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Fritz Perls

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.

Fritz Perls was a German psychologist who later immigrated to the United States. He was the originator of the term “Gestalt therapy,” meaning a specific type of psychotherapy that he invented in conjunction with Laura, his wife. Perls spent several years living at the Esalen Institute toward the end of his life.

His view of psychotherapy involves an enhanced sense of perception, emotion, and physical behavior and feelings. Perls is fairly well-known in the wider community for his “Gestalt prayer,” an individualistic quotation which was particularly popular in the 1960s (Perls 1969).

“Lose your mind and come to your senses.”

Perls was born into a Jewish family in Berlin on July 8, 1893. Although he received a fairly conventional education and childhood, he spent a considerable amount of time indulging in the city’s booming bohemian life. He made artistic experiments with new movements of the time, especially Dadaism and Expressionism (Goodman 1972).

He was also active at a time when strongly left-wing feelings were becoming prevalent in the avant-garde movement, to the extent of supporting at least the idea of revolution. His uncle, Herman Staub, had distinguished himself in the field of law, and Perls was expected by his family to follow in his footsteps. Instead, he chose to embark on a medical career (Goodman 1972)..

When World War One broke out in 1914, Perls signed up to serve in the German Army. He found it a traumatic experience, especially during the period he served in the trenches at the front line. Nevertheless, he survived the war and obtained his degree to qualify as a doctor.

In the early years of peace, he was hired as an assistant to Kurt Goldstein and engaged in work to care for soldiers who had suffered injuries to their brains. This work influenced Perls’ eventual decision to specialize in psychoanalysis, and in 1927 he went to Vienna to participate in the technical seminars organized by Wilhelm Reich.

Perls was impressed by the idea of character analysis that informed much of Reich’s work and in 1930, Perls was in Berlin, where his psychoanalytical work was supervised by Reich himself. In the same year, he married his wife Laura, and the couple had a son and a daughter together (David 1984).

However, in 1933, the Nazi Party came to power in Germany, and Hitler’s regime presented a clear threat to the Jewish Perls. Before the year was out, he and Laura had taken their daughter with them and immigrated to the Netherlands. They were unable to stay in that country for long, and in 1934 the family moved again, this time to South Africa (David 1984).

In his new home, Perls set up an institute for the training of psychoanalysts. By now his fame was spreading, and by 1936 he was sufficiently well known to hold a meeting with Sigmund Freud. However, the meeting proved to be less than satisfactory, and it broke up after only a short time.

Although Perls did not join the armed forces when World War Two began in 1939, three years later he enlisted in the South African Army. He was given the rank of captain and filled the role of psychiatrist to the troops, a post he held until shortly after the end of the war. His South African sojourn brought him into contact with Jan Smuts’ holistic ideas, which he found attractive.

During the war, Perls published Ego, Hunger, and Aggression, his first book. Two chapters of this were written by his wife, but this fact was not acknowledged either in the original edition or in its 1947 reissue. By this time, the two of them had moved again and left South Africa entirely, eventually settling in New York (David 1984).

Here, Perls had a short-lived collaboration with Karen Horney, as well as linking up once again with Reich. Perls was somewhat restless during this period, living for a while in Canada and working as the on-board psychiatrist on a cruise ship. He wrote a second book with Paul Goodman, which was published in 1951. This book, Gestalt Therapy, is generally considered to have been his most important work.

“To suffer one’s death and to be reborn is not easy”

Contributions: One of Perls’ major contributions to the psychology of the second half of the 20th century is that he offers an alternative to the domination of the Freudian juggernaut.

What is Gestaltian about it? Just as psychoanalysis is based on association theory (viz. ‘free association’) and behaviour therapy rests on the stimulus-response learning model, it was the aim of Perls to construct a new method based on Gestalt’s psychological principles. Wertheimer and the academic Gestalt school had made valuable contributions to perception and cognitive theory, but they neglected the broader realm of personality, psychopathology, and psychotherapy. Perls, however, tried to carry their insights further into this larger arena. Personality, thus conceived, is not organised according to the additive style of behaviourism, nor in associative-symbolic Freudian terms, but instead can be construed as following a ‘Gestalt’ or configurational pattern. The culmination of these efforts to construct a new system of therapy is reached in his second, and major book, Gestalt Therapy (David 1984).

