Key Ideas in Daoist Philosophy that Coincides with Gestalt Therapy

The Dao De Jing (or Tao Te Ching 道德经) is a foundational text of Chinese philosophy and Taoism. 

The Dao De Jing, an essential text in both traditional Chinese culture and world philosophy, is believed to have originated around the fourth century BCE. It is ascribed to an anonymized thinker named Laozi, who was contemporary with Confucius (551–479 BCE). The text, written in aphoristic verse, is divided into two parts: one on Dao (道) and one on De (德), and it consists of approximately five thousand characters in its standard version. The Dao De Jing is still actively used in Daoist practice and is an inspirational guide worldwide (Kohn, 2019).

The Integration of Gestalt Therapy Principles with Daoist Philosophy

Gestalt therapy, a psychotherapeutic approach developed by Frederick “Fritz” Perls, focuses on the client’s present experience and their understanding of reality. It emphasizes awareness, freedom, and self-direction, aiming to enhance the individual’s sense of here-and-now (Yontef, 2011).

Common Philosophical Grounds

The Ever-Changing, ‘Acosmotic’ Cosmos

Daoists reject the traditional Greek concept of a single-ordered universe (cosmos) and instead see the world as an endlessly flowing series of interconnected events (“ten thousand things”). There is no ultimate, unchanging reality.

Ames & Hall (2003, p 29)

Time is not an empty framework but is created by the ongoing transformation of events. Things cannot be understood without their constant change over time. In Gestalt therapy, we are conscious of the temporality of the field in field theory

Events as Shapeshifting Processes

Daoists see “things” as porous, interconnected, and ever-changing events. These events gain their definition and function through their relationships with other events. Gestalt therapy theory of holism views the whole as more than the sum of its parts.

The Novelty Within Continuity

The world is ever-changing, yet there is a rhythm to life. In this context, persistence and the spontaneous emergence of genuine novelty exist side by side. This idea is synonymous with Gestalt therapy, which focuses on the here-and-now from which new figures of interesting phenomena emerge from the background.

Creativity as Co-creation

Daoists understand creativity as less about making things from nothing and more about the spontaneous emergence of novelty within the flux of interconnected events. This creativity is always multidimensional and transactional–it’s about the ‘self’ within the whole. In Gestalt therapy, we give space to the field the client and therapist bring into the therapeutic session as a co-created space, ready for the emergence of new experiences, which I would call enlightenment (to shed light on the experiencing). Creativity is self-creativity and co-creativity.

Perspectivism and Holographic Existence:

Mutuality does not negate individuality. Daoists reject a single, objective viewpoint. Each particular perspective, while unique, also contains and reflects the entirety of existence within it. Gestalt therapy reflects on the philosophy of phenomenology, an attitude of being in the world, attuning to what is, and being conscious of prejudice and bias. 

Creativity as Growth

Daoists view concepts like “sincerity” and “integrity” as outcomes of a creative growth process within relationships. It’s about co-creation, the dynamic of shaping and being shaped, that builds one’s unique identity. Gestalt therapy’s early adoption of the concept of the “fertile Void” and creative indifference marks the therapeutic attitude of the Gestalt practitioner.

Impact Through Personal Excellence

For Daoists, cultivating strong personal character (de) is the most potent way of positively shaping the world. A focused, well-developed person can become a force for positive change in their increasing spheres of influence (family, community, state, world). Gestalt therapy is especially focused on integration, which is, at the core, the true essence of integrity, which is the “de” of Daodejing. The forebearers of Gestalt therapy originated from a people who sought to achieve integration and suffered, instead, alienation.

Husbanding and Character

Daoists value “husbanding” – a balance of cultivation and conservation – for optimizing experience. Building strong character elevates one’s influence, creating a resource the world can draw on to solve problems. This correlates with Gestalt therapy’s focus on integration and acknowledging that we are all of the field. We face issues by connecting with the field without seeking to enforce change prematurely. This concept is presented in Gestalt’s paradoxical theory of change. The international community of Gestalt therapists also works outside the therapeutic office. Many of us are active in environmental and immigration issues.

