Gestalt Therapy: Origin, Meaning and its Techniques

The way we look at a problem or perceive things is always the key to the solution. The same principle is applied to the famous gestalt therapy1. Gestalt therapy focuses on how we add meaning and make sense of the environment around us.

Let us dive into the details of gestalt therapy.

In contemporary German, the word Gestalt refers to the way something has been “positioned” or “put together.” Although there’s no exact equivalent in English.

What do you mean by Gestalt Therapy?

The term Gestalt implies considering something as a whole rather than considering it as separate elements. It is psychotherapy that makes the client focus on the present rather than the past or the future and emphasizes perception; this improves self-awareness and allows the individual to take responsibility for their actions.

Gestalt therapy was developed by Fritz Perls and Laura Perls, and Paul Goodman in the 1940s. Later in 1951, Fritz Perls, Paul Goodman, and Ralph Hefferline wrote a book on Gestalt therapy called Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality.’

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fizkes on Shutterstock

This book consists of two parts; the first part details self-help exercises in psychotherapy2, and the second one is the core of the technique and was written mainly by Paul Goodman based on the notes of Fritz Perls.

Fritz and Laura Perls are considered the pioneers of Gestalt therapy by practicing it on patients in their apartment in Manhattan. Both the Perls were well-trained in psychoanalysis and gestalt psychology.

When To Go For Gestalt Therapy?

Potential candidates for undergoing gestalt therapy include anxiety, depression, relationship, and personal issues. Even people suffering from physical health issues such as migraines, ulcerative colitis3, and back pains also benefit.

Ideal candidates would be the people who are willing to focus on self-awareness but are unaware of their part in their problems.

This therapy can also be used with a combination of other treatments such as art and dance.

If you feel that you or a person you know might benefit from gestalt therapy, we recommend the following steps:

1. Get A Referral

Visit your primary health or mental health professional, convey your mental illness to them and ask them to refer you to any certified Gestalt psychologists.

2. Inquire About The Details

Ask your potential gestalt therapist about the details of gestalt therapy. Inquire about the duration, fees, and counseling procedure. Ensure whether your insurance covers the expenses or if they offer any installments or sliding based on your income.

3. Be Prepared To Talk Your Feelings Out

During Gestalt therapy sessions, the therapist asks various questions regarding the person’s present life and past life. During the therapeutic procedure, the therapist asks questions about your awareness and responsibility, for example, How are you feeling at this moment? Or, What are you aware of now? So, it would be best if you are prepared to talk about your life.

How Does Gestalt Therapy Work?

Gestalt therapists focus on the present to find solutions to the client’s problems rather than the past. For instance, a Gestalt therapist may ask you to re-enact the incident that occurred in the past and discuss how it makes you feel in the present.

To be more precise, Gestalt therapists experiment with you through role-playing, dialogue, confrontation, and other Gestalt therapy techniques that make you experience your feelings rather than talk about them.

The goal is to bring awareness to your own self to understand the consequences of your past actions and learn to satisfy your needs while respecting others. Let us see the essential concepts and techniques of Gestalt therapy.4

Gestalt Therapy Role-Play - Empty Chair Technique with Strained Relationship

Gestalt Therapy Techniques

Of all the techniques employed in gestalt therapy, the empty chair dialogue is the most important and commonly used therapy technique.

1. Empty Chair Technique

Through the empty chair technique or the empty chair dialogue, the therapist tries to resolve the unfinished issues bothering us in the therapy room.

Unfinished issues are the emotions concerning any mental health issue in the past or the present that is left unexpressed. What happens if we have unresolved issues?

Imagine a group of dots arranged in the form of a circle is shown to you; your mind perceives them as a whole circle but not as random dots. This happens because our mind tends to form Gestalt (imagining as a whole without focusing on the individual parts).

This tendency is why any unresolved issues are left unattended and can hinder our personal growth.

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Lolostock on Shutterstock

Unresolved business is always due to emotions that are not expressed. For example, not mourning the loss of a loved one or unfulfilled needs and wishes, unexpressed thoughts in a relationship can lead to pent-up emotions.

Most people choose to avoid expressing their feelings to appear strong or to salvage their relationship.

In the empty chair method, the Gestalt therapists set up two chairs left empty in front of the patient. The client occupies one chair and imagines the person he has unfinished business with within the opposite chair (a metaphorical person).

The therapist will encourage the clients to have a conversation with the empty chair. However, one must vent out their suppressed emotion to change and continue further in their life.

