Reviewed by Susan Radzilowski, MSW, LMSW, ACSW
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 12/07/2023
What is gestalt therapy?
“Gestalt” is a German word that loosely translates into English as “whole.” Gestalt therapy is a holistic form of treatment that prioritizes personal responsibility and self-awareness, focusing on process and the present moment. Instead of diving into your background and specific experiences or events, this approach centers on your current behaviors and your interactions with your therapist.
This type of therapy can be applied in a range of settings with a variety of clients. Most often used in either individual or group therapy, it has proven effective at reducing symptoms of anxiety and increasing self-efficacy.1, 2
Key concept: Wholeness
Gestalt therapy centers on the idea that people tend to see patterns instead of individual parts. Instead of making meaning from a single piece of data, we tend to look at a collection of information and search for meaning in the whole. For example, instead of seeing a trunk, several branches, and individual leaves, we view these elements together as one tree.
Similarly, gestalt therapy focuses on each client as a whole person in the present moment, rather than a single traumatic event in their past. This treatment method prioritizes healing the mind, body, and soul together, instead of the mind alone. It also views people in the context of their environment, culture, and society.
Gestalt cycle of experience
In gestalt therapy, the human tendency toward wholeness is represented in the “cycle of experience.” This cycle lays out seven stages that describe the process by which someone interacts with the world.
- Sensation: You experience a sensation. (For example, you feel tired and it’s hard to keep your eyes open.)
- Awareness: You identify and acknowledge the sensation. (Continuing with the previous example, you acknowledge that you’re feeling tired.)
- Mobilization: You begin to move toward addressing your resulting needs. (You stop what you’re doing and decide to nap.)
- Action: You take active steps to address those needs. (You turn off the lights and get into bed.)
- Final contact: You give yourself what you need. (You fall asleep.)
- Satisfaction: You receive what you need and are satisfied. (You wake up feeling rested.)
- Withdrawal: You disengage from the actions you took to address your needs. (Instead of staying in bed, you get up and go about the rest of your day.)
Mental health disorders and unhealthy behaviors can disrupt the cycle of experience, leaving it incomplete. Treatment can help people notice where their cycle gets interrupted and learn what actions they can take to prevent disruptions.
Key concept: Awareness
Gestalt therapy borrows heavily from other mindfulness-based therapies in helping people strengthen their awareness and live nonjudgmentally in the present. It also promotes self-awareness, an important step in the journey toward committed change.
“Here and now” focus
Gestalt therapists encourage clients to be fully present in the moment. This doesn’t mean pretending the past didn’t happen. Instead, clients are asked to deal with the past in the only place they have control and agency: the here and now. Identifying incomplete gestalt cycles from the past, and completing them in the present, can help people move on from past regrets or struggles.
“What and how” awareness
In addition to emphasizing the here and now, gestalt therapy helps people become more aware of what they do and how they do it. With a focus on the present, therapists help clients identify what they’re thinking and feeling, as well as how they’re expressing themselves and behaving.
Unlike other therapies, gestalt therapy doesn’t look to the past for the reasoning behind current thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Instead it focuses on what’s happening in the present, exploring how clients are behaving and what they can do right now to move forward. This shifts the responsibility for change to the current self. An emphasis on personal responsibility and agency can help people take steps to finish their incomplete gestalt cycles.
That said, it’s important for therapists to keep in mind that personal experience and behavior can’t be separated from the client’s social and cultural environment. Treatment can be adapted to address the effects of injustice and oppression by validating the client’s experiences, helping them recognize social and systemic influences, and encouraging them to advocate for themselves in the choices they make. Gestalt therapists should also create space for clients to talk openly about past traumas, as needed, to avoid the risk of retraumatization during treatment.
Common gestalt therapy techniques include:
- The empty chair technique: In this well-known role-playing scenario, clients are asked to speak to another person (or to a specific part of their own self) while an empty chair represents the person or part they’re addressing. They’re encouraged to say what they need to say in order to complete their experience and heal.
- Exaggerating body language: If a gestalt therapist notices that a client’s body language doesn’t match what they’re saying, the therapist may ask them to exaggerate their 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 clients to focus on specific thoughts, sensations, and emotions so they can gain insight into the client’s experience. If a client expresses anger, for example, their therapist might help them focus by asking “What are you thinking?” or saying “Stay with that feeling.”
- Integration: Gestalt therapy aims to strengthen the connections between the mind, body, and soul. If someone feels a strong emotion during therapy, for instance, their therapist may ask them to locate that emotion in their body.
- Dream work: Gestalt therapists often use dreams to explore what the subconscious is trying to communicate. Dreams may indicate incomplete gestalt cycles that require attention and completion.
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