Gestalt therapy had a variety of psychological and philosophical influences, and in addition was a response to the social forces of its day. It is a therapeutic approach which is holistic (mind/body/culture) present-centered, and related to existential therapy in its emphasis on personal responsibility for action, and on the valuing of the I-thou relationship in therapy. (In fact, its creators considered calling Gestalt Therapy existential-phenomenological therapy.) "The I and thou in the Here and Now," was one Gestalt therapist's semi-humorous mantra (Barry 1984).

The objective of Gestalt Therapy, in addition to helping the client overcome symptoms, is to enable the her-him to become more fully and creatively alive and to be free from the blocks and unfinished issues which may diminish optimum satisfaction, fulfillment, and growth. Thus, it falls in the category of humanistic psychotherapies.

Gestalt Therapy (GT) has its roots in psychoanalysis. It was part of a continuum moving from the early work of Sigmund Freud to the later Freudian ego analysis, to Wilhelm Reich and his notion of character armor. To this was added the insights of academic gestalt psychology about perception, gestalt formation and the tendency of organisms to complete the incomplete gestalt, to form "wholes" in experience.

Fritz Perls co-founded the first Gestalt Institute in New York City in 1952. It was a small underground group of radical therapists, going against the grain of American psychiatry and society. After all, the 1950s were a time of conformism. Poet Robert Lowell called it the ‘tranquilised decade’. In the 1960s Perls became infamous for his public workshops at Esalen Institute in Big Sur. When Fritz Perls left New York City for California, there began to be a split between those who saw Gestalt Therapy as a therapeutic approach with great potential (this view was best represented by Isadore From, who practiced and taught mainly in New York, and by the members of the Cleveland Institute, co-founded by From) and those who saw Gestalt Therapy not just as a therapeutic modality but as a way of life. The East Coast, New York-Cleveland axis was often appalled by the notion of Gestalt Therapy leaving the consulting room and becoming a way-of-life (see Gestalt prayer) in the West Coast of the 1960s. The split continues between what has been called "East Coast" GT and "West Coast" GT (Barry 1984).

Collaboration of Perls and Goodman led to the compilation of a basic text for the theory and method of Gestalt Therapy. This significant work gives the basic groundwork for a revolutionary new method of therapy. It is a difficult book; it cannot be simply ‘swallowed’ as many popular psychology books are, but it is the essential work for the serious student, and one to re-read, study, chew and digest. The first half contains a series of awareness exercises. Some of these may seem quite lame today, but remember, these were written nearly half a century ago. The second half, largely written by Goodman, supplies the theory (Barry 1984).

One problem of any movement is the apotheosis of the leader, and this, unfortunately, has also plagued Gestalt therapy. There are now numerous ‘little Fritzes’ trying to imitate the style of ‘Guru Fritz’, without his substance. These absurd pseudo-gestaltists, many with no training except for a weekend workshop, are an example of the introjection of an authority figure. It is not necessary that therapists be a reincarnation of Perls; an authentic therapist develops his or her own personal identity based on his or her experience and existence.

The idea of gestalt therapy is to cure the problems that are hampering the growth and productivity that is coming in the success and prosperity of an individual’s life. Everyone has a right to live a fulfilled and satisfied life and gestalt therapy is the way of adopting the lifestyle and reforming the lives of individuals to make them ambitious and prosperous in order to get more out of their lives and due to this factor gestalt therapy is also known as humanistic type of psychotherapy. Conflicting ideas were also presented in gestalt therapy which caused rift between the experts practicing the gestalt therapy and led them to part their ways. Isadore Form, who was a teacher in New York assessed and presented about the low potential possessed by gestalt therapy. His views were also shared by the co-founders of Cleveland Institute but many others proposed gestalt as a way of leading a happy and satisfied life. One of the Fritz Perls’ renowned publication is Finding Self Through Gestalt Therapy (Perls 1969).

Although Gestalt Therapy reached its zenith in the late 1970s and early 1980s and has since waned in popularity, its contributions have become assimilated into current schools of therapy, sometimes in unlikely places. For example, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) shares much from Gestalt Therapy yet are considered to be a cognitive behavioral approach. Also, mindfulness is a buzzword as of 2006, yet much of mindfulness work is connected to Gestalt Therapy's emphasis on the flow of experience and awareness. You won't see too much emphasis on Gestalt Therapy in clinical psychology programs in the US, however there are Gestalt institutes all over the world, including Asia and the South Pacific (Perls 1969) .

