Updated: Mar 16
Gestalt, by definition, refers to the form or shape of something and suggests that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There is an emphasis on perception in this particular theory of counselling. Gestalt therapy gives attention to how we place meaning and make sense of our world and our experiences.
Within Gestalt therapy, the client has space to safely explore their experiences without fear of judgment. In fact, the clients are encouraged to not simply talk about their emotions or experiences, but to bring them into the room so they can be processed in real-time with the therapist.
Gestalt therapy is a client-centred approach to psychotherapy that helps clients focus on the present and understand what is really happening in their lives right now, rather than what they may perceive to be happening based on past experience.
Instead of simply talking about past situations, clients are encouraged to experience them, perhaps through re-enactment. Through the gestalt process, clients learn to become more aware of how their own negative thought patterns and behaviours are blocking true self-awareness and making them unhappy.
It is a highly positive and practical integrative therapeutic approach. Broadly, Gestalt practitioners help people to focus on their immediate thoughts, feelings and behaviour and to better understand the way they relate to others. This increased awareness can help people to find a new perspective, see the bigger picture and start to effect changes.
History of Gestalt
The zeitgeist in Europe in the 1930s was one of explosive change. New forms of expression were emerging culturally and politically. Science and technology was developing apace. Against this backdrop, in Berlin, Fritz Perls became interested in some of the prevailing philosophical questions, particularly those concerning existence, what it is to be human, of consciousness and how we experience the world around us.
Whilst working at the Frankfurt Psychological Institute, Perls met the psychologist and psychotherapist Lore Posner – later to become his wife Laura Perls. Together with the New York based thinker and writer, Paul Goodman, the pair channelled their existential ideas and dissatisfaction with Freudian psychotherapy into their radical new humanistic therapy, with ideas about the self and awareness at its core. Perls’ book “Gestalt Therapy” was published in 1951 and the first Gestalt institute was established in New York in the early 1950s. During the 1960s and 70s, Gestalt therapy rose to rapid and widespread popularity, especially in the USA.
Today, Gestalt is a well established, well known therapeutic approach and is increasingly popular with people looking for a practical, positive way to address problems and effect change in their lives. In other words, the approach focused on the person and the uniqueness of their experience.
Some therapy approaches tend to focus on the therapist as an expert on distress and symptoms. The client has more of a learning role, as the therapist shares their knowledge about what they are experiencing and how to heal. The goal of Gestalt therapy is for the client to be collaborating with the therapist to increase personal awareness and actively challenge the roadblocks that have been getting in the way of healing until now.
How Gestalt works
“I and thou in the here and now”
Gestalt is a German word. The closest translation is ‘whole’, ‘pattern’ or ‘form’. It has the sense that meaning cannot be found from breaking things down into parts but rather from appreciation of the whole. In other words, Gestalt is a holistic process. It regards the individual as a totality of mind, body, emotions and spirit who experiences reality in a way unique to themselves.
Gestalt therapy emphasizes that to alleviate unresolved anger, pain, anxiety, resentment, and other negative feelings; these emotions cannot just be discussed, but must be actively expressed in the present time. If that doesn’t happen, both psychological and physical symptoms can arise. Perls believed that we are not in this world to live up to others' expectations, nor should we expect others to live up to ours. By building self-awareness, gestalt therapy helps clients better understand themselves and how the choices they make affect their health and their relationships. With this self-knowledge, clients begin to understand how their emotional and physical selves are connected and develop more self-confidence to start living a fuller life and more effectively deal with problems.
In practice, Gestalt practitioners work with clients to help them focus on self-awareness: on what is happening from one moment to the next or, as we often say, in the Here and Now. Increased awareness and understanding of the present, of one’s immediate thoughts, feelings and behaviour, and of patterns of relating can bring about powerful change and new perspectives.
