What is Gestalt Therapy

Gestalt Therapy is a therapeutic approach that was developed in the 1940s in response to the perceived limitations of classical Psychoanalysis. Apart from Psychoanalysis it is based on Gestalt Psychology, Phenomenology, Field Theory, Existentialism and the concept of Dialogue. It has been influenced by Holism and Zen. Founders were Fritz and Laura Perls, German Jews who immigrated to the Nederlands, South Africa and USA.

The basis of the Gestalt approach is twofold: Focus on process and on the therapeutic relationship.

We exist in the process of change, a constant flow. It is impossible not to change. However, it is also possible to get stuck.

Process reflects life. Every aspect of a person is seen as a process. The Gestalt therapy is not organised to reach a specific goal, but remains process oriented, therefore alive in the “now”.

A commonly known concept with regard to process is unfinished business. Any situation that is not resolved stays with us effecting our existence. Only as we finish business, can we overcome the hold that events from the past may have on us.

The relationship between therapist and client is a curative factor. The therapist is her/his own best tool for the therapeutic process by being available for “dialogue” (Martin Buber). The therapist needs present centredness, the awareness of the process of both client and therapist (inclusion), and the readiness for dialogue. This enables increased contact on interpersonal as well as the intrapersonal level.

The task of the therapist is “to lovingly serve the awareness process of the client” (Vernon van de Riet).

Awareness is the key term in Gestalt Therapy. We tend to function habitually and are more likely to do what feels familiar rather than what is more enhancing for us.

Awareness provides an opportunity for change. In experiencing different options, we gain the freedom of choice. Change then happens by itself in a natural way. Awareness is the goal and the path of therapy.

Responsibility is understood as the “ability to respond” rather than react. It requires awareness, acknowledging and owning our process. When we recognise how we contribute to a situation we increase our personal power rather than feeling the victim.

Boundary is where two people meet. A healthy boundary is seen as semi permeable and flexible. It fulfils two functions:

  • contains and provides a sense of identity
  • allows exchange to happen (give and receive)

Interpersonal difficulties can be described as boundary processes. As these have been internalised, they represent intrapersonal problems. Fritz Perls used the terms “Top dog” and “Under dog” to identify opposing forces within a person.

The goal of therapy is to be more fully who I am. According to the “paradoxical theory of change” (A. Beisser) we do not change when we try to be different. We do change as we are more fully ourselves, since in our essence we change constantly.

Gestalt Therapy has a radical trust in the self organising principles of the organism. According to the concept of “Praegnanz” (Wertheimer) an organism always organises itself according to the best possible option, it contains its own creative solution.

A self actualised person is someone who has developed a high degree of awareness, autonomy, responsibility and is available for contact. This is a person who is congruent in being themselves free from trying to be someone she/he is not.

The plant is the actualisation of the potential of the germ. We also can actualise ourselves, as we allow ourselves to grow into being more fully who we really are.

Fritz Perls takes an example to absurdity, to show the “reality of self-actualisation”: It is obvious that an eagle’s potential will be actualised in roaming the sky, diving down on smaller animals for food, and in building nests. It is obvious that the elephant’s potential will be actualised in size, power and clumsiness.
No eagle will want to be an elephant, no elephant to be an eagle. They “accept” themselves; they accept them-“selves”. No, they don’t even accept themselves, for this would mean possible rejection. They take themselves for granted. No, they don’t even take themselves for granted, this would imply the possibility of otherness. They are what they are what they are.
How absurd it would be if they, like humans, had fantasies, dissatisfactions and self-deceptions! How absurd it would be if the elephant, tired of walking the earth, wanted to fly, eat rabbits and lay eggs. And the eagle wanted to have the strength and thick skin of the beast.
Leave this to the human – to try to be something he is not – to have ideals that cannot be reached, to be cursed with perfectionism so as to be safe from criticism, and to open the road to unending mental torture.
(F. Perls, In and Out the Garbage Pail, p.7f)

Rudolf Jarosewitsch

Copyright © 5/1995 by Rumijabu | Originally published in Gestalt Dialogue #2, May1995

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