Gestalt therapy is an existential and experiential psychotherapy that focuses on the individual's experience in the present moment, the therapist-client relationship, the environmental and social contexts in which these things take place, and the self-regulating adjustments people make as a result of the overall situation. Gestalt therapy emphasises personal responsibility. Gestalt therapy was co-founded by Fritz Perls, Laura Perls and Paul Goodman in the 1940s–1950s.
Overview of Gestalt Therapy
Edwin Nevis described Gestalt therapy as "...a conceptual and methodological base from which helping professionals can craft their practice". In the same volume Joel Latner asserted that Gestalt therapy is built around two central ideas: that the most helpful focus of psychology is the experiential present moment and that everyone is caught in webs of relationships; thus, it is only possible to know ourselves against the background of our relation to other things. The historical development of Gestalt therapy shows the influences that have resulted in these two focuses. Expanded, they result in the four chief theoretical constructs that comprise Gestalt theory and guide the practice and application of Gestalt therapy.
Gestalt therapy was forged from various influences in the times and lives of the founders: physics, Eastern religion, existential phenomenology, Gestalt psychology, psychoanalysis, theatrical performance, systems and field theory.
Gestalt therapy rose from its beginnings in the middle of the 20th century to rapid and widespread popularity during the decade of the 1960s and early 1970s. During the 70s and 80s Gestalt therapy training centres spread globally, but they were, for the most part, not aligned with formal academic settings. As the cognitive revolution eclipsed Gestalt therapy in psychology, many came to believe Gestalt was an anachronism. In the hands of Gestalt practitioners, Gestalt therapy became an applied discipline in the fields of psychotherapy, organizational development, social action, and eventually coaching. Until the turn of the century Gestalt therapists disdained the positivism underlying what they perceived to be the concern of research, and so, largely, ignored the need to utilize research to further develop Gestalt therapy theory and support Gestalt therapy practice. That has begun to change.
Gestalt therapy focuses more on process (what is happening) than content (what is being discussed). The emphasis is on what is being done, thought and felt at the moment rather than on what was, might be, could be, or should be.
Gestalt therapy is a method of awareness, by which perceiving, feeling, and acting are understood to be separate from interpreting, explaining and judging using old attitudes. This distinction between direct experience and indirect or secondary interpretation is developed in the process of therapy. The client learns to become aware of what they are doing psychologically and how they can change it. By becoming aware of and transforming their process they develop self acceptance and the ability to experience more in the "now" without so much interference from baggage of the past.
The objective of Gestalt therapy, in addition to helping the client overcome symptoms, is to enable him or her to become more fully and creatively alive and to be free from the blocks and unfinished issues that may diminish optimum satisfaction, fulfilment, and growth. Thus, it falls in the category of humanistic psychotherapies.
Contemporary theory and practice
Gestalt therapy theory rests atop essentially four "load bearing walls:" phenomenological method, dialogical relationship, field-theoretical strategies, and experimental freedom – Brownell, P. (ed.) (2008), Handbook for Theory, Research, and Practice in Gestalt Therapy . Although all these tenets are present in the early formulation and practice of Gestalt therapy, as described in Perls, F. (1969), Ego, Hunger, and Aggression . and in Gestalt Therapy, Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality (Perls, Hefferline, & Goodman, 1951), the early development of Gestalt therapy theory emphasised personal experience and the experiential episodes understood as the "safe emergencies" of experiments; indeed, half of Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman (1951) consists of such stylized experiments. Later, through the influence of such people as Erving and Miriam Polster (Polster & Polster, 1973), a second theoretical emphasis emerged: contact between self and other, and ultimately the dialogical relationship between therapist and client. Later still, field theory emerged as an emphasis (Wheeler, 1991). At various times over the decades since Gestalt therapy first emerged one or more of these tenets, and the associated constructs that go with them, have captured the imagination of those who have continued developing the contemporary theory of Gestalt therapy. Since 1990 the literature focused on Gestalt therapy has flourished, including the development of several professional Gestalt journals. Along the way, Gestalt therapy theory has also been applied in Organizational Development and Coaching work. Thus, currently, Gestalt therapy training institutes often offer programs in both clinical and organisation tracks.
