How Gestalt Therapy Works
Gestalt therapy is a humanistic and experiential form of psychotherapy. It emphasizes awareness of one’s experiences, personal responsibility, and acceptance of all aspects of the self.
Gestalt Therapy: What is it?
Gestalt therapy was developed by Fritz and Laura Perls in the 1940’s. The primary aim of this form of therapy is to help clients become more aware of what they are experiencing in the present moment. Through this heightened self-awareness, clients gain insight into how their habitual ways of thinking and acting interfere with their personal growth and learn what adjustments they can make to achieve their full potential.
The term ‘gestalt’ is actually a German word which is often translated in English as ‘whole,’ ‘shape,’ ‘pattern,’ or ‘form.’ In its German context, the word refers to something that is experienced as a unified whole despite being comprised of distinct components. The idea behind the term is that people and things are best understood, not by analyzing their separate parts, but by perceiving and experiencing them as wholes.
Gestalt Therapy Theory
Gestalt therapy is based on a holistic view of the individual. According to this view, the mind, body and soul function as one integrated unit and individuals can only be fully understood within the context of their environment. Problems are thought to arise when individuals have difficulty integrating the different aspects of the self into a unified whole or when they struggle to integrate effectively into their environment.
A basic premise of Gestalt therapy is that individuals have an innate tendency toward physical and psychological health. The extent to which they grow into healthy individuals, however, is dependent on their level of self-awareness. People who are self-aware are able to self-regulate and cope effectively with changes in their environment. People who lack such awareness have difficulty adapting to changing circumstances and react defensively when faced with problems. A lack of self-awareness may result from a preoccupation with past experiences, future expectations, personal weaknesses, or fantasies.
How Does Gestalt Therapy Suggest the Mind Works?
According to Gestalt theory, individuals adopt social roles in order to fulfill their biological needs. In healthy existence, this is a fluid process in which the most pressing need emerges into consciousness in order to be fulfilled. Healthy individuals interact with their environment to select the best means of addressing each need as it arises. They live each moment anew recognizing that there are always fresh ways of achieving the same goals.
In unhealthy existence, individuals become stuck in rigid patterns of behavior which they repeat automatically across a wide array of situations. Instead of trying to be all they can be, they become obsessed with living up to an ideal or with other people’s expectations of them. They may even suppress aspects of themselves that they fear could lead to rejection or disapproval.
In normal development, individuals also establish a boundary between themselves and others. An effective boundary allows the individual to engage in beneficial interactions with others while maintaining a separate sense of self. If the boundary is too impermeable, the individual becomes disconnected from others; if it is too permeable, the individual ends up losing the distinction between self and others.
How Does Gestalt Therapy Cause Change?
In Gestalt therapy, awareness is viewed as the primary mechanism of change. When clients are helped to become fully conscious of their own experiences, it is believed that change will occur spontaneously without the need for any coercion or persuasion on the part of the therapist.
As clients learn to live more fully in the present they will find that suppressed needs and emotions gradually surface. In the safety of the therapeutic environment, they are able to acknowledge and work through such material. They learn to reconnect with the parts of themselves they had previously disowned and to accept the full range of their experiences—the whole self.
What Happens in a Gestalt Therapy Session?
In Gestalt therapy, the therapist’s aim is neither to interpret events or directly modify behavior. Instead, the goal is to raise clients’ awareness of what they are thinking, feeling, doing and sensing in the moment. Instead of encouraging clients to simply talk about distressing events, the Gestalt therapist guides them through exercises and experiments that allow them to actively experience these events in the therapeutic setting.
During therapy, clients are often asked questions such as, “What are you feeling?” or “What are you thinking?” to help them tune in to their immediate experiences. With the help of the therapist, clients are then able to evaluate their usual pattern of responding to the environment. They begin to see that they are responsible for their own realities and that they can choose to live a more meaningful life.
Techniques Used in Gestalt Therapy
Some of the techniques commonly used in Gestalt therapy are:
- Amplification – the client is asked to repeat and exaggerate a particular action, feeling or expression so that he or she becomes more aware of it.
- Guided fantasy – the client is asked to visualize either an actual event from the past or a hypothetical situation. The therapist then helps the individual to focus on what he or she is thinking, feeling and doing as they mentally experience this event.
- Dreamwork – dreams are not interpreted but are acted out in therapy. The different parts of a dream are thought to represent different aspects of the individual so by becoming each part, the individual becomes more aware of the many different sides to his or her personality.
- Internal dialogue – the client engages in a dialogue between opposing poles of his or her personality (eg. the passive self versus the aggressive self).
- Role-playing – the client dramatizes relevant aspects of his or her existence. This may involve taking on the role of a character in his or her life (eg. a spouse or boss) or of a part of the self. The empty chair technique is a classic example of role-playing.
Empty Chair Technique
The empty chair technique is perhaps the most popular exercise used in Gestalt therapy. Clients sit across from an empty chair and are asked to imagine that someone else, they themselves, or a part of themselves is sitting in that chair. The therapist then encourages clients to engage in a conversation with the imaginary person (or part of a person). As the conversation progresses, the client alternates roles, switching from one chair to the next accordingly. The empty chair technique is often used to enhance clients’ awareness of polarities in their personality (eg. the prudish self versus the sexual self) so they can work towards integrating them.
