Gestalt psychotherapy

We had a three day weekend on Gestalt Psychotherapy, which for me, proved to be one of the most powerful components of the course so far.  The word gestalt is used to describe a phenomenon/concept in which the ‘whole’ is considered as greater than the sum total of all its parts.  We initially started the weekend with lectures on Field Theory. Kurt Lewin revolutionised the study of psychology by empirically showing that human behaviour is not only a product of one’s internal make up but also greatly affected by the dynamic environment in which an individual lives.

Gestalt therapy is a phenomenological-existential therapy founded by Frederick (Fritz) and Laura Perls in the 1940s. Fritz Perls famously said that “thinking is rehearsing”. Gestalt therapy teaches therapists and patients the phenomenological method of awareness, in which perceiving, feeling, and acting are distinguished from interpreting and reshuffling preexisting attitudes. I can find this way of working quite challenging as I can be very much a heady type when discussing my issues and can adopt quite rigid defences.  However, letting go and trusting the process can be extremely fruitful.

In Gestalt therapy explanations and interpretations are considered less reliable than what is directly perceived and felt in the room. Clients and therapists in Gestalt therapy engage in dialogue, that is, communicate their phenomenological perspectives. Differences in perspectives become the focus of experimentation and continued dialogue. The goal is for clients 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 learn to accept and value themselves.

If you are thinking of entering Gestalt therapy it is worth noting that it focuses more on process (what is happening in the room) than content (what is being discussed). The emphasis is on what is being done, thought and felt at the moment rather than on what was, might be, could be, or should be. You will be challenged to take ownership of your feelings and think of what is being triggered in you rather than looking outward at who irritates you.

In Gestalt therapy the client is taught the difference between talking about what occurred five minutes ago (or yesterday or 25 years ago) and experiencing what is now. I found myself nodding when acting as therapist in the experiential groups, especially when dealing with very personal material such as bereavement. I call this my Nick Clegg position (the nodding dog), where I easily adopt a person centred approach.  Perhaps therapies such as behaviour modification, reality therapy and rational emotive therapy do not work with the client’s experience enough to get to the edge.The psychoanalyst can only use interpretation.  In Rogerian therapy the passivity imposed on the therapist severely restricts the range or power of the therapy to teach these distinctions. The Rogerian can only reflect and clarify. Gestalt therapists may use any techniques or methods as long as (a) they are aimed toward increasing awareness, (b) they emerge out of dialogue and phenomenological work, and (c) they are within the parameters of ethical practice.

The techniques of Gestalt Therapy:

The ‘now’ and the ‘how
Gestalt therapists encourage communication in the present tense
“What are you aware of now?”
“What is happening now?”
“What do you feel at this moment?”
“How do you experience it?

Historical material

In Gestalt therapy when client recalls past events, the therapist directs the client to ‘be there’ in fantasy and to enact the drama in present, here and now terms. Therapists will raise client’s awareness of how they leave the ’now’.

Reversals

The therapist invites the client to role play a part or a behaviour that they are judging, or have marginalised (sidelined). Client is helped to understand that overt behaviour often represents the reversal of underlying impulses.

Empty chair technique

The reversals/playing the projection/dialogue games and unfinished business techniques can all be carried out using the ‘empty chair’ technique or ‘talking to the cushion’ technique. We act out the internal and external split-off parts of ourselves, identified through our dreams, projections and so on by talking to an empty chair, responding from the chair and continuing the dialogue until it’s fully explored and there is a coming together, an integration of the split-off parts of the whole. This can be a good technique for dialoguing with absent parents, friends or colleague, dealing with unfinished business.

Your client has reached an ‘edge’ when they say things like:
I can’t do it
I’m embarrassed
I won’t….

When they:
Are unable to look at you, or something else
Cannot make a certain movement or feel a specific feeling, like a sexual feeling, or anger.
Avoid paying attention to a particular person in the environment.

True intimacy is looking into another’s eyes. Gestalt therapy works with polarities.  So if a client is shy they might be encouraged to be exhibitionist.  Gestalt therapists work with basic channels of body sensations, movement, auditory, visual and relationships. Maslow once said to never talk to clients about their problem but to concentrate on what in the body is trying to emerge. The process of Gestalt is to complete the cycle of experience. Treat yourself to a Gestalt weekend, if you are presented with an opportunity,  as you will learn a great deal about yourself.

Resources

How Gestalt psychotherapy works
The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy
The Gestalt cycle of experience 
How does Gestalt psychotherapy differ from other therapies

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3 thoughts on “Gestalt psychotherapy

  1. Many persons claim they practice “TA [transactional analysis] and Gestalt.” Usually these people use the TA theory and some Gestalt therapy techniques. Techniques are not the important aspect of Gestalt therapy. When used in an analytic, cognitive style, these techniques are not Gestalt therapy! Such a combination often aborts, prevents or neutralizes the organismic awareness work of the phenomenological-existential method. A better combination would be integrating concepts of TA into a Gestalt framework. Thus the parent, adult, and child ego states, crossed transactions, and life scripts can be translated into Gestalt process language and worked with experimentally and dialogically.

    • Thats what I struggkle with too, people claiming to be the bees knees with one modality and that this is the only fix and that everyone else is crap. I like the integrative approach.

  2. Hey Noel,
    What I learned from my Gestalt work was to make what I wanted to say shorter and shorter. “Tomorrow I will be better”. I am trying to kill myself (when I have a headache and when the temptation is to just chat away about my issues and how the headache has affected me). My edge is when me meets not me. Once you have the permission with the client then you have licence to be creative. Can I be the lubricating oil for the therapeutic session? If we ask where is the science then why aren’t we training as clinical psychologists?
    Sue.

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