What is Gestalt Therapy?
Gestalt Therapy is one of the first forms of psychotherapy created around 1950 in opposition, at that time, with psychoanalysis. The most known creator of Gestalt Therapy is Fritz Perls, although at least two other people greatly contributed to its development: Laura Perls (Fritz’s wife), and Paul Goodman.
Gestalt Therapy founders combined aspects of existential and humanistic psychotherapies, ideas from Eastern philosophy and put a great focus on the power of the here-and-now and of experimenting to widen awareness and change.
The word "Gestalt” comes from German and does not have exact translation in the English language. In Gestalt Therapy, a gestalt represents the organisation of all aspects of our human experience into something meaningful. If you pay attention to what is happening to you in any given moment, you will find that there are many aspects to your experience like
involuntary movement (for example breathing)
And the list continues with the addition of all the sensory information, and how our brain receives all this data to make sense of the world.
The term gestalt was borrowed from Gestalt Psychology, which is particularly famous for their discoveries on how we organise visual clues. One of the most famous experiments is the following.
What do you see in the image? Depending on how you make sense of the different visual clues, you might see either a vase, or two faces. In other words, based on how you organise your sensory data into a gestalt, you will either see one image or the other.
Interestingly, it is difficult to see both interpretations of the same image at the same time. It is as if our brain can make sense of it only in one way at a time.
Gestalt Therapy Key Concepts
Gestalt Therapy has gone through waves, and it was only around the end of the last century that the community of Gestalt Psychotherapists agreed on what Gestalt Therapy is. There are 3 key concepts
Awareness - the key to Gestalt Therapy is to deepen the awareness of what is happening to clients in the here-and-now, and to help them understand how they make sense of reality. As a consequence, a Gestalt therapist asks more “Hows” than “Whys” and uses ideas from various fields like
CBT to make sense of thought patterns and behaviours
Art to express emotions
Body Psychotherapy to deepen awareness of body sensations
Focus on the therapist-client relationship: in line with current development of neuroscience and attachment theory, the relationship between client and therapist during sessions has great potential to heal the client in the following ways
It can be a microcosm of how the client relates with people who are not the therapist. This way clients can understand what they can do to change problematic interactions with important people in their life by experimenting safely with their therapist
It can heal attachment wounds. When clients experience a non-judgemental, warm and safe attitude from their therapist, they might become aware of times in the past when they were not understood or listened to
A Gestalt Therapist is trained to be present and proactive during the session. The psychotherapist might disclose some of their thoughts and emotions to their clients if they believe it can be helpful
Holism: we are interconnected and we are always in the middle of interacting with the environment. A Gestalt Therapist never considers a person as an isolated being, and key to psychological health is successful interaction with the environment to satisfy human needs.
If you know a lot about Gestalt Therapy already, you might notice that I have not mentioned some of the more philosophical aspects of it, like “phenomenology”. I am leaving this out on purpose.
Gestalt Cycle of Experience (aka Gestalt Cycle)
Gestalt Therapy pays great attention to how a person interacts with others and the world around them. There are many versions of the Gestalt Cycle of experience, and what I am going to report here is the version created by the founders.
They describe human experience has having 4 phases
Something happens inside a person, who feels some form of imbalance in them, which is a sign that a set of needs require attention;
The person uses their awareness to make sense of their experience and identify the needs at play;
The person takes some form of action to satisfy their need(s);
After the need is met, a phase of withdrawal follows and lasts until the next need emerges.
We are, at any given moment, in the middle of many cycles of experience. Potentially there might be one for each need we have.
Example: we wake up and we need hydration and order; our room is messy and we start tidying up but there isn’t any water in the room. We are in the middle of two cycles of experience at the same time. With regards to the need for order, we are at phase 3 (we are taking action), while we are at phase 2 for hydration (we know we need water, but we are not doing anything about it at the minute).
While the cycle of experience is quite easy to apply to physical needs, it is less intuitive when applied to psychological needs like safety, care, love, expression of identity, race, cultural, gender, sex, etc. Some needs might be chronically unmet because of adverse environmental circumstances, and this creates mental health issues.
Gestalt Therapy Techniques
One of the most famous techniques of Gestalt Therapy is the so-called “Empty Chair Technique”. If you see a Gestalt Therapist, you will notice that they have an empty chair in the room.
The technique involves asking the client to imagine that either someone else or a part of them is sitting on the empty chair. The client is then invited to talk to the empty chair and, after that, to sit on the empty chair and talk back.
Here is an example of how this might work. Imagine you have just had a fight with your boss. You start the therapy session talking about how distressed you are. After a while, your therapist might start using the empty chair technique and will ask you one or more of the following
imagine that the boss is sitting on the empty chair and become aware of what happens to you as you imagine your boss’ presence. Based on your reaction, you might go into the next step
talk to the imaginary boss who sits on the empty chair
become aware of how you are feeling after having spoken
sit on the empty chair, and check what it feels like to be the boss
talk back to yourself
check how you feel after having talked
end the experiment or continue swapping
The empty chair technique can be extremely powerful, but this changes from client to client. Experienced Gestalt Therapists are capable of tailoring the experiment exactly to what their client needs, and they can also use the technique without the chair.
A key feature of Gestalt Therapy is the invitation to experiment with new behaviours.
These experiments are not aimed at correcting or suppressing anything, but at expressing and deepening understanding. For example, a Gestalt Therapist might ask you to pay attention to the way your posture changes as you speak about something, and ask you to make that movement as big as possible to see what happens.
Experiments involve the use of objects, movement or imagination and are created by the therapist based on what is happening in the session.
The most recent development of Gestalt Therapy prioritises experiments based on the interaction between the client and the therapist. For example, if a client is often angry with people, the therapist might invite the client to be as transparent as possible with their feelings of anger towards the therapist.
Gestalt Field Theory
Gestalt Therapy is founded on the idea that a human being is never in isolation, but always active part of a complex network of interactions.
Field Theory is similar to System’s Theory (some people argue that the two are exactly the same, but there is no agreement on this). We are so interconnected to the world, that a change in us affects our environment and any change in the environment affects us.
Gestalt Therapy Criticism
Gestalt Therapy has a solid and sound theoretical formulation, but is currently losing its ground because it is failing to keep up with current scientific advancements in the areas of neuroscience, attachment and trauma.
Gestalt Therapy publications are heavily philosophical, not widely available to professionals, and largely unaccessible to the public. As a consequence, there is little understanding of Gestalt Therapy in the professional field, and clients do not have the opportunity to get clarity on what a Gestalt Therapy session would look like.