Gestalt therapy: Definition, key concepts, techniques
Reviewed by therapist.com team
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 10/13/2022
Gestalt therapy is a holistic form of therapy that focuses on process and the present moment. Instead of diving into a person’s background for discrete experiences or events, gestalt therapy is more concerned with a person’s current behaviors and interactions with their therapist. Gestalt therapy puts a high priority on personal responsibility and self-awareness.
A common misconception is that gestalt therapy is named after a person whose last name was Gestalt. In reality, “gestalt” is a German word best translated into English as “whole.” Fritz and Laura Perls are most commonly credited with founding gestalt therapy, alongside other psychologists, such as Paul Goodman and Ralph Hefferline.
Fritz and Laura Perls developed gestalt therapy under the shadow of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. They later moved to South Africa and then to the United States. In the early 1950s, the Perls founded the Gestalt Institute and published a book on their new therapy with the help of Goodman and Hefferline.
Fritz Perls in particular had a strong personality and style. For a while, there was a split over whether gestalt therapy was a mere form of psychoanalysis or a larger philosophy that could dictate a way of life. Today, gestalt therapy has settled as a form of psychotherapy. While the contributions of Fritz Perls continue to be studied, gestalt therapists no longer attempt to emulate the man himself.
Much of gestalt therapy can be distilled into two key concepts: wholeness and awareness.
Gestalt therapy, like the name suggests, takes a holistic approach to a person’s mental health. It is based on gestalt psychology, which posits that humans perceive whole patterns instead of individual parts. Instead of making meaning from a single piece of data, humans look at data collectively and search for meaning in the whole. For example, instead of seeing a trunk, branches, and individual leaves, humans perceive one whole tree.
In gestalt therapy, this tendency toward wholeness is best represented in the cycle of experience. The cycle of experience lays out the eight phases necessary to complete an entire physical and psychological process, otherwise known as a gestalt:
- Sensation: Your body produces a physical sensation. For example, your body feels weary, and it’s difficult for you to keep your eyes open.
- Awareness: You identify and acknowledge your body’s physical sensation. Continuing with the previous example, you would acknowledge that you’re feeling tired.
- Mobilization: You begin to mobilize toward addressing your body’s needs. If you feel tired, you stop what you’re doing and decide you want to nap.
- Action: You take active steps to address your body’s needs. To address your tiredness, you change into pajamas, turn off the lights, and get into bed.
- Final contact: You give your body what it needs. At this stage, you fall asleep.
- Satisfaction: Your body receives what it needs and is satisfied. After your nap, you wake up feeling rested.
- Withdrawal: You disengage from the actions you took to address your body’s needs. In the nap scenario, you don’t stay in bed, but instead get up and start going about the rest of your day.
- Void: Your body returns to a state of balance in which to perceive future needs. After your nap, you no longer feel tired, so you can better listen to your body and understand when future needs arise, such as hunger.
The cycle of experience may be disrupted by mental illness and unhealthy behaviors, leaving the gestalt incomplete. Gestalt therapy can help people become more aware of where their cycle gets interrupted and what actions they can take to prevent disruptions from happening.
Gestalt therapy also embraces holistic processing, which means that it prioritizes healing of the mind, body, and soul, not just the mind alone. It also views people in the context of their environment, culture, and society, not as single individuals. Instead of focusing on one traumatic event in a person’s past, gestalt therapy focuses on the whole person as they are right now in the present moment.
Awareness is another core tenet of gestalt therapy. It borrows heavily from other mindfulness-based therapies in helping clients live in the present moment without judgment. Self-awareness is also the first step in a person’s journey toward committed change.
Gestalt therapists encourage clients to live in the “here and now.” Being fully present doesn’t mean pretending that the past didn’t happen. Instead, it allows people to deal with their past in the only place that matters: the here and now.
Only in the present do people have control and agency. Gestalt therapists help their clients identify incomplete gestalts from their past and complete them in the present so they can move on from past regrets or struggles.
Gestalt therapy is also focused on what the client does and how they do it. This awareness goes hand-in-hand with the emphasis on the here and now. By focusing on the present, gestalt therapists can help their clients identify what they’re thinking and feeling as well as how they’re expressing themselves and behaving.
Unlike other therapies, gestalt therapy does not look to a person’s past for reasons for their current thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Instead, it looks to the present to see what is happening now, how a person is behaving, and what can be done to help them move forward. This results in a greater emphasis on personal responsibility and a person’s sense of agency.
Instead of focusing on what happened to you, gestalt therapy focuses on what you can do and how in the here and now. The responsibility for change lies with you, not with those in your past—including your past self. With gestalt therapy, you can take steps to finish incomplete gestalts now instead of living with the effects of broken cycles of experience.
Common gestalt therapy techniques include:
- The empty chair technique: Perhaps the most famous gestalt therapy technique, the empty chair involves role-playing a scenario in which a client speaks to another person (or a part of their sense of self). The role of the person or part being addressed is played by an empty chair. The client is encouraged to say what they need to say to that person or part so they can complete their experience and heal.
- Exaggerating body language: If a gestalt therapist notices their client is communicating via body language that appears different than what they’re verbalizing, they may be asked to exaggerate their body movements. This allows the client to fully realize what they’re expressing and connect how their body feels to what their mind is thinking.
- Patient focusing: Gestalt therapists will often ask their clients to focus on specific thoughts, sensations, and emotions so clients can gain further insight into their whole experience. For example, if a client starts expressing anger, their therapist might help them focus by saying, “What are you thinking?” or “Stay with that feeling.”
- Integration: One of the aims of gestalt therapy is to strengthen the connections between a person’s mind, body, and soul. Integration is part of that process. For example, if a client feels an emotion during therapy, their gestalt therapist may ask them to locate that emotion in their body.
- Dream work: Gestalt therapy often uses dreams to decode messages that a person’s subconscious may be trying to communicate. Dreams may indicate incomplete gestalts that require attention and completion in the here and now.
Gestalt therapy has proven effective for a variety of conditions, including:
Gestalt therapy can be adapted and used for multiple therapeutic approaches, including:
Gestalt therapy is particularly strong due to its versatility. It can be applied easily in a multitude of settings for a variety of clients. However, more research is needed to determine its effectiveness for specific conditions. In particular, it is not suitable for individuals who have poor impulse control or who exhibit delinquency, as it can reinforce or worsen these conditions.
Gestalt therapy is an effective, holistic approach to mental health. If you’re interested in seeking treatment, click here to find a gestalt therapist near you.
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