Individuality Through Process

Uniqueness is not a starting point but a continuous achievement within the interconnectedness of existence. Freedom means expressing this achieved uniqueness for the benefit of the community. Gestalt therapy agrees with the importance of individual authenticity as part of the group. Gestalt therapy clients often address the core difficulty of belonging in teams and society and finding the freedom to be themselves. We speak of how we strive to belong by creatively adjusting to the point of losing our ability to make contact with the environment.

Transformation as Inherent Energy

The world transforms not because of an outside force but due to the constant interplay between events. Proper participation in this, what Daoists might call “the art of contextualizing” (ars contextualis), maximizes the creative possibilities in any situation. Gestalt therapy’s paradoxical theory of change explains this concept of transformation, an energetic process from within and not forced. The individual undergoing the therapeutic change experiences an organic shift in themselves at some point in their healing process.

On Polarities

The philosophical aspect of the Daodejing, particularly concerning the mutual entailing of opposites and the cyclical nature of experience, aligns closely with the principles of Gestalt therapy. This summary will explore how these concepts from Daoism resonate with Gestalt therapy, a psychotherapeutic approach that emphasizes awareness, freedom, and self-direction.

Mutual Entailing of Opposites

The Daodejing discusses the inherent duality in all aspects of life, where each state contains the seed of its opposite, and this constant interplay shapes existence. This notion is mirrored in Gestalt therapy’s focus on understanding and integrating the various polarities within the self. For example, Gestalt therapy often explores conflicting emotions or desires within a person, recognizing that acknowledging and balancing these can lead to greater self-awareness and psychological health.

Cyclical Movement of Qi

Daoism attributes the dynamic flow of life to the natural cyclical movement of qi (vital energy), emphasizing that this process does not rely on supernatural forces but on natural progression. Similarly, Gestalt therapy views human behavior and emotions as natural responses to one’s environment and experiences. It emphasizes the “here and now” and the fluid nature of our perceptions and understandings, encouraging individuals to engage actively with their current experiences without preconceived notions.

Emerging and Collapsing Cycles

The concept of life as a series of rising and falling cycles in Daoism encourages acceptance of change as a constant and inevitable element of life. This is akin to Gestalt therapy’s contact cycle. By focusing on the present, individuals are believed to better navigate their emotional and psychological landscapes, embracing change rather than resisting it.

Journey of Growth and Return

The Daodejing outlines life as a journey where initial potency gradually gives way to a ‘returning’ or weakening, where each phase of life brings about its transformation. This perspective resonates with Gestalt therapy’s theory of the five phases of neurosis (which I would acknowledge as the phases of therapeutic change).

Optimizing Possibilities

Both Daoism and Gestalt therapy stress making the most of one’s current circumstances through the full experiencing and acceptance of what is. In the Daodejing, this involves harmonizing with the cyclical nature of life to maximize potential at each moment. In Gestalt therapy, this process is facilitated by increasing awareness of one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions, and by integrating various aspects of the self to make healthier choices and respond more adaptively to life’s challenges. This is a process of creativity that arises out of the fertile void.

The philosophical teachings of the Daodejing, particularly regarding the entwining of opposites and the embracing of life’s cyclical and transformative nature, closely align with the principles of Gestalt therapy. Both advocate for a deeper understanding of life’s dynamics and suggest a holistic approach to living that embraces change, integrates opposites, and optimizes personal growth. This alignment underscores a shared philosophical foundation that values balance, awareness, and the fluidity of the human experience.


Ames, R., & Hall, D. (2003). Dao de jing: A philosophical translation. Ballantine Books.

Yontef, G. (2011). Gestalt Therapy.

Li Jian-ming. (2006). On the Implication of Dao in Dao De Jing.