Gestalt Therapy is a very useful process for therapists-in-training of any persuasion because of its focus on the person of the therapist, barriers to full contact with others, self-awareness. And graduate students still seem to seek it out, even though it is not as recognized by the establishment as it once was (Perls 1969).

Since Fritz Perls set out his therapeutic model back in the 50s through his New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy, this approach has evolved and become even more firmly established. We’re undoubtedly dealing with an integrative psychological model capable of helping many people focus on their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in order to thereby stimulate sufficient self-awareness and broaden new perspectives so as to initiate more positive changes.

Those who practice Gestalt daily describe this therapeutic model as alive, spontaneous, and creative. Moreover, it manages to establish greater self-confidence in order to effectively and successfully deal with everyday problems. In addition, it helps people reach their maximum potential.

“...nobody can stand truth if it is told to him. Truth can be tolerated only if you discover it yourself because then, the pride of discovery makes the truth palatable.”

What I learnt from Fritz Perls:

Fritz Perls and Gestalt Therapy both offer great insight into guilt. In Gestalt Therapy Verbatim - a book of collected transcripts- Perls says, "We see guilt as projected resentment. Whenever you feel guilty, find out what you resent and the guilt will vanish and you will try to make the other person feel guilty." The key to resolving resentment, according to Perls, was expressing one's anger.

His first book, Ego, Hunger, and Aggression, explains more of his idea of guilt as projected resentment. Projection, Perls explains that parents, in his system of understanding, often reappear as a patients' conscience. In one case, "extraordinarily sympathetic parents" had killed off a child's aggression by kindness. "This patient suffered from extreme feelings of guilt and reproaches from his conscience." The solution? Aggression. "As soon as he managed to be openly aggressive his conscience lost its grip on him, and his feelings of guilt disappeared. "

An over-stern conscience can be cured only when self reproach changes into object approach. Perls explains that as saints would curb their aggression, their sense of guilt would proportionally increase.

Actually practicing Gestalt might offer the opportunity to work through repressive feelings of guilt by identifying the person (idea, thing, institution) toward whom one feels guilty, then acting out ones resentment toward them in fantasy. In the empty chair technique, for instance, one imagines a person sitting in an empty chair and has the chance to express one's feelings towards them - no matter how extreme. Whether such therapy will offer insight into one's guilt will depend upon the therapist and the client. Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality, by Perls, Goodman, and Hefferline, includes a number of exercises one can do by you to increase awareness, including awareness and understanding of guilt.

In Ego, Hunger and Aggression Perls contrasts two extreme human mental types: the criminal and a neurotic. The man controlled by guilt and the man wholly without guilt. This is typical of Perls, who examined mental phenomena as sets of polarities. Complete guiltlessness and complete aggression are neither a solution, but poles by which we navigate. The level state between extremes is only possible when we are aware of our extremes. Every person, every situation, has its solution. The criminal is a man who needs more guilt, the neurotic, less.

Perls and Gestalt Therapy give an interesting perspective on guilt, possible techniques for dealing with one’s own guilt, and a unique vantage point for further explorations of the idea of guilt in culture, history, and daily living

Fritz Perls’s quotes are like luminous strokes of human knowledge, theoretical essences that encourage our awakening. Whether we have an affinity with Gestalt Therapy or not, books such as “Dreams and Existence” or “The Practical Approach to Gestalt Therapy” are part of the history of psychology. Therefore, it’s always interesting to immerse ourselves in them in order to reflect.

Without further ado, let’s look at some examples of those principles by way of the best Fritz Perls concepts which I can say what I have learnt from Fritz Perls.

1. Everything flows when you find mental well-being.

When we find that point of subtle balance in our existence where we stop seeing obstacles and instead can see the path clearly, we feel free and our existence flows. As we indicated above, Gestalt Therapy goes beyond the limits of the space shared by the therapist and the client to give us a new life focus.

2. To be present now is to unite our attention and our consciousness.

This is one of the most familiar Fritz Perls quotes and one of the most important concepts of Gestalt therapy is derived from it: “awareness”. This is an awakening, where attention and consciousness come together in the present moment in order to further our personal growth.