Gestalt therapy helps clients to express their thoughts through language. Sometimes the therapists use this technique as a role play by making the client switch chairs and speak to themselves as though the other person is saying.

Through this session, the client’s past emotions are brought to the present moment, and then the therapist helps the client process his curbed emotions.

This technique can be done to work on the client’s past or present relationships. The client may see the other person with more emotional understanding or hold them responsible. Either way, the client will change his views on himself from being a victim to a place of higher self-empowerment.

Empty chair technique
Photo by Dima Khudorozhkov. Unsplash. Copyright 2021.

2. Exaggeration Technique

This technique focuses on what the therapist notices when a subject is being discussed. If the therapist sees any change in your tone, expression, or movement, he asks you to exaggerate the same action.

The goal is to gather the client’s attention toward their emotions specifically attached to that type of behavior and increase awareness.

Key Concepts Behind Gestalt Therapy

In a Gestalt therapy practice session, the therapist does not follow any specific process, but they uniquely approach each client depending on their personality. However, there are a few key concepts that are consistent in dealing with every client.

Here are a few concepts that are emphasized in Gestalt therapy:

1. Building Self Awareness

Rather than simply sitting and listening, the Gestalt therapist encourages the client to participate in a few creative exercises to improve their awareness.

These may include making the client experience mental health exercises 5such as role-play, communicating through props, or guided imagery.

2. Working Through Pain

The nature of human tendency is to shut down or suppress our emotions no matter how hard it is because the thought of the painful memory makes us vulnerable or weak.

In Gestalt therapy, the therapist identifies what is happening and offers you space to let out your emotions so that you don’t have to work hard to suppress them anymore.

But this can happen only when the clients accept support and are ready to heal.

Gestalt therapy technique
Photo by cottonbro. Pexels. Copyright 2021

3. Influence On Perception

Our environment and our past experiences influence us, and Gestalt therapy is no exception. The therapist’s views can influence the clients, which can change the way they intend to think.

This concept of Gestalt therapy is client-centered therapy, so Gestalt therapists focus on the client’s world and offer them space to let their feelings out without imposing their judgment on them.

4. Focus On The ‘Here’ And ‘Now.’

This therapeutic process focuses on the client’s awareness of the past and its importance in the present context.

This gestalt technique helps clients understand the importance of the past in the present moment and brings awareness of how the past presents itself in the present as “here” and “now.”

5. Body Language

Similar to the use of language, Gestalt therapy also believes that body language plays a significant role in altering the psychology of a client. The therapist notes the client’s body movements during the session, such as tapping the feet, certain facial expressions, and squeezing their palms or hands.

The therapist may ask their clients about their body language or even ask them to repeat the same behavior while incorporating language. In addition to the client’s body language, the clients are also encouraged to perform additional activities such as painting, drawing, or sculpting to help them increase personal awareness.

Therapists believe that creative arts or any other Gestalt techniques different from traditional sitting and talking allow awareness and the chance for healing.

6. Theory Of Paradoxical Change

The concept of this theory is that the more a person tries to be different, the more they end up being the same person. So, instead of changing one’s life, it is essential to accept who one is and live in the present moment by gaining self-awareness.

Through this theory, the therapists practice empathy and unconditionally accept the client’s personality, making it easy to accept himself.

How Does Gestalt Therapy Benefit You?

There is a long range of issues that Gestalt therapy may help with, including divorce, childhood trauma, sexual abuse, and fear of rejection.

Because it focuses on the client’s present situation, it is preferred by many, especially those who dislike the concept of looking into their past.

You are not required to disclose your prior experiences or trauma with your therapist while in treatment. The latter just walks you through several methods for pinpointing the reasons behind your feelings or reactions.

The two-chair strategy is one of the more often utilized methods for accomplishing this.

1. Personal Growth Through The Self-Regulation

Gestalt therapy exercises minimize pain or distress and make the client tolerate their own negative thought patterns; this helps the client overcome any trauma-related situation. It makes the client strive for growth by creating an improved sense of self-control.

2. Ability To Cope With Stress

Once they gain true self-awareness and self-acceptance, it will be easy to cope with stress and anxiety arising in the future. Gestalt therapy also works on improving the ability to monitor and regulate one’s mental health.

3. Self-acceptance

Gestalt therapy makes the clients own their mistakes and behavior rather than pining on others. Accepting their feelings makes them more responsible in the future.

Self acceptance
Photo by Julia Avamotive from Pexels. Copyright 2021.

