What Is Gestalt Therapy?

Using the Present Moment for Healing

In This Article

It can be a little intimidating to consider starting therapy, especially if you imagine yourself sitting in the therapy room talking about the past. Although revisiting the past is an important part of identifying what needs to be healed, Gestalt therapy is an approach that focuses more on the "here and now" experience of the client.

What Does Gestalt Mean?

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 counseling. 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.

A Different Approach

Based on Gestalt psychology, this type of therapy was introduced in the 1940s to be an alternative to more traditional psychoanalysis. Gestalt therapy was developed by Fritz Perls, with the help of his wife at the time, Laura Perls. Both Fritz and Laura were trained in psychoanalysis and Gestalt psychology. Along with others, such as Paul Goodman, they worked together to develop a style of therapy that was humanistic in nature. 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.

Key Ideas

There are a number of key, principle ideas that come into play with Gestalt therapy.

Experience Influences Perception

In this client-centered 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.

Context matters

When in session, Gestalt therapists are wanting 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 key in this approach.

The Present

A main hallmark of Gestalt therapy is the focus on the present. In 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.

Self-Awareness

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.

Gestalt Exercises

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.

Empty Chair

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.

Role Play

Another example of role play 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.

Body Language

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 in 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.

Exaggeration

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 counseling 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.

Locating Emotion

During a session, it is common for people to talk about emotion. Talking about an 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 an 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

Creative Arts

Additional activities such as painting, sculpting, and drawing can also be used to help people gain awareness, stay present, and learn how to process in 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

Collaborative Relationship

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.

Moving Blocks

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.

Personal Responsibility

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.

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