3. The body knows everything. We know very little. Intuition is the body’s intelligence.

The human being is the result of the union between our body, our conscious mind, and our interaction with the environment. However, we spend much of our lives “disconnected”, asleep, unable to establish this union. Therefore, those who don’t trust the clues provided by their senses, their heart, or their intuitions will not attain the wisdom that Fritz Perls talks about.

4. The therapist is constantly looking for ways to be in contact with the “how” of the events that occur in the present.

When the therapist asks the client how they feel, it’s common for them to respond “bad,” “confused,” “angry”… However, one of the specialist’s objectives is to discern what causes that sensation in the present by clarifying emotions and consistently aiming for communication in the first person focused on the present.

5. I’m not in this world to live up to others’ expectations, nor do I feel that the world should match mine.

Integrity, self-confidence, certainty and reflective awareness. These are cornerstones of Gestalt therapy. One of the most important concept given by Fritz perls.

6. To mature means to take responsibility for your life, to be alone.

This is another typical Fritz Perls quote for a fundamental reason. The Gestalt approach to therapy broke away from psychoanalysis by focusing all of its attention on the present and not on those events of the past or childhood for which the person could not still feel responsible. Personal responsibility lies in the present moment. Also, taking that step entails maturing. It entails giving us the opportunity to enjoy ourselves while becoming reacquainted with solitude at the same time.

7. Learning is discovering that something is possible.

Moving forward, growing, and developing sufficient self-awareness involves realizing our full potential as human beings.

8. The person most in control is the person who can give up control.

Sometimes, people develop such a high level of self-control that the only thing they achieve is repression of their real needs. An example of this is when we bury our sorrows, disappointments, and the frustration that others cause us. None of these behaviors are healthy. However, in Gestalt Therapy, healthier control is when the person is well aware of how to react in every moment. I can control my anger in order to vent my frustration or my indignation in an intelligent, constructive way.

9. Expecting the world to treat you fairly because you’re a good person is the same as expecting a bull not to attack you because you’re vegetarian.

The person who is ultimately responsible for taking care of you, respecting you, and valuing you for what you are, is you. It’s not your co-workers; it’s not society, nor even your family. Instead, you’re the only one responsible for yourself. Not accepting or not seeing this is an unending source of suffering.

10. Friend, don’t be a perfectionist. Perfectionism is a curse.

Perfectionism isn’t good for our emotional health. It relates to a great extent to that need for iron-clad self-control which we mentioned above and which sometimes leads us to create unrealistic expectations.

11. It’s very rare for people to be able to talk and listen. Very few listen without speaking.

All Gestalt psychotherapists are looking for something essential during therapy: to bring to the surface all those emotional processes that people hide under their distorted behaviours, habits, fears, and approaches. In order to calm and center the distorting mind, the professional first invites the patient to listen to themselves, to become aware of how they are in that present moment. They can then describe their emotions out loud, knowing that the therapist is there, listening carefully.

Fritz Perls himself pointed out something that appears quite simple: listening to oneself, communicating and being listened to in silence, is a dynamic that we have lost in our society. We have lost the ability to listen to ourselves and to listen to others.

12. Anxiety is excitement without breathing.

Life creates uncertainty within us; anxiety and fear take hold of us because we fear the future, because emotions overcome us and we don’t grasp their magnitude and let them take a hold within us until we can’t breathe. If we want to move forward without pressures, limitations, and fears, Gestalt Therapy, first of all, proposes that we be able to clarify our emotions. Knowing what is happening to us in a given moment always helps us calm anxiety.

“The only difference between a wise man and a fool is that the wise man knows he's playing.”

13. Be yourself, express yourself freely and without fear. After all, those who truly love you won’t mind what you say or do.

Unconditional acceptance and honesty with oneself are the two most important bases for Gestalt Therapy. If someone doesn’t accept what we are or what we say, it’s because they don’t appreciate us, they’re not in tune with our essences.

14. Don’t think so much… Feel.

“Everything is worthwhile if it makes you feel”. This Fritz Perls quote provides us with an important pointer. Feeling is what makes us alive and so, instead of lapsing into excessive worrying, we must give ourselves permission to feel a lot more, regardless of whether the emotions are positive or negative. Allowing them to come to us is also a way of understanding them.

