Gestalt therapy – a brief introduction
Gestalt therapy refers to a form of psychotherapy that derives from the gestalt school of thought. It was developed in the late 1940s by Fritz Perls and is guided by the relational theory principle that every individual is a whole (mind, body and soul), and that they are best understood in relation to their current situation as he or she experiences it.
The approach combines this relational theory with present state – focusing strongly on self-awareness and the ‘here and now’ (what is happening from one moment to the next). In gestalt therapy, self-awareness is key to personal growth and developing full potential. The approach recognises that sometimes this self-awareness can become blocked by negative thought patterns and behaviour that can leave people feeling dissatisfied and unhappy.
It is the aim of a gestalt therapist to promote a non-judgemental self-awareness that enables clients to develop a unique perspective on life. By helping an individual to become more aware of how they think, feel and act in the present moment, gestalt therapy provides insight into ways in which he or she can alleviate their current issues and distress in order to aspire to their maximum potential.
Key concepts of gestalt therapy
Gestalt therapy works through the interconnection of key concepts. These offer insight into the processes involved in therapy sessions between the therapist and client(s). Focusing on the present, imagining it separate from the future and past. This is considered essential. The process follows an individual’s experience in a way that does not involve seeking out the unconscious, but staying with what is present and figural.
Respect – Clients, whether an individual, group or family, are treated with profound respect by a gestalt therapist. Providing a balance of support and challenge is key to helping those taking part to feel comfortable about opening up and acknowledging areas of resistance.
Emphasis on experience – The gestalt approach focuses on experience in terms of an individual’s emotions, perceptions, behaviours, body sensations, ideas and memories. A therapist encourages the client to ‘experience’ in all of these ways, vividly in the here and now.
Creative experiment and discovery – There is a range of experimental methodology used by therapists to test their client’s experience. These involve highly creative and flexible techniques to help them open up and acknowledge hidden feelings.
Social responsibility – The gestalt approach recognises that humans have a social responsibility for self and for others. It demands respect for all people and acknowledges that everyone is different. Ultimately it encourages individuals to adopt an egalitarian approach to social life.
Relationship – Relating is considered central to human experience and gestalt therapy considers individuals as ‘whole’ when they have a good relationship with themselves and others around them. The interpersonal relationship between the individual and therapist that is developed and nurtured in sessions is a key guiding process in therapy.
How does gestalt therapy work?
Fundamentally, gestalt therapy works by teaching clients how to define what is truly being experienced rather than what is merely an interpretation of the events. Those undertaking gestalt therapy will explore all of their thoughts, feelings, behaviours, beliefs and values to develop awareness of how they present themselves and respond to events in their environment. This gives them the opportunity to identify choices, patterns of behaviour and obstacles that are impacting their health and well-being, and preventing them from reaching their full potential.
The unfolding of this therapeutic process will typically involve a range of expressive techniques and creative experiments developed collaboratively between therapist and client. These will be appropriate for the client and their specific problems. Below are some of the most common methods used:
Role-play can help individuals to experience different feelings and emotions and better understand how they present and organise themselves.
The ‘open chair’ technique
The open chair technique involves two chairs and role-play, and can give rise to emotional scenes. The client sits opposite an empty chair and must imagine someone (usually himself/herself or parts of him or her) in it. They then communicate with this imaginary being – asking questions and engaging with what they represent. Next, they must switch chairs so they are physically sitting in the once empty chair. The conversation continues, but the client has reversed roles – speaking on behalf of the imagined part of his or her problem. This technique aims to enable participants to locate a specific feeling or a side of their personalities they had ‘disowned’ or tried to ignore. This helps them to accept polarities and acknowledge that conflicts exist in everyone.
A gestalt therapist will need to engage the client in meaningful and authentic dialogue in order to guide them into a particular way of behaving or thinking. This may move beyond simple discussion to more creative forms of expression such as dancing, singing or laughing.
Dreams play an important role in gestalt therapy, as they can help individuals to understand spontaneous aspects of themselves. Fritz Perls frequently asked clients to relive his or her dreams by playing different objects and people in the dream. During this they would be asked questions like: “What are you aware of now?” to sharpen self-awareness.
