Gestalt therapy, developed by Fritz Perls, Laura Perls, and Paul Goodman in the 1940s, is an experiential and humanistic form of therapy that was originally designed as an alternative to conventional psychoanalysis. Gestalt therapists and their clients use creative and experiential techniques to enhance awareness, freedom, and self-direction. The word gestalt comes from the German word meaning shape or form, and it references the character or essence of something.
At the core of gestalt therapy is the holistic view that people are intricately linked to and influenced by their environments and that all people strive toward growth and balance. Gestalt therapy is similar to person-centered therapy in this way, as well as in its emphasis on the therapist’s use of empathy, understanding, and unconditional acceptance of the client to enhance therapeutic outcomes.
According to gestalt therapy, context affects experience, and a person cannot be fully understood without understanding his or her context. With this in mind, gestalt psychotherapy recognizes that no one can be purely objective—including therapists whose experiences and perspectives are also influenced by their own contexts—and practitioners accept the validity and truth of their clients’ experiences.
Gestalt therapy also recognizes that forcing a person to change paradoxically results in further distress and fragmentation. Rather, change results from acceptance of what is. Thus, therapy sessions focus on helping clients learn to become more self-aware and to accept and trust in their feelings and experiences to alleviate distress.
The focus on the here and now does not negate or reduce past events or future possibilities; in fact, the past is intricately linked to one’s present experience. The idea is to avoid dwelling on the past or anxiously anticipating the future. Experiences of the past may be addressed in therapy sessions, but the therapist and client will focus on exploring what factors made a particular memory come up in this moment, or how the present moment is impacted by experiences of the past.
Gestalt therapy sessions do not follow specific guidelines, in fact, therapists are encouraged to use creativity in their approach with clients, depending on context and the personality of the current client. What is consistent is the emphasis on direct contact between therapist and client, direct experience and experimentation, and the focus on the “what and how”—what the client is doing and how he or she is doing it—and the “here and now.”
Together, therapist and client will evaluate what is happening now and what is needed as a result. Therapists refrain from interpreting events, focusing only on the immediate, including the physical responses of the client. Remarking on subtle shifts in posture, for example, can bring the client into the present. In this way, gestalt therapy helps clients gain a better understanding of how their emotional and physical bodies are connected. Understanding the internal self is the key to understanding actions, reactions, and behaviors. Gestalt therapy helps a client take the first step into this awareness so that they can acknowledge and accept these patterns.
Last updated: 06-24-2014
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