15. We must learn to tolerate the truth, even if it wounds our pride.

Truth is part of awareness, of that very complex capacity with which we learn to “realize” to favor an inner awakening in which to make explicit the implicit or to accept a truth even if it hurts because it helps us progress.

16. Nothing has meaning without its context. Meaning doesn’t exist.

Meaning doesn’t exist as an isolated entity, but rather it’s bound to something that gives it sense. We need to understand that nobody feels fear, anger, or happiness for no reason; our emotions always begin with a context, a particular situation.

17. The fact that we live our lives using such a low percentage of our potentialities is because we’re not willing to accept ourselves as we are.

Fritz Perls places human potential and its development as one of the key objectives within Gestalt Therapy.

18. We don’t allow ourselves – or we’re not allowed by others – to be entirely ourselves.

This is another Fritz Perls quote that summarizes his legacy well. Accepting ourselves as we are is undoubtedly the first step towards well-being. Thus, far from attributing responsibility for this discomfort to those around us, we must be able to open our eyes, to wake up to our own personal responsibility, clarifying who we are and what we want.

19. If you refuse to recall your dreams, what you’re really doing is denying your own existence.

Our intentions, goals, and desires are part of who we are. Denying them means defragmenting that whole, that luminous unity of our being that we cannot deny or abandon.

20. Change is an opportunity.

Few things scare us as much as changes of direction, uncertainties, shifts in our destiny. We need to be able to flow in order to allow ourselves to move forward along our paths, detecting opportunities for improvements.

21. Solitude is actually the place where you can connect with the feeling of belonging.

Those who fear solitude are afraid to rediscover themselves, as well as their essences, needs, and thoughts. Few things help us become strong people as much as looking from time to time for those private spaces in order to connect with our inner voice.

22. Getting reacquainted with our emotions and learning to embrace them is healing.

All our emotions fulfill an adaptive purpose in Gestalt Therapy. Therefore, knowing how to recognize and understand them is key in the therapeutic process itself.

23. Distractions are also part of our life journey.

For Fritz Perls, “distracting oneself” doesn’t mean losing our capacity for attention. It’s rather something as fundamental as allowing ourselves to feel, to rest, to flow, to let ourselves be carried away by calmness, enjoyment, and those peaceful little corners that also increase our well-being.

According to Perls, it is essential for every human being to develop his or her potential. Creating a bridge between the unconscious and the conscious - what Freud tried to achieve - is not enough. You have to discover what your personality is lacking and fill the voids so that you are a more complete person.

Perls said that the mind has three levels of awareness: awareness of the self, awareness of the world, and an intermediate level of fantasy. If you become too involved in this intermediate level, you lose touch with yourself and with the world. It was Freud who discovered this intermediate zone of illusion; Freud thought that someone who was stuck in this zone was suffering from a psychological complex.

Perls did not believe in traditional forms of dream interpretation - in trying to determine what the symbols in a dream mean. Instead, he thought that to gain a better understanding of yourself, you should act out the part of every person and every object in the dream. For example, if you dream about a man climbing stairs, you act out the part of the man and you act out the part of the stairs (pretending that stairs can talk).

By approaching your dream in this way, you can begin to integrate conflicting aspects of your personality, and then get rid of the illusions that you have created. Getting rid of these illusions will allow you to eliminate the problems in your life.

Perls also believed that examining your dreams in this way can help you to be more spontaneous and more creative.

Perls was a key figure in the history of psychology that provided new therapeutic tools for promoting personal growth. However, it’s up to us how we strive to achieve the principles of his legacy to best fit our needs and shape new paths towards happiness. Gestalt Therapy continued to develop with Perls and his wife Laura at the head of it in the last century. Its early stage dates back to the 60-s and 70-s and then it evolved all over the world as training centers began to appear in different countries. Such centers have nothing to do with traditional therapies and are far from academic settings. Slowly penetrating different spheres the ideas presenting Gestalt Therapy began to influence minds in other spheres too and it brought to so to say cognitive revolution. So Gestalt perception entered other branches. Gestalt Therapy became an applied subject in psychotherapy, in coaching, social actions and others.


This article is written by Plabita Borah who has been a part of the Global Internship Research Program (GIRP). Plabita belongs from Assam and holds MSc in Clinical Psychology. She is ambitious, driven and thrives on challenge. She constantly sets goals and strives towards them. She also loves meeting people and learning about theirs lives and background.

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