Gestalt is an experiential and humanistic therapy, which is fundamentally concerned with the quality of the relationship between the person and their situation. In the 1940s, the founders, Fritz Perls, Lore Perls and Paul Goodman were influenced by major developments in science and technology and a rise in radical socialist movements, which challenged the prevailing order. New movements in the arts also challenged middle class values and norms, and the founders of gestalt therapy embraced the creativity, spontaneity and intuition of expressionism, as well as an existential focus on ‘being’ (what is) and ‘potential being’, as experienced through the exercise of choice with self-responsibility. Gestalt theory is a practical philosophy, and Gestalt practice represents an ‘adventure in living’. 1Clarkson P. & McKeown, J. (2012, 1993) Fritz Perls. London: Sage Publications
Gestalt practitioners use creative and experiential approaches to engage a person’s curiosity in and awareness of, self (e.g. sensations, feelings, thoughts, behaviours) in a given situation. Such awareness serves to expand the individual’s range of potential responses and to mobilise energy for self-directed actions designed to move a situation forward in a constructive direction.
Gestalt is highly versatile as a holistic theory of psychotherapy for working with individuals and couples, and also as a powerful support for professionals in a range of occupations, including coaching, consultancy, human resources, education, business and social work; indeed anyone working to enhance the development and growth of human systems, including groups, teams, families, communities, and organisations.
Principles of Gestalt Practice
At the core of gestalt practice is an holistic view that people are intricately linked to and influenced by their environment, and an optimistic stance, that all people strive toward growth and balance.
According to gestalt theory, context affects experience, and a person cannot be fully understood without understanding their situation. Perls 2Perls, F.S. (1947, 1969) Ego, Hunger & Aggression. New York: Vintage Books identified a physiological–biological ‘cycle of interdependency of organism and environment’, categorised later as fore-contact, contact, final contact and post-contact. 3Goodman, P. (1951) Part two: Manipulating the self. In F. Perls, R. Hefferline & P. Goodman Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and growth in the human personality. New York: Delta If followed sequentially, these stages of contact between the person and others in their environment enable them to create a meaningful whole, or Gestalt from their experience. The sense of completion and closure of the gestalting process is experienced intuitively as ‘right’, and is accompanied by a sense of calm, satisfaction, peace or fulfilment. However, if progression through the cycle is thwarted in some way, and the gestalt remains incomplete, then unfinished business results.
Gestalt practitioners are interested in how their clients make meaning of their situation. With this phenomenological orientation, they recognize that any claim to objectivity is a fantasy, given that their own experiences and perspectives are also influenced by their own contexts. Practitioners therefore accept the validity and truth of their clients’ experiences and draw on their own present moment experiencing in service of the client’s needs, so that the relationship is co-created. This energetic meeting at the ‘contact boundary’ 4Goodman, P. (1951) Part two: Manipulating the self. In F. Perls, R. Hefferline & P. Goodman Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and growth in the human personality. New York: Delta leads to an iterative, vibrant integration of experience.
Gestalt theory also recognizes that forcing a person to change, paradoxically, results in further distress and fragmentation. Rather, change results from engaging fully with what is and using that awareness to mobilise energy to move forward in a response-able manner.
Thus, practice focuses on helping people learn to become more self-aware and to accept and trust in their feelings and experiences to alleviate distress or discord in a situation.
Focus on “Here and Now”
Gestalt practice places emphasis on gaining awareness of the present moment and the present context. In this way, people learn to discover feelings that may have been suppressed or masked by other feelings, and to accept and trust their emotions. Needs and emotions that were previously suppressed or unacknowledged are likely to surface as well. Through this process, a person gains a more expansive, fluid awareness of self as responding and response-able to specific events and situations.
The focus on the here and now does not negate or reduce past events or future possibilities; in fact, the past is intricately linked to one’s present experience, and it is the way the past affects what is happening in the relationship between clients and/or practitioner and client that is the focus of the work. The idea is to avoid dwelling on the past or anxiously anticipating the future. The experience of being fully met helps the person to complete an ‘old story’ that has held them back, and to develop new ways of initiating/ responding to their situation.