In Gestalt therapy the patient quickly learns to make the discrimination between ideas and ideation, between well-worn obsession pathways and new thoughts, between a statement of experience and a statement of a statement. The Gestalt goal of pursuing experience and insight which emerges as the Gestalt emerges is more potent than insight given by the therapist, does help the patient and the therapist draw and maintain these important distinctions
For practitioners, Gestalt’s focus on the present moment, and on immediate thoughts and feelings, make it a very lively, spontaneous and creative approach.
For clients, the greater holistic awareness and increased insight into how we think, feel and act is very liberating. It builds self-confidence, frees people to address issues and helps them to live life to its fullest potential.
There are a number of key principle ideas that come into play with Gestalt therapy.
Experience Influences Perception
In this client-centred approach to therapy, the Gestalt therapist understands that no one can be fully objective and that we are influenced by our environment and our experiences. A therapist trained in Gestalt Therapy holds space for their clients to share their truth, not imposing their judgment and accepting the truth of their clients' experiences.
Since therapists are human as well, it is important for Gestalt therapists to consider the influence of their own experiences on what is happening in the session.
When in session, Gestalt therapists want to learn about the experience of their clients. It is understood that context matters and the therapists use techniques to help the client become more aware of their experiences, their perceptions, and their responses to events in the here and now.
Rather than specifically targeting the past and asking clients to purposefully bring up old experiences, Gestalt therapists operate from a place of understanding that as clients become increasingly aware, they will overcome existing roadblocks. There is no forced work or technique, just holding space for client awareness is the key in this approach.
The main hallmark of Gestalt therapy is the focus on the present. In the session, the client and therapist rapport is critical in building trust and safety. As the client shares, a Gestalt therapist will help bring the client back to the present if there is a sense they are spending too much time in the past or if their anxiety may be speeding them into the future.
An example of keeping a client present might include something like asking about a client's facial expression or body language as they process a particular event or experience.
In asking about something they are observing in the room, they are helping the client come back to the present and process what is happening for them at that moment.
Staying in the present can sound deceptively simple. How hard can it be to stay present, right? Well, if you have ever found yourself worrying about work while making a grocery list, or reminiscing about a past event while sitting with your family at the dinner table, you can understand how quickly we might venture off in our minds while in a therapy session.
We work very hard to survive painful experiences, and part of this survival technique is to attempt to shut down our emotional hurt or painful memory of the event.
In Gestalt therapy, you are offered a space where you don't have to do that hard work anymore. This isn't to suggest that things will come up quickly, but they don't have to. A Gestalt therapist understands that things such as painful memories or events will come to awareness when the client is ready for healing in that area.
During Gestalt therapy, there may be some experiential exercises that you will do with your therapist. Experiential exercise refers to therapeutic activities done in therapy that can help to increase awareness and help with processing. At the heart of Gestalt therapy is awareness. As Frederick Salomon Perls put it,
"Awareness in itself is healing."
Rather than sitting still and talking, you may be asked to actively participate in something like role play, guided imagery, or use of props to help communication and understanding. Engaging in experiential exercises can be a wonderful way to open up and share, especially when it is difficult to find words or when you tend to process in a more visual way. Gestalt therapists understand that these exercises help to increase awareness.
Words and Language
The attention to language and tone is important in Gestalt therapy. As clients learn to accept responsibility, they learn to use language that reflects a sense of personal ownership rather than focusing on others. For example, rather than say, "If he didn't do that I wouldn't get so mad!" a client might be encouraged to say, "I feel mad when he does that because it makes me feel insignificant and I don't like that." The use of "I" statements are important in Gestalt therapy.
This is a role-playing exercise that allows a client to imagine and participate in a conversation with another person or another part of themselves. Sitting across from the empty chair, the client enters into a dialogue as if they were speaking with that other person or that other part of themselves.
Empty chair can be very helpful in drawing out important perceptions, meanings, and other information that can help clients become more aware of their emotional experience and how to start healing.