Phenomenological method in Gestalt therapy
The goal of a phenomenological exploration in Gestalt therapy is awareness (Yontef, 1993). This exploration works systematically to reduce the effects of bias through repeated observations and inquiry (Yontef, 2005).
The phenomenological method comprises three steps: (1) the rule of epoché, (2) the rule of description, and (3) the rule of horizontalisation (Spinelli, 2005). In the rule of epoché one sets aside one's initial biases and prejudices in order to suspend expectations and assumptions. In the rule of description, one occupies oneself with describing instead of explaining. In the rule of horizontalisation one treats each item of description as having equal value or significance. The rule of epoché sets aside any initial theories with regard to what is presented in the meeting between therapist and client. The second rule implies immediate and specific observations, abstaining from interpretations or explanations, especially those formed from the application of a clinical theory superimposed over the circumstances of experience. The third rule avoids any hierarchical assignment of importance such that the data of experience become prioritised and categorised as they are received. A Gestalt therapist utilising the phenomenological method might find him or herself typically saying something like, “I notice a slight tension at the corners of your mouth when I say that, and I see you shifting on the couch and folding your arms across your chest … and now I see you rolling your eyes back.” All this is not to say that the therapist never makes clinically relevant evaluations, but that he or she, when applying the phenomenological method, temporarily suspends the need for that.
Dialogical relationship in Gestalt therapy
To create the conditions under which a dialogic moment might occur, the therapist attends to his or her own presence, creates the space for the client to enter in and become present as well (called inclusion), and commits him or herself to the dialogic process, surrendering to what takes place between them as opposed to attempting to control it. In presence, the therapist “shows up” as the whole and authentic person he or she is (Yontef, 1993) instead of assuming a role, false self, or persona. To practice inclusion is to accept however the client chooses to be present, and that may be in a defensive and obnoxious stance as well as an overly sweet but superficially cooperative one. To practice inclusion is to support the presentation of the client, including his or her resistance, not as a gimmick but in full realisation that that is how the client is present. Finally, the Gestalt therapist is committed to the process, trusts in that process, and does not attempt to save him or herself from it. It should be noted that since Gestalt therapy is an experiential therapy, it is extremely difficult to encapsulate it in the concepts used above, which Perls would probably have referred to as "elephant shit."
Field-theoretical strategies in Gestalt therapy
“The field” can be considered in two ways. There are ontological dimensions and there are phenomenological dimensions to one’s field. The ontological dimensions in Gestalt therapy are all those physical and environmental contexts in which we live and move. They are the office in which one works, the house in which one lives, the city and country of which one is a citizen, and so forth. The ontological field is the objective reality that supports our physical existence. The phenomenological dimensions are all mental and physical dynamics that contribute to a person’s sense of self, one’s subjective experience, but are not merely elements of the environmental context. This could be the memory of an uncle’s inappropriate affection, one’s colour blindness, one’s sense of the social matrix in operation at the office in which one works, and so forth. It is in the way that Gestalt therapists choose to work with field dynamics that makes what they do strategic. Gestalt therapy focuses on the character structure; according to Gestalt theory, the character structure is dynamic rather than fixed in nature. To look into ones character structure, the focus would be on the phenomenological dimensions rather than the ontological dimensions.
Experimental freedom in Gestalt therapy
Gestalt therapy has distinguished itself by moving to action, away from mere talk therapy, and is considered an experiential approach (Crocker, 1999). Through experiments, the therapist supports the client’s direct experience of something new instead of the mere talking about the possibility of something new. Indeed, the entire therapeutic relationship could be considered experimental, because at one level it is the provision of corrective, relational experience for many clients, and it is the "safe emergency" that is free to turn this way and that. An experiment can also be conceived of as a teaching method that creates an experience in which a client might learn something as part of their growth (Melnick & Nevis, 2005). Examples: (1) rather than talking about one's critical father, a Gestalt therapist might ask the patient/client to imagine the parent was present, or that the therapist was the parent, and talk to that parent in this fashion; (2) If a client/patient is struggling with how to be assertive, a Gestalt therapist could either (a) have the patient say some assertive things to members of a therapy group, or (b) give a talk on how one should never be assertive; (3) A Gestalt therapist might notice something about the non-verbal behaviour or tone of voice of the client; the therapist might have the client exaggerate the non-verbal behaviour and pay attention to his/her experience while doing so; (4) a Gestalt therapist might work with the breathing or posture of the client, and changes in these when the client talks about different content. Through all these means the Gestalt therapist is working with process rather than content, the How rather than the What.
