Gestalt Therapy: An Introduction

old life and new life signsWhen I tell colleagues that I am a Gestalt therapist, I generally hear “so you hit pillows” or “so you just talk to an empty chair.” The general lack of understanding of basic underlying theory and guiding philosophy is surprising given the approach’s popularity and influence over that last 60 years. In this article I would like to describe and discuss a concept that is at the heart of Gestalt therapy. This concept is the Gestalt cycle of experience.

In Gestalt therapy, the self is not seen as a static thing but rather as a continually evolving process that is defined and illuminated by how person makes contact with his or her environment. This process, when completed in a healthy and unimpeded way, generally follows a process called the cycle of experience. This cycle is a basic map for how a person becomes aware of a need, mobilizes to meet that need, and achieves satisfaction. The key phases of the process are sensation, awareness, mobilization, action, contact, satisfaction, and withdrawal/rest.

One of the most commonly cited examples of this process is the act of eating. We begin with the physical feeling of hunger (sensation) which is generally followed by our acknowledgement of the hunger: “I feel hungry” (awareness). We take action to find and acquire food (mobilization), we eat the food (contact), our hunger is sated, we feel full (satisfaction), and we are done with the process, it no longer draws our attention (withdrawal).

Given this map of a fundamental healthy human process, we are then able to examine how the process gets interrupted, providing information for diagnosis and treatment. So how does the process get interrupted? There is an unlimited variety of ways. Let me provide a few examples.

Suppose a young girl desires affectionate contact with her father. She initiates contact and tries to be affectionate with her father but, for whatever reason, he rebuffs her (possibly due to physical illness or his own discomfort with physical affection). His reason to rebuff her is not important. What is important is how she perceives it. Since there is no overt or outright explanation to the girl, she perceives that he does not want contact with her or that she has done something wrong. So the girl, rather than feel the pain and frustration of a continually unsatisfied need, may develop her own reason for the rebuff (“physical contact with men is not okay,” or “there is something undesirable about me”). In this example, the cycle has been interrupted at the point of contact.

In another example, a boy may grow up in a family where emotions are neither valued nor acknowledged. In this situation, the boy may learn that feeling sad or angry is not allowed, or even potentially dangerous, and may develop a habit of ignoring or suppressing his emotions completely. The cycle here is being interrupted at the point of awareness.

The ways in which we interrupt the cycle at a young age (or any age) can stay with us throughout our lives. This habitual way of trying to use an old solution to present problems is referred to as unfinished business. One of the goals in Gestalt therapy is to help people become aware of the ways they have learned to interrupt themselves and empower them to make new choices.

© Copyright 2009 by William Sandy Pryor MA, LPC, MT-BC, therapist in Denver, Colorado. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Bethany

    Bethany

    October 20th, 2009 at 9:38 AM

    I like the concept behind this that we as humans are ever changing, ever evolving, and hopefully, ever moving toward becoming a more positive and powerful being.

  • McCain

    McCain

    October 20th, 2009 at 10:12 AM

    An interesting theory, to say the least. You have explained the concept very well, so much so even a fifth grader can understand the logic behind it.

  • Nate

    Nate

    October 20th, 2009 at 10:47 AM

    We go through these elaborate procedures day in and day out and yet never reflect on their inner working. I guess thats the difference between an ordinary person and an expert dealing with psychological issues. Anyhow, if thought of these things as a procedure, yes, if there is an un-forseen obstruction to a procedure, there will be side-effects, even to a point me mal-functioning of the entire mechanism, and in this case, the mechanism is us, the humans…

  • Amanda Rowan

    Amanda Rowan

    February 2nd, 2010 at 1:31 PM

    I like the gestalt view of self. It is much more flexible than other views and it allows for influence from the environment. It is a much more hopeful view.

  • Beth

    Beth

    February 2nd, 2010 at 9:46 PM

    This is a well written overview of Gestalt Therapy!

  • Cody Ray Miller

    Cody Ray Miller

    April 24th, 2014 at 1:25 PM

    Thanks for sharing! I have always been fascinated by Gestalt therapy (I am a psychology major in my undergraduate coursework at the moment). I would like to pursue an even deeper understanding of Gestalt techniques.

  • Cassie Tyler

    Cassie Tyler

    July 10th, 2014 at 1:22 AM

    Well, there’s no doubt that gestalt therapy is beneficial and very effective in dealing with grief and anxiety and it is more flexible too.

  • Lily

    Lily

    July 31st, 2015 at 3:32 AM

    Gestalt therapy saved me from myself. I had a nervous breakdown followed by other complications at the age of 23 and I discovered Gestalt. It was a bit funny at first to talk to an empty chair, but eventually, that technique brought me to my real self that was hiding under all those suppressed layers of stale emotions.

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