Attention to body language
Throughout therapy, a gestalt therapist will concentrate on body language, which is considered a subtle indicator of intense emotions. When specific body language is noticed, the therapist may ask the client to exaggerate these movements or behaviours. This is thought to intensify the emotion attached to the behaviour and highlight an inner meaning. For example, a client may be showing signs of clenched fists or frowning, to which the therapist may ask something along the lines of: “What are you saying with this movement?”
Who can benefit?
Ultimately, gestalt therapy is considered to help individuals gain a better understanding of how their emotional and physical needs are connected. They will learn that being aware of their internal self is key to understanding why they react and behave in certain ways. This journey of self-discovery makes the approach beneficial for individuals who can be guarded when it comes to their emotions, and find it difficult to process why they feel and act the way they do. It can also provide support and a safe space for individuals going through times of personal difficulty.
Gestalt therapy is considered particularly valuable for helping to treat a wide range of psychological issues – especially as it can be applied as a long-term therapy or as a brief and focused approach. It has been found effective for managing tension, anxiety, addiction, post-traumatic stress, depression and other psychological problems that can prevent people from living life to the full. Overall, people who participate in gestalt therapy tend to feel more self-confident, calm and at peace with themselves.
The theory behind the “empty chair”
In Gestalt therapy, counsellors challenge clients with questions so that the client increases their awareness of feelings and develops a stronger ability to face daily-living situations and problems.
Some of the most basic interventions in Gestalt Counselling include repeating significant statements, exaggerating gestures for clarification, focusing on the relationship between the client’s verbal and nonverbal behaviour, and acting out both sides of a dialogue (“Empty Chair”), to help the client learn more effective means of coping and to assume more responsibility for the activities of their life.
The emphasis is on what is being done, thought, and felt at the moment (“here and now”), rather than on what occurred in the past, or what might be, could be, or even what should be.
The goal of Gestalt therapy is for the client to become aware of what they are doing, how they are doing it, and how they can change themselves and, at the same time, to accept and value themselves Perls’ work noted that many of us split off our experience (thoughts, sensations, emotions) that are uncomfortable. The objective of his work is to move people into owning their experiences and developing into a healthy gestalt (or whole). The Gestalt therapy emphasis on personal responsibility, interpersonal contact and increased clarity of awareness of what is, could be of great value in meeting the problems of the present. One example is application of Gestalt therapy in schools (Brown & Lederman, 1970 as cited in Yontef and Simkin, 1989).
The Gestalt counsellor works by engaging in dialogue rather than by manipulating the patient toward some goal.
The function of the Gestalt counsellor is to raise awareness, which is defined as knowing what one is sensing, feeling, and thinking. Such awareness can be achieved only in the “now,” the present moment. The counsellor assists the client to become aware of “what” and “how” he or she behaves in the moment.
Gestalt therapy fosters change primarily by the patient’s learning to understand himself or herself in the world through insight. The “Empty Chair” technique is typically used with interpersonal issues (i.e. a client angry at someone else, feels too submissive, lonely, etc.) It is a kind of role playing, but in this case, the client plays both roles. Employing two chairs, the counsellor asks the client to change places as the conversation unfolds. “The actual acting and movement helps the client to get in touch with deeper sensimotor emotions” (Ivey & Ivey, 300).
Rather than passively awaiting the therapist’s responses and subsequent change, the client is seen as a collaborator who is to learn how to self-heal. The client is taught the difference between talking about what happened 10 minutes ago (or last week or last year and experiencing what is happening now. Unlike most other therapies, in Gestalt therapy the process of self-discovery through experimentation is the end point rather than the feeling or idea or content. All techniques in this type of intervention are elaborations of the question, “What are you aware of (experiencing) now?” and the instruction, “Try this experiment and see what you become aware of (experience) or learn.” (Yontef & Simkin). Many techniques are as simple as asking what the client is aware of, or what he is feeling or thinking at the moment. A subsequent technique is to follow an awareness report with the instruction: “Stay with it” or “Feel it out.” “Stay with it” encourages the client to continue with the feeling that is being reported, which builds the client’s ability to further explore a feeling through to completion.
In one study Greenberg examined the use of the two-chair technique to resolve splits. He defined a split as “a verbal performance pattern in which a client reports a division of the self process into two partial aspects of the self or tendencies.” (323, as cited in Yontef & Simkin, 1989). He concludes that the two chair technique facilitates an increase in the client’s depth of experiencing and often leads to resolutions of splits among people seeking counselling.