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Reflections on the work of Stephen Gilligan and his Self Relations Approach: 2000 – 2010.


I first worked with Stephen Gilligan in 2000 and I have worked with him now a total of 7 times over 26 days between then and now. My last opportunity to work with Stephen was in November 2013. This note was written in 2010 and describes my reflections on the experience of self relations training and supervision over the period 2000 to 2010 and it provides my reflection on how the approach had evolved since my first experience with it back in 2000. This is a powerful and successful approach to change work with individuals in both a therapeutic and coaching context and my purpose is to illustrate how I have experienced its development. This note is essentially a commentary and presumes some familiarity with the model and its practice it does not set out and define the terms self relations uses and as such it may be difficult to follow for someone not already familiar with Stephen’s work.


I am very aware in attempting to describe these changes that there is a danger that I may do no more than project my own deepening appreciation and experience of Stephen’s work back on to him as if it is his journey rather than it being my own. Nevertheless, I sense that there is something tangibly different that needs explaining. I think it comprises two things:


I began my reflection by looking over my notes and the course materials from each of the workshops in which I took part. I also reviewed the presentation of the Self Relations model in both a Courage to Love (1997) and Walking in Two Worlds (2004). As I did this it became clear to me that there had indeed been an evolution in the presentation of the model. I think that the essential elements presented in The Courage to Love are all still present but they are now wrapped up in a different way. Looking at the 2000 and 2002 workshops the presentation of the material follows fairly closely the way the material is mapped out and presented in The Courage to Love. My experience of learning the model and applying it was that structurally it was a parts integration model in which the emphasis was being placed on identifying, locating, often somatically, the neglected self and then the cognitive self and then using these in relation to each other and the wider field to reconnect and transform the cognitive and somatic. In the 2002 work there was a focus on the other elements of the presentation given in The Courage to Love. This included the characteristics of the field, and the acknowledgement of the presence of archetypes in the field as organising principles for the expression and articulation of the individual’s experience. Both sessions also described the therapist’s role of sponsorship in helping the client heal and integrate presenting attributes of the neglected self.


Looking back on these sessions I recall them as powerful learning experiences but less powerful than the three Supervisions that followed. There was a sense of the group working as a whole. This was reinforced in the shared work and in rituals like Stephen’s daily morning poem. However, my recollection is that the idea of the group as a whole holding the field for the work done in the centre with Stephen was less strong then than it now appears to be.


I also recall Stephen doing more work on personal somatic centring. Some of this part of my memory may be projection and selective experience. During this period I was quite focused on adapting and mapping across my understanding of centring from tai chi to the somatic and cognitive work required for self relations. I learnt to do this in Self Relations partnership exercises which helped me develop my connection to the client and to the wider field. Interestingly, learning to work in this way has influenced the way I practice and teach tai chi. I now explicitly include somatic tai chi work in my approach to working with people and encouraging them in their wider personal and professional development.


The point of doing this centring work was to be available to connect to the client, help the client accurately tune into the problem, and then by encouraging the client to extend into the field enable them to create a space in which their solution can emerge. The solution will then emerge elusively, first as a seed, then through sponsorship as a new resource that is no longer a problem and that the client can integrate as fully human and available. In short, this is an example of  “The Problem is the Solution.”


Moving on to look at the 2004 and subsequent workshop presentations, and Stephen’s own contribution explaining Self Relations in, Walking in Two Worlds, the model is now presented quite differently. The focus is placed on three minds: somatic, cognitive and field and two levels of consciousness basic and generative. In the 2009 presentation a third level, the ego level, is added between the other two and the first level is renamed “primitive”. Taken together this model is said to describe and constitute the relational self. The term generative and generative self are used as powerful explanatory concepts throughout the description of the model and in its use.


