Gestalt therapy is an experiential, phenomenological, and humanistic type of psychotherapy. It’s based on the idea that, as humans, we have an inherent desire to find solutions to our own problems while constantly growing throughout life. “Gestalt” refers to the concept of a unified whole, which is how Gestalt theory views nature. The whole doesn’t equal the sum of its parts.
Unlike many other forms of therapy, Gestalt therapy doesn’t focus on your past. It also doesn’t focus on what is being talked about, per se. Rather, the primary focus of therapy is on the process itself – what’s taking place in the present moment within the therapeutic relationship. This includes your thoughts, feelings, and perceptions and how they are impacting the process.
Developed by Fritz Perls and his wife, Laura back in the 1940s, Gestalt therapy stresses the importance of living in the present, taking personal responsibility for your life, and addressing “unfinished business” that’s causing problems in your life today.
The main goal of therapy is to help you become more self-aware, particularly in terms of recognizing and understanding the relationship between your responses and your present situation. This awareness includes your feelings, thoughts, and perceptions and the ways in which they impact your life. Self-awareness is regarded as the key to making positive changes and reaching your full potential. Your past experiences in life are considered in terms of how they’re contributing to your current distress and struggles. Feelings of unhappiness and dissatisfaction with life often stem from old patterns of negative thoughts and behaviors that hinder self-awareness.
Gestalt therapy relies much less on interpretation and explanation than other traditional forms of psychotherapy. A Gestalt therapist is more concerned with “what” and “how” instead of “why”. Therapy is intended to help you become self-aware without judgment. This leads to a fresh perspective that helps reduce distress and enhance personal growth.
Rather than striving to fix symptoms or change unwanted behaviors, Gestalt therapists take note of these issues and utilize them in therapy. The interventions they use are intended to address therapy clients’ resistance to contact or change in the present. Making full use of what’s occurring in the present relationship between client and therapist is believed to be the key to resolving the negative impact of past experiences. You can only live your life fully in the present moment; dwelling on past mistakes and wrongs or worrying or fantasizing about your future interferes with that ability.
Brief History of Gestalt Therapy
The Gestalt approach to therapy is attributed to the work of German-born psychiatrist Frederick “Fritz” Perls and his wife Laura. In 1952, out of their Manhattan-based apartment, the couple started the Gestalt Institute.
Although initially trained in Freudian psychoanalysis, the Perls later became increasingly influenced by existential concepts and Gestalt psychology. Gestalt therapy was one of several developing humanistic therapies. One of the salient and unprecedented characteristics of this particular approach, especially when compared to conventional psychoanalysis, was its emphasis on the therapist as a part of the therapy process rather than an observer of it.
Fritz Perls’ work also had a great impact on the practice of group therapy in addition to individual therapy. Gestalt methods are widely used today by therapists in a variety of settings.
Important Concepts in Gestalt Therapy
Present focus – Many people have a very difficult time staying in the present. They avoid the present by dwelling on the past or thinking (worrying, fantasizing) about future events that may never actually take place. Awareness of what they’re experiencing in the present is one of the most essential elements of Gestalt therapy.
Importance of experience – Tied in with the emphasis on living in the present, Gestalt therapy also emphasizes experience. This includes fully and vividly experiencing one’s thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, behaviors, and perceptions. Techniques used in Gestalt therapy help clients become more aware of what they’re experiencing.
Contact – In Gestalt therapy, the relationship between the client and therapist is one of the most important aspects of the therapy process. Contact – as opposed to resistance to contact – is essential for clients to grow and change. Additionally, healthy relationships (which require self-awareness) with others as well as with oneself are regarded as a crucial aspect of living life fully.
Respect for the Client – In Gestalt therapy, it’s imperative that therapists treat all clients with the deepest respect. Therapy can be an uncomfortable process at times because it requires openness and honesty on the part of the client. When clients feel genuinely respected by the therapist, they are more willing to open up and make the most of the process.
Personal and Social Responsibility – Both personal and social responsibility are important concepts in Gestalt therapy. Individuals are responsible not only for the choices they make regarding their own lives, but also for how they treat others and interact in society. Gestalt therapy encourages the idea that all people are equal and should be treated accordingly.
The Role of the Gestalt Therapist
Gestalt therapists have multiple tasks, each of which is designed to help the client gain the most benefit from the therapy process. These tasks include:
- Creating a safe atmosphere that enables clients to identify and explore their current thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, experiment with new behaviors, and engage in open dialogue.
