Gestalt comes from the German word meaning “shape.” However, the word has come to be interpreted as “holistic” or “as a whole.” Any of these terms could be applied to the current practice of Gestalt therapy. During the therapy, various methods are used to help patients understand their full actions in the here-and-now while also shaping their behaviors so they can live in the present while also accepting and valuing themselves.
Development of Gestalt Therapy
Gestalt therapy was first developed in the 1950s by Fritz Perls and Laura Perls. They believed that the psychotherapies of the time were too limiting and did not focus enough on the actual living aspects of psychology. The Gestalt movement was joined by groups of avant-garde psychiatrists, psychologists, educations, and philosophers.
Because Gestalt therapy combines methods from various therapies, there is ample room for the therapist to interpret Gestalt therapy. In the 1960s, practitioners of Gestalt therapy broke off into two distinct groups: one focusing more on the psychoanalysis aspects and the other on the action-based aspects of Gestalt therapy. Even though Gestalt has now been widely replaced by cognitive behavioral therapy in private practice in the US, it is still used in group dynamics such as couching and teaching. Gestalt therapy is still prevalent in some parts of Europe though.
Focus of Gestalt Therapy
The core underlying belief of Gestalt therapy is that people must be able to discover their own paths in life and accept personal responsibilities. Further, Gestalt therapy focuses on actively bringing about changes by focusing on all aspects of the present situation, including what is actually occurring and what is being discussed. Gestalt therapy requires people to engage in the world which brings about changes to one’s self, relationships, or feelings.
Under Gestalt therapy, patients are not specifically diagnosed with psychological conditions. Labeling psychological conditions would just allow the patient and therapist to generalize the person’s entire self, including subjective and objective aspects. Instead, all assessment is related to the person’s life for gaining awareness.
Goal of Gestalt Therapy
The core goal of Gestalt therapy is to challenge patients to progress from environmental support to self-support. Patients will be encouraged to deal with unresolved issues from their past and to incorporate these aspects into their present sense of self. Further, Gestalt therapy will help patients to become aware of present experiences.
Gestalt Therapy in Practice
Gestalt therapy is broken down into four separate practices: phenomenological, dialogical relationship, field-theoretical strategies, and experimental freedom.
During phenomenological practices of Gestalt therapy, the patient is challenged to put aside normal patterns of thought relating to a situation. Then, he/she will be able to differentiate between what emotions occur due to the present situation and which emotions are occurring from past, unresolved issues. During phenomenological exploration, the patient looks at the difference between what is being emotionally experienced in the present situation and what is being objectively observed in the situation.
The entire goal of phenomenological processes is for the patient to explore awareness. It is not enough for the patient to become aware of emotional and objective aspects of a situation. The patient must also become aware of how that awareness occurred.
In Gestalt therapy, “fields” are either physical spaces or ontological dimensions. Ontological dimensions include all of the environmental, social, and mental aspects which contribute to one’s sense of self. Field-theory perspectives will analyze situations in regards to their fields rather than the specific type of situation. The analysis will always take place in the present but therapists are aware of how the past can influence the presence. To analyze the situation in terms of the field, the patient will observe, describe, and explain what is going on in the field.
Existential approaches to Gestalt therapy involve looking at the world truthfully, including the existential truths of death, suffering, and finality. By becoming aware of the world’s truths – and his/her ability to make choices in the world – Gestalt therapy challenges patients to take responsibility for one’s life and well being.
Gestalt therapy addresses the importance of the relationship between the therapist and the patient. Gestalt therapists will not try to manipulate conversations towards some therapeutic goal. Rather, they will foster genuine dialogues so the patient shows his or her true self. In Gestalt therapy, there are four traits of dialogue:
- Inclusion: This involves creating a situation where both the patient and therapist can put each other into the experiences of the other while still retaining a sense of individuality. Inclusion will be free of judgment, analysis and interpretation.
- Presence: This type of dialogue involves the patient communicating to the patient. The therapist will give open, authentic thoughts/experiences. However, the therapist will be judicious in the dialogue as it would not be beneficial to therapy to offend or harm the patient.
- Commitment to dialogue: As part of Gestalt therapy dialogue, the therapist and patient both agree to communicate without having to force it to happen.
- Living dialogue: Gestalt therapy distinguishes itself from other therapies because it focuses on actions. With living dialogue, various experimental actions can be used as a form of dialogue.
Uses of Gestalt Therapy
Gestalt therapy can be used for treating a wide array of psychological disorders. While the therapy is not commonly practiced in private psychological settings in the US, it is prevalent amongst teachers, coaches, and the organizational development field. Gestalt therapy methods are commonly incorporated in other methods of therapy. As a stand-alone method, Gestalt therapy is particularly effective in patients who have inhibited emotions.
Yontef, Gary. “Awareness, Dialogue & Process: Essays on Gestalt Therapy.” The Gestalt Journal Press, Gouldsboro: 1993.