldn’t I do something”. Beside any meaning of a situation, I strongly argue that the arms need to hear that this also made sense.

When I have worked with somebody at conference workshops, I found this quite tricky as the integration could not happen fully in this setting. Then, I had to trust that the colleague will take what happened in the workshop into her/his therapy sessions, and thus doing the next steps needed. This gives me the idea to describe the steps of integration further. Thanks for giving me this idea.

Vincent: Working like you do seems so touching and powerful. Is it difficult for a student to grasp the way you build your intervening? 

Julianne: Over the years, I have learnt a lot how to teach my interventions. I have understood that it is less difficult to grasp these processes when students can become aware about when and how the implicit body-to-body-communication starts. This helps to see how this slowly step-by-step turns into embodied interventions.
Nowadays, before working with somebody, I point out the following: “Please hear that the work already starts as soon as I finish my question: “Who wants to sit with me for some minutes?”. Then and there, I hear the first rhythms and melodies of how everybody reacts to my question. These moments are very similar to the first seconds of a therapy session. The first looks, moves breathing in the presence of the other is so rich. The living body broadcasts all the stories held in the body. From the feedback given, I hear that people can follow my interventions and experiments. This is wonderful as then people see the processes unfolding and two living bodies communicating with each other and thus moving each other.

Vincent: And then could you give us a glimpse of how you teach it?

Julianne: My workshops offer a safe and respectful space for exercises, experiential process, live supervision, small group work together with theory input and discussions. I like us to have fun. When we play it is so much easier to learn.
With the focus on the rhythms and melodies of a movement, we will explore the movement of sitting down. Questions as: “When does the movement start? Where in your body does it start? How does the movement end? What kind of journey is this? What might the chair say about you and how you are sitting down? With other exercises we will explore breathing rhythms, looks and voice. I look forward to hearing your laughter and giggling, exploring these processes.

Vincent: What would you add for our french colleagues who don’t know you yet?

Julianne: Please attend my workshop. I look forward to seeing you!
Many greetings from Berlin, Julianne

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