- Helping clients increase their self-awareness
- Encouraging and helping clients stay focused in the present moment
- Paying close attention to clients’ verbal and non-verbal behavior; non-verbal behavior like body language often indicates the presence of strong emotions
- Treating clients with the utmost respect and as equals
- Listening closely without judgment
- Participating as fully as possible in the client’s experience without becoming enmeshed in it
- Sharing his or her experience which includes observations, emotions, thoughts, and perspective (this also provides a model for the client to follow)
- Refraining from interpretation and explanation
- Encouraging clients to learn to regulate themselves
- Being committed to connect and dialogue with the client without attempting to manipulate or control the client or the process in order to reach a particular therapeutic goal
Essential traits of Gestalt therapists include genuine caring for and sincere acceptance of the client, along with warmth, authenticity, and strong sense of personal responsibility.
Gestalt therapists use a variety of very effective techniques and methods to help clients gain self-awareness. Each of these experiments of exercises help increase your self-awareness by bringing internal conflicts to the surface. Following are some of the most common techniques used in Gestalt therapy:
Dialogue – Authentic and meaningful dialogue often involves more than simply talking in Gestalt therapy. Forms of dialogue may include things like singing, dancing, or even laughing together. These various means of creative expression help you look at things from a new perspective while experiencing the present moment more fully.
Dream Work – Although your dreams play a significant role in Gestalt therapy, the goal is not to analyze, interpret, or explain their meaning. Instead, the therapist will encourage you to relive the dream in therapy. This may be done by having you act out various people or objects that were in your dream while exploring and sharing what you feel as you take on the various roles. Dreams are believed to be a projection of yourself, so exploring and understanding the emotions they elicit helps increase self-awareness.
Confrontation or “Making the Rounds” – This Gestalt exercise works best in a group therapy format. While making the rounds, you say or do something with each group member. This gives you the opportunity to try out new behaviors, such as disclosing something personal, confronting a problem, and taking a risk when interacting with others. The goal is to facilitate personal growth.
Reversal – This technique, like many of the others, involves role play. It involves facing something that is causing distress or keeping you in denial. In this exercise, you’ll act out the behaviors, traits, or symptoms that are the exact opposite of the ones that have been causing you problems. Doing so will enable you to accept whatever it is you’ve been denying or avoiding.
Rehearsal – Just as the name suggests, the rehearsal technique allows you to rehearse, or try out, a new behavior. This can be done by trying out the new behavior with someone in the group or in your life. This exercise increases your willingness to experiment with new behaviors and become more spontaneous. It also helps decrease the anxiety (the fear that you’re not doing it right) that often accompanies trying something new.
Exaggeration – One of the best ways to grasp the meaning and emotions attached to body language – a gesture, facial expression, or particular posture (e.g. clenching your fists or crossing your arms) – is to repeatedly perform it in an exaggerated manner. This will intensify whatever it is you associate with the behavior, such as defensiveness, anger, or frustration, and enable you to understand it better. During this exercise, the therapist will ask you what you’re trying to communicate with the particular behavior.
Staying with the Feeling – This Gestalt exercise is designed to help you face – rather than try to escape or avoid – uncomfortable or unpleasant emotions as well as the things that trigger them. Running away is easy – but doing so won’t help you grow. Staying with the feeling involves sitting with and really feeling the pain, anxiety, sadness, or whatever undesirable emotion that’s come up in the moment. Digging deeper into the feeling promotes courage and growth; it also helps you realize that feelings – in and of themselves – aren’t something to be feared.
The Empty Chair – Of all the Gestalt exercises, the empty chair is probably the most well-known and widely used. This powerful exercise involves having you sit in a chair that is facing an empty chair. As you sit in the chair, you imagine someone or something in the empty chair that is important to you and / or causing distress or difficulties in your life. The person in the opposite chair may be yourself, someone from your past or present, or even someone you’ve yet to meet (e.g. a future spouse or child). The object can be anything, such as an aspect of your personality (e.g. something you don’t like about yourself), a physical symptom (e.g. chronic migraines) or trait (e.g. a big nose), your home, your job, a situation, an event, a stereotype (e.g. controlling women), part of a dream you had, or something you wish you had, such as wealth or beauty.
As you sit in the chair and vividly imagine the person or object sitting directly across from you, you are encouraged to have an in depth conversation with him-her-it. This conversation will inevitably elicit a range of emotions and reactions. The conversation may include asking questions, expressing thoughts or feelings you’ve kept hidden but perhaps always wanted to say, and so on.
At some point during the empty chair exercise, the therapist will instruct you to reverse roles. In other words, you take on the role of the person or object you’d imagined in the empty chair, and, while in that role, sit and face yourself in the other chair. Now you have a conversation – with yourself – from the perspective of the person or object in the empty chair.