Hendlin, S. J. (1978). T’ai chi chuan and gestalt therapy.

Henle, M. (1978). Gestalt psychology and Gestalt therapy.


Alienation: Philosophical Roots and Therapeutic Implications for the Gestalt Therapist

In today’s fast-paced and interconnected world, many of us find ourselves grappling with feelings of disconnection and fragmentation. From the pressures of work and social media to the demands of everyday life, it’s easy to lose sight of our true selves amidst the chaos of white noise. Gestalt Therapy offers frameworks and approaches that offer hope and guidance for reclaiming our sense of wholeness which is more relevant in our post-pandemic world than ever.

Alienation is a term that resonates deeply with many of us in today’s society. It’s that sense of feeling disconnected from ourselves, from others, and from the world around us.

Europe in the early 20th century, the world was undergoing profound social, political, and intellectual transformations. It was in this context that the philosophies of alienation and Gestalt psychology emerged, offering insights into the human condition and paths towards holistic understanding and healing. This essay delves into the intersection of these two paradigms, examining their philosophical underpinnings, mutual influences, and implications for Gestalt therapy.

The year 1923 marked the publication of Georg Lukács’s seminal work, “History and Class Consciousness,” a text that would deeply resonate with intellectuals of the time, including Fritz Perls. Lukács’s exploration of alienation and totality within the framework of Marxist thought laid the groundwork for understanding societal structures and individual experiences. Concurrently, Gestalt psychology, with its emphasis on holistic perception and meaningful wholes, was gaining prominence in the field of psychology. Perls, influenced by both Lukács and Gestalt psychology, would go on to develop Gestalt therapy, a groundbreaking approach to psychotherapy that integrated philosophical insights with therapeutic practice.

The Roots of Alienation: Lukács’s Dialectical Analysis and Heidegger’s Existential Analysis

At the heart of Lukács’s work lies the concept of alienation, a condition in which individuals become estranged from themselves, their labor, and their social context. Lukács’s dialectical approach to understanding reality emphasizes the interconnectedness of phenomena and the dynamic nature of totality. Drawing from Marxist theory, Lukács critiqued capitalism as a system that commodifies human relationships and reduces individuals to mere objects within a market-driven society. The concept of alienation, therefore, becomes central to the revolutionary critique of capitalism, offering insights into the fragmentation of human experience and the quest for wholeness.

Alienation is linked to concepts of fallenness and inauthenticity that are integral to Heidegger’s existential analysis, portraying how human beings often live without genuine engagement with their true selves or the realities of their existence, instead being led by societal norms and expectations– which are intensified today with the pace of technological development. These themes are essential for understanding Heidegger’s views on the potential for more authentic modes of being, which could be tied into therapeutic practices in Gestalt therapy by focusing on helping individuals recognize and overcome the influences of the ‘They’ to realize more authentic ways of being.

Gestalt Psychology: Perceiving Wholes in a Fragmented World

In parallel to Lukács’s exploration of alienation, Gestalt psychologists were investigating the nature of perception and consciousness. Rejecting the atomistic approach of structuralism, Gestalt psychologists argued that perception is inherently holistic, with individuals organizing sensory input into meaningful gestalts or wholes. The figure/background principle, central to Gestalt theory, highlights the dynamic interplay between elements and the contextual nature of perception. Gestalt psychology thus provides a framework for understanding how individuals perceive and experience the world as integrated wholes rather than fragmented parts.

Integration of Philosophies: Creative Indifference in Gestalt Therapy

By exploring the dynamic interactions between figure and ground, clients gain insight into their patterns of behaviour and the underlying causes of their distress. Through experiential therapeutic sessions, Gestalt therapy aims to facilitate the integration of fragmented aspects of the self, and the integration of the self in the environment, allowing for wholeness that reaches beyond the individual.