Notable issues in Gestalt therapy
The Self in Gestalt therapy
In field theory, self is a phenomenological concept, and is a comparison with 'other'. Without other there is no self, and how I experience other is inseparable from how I experience self. The continuity of selfhood (personality functioning) is something achieved rather than something inherent "inside" the person, and has its advantages and disadvantages. At one end of the spectrum, there is not enough self-continuity to be able to make meaningful relationships or to have a workable sense of who I am. In the middle, personality is a loose set of ways of being that work for me, commitments to relationships, work, culture and outlook, always open to change where I need to adapt to new circumstances, or just want to try something new. At the other end, it is a rigid defensive denial of the new and spontaneous. I act in stereotyped ways, and either induct other people to act in particular and fixed ways towards me; or I redefine their actions to fit with the fixed stereotypes.
In Gestalt therapy then, the approach is not the self of the client being helped or healed by the fixed self of the therapist, but the exploration of the co-creation of self and other in the here-and-now of the therapy. There is not the assumption that the client will act in all other circumstances as he or she does in the therapy situation. However, the areas that cause problems will be either the lack of self definition leading to chaotic or psychotic behaviour, or the rigid self definition in some area of functioning that denies spontaneity and makes dealing with particular situations impossible. Both of these show very clearly in the therapy, and can be worked with in the relationship with the therapist.
The experience of the therapist is also very much part of the therapy: since we are co-creating our self-other experiences, the way I experience being with the client is significant information about how the client experiences themselves. The proviso here is that I as therapist am not operating from my own fixed responses, and this is why Gestalt therapists are required to undertake significant therapy of their own during training.
From the perspective of this theory of self, neurosis can be seen as fixed predictability—a fixed Gestalt, and the process of therapy can be seen as facilitating the client to become unpredictable, really, more responsive to what is in the client's present environment, rather than responding in a stuck way to past introjects or other learning. If the therapist is working from some theory of how the client should end up, this defeats the aim of the therapy.
Change in Gestalt therapy
In what has now become a "classic" of Gestalt therapy literature, Arnold Beisser (1970) described Gestalt's paradoxical theory of change. The paradox is that the more one attempts to be who one is not, the more one remains the same (Yontef, 2005). Conversely, when people identify with their current experience, the conditions of wholeness and growth support change. Put another way, change comes about as a result of "full acceptance of what is, rather than a striving to be different" (Houston, 2003).
Historical development of Gestalt therapy
Fritz Perls was a German Jewish psychoanalyst who fled with his wife Lore to South Africa to escape Nazi oppression. After the war the couple emigrated to New York City, which had become by the late 1940s and early 1950s, a centre of intellectual, artistic, and political experimentation.
Frederick Perls was educated as a Medical Doctor in Germany. He was trained in Psychoanalysis and became a psychiatrist. He assisted Kurt Goldstein at Frankfurt University where he met his wife Lore Posner (Laura) who had a doctorate in Gestalt Psychology. They fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and settled in South Africa. During their years in South Africa they also became influenced by Jan Smuts and his "holism". In 1936 Fritz Perls attended a psychoanalyst's conference in Marienbad, Czechoslovakia, where he presented a paper on oral resistances, mainly based on Laura Perls' notes on breastfeeding their children. Perls and the paper were turned down. (Perls did present his paper in 1936 but it met with 'deep disaproval').