This formulation of the model is not found at all in the Courage to Love. In this book the phrase “relational self” is used a lot but the terms “generative” and “generative self” do not appear at all in the index. This was not because Stephen was unfamiliar with the idea of generativity. This term is used in Therapeutic Trances to help describe one of the principles of Erickson’s hypnotic methods and the idea that each person has available to them “generative resources” enabling them to find the power to change and develop from within. By 2004 Stephen was also clearly ready to embody this idea in his explanation and presentation of the Self Relations model. In doing this he shifted and expanded the models focus and capability.


A good statement of the new presentation of the Self Relations change model is given in Walking in Two Worlds, page xxi. Here Stephen states:


“In generative states of well-being - when a person is happy, healthy helpful and healing – the three minds align and integrate to form the Relational Self capable of many interesting things.”


Looking at the 2006 and 2009 course notes the idea of developing the generative self emerges as a clear and coherent outcome of Self Relations work. The course notes make clear the characteristics of the different levels of mind and in particular the characteristics of the generative self nature are set out. The 2009 notes set out five basic elements of the “Generative Self” approach. These are:


1.  Spirit Waking Up

2. (into) Human Consciousness

3. (on) Hero’s Journey

4. (utilizing) three minds

5. (operating at) three levels of consciousness


This model now looks like a model for a process of self realisation. It is much broader than the prototype model set out in The Courage to Love and has more capacity to encourage and make room for generative change to be facilitated. The same skills and principles of approach that were set out in Courage to Love still apply but their range of application and the capability of the model as a container for therapeutic work is now much broader. It is also true, I think, that although the role of the therapist/coach can be applied more flexibly and creatively now, the essential role is still the same as before; to coax, encourage and sponsor the emergence of new generative resources and characteristics for the benefit of the client.


When I decided to go back through my notes and check if I had sensed something different I was not sure what I would find. I was surprised to find such an explicit progression in the presentation of the model. The emergence of the characteristics of the generative self as a fairly explicit goal of the personal work is a quite radical development. When contrasted to the earlier formulation of the model in terms of the focus on integrating the neglected self the new approach is much broader. Looking at the model now it is very elegant and a quite beautiful creation as a framework for both coaching and therapeutic work.


I think as Stephen has evolved the model, he has also improved his own ability to use it effectively. In other words it is not just the presentation that has changed but the scope for utilisation. As Stephen is the master of the principle of utilisation it is not surprising that his ability to facilitate the use of this approach through the model seems to have developed further.


Stephen now seems less concerned to focus on the formulation of the problem. Once the problem is stated he seemed very at ease in moving quickly to focus on encouraging the emergence of the generative resource. He also seems to find it very easy to draw from different elements of his own work to find the right tool and technique, without it looking like a technique. Stephen can be quite forceful in encouraging people to unlock the binds that are holding them back. I perceive as his energy and attention is more focused on the emerging characteristics of the generative resource he is encouraging to emerge there is a lightness of touch and gentleness to his work that was less obvious before.  Almost the Resolution is the Solution.


I also felt that I saw a fresh how Stephen works with the group as a whole. This is difficult to describe without giving an example. However, what Stephen is clearly able to do in Supervision work is extend the field generatively to make it available to everyone present. It is natural when in a supervision group to want to support the work of each individual client, however, Stephen is clearly able to use the generative model to utilise the opportunity for generative change that emerges from working with the individual and where it is more generally applicable to make it available to everyone in the group. A profound example of creating a generative field beyond that is transformational and operates at the level of the group as a whole.


Stephen has always focused on the importance of practice – self relations is rooted in skills that must be learnt and practiced, this also seems now to be slightly more of a feature in the teaching. The idea was suggested that daily practice is needed to cultivate the qualities of “generative consciousness”. This idea echoes the injunction of the teacher in the dojo of any martial art. Your skill is only as good as your practice.


Stephen’s skill is indeed breath-taking and he seems to have developed the self relations model over the last decade into the perfect vehicle for him to express his capabilities and compassion. I feel an even stronger sense of the value and uniqueness of Stephen’s work as I conclude my own reflections on my experience of working with this remarkable man.


Carl Pearson


4th April 2010