Another example of role-playing might be what is referred to as "top dog and underdog." In this, it is recognized that a client has different parts of self. Similar to the empty chair, the client speaks as both the top dog, which is the more demanding side of their personality and the underdog, which is the more submissive and obedient side of their personality.
The key is to become aware of inner conflicts so that the person can better learn how to integrate these parts of self into a more complete whole.
During a session, it might be noticed by a Gestalt therapist that the client is tapping their foot, wringing their hands, or making a certain facial expression. The therapist is likely to mention their observation of this and ask what is happening for the person at that moment. Incorporating language, the Gestalt therapist may even ask the client to give their foot, hands, or facial expression a voice and speak from that place.
In addition to giving body language a voice, a Gestalt therapist may inquire about the client's body language. If it is difficult for the client to find words to put to what is happening, they may be asked to exaggerate that motion or repeat it several times in a row for a period of time during the session to draw out some of their experience in the counselling room in that moment.
The client and the therapist get a chance to process emotions and how the person might have learned to disconnect their emotional experiences with their physical experiences.
During a session, it is common for people to talk about emotion. Talking about emotion is different than experiencing an emotion, which is what the Gestalt therapist is wanting the client to do in sessions. As a client talks about emotion, the therapist may ask them where they feel that emotion in their body.
An example of this could be, "a pit in my stomach," or "my chest feels tight." Being able to bring the emotional experience to awareness in the body helps the client stay present and process their emotions more effectively
Additional activities such as painting, sculpting, and drawing can also be used to help people gain awareness, stay present, and learn how to process at the moment. It is generally noted in this style that any technique that can be offered to the client, other than traditional sitting still and talking, can be quite helpful in allowing them to become more aware of themselves, their experiences, and their process of healing.
How It Helps
Gestalt therapy intends for the client to gain greater awareness of their experience of being in the world. Gestalt therapists do not have a goal of changing their clients. In fact, clients are encouraged to focus on becoming more aware of themselves, staying present, and processing things in the here and now.
The working, collaborative relationship between therapist and client is powerful to the healing process in Gestalt therapy.
It is suggested that the way we learn how to survive experiences, particularly painful experiences, is to create blocks or push things out of awareness so that we can move forward. As effective as it may seem, it can create trouble for us as we become more compartmentalized and fragmented in our sense of self and our experiences.
The very techniques we once used to help ourselves become blocks to self-awareness and growth. Increasing client awareness allows for these blocks to be identified, properly challenged, and moved out of the way so we can find healing and personal growth.
A key goal in Gestalt therapy is to allow clients the opportunity to own and accept their experiences. In blaming others, we lose our sense of control and become victim to the event or the other person involved in the event. Gestalt therapy encourages clients to challenge those old ways of how we may have created meaning about an experience.
Learning how to accept and embrace personal responsibility is a goal of Gestalt therapy, allowing clients to gain a greater sense of control in their experiences and to learn how to better regulate their emotions and interactions with the world.
Self-Regulation and Growth
Gestalt therapy suggests that, inherently, people strive for self-regulation and growth. However, we sometimes develop techniques to emotionally survive unfortunate and painful experiences. Some of these techniques feel helpful in the short-term because they can help minimize our pain or distress. However, over the long-term, they leave us is more emotionally shaky places, unable to express ourselves. We may find it hard to interact with others, and difficult to learn how to effectively regulate ourselves and be whole, responsible beings.
Gestalt therapy believes that, despite some of these setbacks, people are still wired for this sense of wholeness and feel distressed when we are not able to achieve it. Our distress might look like physical illness, emotional reactivity, isolation, and more.
As Perls suggests, becoming aware of ourselves is healing. During our process of therapy, we can uncover and heal parts of self that have been lost for some time, discover parts of self that have not yet had an opportunity to thrive and gain a greater sense of self along the way. As we work to heal and integrate these parts of self, we can become healthy and whole individuals.