The seminal book
The seminal work was Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality, published in 1951; co-authored by Fritz Perls, Paul Goodman, and Ralph Hefferline (a university psychology professor, and sometime patient of Fritz Perls). As it turns out, most of the original Part II of the book was written by Paul Goodman from the notes of Fritz Perls, and contains the meat of the theory. It was supposed to go first. The publishers decided that Part II, written by Hefferline, fit more into the nascent self-help ethos of the day, and made it Part I, making for a less interesting introduction to the theory. Isadore From, a leading early theorist of Gestalt therapy, taught Part II for an entire year to his students, going through it phrase by phrase.
First instances of practice of Gestalt therapy
Fritz and Lore (now Laura) founded the first Gestalt Institute in New York City in 1952. Isadore From became a patient, first of Fritz and then of Laura. Fritz soon anointed Isadore a trainer and also gave him some patients. Isadore lived in New York until his death, at 75 in 1993, and was known worldwide for his philosophical and intellectually rigorous take on Gestalt therapy. A brilliant, witty and sometimes caustic man, From was very much the philosopher of the first-generation Gestalt therapists. Acknowledged as a supremely gifted clinician, he was unfortunately phobic of writing and the few things committed to paper are transcriptions of interviews.
Jim Simkin was a psychologist who also became a client of Perls and then a co-trainer with Perls in California. Simkin was responsible for Perls coming to California where he attempted to begin a psychotherapy practice. Ultimately, being a peripatetic trainer and workshop leader was a better fit for Fritz' personality. Simkin and Perls co-led some of the early (for California) training groups at Esalen.
In the 1960s Perls became infamous for his public workshops at Esalen Institute in Big Sur. Isadore From referred to some of Fritz' several day workshops as "hit-and-run" therapy because of its emphasis on showmanship with little or no follow-through, but Perls never considered these workshops to be true therapy. Rather, he felt he was giving demonstrations of key points for a largely professional audience. Unfortunately, some films and tapes of his work were what most graduate students were exposed to as the "real" Gestalt therapy.
Jim Simkin went from co-leading training groups with Fritz to purchasing a property next to Esalen and starting his own training centre, which he ran until his death in 1984. Here he refined his precise laser-like version of Gestalt therapy, training psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors and social workers within a very rigorous residential training model.
When Fritz Perls left New York City for California, there began to be a split between those who saw Gestalt therapy as a therapeutic approach with great potential (this view was best represented by Isadore From, who practiced and taught mainly in New York, and by the members of the Cleveland Institute, co-founded by From) and those who saw Gestalt therapy not just as a therapeutic modality but as a way of life. The East Coast, New York-Cleveland axis was often appalled by the notion of Gestalt therapy leaving the consulting room and becoming a way-of-life in the West Coast of the 1960s. An alternate view of this split sees Perls in his last years continuing to develop his a-theoretical and phenomenological perspective methodological while others, inspired by From, were inclined to a rigorous theoretical activity which verged on replacing experience with ideas.
The split continues between what has been called "East Coast" Gestalt therapy and "West Coast" Gestalt therapy, at least from a US-centric point of view. However, the way-of-life view seems to be fading from US Gestalt as people move on from the 1960s. Esalen is still functioning in Big Sur. The widow of Esalen's co-founder Dick Price, Christine Price, continues to hold Gestalt workshops there, and many Gestalt therapists world-wide continued to be instructed by the life and teachings of Perls.
Gestalt therapy Post-Perls
In 1969 Fritz Perls left the USA to start a Gestalt community at Lake Cowichan on Vancouver Island, Canada. He died almost a year later on 14 March 1970 in Chicago. One member of the Gestalt community was Barry Stevens. Her book about that phase of her life, Don' t Push the River, became very popular. She developed her own form of Gestalt therapy body work, which is essentially a concentration on the awareness of body processes.
Erv and Miriam Polster started a training center in La Jolla, which also became very well known, as did their book, Gestalt Therapy Integrated, in the 1970s.
They had an influential role in advancing the concept of contact. A disturbance described by Miriam and Erv Polster was "deflection", referring to a means of avoiding contact by jumping around from one thing to another and never staying in the same place for very long. All the instances of a disturbance have a pathological and a non-pathological aspect. It is appropriate for the infant and mother to become confluent, for example, or two lovers, but inappropriate for client and therapist. When the latter pair becomes confluent, there can be no growth because there is no boundary at which the one can contact the other; the client will not be able to learn anything new because the therapist is simply an extension of the client, so to speak.