With the empty chair technique, whatever you imagine in the opposite chair is something that inevitably holds a lot of meaning for you. It typically represents an unresolved conflict or point of pain – unfinished business that needs to be resolved. It also tends to reveal an emotion or personality trait that you’ve denied, ignored, or attempted to disown. As you go through the exercise you’ll have a better understanding of yourself as well as a greater understanding and new perspective of the person, situation, or thing that you confronted during the exercise.
One of the most beneficial outcomes of the empty chair technique is that it helps you realize something vitally important to your personal growth: any conflict you’re experiencing is comprised of and fueled by your own perspective, expectations, memories (whether accurate or not), feelings, and judgments about the person or thing. All of those things reside within you – and you have the power and responsibility to resolve that internal conflict.
Benefits of Gestalt Therapy
There are many potential benefits to clients who participate in Gestalt therapy. They include the following (in no particular order):
- Substantial increase in self-awareness and self-acceptance
- Improved ability to live fully in the present moment
- Improved communication skills
- Better and satisfying relationships with others
- A greater understanding of your behaviors and the meaning you’ve attached to them
- Greater ability to tolerate negative emotions rather than escape, suppress, or avoid them
- Improved ability to get your needs meet in healthy ways
- A greater awareness and acceptance of your unique thought patterns, behaviors, and reactions to external stimuli
- Greater success in one’s career and other important aspects of life
- The attainment of new skills that will enable you to handle stress more effectively
- Increased wisdom
- A greater ability to make good decisions
- Increased ability to identify emotions and understand their connection to your physical self
- Increase in self-confidence
- Greater spontaneity and willingness to try new things
- A greater sense of inner calm and serenity (due to less unresolved internal conflict)
- Less anxiety
- Greater ability to manage addiction and avoid relapse
- A greater sense of fulfillment
- Improved mood and greater ability to handle symptoms of depression
- A greater awareness of your relationship with the world around you
- A better grasp of your authentic needs
- Stronger sense of control over your life
- A stronger sense of personal and social responsibility
- Greater ability to live authentically
- Improved ability to monitor and regulate thoughts, behaviors, and emotions
- Increased ability to engage in conscious action
- Greater sense of personal freedom
Who can Benefit from Gestalt Therapy?
Although almost anyone can benefit from this particular approach to therapy, some individuals are especially well-suited to a Gestalt approach due to their particular struggles or therapeutic needs. For example, individuals whose lack of self-awareness is interfering with their relationships with others and / or creating distress in their lives have much to gain from Gestalt therapy. Individuals who are going through a painful time in their life or who are hesitant to engage in therapy often feel safe and supported when working with a Gestalt therapist Also, those who tend to deny or disown aspects of their personality, or who have trouble identifying or understanding problematic behaviors or emotions often find Gestalt therapy to be very helpful.
Individuals who struggle with drug and alcohol abuse or addiction are often ideal candidates for Gestalt therapy. In fact, Gestalt therapy has been shown to be an effective approach for this particular population. Not only does it help those in recovery learn to live in the present moment (which is an essential aspect of successful recovery), but it also helps them gain the necessary self-awareness to successfully navigate the potential pitfalls and obstacles that can easily trigger a relapse. As they gain a better understanding of themselves and their relationship with others, the odds of a lasting recovery substantially improve.
Disorders, Conditions, and Life Issues that can Benefit from Gestalt Therapy
Gestalt therapy is used to treat and address a wide range of psychiatric disorders, life challenges, health-related issues (particularly those with a psychosomatic element) and other conditions and problems that people may encounter. Those that may benefit include (but are not limited to):
- Bipolar disorder
- Anxiety disorders
- Substance abuse and addiction
- Non-substance addictions (e.g. gambling addiction, sex addiction)
- Posttraumatic stress disorder and recovery from trauma
- Health conditions, including migraine headaches, muscle spasms, ulcerative colitis
- Schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders
- Borderline personality disorder
- Grief and loss
- Behavior problems
- Eating disorders
- Chronic stress
- Coping with poverty
- Conflicts with authority
- Marital and couple’s conflicts
- Family conflict
Gestalt therapy can be used as both a short-term and long-term form of therapy, depending on the client’s needs and the severity or complexity of the particular disorder or problem. It has been used effectively as a form of crisis intervention to help those impacted by an acute trauma.
Gestalt therapy continues to be used by therapists all over the world today. Finding a psychologist, clinical social worker, or other qualified mental health professional who offers Gestalt therapy in your area is often as simple as a quick search online (e.g. Gestalt therapy [your city]). Even if you don’t struggle with one of the issues or disorders listed above, but feel that you would benefit from therapy, you can always contact a Gestalt therapist to determine if both the therapist and the approach are a good fit for you. A strong self-awareness and the ability to live life more fully in the present are two key elements to a happy, fulfilling life.