The Art and Science of Emotional Healing #4 — Gestalt Therapy

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By L. Harrison

Q. Lewis, what is Gestalt Therapy?



Before I answer this question you may want to read the introduction to the entire series of my articles about mental and emotional healing please read this post — Why You Suffer Mentally and Emotionally and Tips to Free Yourself


By Artistashma

What is Gestalt Therapy?

It is an existential/experiential form of psychotherapy that emphasizes, personal responsibility and that focuses upon the individual’s experience in the present moment, the therapist-client relationship, the environmental and social contexts of a person’s life, and the self-regulating adjustments people make as a result of their overall situation.

Who Developed It?

Gestalt therapy was developed by Fritz Perls, Laura Perls, and Paul Goodman in the 1940s and 1950s, and was first described in the 1951 book Gestalt Therapy. Perls went through psychoanalysis with Wilhelm Reich and became a psychiatrist.

Perls’s seminal work was Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality, published in 1951, co-authored by Fritz Perls, Paul Goodman, and Ralph Hefferline (a university psychology professor and sometime patient of Fritz Perls). Most of Part II of the book was written by Paul Goodman from Perls’s notes, and it contains the core of Gestalt theory. This part was supposed to appear first, but the publishers decided that Part I, written by Hefferline, fit into the nascent self-help ethos of the day, and they made it an introduction to the theory. Isadore From, a leading early theorist of Gestalt therapy, taught Goodman’s Part II for an entire year to his students, going through it phrase by phrase.

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What is the Basic theory?

The objective of Gestalt therapy is to enable the client to become more fully and creatively alive and to become free from the blocks and unfinished business that may diminish satisfaction, fulfillment, and growth, and to experiment with new ways of being. Gestalt therapy is built upon two central ideas:

1. that the most helpful focus of psychotherapy is the experiential present moment,

2. that everyone is caught in webs of relationships; thus, it is only possible to know ourselves against the background of our relationships with others.

Gestalt therapy was forged from various influences upon the lives of its founders during the times in which they lived, including the new physics, Eastern religion, existential phenomenology, Gestalt Psychology, psychoanalysis, experimental theater, as well as systems theory and field theory.

Gestalt therapy falls within the category of humanistic psychotherapeutics. These are approaches in psychology supporting the belief that humans, as individuals, are unique beings and should be recognized and treated as such by psychologists and psychiatrists. The movement grew in opposition to the two mainstream 20th-century trends in psychology, behaviorism, and psychoanalysis.

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Key Thoughts

1. Because Gestalt therapy includes perception and the meaning-making processes by which experience forms, it can also be considered a cognitive approach.

2. Because Gestalt therapy relies on the contact between therapist and client, it can be considered a relational or interpersonal approach.

3. Because Gestalt therapy appreciates the larger picture which is the complex situation involving multiple influences in a complex situation, it can be considered a multi-systemic approach.

4. Because the processes of Gestalt therapy are experimental, involving action, Gestalt therapy can be considered both a paradoxical and an experiential/experimental approach.

What are Sessions Like?:

Sessions can be done individually or in a group. Sessions focus on process (what is actually happening) over content (what is being talked about). The emphasis is on what is being done, thought, and felt at the present moment (the phenomenality of both client and therapist), rather than on what was, might be, could be, or should have been.

Gestalt therapy is also a method of awareness practice (also called “mindfulness” in other clinical domains), by which perceiving, feeling, and acting are understood to be conducive to interpreting, explaining, and conceptualizing (the hermeneutics of experience). This distinction between direct experience versus indirect or secondary interpretation is developed in the process of therapy. During sessions, the client learns to become aware of what he or she is doing and that triggers the ability to risk a shift or change.

Something called the “Empty Chair Technique or “Chairwork” is typically used in Gestalt therapy when a patient might have deep-rooted emotional problems directly tied to someone or something in their life. This might include relationships with themselves, with aspects of their personality, their concepts, ideas, feelings, etc., or other people in their lives. The purpose of this technique is to get the patient to think about their emotions and attitudes. Common things the patient addresses in the empty chair are another person, aspects of their own personality, a certain feeling, etc., as if that thing were in that chair. They may also move between chairs and act out two or more sides of a discussion, typically involving the patient and persons significant to them. It uses a passive approach to opening up the patient’s emotions and pent-up feelings so they can let go of what they have been holding back. A form of role-playing, this technique focuses on the exploration of self. It is used by therapists to help patients self-adjust. Gestalt techniques were originally a form of psychotherapy, but are now often used in Life Coaching and in counseling. In these environments there is an encouragement of clients to act out their feelings in helping them prepare for a new job. The purpose of the technique is so the patient will become more in touch with their feelings and have an emotional conversation that clears up any long-held feelings or reactions to the person or object in the chair. When used effectively, the technique provides an emotional release and lets the client move forward in their life.


In the 1960s, Perls became infamous among the professional elite for his public workshops at Esalen Esalen Institute. Isadore From referred to some of Fritz’s brief workshops as “hit-and-run” therapy, because of Perls’s alleged emphasis on showmanship with little or no follow-through — but Perls never considered these workshops to be complete therapy; rather, he felt he was giving demonstrations of key points for a largely professional audience.

There have been various splits continue between what has been called “East Coast Gestalt” and “West Coast Gestalt,” at least from an Amerocentric point of view. While the communitarian form of Gestalt continues to flourish, Gestalt therapy was largely replaced in the United States by Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Therapy, and many Gestalt therapists in the U.S. drifted toward organizational management and coaching. At the same time, contemporary Gestalt Practice (to a large extent based upon Gestalt therapy theory and practice) was developed by Dick Price, the co-founder of Esalen Institute. Price was one of Perls’s students at Esalen.

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By Flint

Additional Thoughts Concerning Gestalt Therapy

My own involvement with Gestalt Therapy came through my close friendship with Leslie Gold, Fritz and Laura Perls granddaughter.

Where to Find a Gestalt-therapist (CBT)

Contact professional associations or seek referrals from people your trust. Among the most important associations in the field is The Association for the Advancement of Gestalt Therapy (AAGT)


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