4. Personal Responsibility

Gestalt therapy makes the client understand their personal responsibility. This is one of the therapy techniques that focuses on the words and language the client uses to express their emotion.

For example, instead of saying, “If she didn’t say that, I wouldn’t have been hurt,” the therapist may encourage the client to say, “It hurt me when she said that because it made me feel insignificant, and I don’t like it.”

Here the word “I” is important to make the client feel responsible through a language that creates an improved sense of personal ownership.

5. Improves Communication Skills

A few techniques used in Gestalt therapy, such as role-playing, and the empty chair approach, need the patient to form a dialogue with the therapist or themself. The practice of these techniques supports the client’s mental health and makes them more outspoken.

Drawbacks of Gestalt Therapy

Every treatment technique has its pros and cons, and Gestalt therapy is no exception. The drawbacks of Gestalt therapy come from its benefits: it may take longer to complete than other techniques since it necessitates a positive interpersonal connection between the therapist and the client, which takes time.

A different approach to treatment may be more appropriate if the client does not require the depth of working with themes and neuroses.

  • The major limitation of gestalt therapy is that it cannot modify the psychological effects of hereditary behaviors.
  • It also doesn’t help if their thoughts do not influence the psychology of the person.
  • It also does not help in diagnosis and testing.
  • Few might find the exercises on negative emotions and body language uncomfortable and make them vulnerable instead of helping them.
  • The process requires one to focus on the present moment but revisiting the past can be much more critical and valuable for a few people. For these people, Gestalt therapy cannot offer much support.
  • The Gestalt therapist plays a vital role in the therapy. Therefore, they should be well-versed in the process and Gestalt theory. Attempting these techniques heedlessly may not yield any result.

Takeaway

Gestalt psychotherapy is more humanistic and client-centered. According to Gestalt, every person has a unique experience. Gestalt therapy sees that the person comes to terms with themself and becomes aware and responsible for their lives in the present context, ignoring the past conflicts or the future ones.

Gestalt therapy is a relational, growth-oriented therapeutic method that draws on various techniques such as attachment theory, cognitive psychology, family systems theory, and relational psychoanalysis.

Gestalt therapy, which is practiced and taught all around the world, takes into account issues of identity, gender variety, and uniqueness. Gestalt therapy provides a comprehensive and respectful practical psychology to achieve this goal.

FAQs

1. What are the factors that distinguish Gestalt therapy from other approaches?

Gestalt therapy focuses on basic concerns in each uniquely entire person since it is process-oriented. In working through material that occurs in gestalt therapy, in individual or group settings, gestalt therapy helps people by focusing on:

  • Behavioral sciences
  • Cognitive therapy
  • Past experiences (confront past conflicts/painful memories)
  • Future possibilities
  • Person’s awareness
  • Emotions attached
  • Facial expression
  • Significant sensations
  • One’s present experience
  • Emotional experience
  • Self-direction
  • Taking responsibility

2. What is the purpose of going for “what” and “how” questions in specific when it comes to Gestalt therapy instead of “why” queries?

When you ask a person “why,” instead of leading to a greater understanding of issues, it tends to cause the respondent to justify their actions or beliefs. And when we feel the need to protect ourselves, we tend to block ourselves from information that contradicts our self-perception.

3. What exactly is the purpose of Gestalt therapy?

Gestalt therapy (or gestalt psychology) is appropriate for people who:

  • Happen to be very dissatisfied or irritated with areas of their lives but don’t appear to be able to alter them.
  • Are looking to change jobs, figure out why their personal relationship isn’t working out, or any other scenario in which they feel stuck.
  • Want to determine what is going on in their subconscious mind that is generating the problem so they can deal with the issue in their emotional and physical selves.

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  1. Perls, Fritz, Goodman Hefferline, and Paul Goodman. “Gestalt therapy.” New York 64.7 (1951): 19-313. ↩︎
  2. McCormick, Elizabeth Wilde. Change for the better: Self-help through practical psychotherapy. Sage, 2012. ↩︎
  3. Truelove, Sidney C., and L. J. Witts. “Cortisone in ulcerative colitis.” British medical journal 2.4947 (1955): 1041. ↩︎
  4. Mann, Dave. Gestalt therapy: 100 key points and techniques. Routledge, 2020. ↩︎
  5. Stănescu, Monica, and Luciela Vasile. “Using physical exercises to improve mental health.” Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences 149 (2014): 921-926. ↩︎

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