The Gestalt psychotherapy is one of the leading approaches in humanistic-existential psychotherapy, forming – next to psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioural, systemic and integrative therapy – one of the most prominent schools of contemporary psychotherapy. Fritz Perls, his wife Laura Perls and their friend Paul Goodman are dubbed the creators of this approach. The Gestalt psychotherapy was created by combining numerous psychological and philosophical concepts, including psychoanalysis, existentialism, Zen Buddhism and body work.
What is more, the modality has its roots in academic psychology as well: it took its name from the school of psychology known as the Gestalt psychology and the word Gestalt itself means a figure or a form in German. The main premise of the Gestalt psychology, which also found its way to become the philosophical foundation of the Gestalt psychotherapy, is that our mental life should be treated as a creature formed of some emerging figures (Gestalts) and the entirety of our psyche is more than the sum of the simple parts making it. The figures (Gestalts) organise all aspects of our functioning: behaviours, emotions, thoughts, needs etc. Unfulfilled figures (“unfulfilled situations/unsolved problems”) sometimes burden us for our entire life. During the Gestalt psychotherapy, we have the opportunity to close them down and start a new, more self-aware and creative life.
A special feature of the Gestalt approach is the focus on the human being in the possibly widest, holistic take – taking into account a lot of existential dimensions (physical, emotional, social, spiritual). According to one of the basic premises of this modality, each one of us is capable of self-regulation, taking ownership for ourselves and making the best decisions for ourselves. Therefore, the Gestalt psychotherapist accompanying the client in the process of change does not become a teacher or an advisor whose job is to correct the way of thinking, perceiving or behaving according to a specific model. Instead, the psychotherapist helps find and remove obstacles which may disrupt or prevent the self-regulation and the skill of satisfying one’s own needs. In other words, this is a process of finding the best decisions for the given individual and the means to implement these decisions instead of learning specific models of behaviours regarded as correct.
What are the obstacles?
In the Gestalt psychotherapy, the view that each one of us is to a large extent conditioned socially is regarded as true. Starting from the influence of the most important relations with parents or caregivers and throughout the process of adaptation in the society – in search of acceptance, we can place our actual desires and needs under the expectations of the surroundings and the cultural requirements of perfectionism, competition, possession of things or control of reality. A conflict – usually subconscious – between the actual need and the social “should” may be a source of neurotic behaviours, suffering and loss of energy devoted not to action, but to the war waged within. Of course, this is only an example area that can have an effect on our functioning regardless of all other experiences and sustained traumas – determining the mental well-being or its absence.
Importance of awareness and self-acceptance
In quest of the answer to the question “Is our behaviour a behaviour compliant with our actual need or, for instance, a pattern fixed as a result of our past experiences, which is unfavourable at present?”, we need to become aware of our own nature. Therefore, such immense weight is placed in the Gestalt psychotherapy on the development of awareness – according to the principles of holistic approach covering the following dimensions: emotions, thoughts, sensual perception of the world and the observation of signals that our own body gives to us. The approach enables the process of gradual self-acceptance – following the assumption that “Change occurs when you are becoming who you are, not when you are trying to become who you are not.”
The importance of “here and now”
The expression “here and now” is sometimes seen as belonging typically to Gestalt. Indeed, during therapy particular attention is paid to what the client is experiencing, but not only that – what the psychotherapist experiences is important as well (more about it later). It does not mean that the past or memories are left out. Our childhood, whether we want it or not, had a significant influence on our current functioning. Similarly to the future, which can attract our attention very much. In the Gestalt psychotherapy, careful attention is paid to both those aspects (although not as careful as in psychoanalysis in terms of experiences from the past), focusing on how the past and the future are experienced in the present moment. For instance in the form of memories or fears. According to the awareness that both fixation in the past and reliving it on numerous occasions and living in the world of dreams and imagination prevent satisfactory experience of the presence in practice. Such an approach has its roots in the Zen philosophy and the fact that it is connected with Gestalt is not a coincidence.
Importance of psychotherapeutic contact and relation
Our perception of the world and the resulting thoughts or emotions and the behaviours that follow occur in the so-called boundary contact – that is the contact point between the individual and the surroundings. As we are social animals, remaining in contact with others, seeking balance in satisfying our needs and the awareness of the consequences of our behaviours on others are the key aspects of functioning. During psychotherapy, the psychotherapist becomes the “external world” for the client to a significant extent. In the interpersonal relation, behaviours occur that indicate difficulties of the client or their disorders in the process of self-regulation. The client thus gains an opportunity to realise this fact and check how much it is in line with their needs, but also experience the emerging situation in a manner different than so far. Assistance in such “noticing” is one of the basic tasks of the psychotherapist. For such a scenario to occur, however, it is necessary to build a relationship allowing mutual understanding and trust. Therefore, the contemporary psychotherapy treats so much about the importance of the relationship between the client and the psychotherapist and its therapeutic effect – regardless of the modality in which the psychotherapists work and the techniques they use.
Behaviour of the psychotherapist
The characteristic feature of the Gestalt psychotherapy is a partnership-like nature of the relationship between the client and the psychotherapist. As stated earlier, the psychotherapist is more a companion than a teacher in this relationship. Having the awareness of their role, the psychotherapist, who is the “surroundings” which the client experiences, can e.g. share their feelings appearing during a session. In their relationship with the client, the Gestalt psychotherapist has the right to show authentic reactions, to an extent moving beyond the role of the psychotherapist understood as a specialist or a doctor seen through this prism, not the prism of another human being. That said, it is imperative to accentuate the word “can” – the condition necessary is a conscious decision of the psychotherapist that in the given situation this makes sense and may have a positive impact on the therapeutic process of the client.
More about the Gestalt psychotherapy
If you are interested in deepening your knowledge about the Gestalt therapy, feel welcome to supplement the things you know by visiting the reading section on our website. Short and adequate information can be found on the Polish Society for Gestalt Psychotherapy (PTPG – About the Method).
Clarkson P., Mackewn J. (2008). Fritz Perls. Twórcy psychoterapii [Fritz Perls. Creators of psychotherapy]. Gdańsk: Publisher: Gdańsk Psychology Publishing House.
Francesetti G., Gecele M., Roubal J. (2016). Psychoterapia Gestalt w praktyce klinicznej. Od psychopatologii do estetyki kontaktu [Gestalt psychotherapy in clinical practice. From psychopathology to aesthetics of contact] Publisher: Harmonia Universalis.
Mellibruda J. (2009). Teoria i praktyka terapii Gestalt [Theory and practice of the Gestalt therapy]. Warsaw: Institute of Health Psychology.
Sills C. Fish S., Lapworth P. (1999). Pomoc psychologiczna w ujęciu Gestalt [Psychological support in the Gestalt take]. Warsaw: Institute of Health Psychology.
Zinker J. (1991). Proces twórczy w terapii Gestalt [Creative process in the Gestalt therapy]. Publisher: Jacek Santorski & Co Agencja Wydawnicza.