Retroflection – analysis of the concept in terms of gestalt therapy

Retroflection (literally, this word means “address to the person’s “Self”) is one of the
protective mechanisms of gestalt therapy. The person returns to his own “Self” feelings and
emotions that were initially addressed to the outer world. What are the reasons of this
pathology? How dangerous is it? Is it possible to eliminate its negative influence? All the
answers are already here

How is inclination formed

Development of this neurotic phenomenon is closely related to the style of family education.
When parents do not pay attention at the child, ignore him or demonstrate hostility, the child
becomes confident that nobody likes him. Deprived of affection, care and elementary
consolation, he learns to manage on his own without other people’s help. Gradually, a
person suffering from retroflection changes the direction of emotions from other people to his
own “Self”. He comforts and supports himself, buys expensive and beautiful things, prepares
delicious dishes, carefully selects the circle of friends. In general, the person pampers
himself as much as possible. It is not dangerous, but over time, this mechanism leads to the
concentration of energy solely on the “Self”. As a result, all actions (both good and bad) that
should be directed to other people are performed towards the “Self”.

Gestalt therapists distinguish two types of retroflection. Each type develops according to a
specific formula:

  1. I do for myself the things that I want to get from others. This type is characterized by bright bodily manifestations and phrases like “I try to be …”, “Others would like me …”.
  2. I do for myself the things that I want to do for others. This type is characterized by self-
  3. destructive behavior, self-reproach and auto-aggression.

Main symptoms of retroflection

Retroflection is characterized by the following symptoms:
● Shortness of breath;
● Muscular symptoms – biting of the lips, strong clenching of the fists, frequent blinking and
swallowing, forcibly interrupted gestures (a sharp movement forward, and then a sudden
return to original posture);
● “Swallowing” of emotions;
● Constant sense of shame or embarrassment;
● Obsessive actions – the person is biting his nails, pulling out hairs, causing himself
physical damage, stroking himself or playing with his hair;
● Change of skin color in the places prone to appearance of muscle blocks;
● Complaints of depression and / or persistent illness;
● A special body posture – crossed legs, attempts to embrace oneself with the arms,
constant support of a cheek or chin, extremely uncomfortable postures that can confuse
other people;

● Tension in certain areas of the body caused by bright emotions (“When I talk on this topic,
my heart begins to ache”);
● Discrepancy between facial expressions and the content of speech (the person smiles
while telling about negative events);
● Conversations with the “Self”;
● Predominance of reflexive verbs in the speech. Frequent usage of the particle “Self”.
Frequent usage of expressions “I meet”. “I try”, “I live” and so on;
● Unhealthy sense of humor.

The danger of retroflection

Frankly speaking, every person in the world is sometimes influenced by retroflection. This is
quite normal, because control of aggressive impulses, aimed at other people, is an
indispensable part of socialization. People with the normal psyche are afraid to face
disapproval, condemnation and punishment. Therefore, they use different methods in order
to suppress anger, resentment, irritation, hatred and other negative emotions.

However, everything changes if such behavior becomes systematic. In this case, situational
retroflection develops into a chronic process. It can result in the appearance of not only
unpleasant, but also dangerous consequences. They are mentioned below:


● Psychosomatic diseases (for example, a stomach ulcer that develops with constant
suppression of anger);
● Depression;
● Self-destructive behavior;
● Neurosis;
● Obesity caused by bulimia as the way to suppress negative emotions;
● Stress caused by the fact that energy is not released, and it remains inside;
● Low self-esteem because the person condemns himself and his own deeds;
● Sexual dysfunction (including frigidity);
● Increased inclination to scandals. The person can suppress anger and irritation during a
long period, but some day these feelings will surely burst out. Moreover, this emotional
explosion may be caused by the most innocent and harmless things (a broken heel, escaped
coffee or a colleague’s remark);
● Increased vulnerability, touchiness and sensitivity. These people usually “offend
themselves”. They are extremely sensitive to obvious nonsense and do not accept even the
slightest criticism in their address. It seems that any careless word spoken about this person
is very offensive for him.

However, the highest form of pathological retroflection is suicidal tendency. In this case, the
person, instead of coping with what (or who) makes him suffer, prefers to kill himself.

Gestalt therapy against retroflection


Treatment of retroflection by means of gestalt therapy is aimed to the removal of
psychological, physical and emotional tension. In order to achieve this aim, the patient must
learn to express his emotions and assess the situation realistically. Moreover, he must
eliminate destructive feeling of guilt that appears even in case when the other person is guilty. Of course, this process is difficult and time-consuming. However, it will result in so-
called “liberating catharsis”, and the patient will be able to start his life anew.

In addition, experts recommend the patients to control their behavior and to exaggerate all
the absurd postures taken in times of emotional stress. In addition, it is highly recommended
to visit swimming pool and to attend a massage room on a regular basis. In this case, a
facial massage is especially useful, because it allows the patient to cope with the usual, but
often unconscious grimaces. The last important task of Gestalt therapist is to practice the
skills of productive and full communication with the patient.

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