Experiences of the past may be addressed in sessions, but the therapist and client will focus on exploring what factors made a particular memory come up in this moment, or how the present moment is impacted by experiences of the past. In this way the helping relationship provides a here-and-now situation in which satisfactory closure 5Perls, F.S. (1959, 1975) Resolution, Paper presented at Mendocino State Hospital, California. In J.O. Stevens (1975) Gestalt Is… Moab, Utah: Real People Press, pp. 69-74 can be experienced viscerally and emotionally.
Working with a Gestalt practitioner
Gestalt practices do not follow specific guidelines; in fact, therapists are encouraged to be creative, experimental and spontaneous in their approach, depending on the context and the unique way of being and functioning of the person, group or organisation they are working with.
What is consistent is the emphasis on direct contact between practitioner and client, direct experience and experimentation, and the focus on the “what and how”—what the client is doing and how they are doing it—and the “here and now” experience of being in relationship.
Together, the practitioner and the person or group will evaluate what is happening now and what is needed as a result. Practitioners refrain from interpreting events, focusing only on the immediate, including the physical responses of the client. Remarking on subtle shifts in posture, for example, can bring a person into the present. In this way, gestalt practice helps people gain a better understanding of how their emotional and physical bodies are connected. Understanding the internal self is the key to understanding actions, reactions, and behaviours. Gestalt practice helps people take the first steps into this awareness so that they can acknowledge and accept these patterns.
Perls 6Perls, F.S. (1970) ‘Four Lectures’. In J. Fagan & I.L. Shepherd (eds) (1970) Gestalt Therapy Now. New York: Harper & Row. recognised that it is sensory, embodied experiencing within the therapeutic relationship that opens the door to change. Once the client has fine-tuned their awareness of a specific situation, the practitioner may engage them in doing something (e.g. ‘how would it be to say/do that here, right now?) to enliven and enrich their understanding of an issue, experience or problem. Once familiar with such mini experiments, the client and practitioner will design them together at any stage of the therapeutic process and therapeutic relationship in response to what is happening ‘between’ them.
That said, Gestalt is sometimes caricatured by its use of particular exercises, such as the empty chair technique. Here, the client is asked to imagine that someone (such as a boss, spouse, or relative), they, or a part of themselves is sitting in front of them, and encouraged to dialogue with the ‘other’, This engages the person’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviours, and sometimes roles are reversed and the client assumes the identity of the person or part of a person in the chair. The empty chair technique can be especially useful for helping people become mindful of the whole situation, of forgotten or disengaged pieces of their own self, or more empathic towards someone they find challenging in some way.
Another common exercise in gestalt practice uses exaggeration, whereby the person is asked to repeat and exaggerate a particular movement or expression, such as sighing or tapping their fingers, in order to make the person more aware of the emotions attached to the behaviour.
Through exercises and spontaneous experiments, gestalt therapy also allows people to reconnect with parts of themselves they may minimize, ignore, or deny, and to move closer to completion of an unfinished situation.
Article by Belinda Harris, last updated 20th Dec 2016
|↑1||Clarkson P. & McKeown, J. (2012, 1993) Fritz Perls. London: Sage Publications|
|↑2||Perls, F.S. (1947, 1969) Ego, Hunger & Aggression. New York: Vintage Books|
|↑3, ↑4||Goodman, P. (1951) Part two: Manipulating the self. In F. Perls, R. Hefferline & P. Goodman Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and growth in the human personality. New York: Delta|
|↑5||Perls, F.S. (1959, 1975) Resolution, Paper presented at Mendocino State Hospital, California. In J.O. Stevens (1975) Gestalt Is… Moab, Utah: Real People Press, pp. 69-74|
|↑6||Perls, F.S. (1970) ‘Four Lectures’. In J. Fagan & I.L. Shepherd (eds) (1970) Gestalt Therapy Now. New York: Harper & Row.|