Influences informing Gestalt therapy
Gestalt therapy had a variety of psychological and philosophical influences, and in addition was a response to the social forces of its day. It is a therapeutic approach that is holistic (mind/body/culture) present-centred, and related to existential therapy in its emphasis on personal responsibility for action, and on the valuing of the I-thou relationship in therapy. (In fact, its creators considered calling Gestalt therapy existential-phenomenological therapy.) "The I and thou in the Here and Now," was one Gestalt therapist's semi-humorous mantra.
Both Perls were students and admirers of the neurologist Kurt Goldstein. Gestalt therapy was based on Goldstein's understanding called "Organismic theory". Goldstein viewed a person in a situation in terms of a holistic and unified experience. He encouraged a big picture perspective, taking in to account the context of a person's experience. The word Gestalt means whole, or contextual. Goldstein taught the Perls that self-actualisation could only be achieved by self-transcendence, that is, viewing the self as part of a greater whole. Laura Perls, in an interview denotes the "Organismic theory" as the base of Gestalt therapy.
There were additional influences to Gestalt therapy from existentialism, particularly the I-thou relationship as it applies to therapy, and the notion of personal choice and responsibility.
The late 1950s–1960s movement toward personal growth and the human potential movement fed into and was itself influenced by Gestalt therapy.
Gestalt therapy somehow became a "coherent Gestalt", which is the Gestalt psychologists' term for a perceptual unit that holds together and forms a unified form.
THe Influence of psychoanalysis on Gestalt therapy
Gestalt therapy was influenced by psychoanalysis. It was part of a continuum moving from the early work of Freud, to the later Freudian ego analysis, to Wilhelm Reich and his notion of character armor, where they gave attention to nonverbal behaviour (This was consonant with Laura Perls' background in dance and movement therapy). To this was added the insights of academic Gestalt psychology about perception, Gestalt formation and the tendency of organisms to complete the incomplete Gestalt, to form "wholes" in experience.
Central to Fritz and Laura Perls' modifications of psychoanalysis was the concept of "dental or oral aggression". In Ego, Hunger and Aggression (1944), Fritz Perls’ first book, to which Laura Perls contributed, the Perls suggested that when the infant develops teeth, he/she has the capacity to chew, to break apart food, and by analogy experience, to taste, accept, reject, assimilate. This was opposed to Freud's notion that only introjection takes place in early experience. Thus the Perls made "assimilation", as opposed to "introjection", a focal theme in their work, and the prime means by which growth occurs in therapy.
In contrast to the psychoanalytic stance in which the "patient" introjects the (presumably more healthy) attitudes/interpretations of the analyst, in Gestalt therapy the client must "taste" his/her experience, and either accept or reject, but not introject, or "swallow whole". Hence, the emphasis is on avoiding interpretation and encouraging discovery. This is the key point in the divergence of Gestalt therapy from traditional psychoanalysis — growth occurs through gradual assimilation of experience in a natural way, rather than by accepting the interpretations of the analyst; thus, the therapist should not interpret, but lead the client to discover for him or herself.
The Gestalt therapist contrives experiments that lead the client to greater awareness and fuller experience of his/her possibilities. Experiments can be focussed on undoing projections or retroflections. They can work to help the client with closure of unfinished Gestalts ("unfinished business" such as unexpressed emotions towards somebody in the client's life). There are many kinds of experiments that might be therapeutic. But the essence of the work is that it is experiential rather than interpretive, and in this way distinguishes itself from the psychoanalytic.
Current status of Gestalt therapy
Gestalt therapy reached a zenith in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Since then its influence has spread out into other fields like organisational development and teaching. Its contributions have also become assimilated into current schools of therapy, sometimes in unlikely places, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), considered a cognitive behavioral approach.
Gestalt therapy continues to thrive as a widespread form of psychotherapy throughout Europe with many practitioners and training institutions.
Back to the top of Gestalt Therapy