Does Gestalt Therapy Work?
Gestalt therapy has been used successfully with individuals, couples, families, groups, and organizations. Existing studies suggest that it is just as, or even more effective than other forms of therapy in the treatment of some disorders. The positive effects of therapy also tend to remain stable several years after the completion of treatment.
The success of Gestalt therapy depends in large part on the client’s willingness and ability to engage in awareness work. Individuals who are seeking a “quick fix” or who expect the therapist to do the bulk of the work would not be ideal candidates for this form of therapy. Additionally, persons who are experiencing psychotic disturbances might have difficulty engaging in the deep, mindful exploration typically encouraged during Gestalt therapy.
What Kinds of Concerns is Gestalt Therapy Best For?
Some of the conditions treated with Gestalt therapy are:
- post-traumatic stress
- sexual problems
- personality disorders
- adjustment disorders
- psychosomatic issues
Of course, the benefits of Gestalt therapy are not limited to persons who are experiencing mental health problems. It is also beneficial for anyone who wishes to gain a deeper understanding of himself or to develop his hidden potential.
How Are Gestalt Therapy Specialists Trained?
Individuals can obtain certification in Gestalt therapy from one of the numerous training institutions that exist worldwide. The certification process typically involves several hours of training and supervised experience, as well as the completion of written, oral and/or clinical examinations. Some programs also require that trainees engage in several sessions of personal therapy with a qualified Gestalt therapist.
Training programs can range anywhere from several months to several years depending on the individual’s prior level of experience and personal interest. Short courses and workshops are also offered by many Gestalt institutions.
Concerns/Limitations of Gestalt Therapy
Gestalt therapy often evokes intense reactions and emotions which may not be suitable for all individuals. This form of therapy may also not be ideal for persons who struggle with impulse control issues or delinquency. Although severe disturbances have been treated with Gestalt therapy, these usually require that the therapist commits to long-term therapy and exercises caution in the selection of techniques.
For Gestalt therapy to be effective, it is crucial that the therapist maintains a supportive presence at all times. This requires a high level of maturity and advanced training on the part of the therapist. If lacking, the exercises used in therapy may prove ineffective and could leave the client feeling vulnerable.
Some of the techniques used in Gestalt therapy lack solid theoretical underpinnings and there is still a need for further research demonstrating the effectiveness of this approach.
Important Practitioners in Gestalt Therapy
Fritz Perls is generally regarded as the primary founder of Gestalt therapy but his wife, Laura, also made significant contributions to this approach. Due to his early work with Fritz Perls, Paul Goodman is also regarded by some as a co-founder of Gestalt therapy. Other notable Gestalt therapists include Isadore From, James Simkin, Richard Kitzler, Paul Weisz, as well as Erving and Miriam Polster.
Frederick (Fritz) Perls was born in Berlin, Germany in 1893. He studied medicine and later sought training in psychoanalysis. In 1933, he migrated to South Africa, where he started the South African Institute for Psychoanalysis. Despite his interest in Freud’s methods, Perls did not completely agree with the psychoanalytic view of human nature. He, therefore, began to formulate his own approach to therapy. He relocated to New York in 1946 and five years later, published his seminal work Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. The book was co-authored by Ralph Hefferline and Paul Goodman.
In 1952, Perls and his wife founded the first institute for Gestalt therapy which they operated out of their apartment. As interest in this form of therapy grew, Perls went on to establish several other Gestalt institutes across the country. Throughout the remainder of his life, he conducted numerous training sessions and workshops on Gestalt therapy, many of which were offered at the Esalen Institute in California.
How to Find a Therapist
Individuals can find a qualified Gestalt therapist by searching the online therapist directory at www.psychologytoday.com or www.goodtherapy.org. Many Gestalt training institutes also carry a directory of certified therapists on their websites. These online listings typically specify the therapists’ location, qualification, and areas of specialization.
What Should I be Looking for in an LMHP?
People interested in Gestalt therapy should look for a licensed mental health professional who has completed adequate training in Gestalt therapy techniques and has extensive clinical experience using this form therapy. Ideally, the therapist should also have expertise in treating the particular issue being faced by the individual. Since the relationship between client and therapist is essential to the success of therapy, individuals should also ensure that they feel comfortable interacting with the therapist.
Questions to Ask a Potential Therapist
Important questions to ask a potential therapist are:
- What is the extent of your training in Gestalt therapy?
- How long have you been conducting therapy using this orientation?
- Have you ever worked with anyone experiencing my condition? If so, have you ever treated this condition successfully using Gestalt therapy?
- How long will therapy last?
- How often will we need to meet?
Find a Therapist Now
If individuals are experiencing psychological concerns or would like to gain a deeper understanding of themselves, they can arrange to speak to a qualified therapist at Thrive Talk. By means of a few simple questions, individuals are matched with highly-experienced mental health professionals who can support them in their quest for a more fulfilling life. It only takes a few seconds to get started!
Final Thoughts on Gestalt Therapy
Gestalt therapy is more than just talk therapy. It is active and fluid. By stressing personal responsibility and awareness of one’s experiences, it empowers individuals to consciously choose a better way of ‘being’ in their environment. In the end, it frees individuals to live life more fully in the present.
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