The potential of Gestalt therapy to reconcile the needs of individuals and society stems from its philosophical underpinnings, particularly the concept of creative indifference attributed to Salomo Friedlaender. This philosophy embraces the coexistence of polarities, allowing for a balanced approach that honors both the autonomy of the individual and the interconnectedness of society. Through creative indifference, Gestalt therapy offers a framework for navigating the tensions between personal growth and social responsibility, fostering a holistic understanding of human experience and facilitating healing on both individual and collective levels.

Therapeutic Implications: Navigating the Journey Towards Wholeness

Gestalt therapy stands out as a potent tool in resolving the tension between individual needs and societal expectations while maintaining ethical balance. At its core lies the philosophy of creative indifference, attributed to Salomo Friedlaender, which embraces the coexistence of polarities. This approach allows Gestalt therapy to navigate the complexities of human experience, addressing both the individual’s quest for autonomy and the interconnectedness of society.

In the therapeutic context, Gestalt therapy provides a safe and nurturing environment for individuals to explore their experiences of alienation and disconnection. Through guided exploration and experiential techniques, clients are encouraged to delve into their feelings of estrangement from themselves and others. By fostering heightened awareness and facilitating the integration of fragmented aspects of the self, Gestalt therapy guides clients towards a deeper sense of authenticity and wholeness.

Today, in a world increasingly characterized by social isolation and digital connectivity, the issue of alienation has taken on heightened significance. The pervasive influence of the internet and social media has paradoxically amplified feelings of isolation while fostering a culture of superficial connections. Moreover, the rapid advancement of technology raises concerns about the potential for further alienation as humans become increasingly reliant on digital interfaces for communication and interaction.

In this context, the principles of Gestalt therapy offer a timely and relevant framework for addressing the challenges of alienation in contemporary society. By providing individuals with the tools to reconnect with their authentic selves and fostering a sense of integration with society, Gestalt therapy offers a pathway towards healing and wholeness. Therapists equipped with the philosophy and techniques of Gestalt therapy are uniquely positioned to guide individuals through the process of confronting and transcending their experiences of alienation, ultimately facilitating a deeper sense of connection and belonging in the world.


Bocian, B. (2015). Fritz Perls in Berlin 1893-1933: Expressionism Psychoanalysis Judaism. EHP-Verlag Andreas Kohlhage.

Chew-Helbig, N. (2022). Understanding Salomo Friedlaender’s Creative Indifference: A Psychotherapy Case-Study. Geštalt Zbornik9, 5-15.

Heidegger, M. (2010). Being and time. Suny Press.

Naranjo, C. (2004). Gestalt therapy. The Attitude and Practice of an Atheoretical Experientalism.

The Psychotherapeutic Journey Towards a Mature Psyche: Melanie Klein’s Psychoanalytic Theory

Melanie Klein emphasises the role of unconscious defence mechanisms in shaping our perceptions of the world and ourselves. This essay will delve into the core tenets of Klein’s theory, focusing on the two primary phases of psychoanalytic development: the paranoid-schizoid position and the depressive reparative position. We will explore the characteristics of each phase, the defense mechanisms employed, and how the analyst facilitates the transition towards a more mature psyche.

The Paranoid-Schizoid Position: A World in Black and White

The initial phase of psychoanalytic development according to Klein is the paranoid-schizoid position (PS). This stage, encompassing the first few months of life, is characterized by an immature ego struggling to make sense of overwhelming emotions and fragmented sensory experiences. The infant perceives the world in extremes, categorizing everything as either “good” or “bad.” The good experiences are associated with the gratifying breast, which provides sustenance and comfort. Conversely, frustrating experiences, such as hunger or discomfort, are perceived as emanating from a bad breast.

This splitting defense mechanism serves as a psychological safeguard for the infant. By dividing the world into good and bad objects, the infant can manage the intense anxiety associated with negative emotions. However, this splitting also hinders the development of a more nuanced understanding of reality. People who remain fixated in the paranoid-schizoid position may exhibit black and white thinking, struggling to see the complexities of human relationships and situations.

Another prominent defense mechanism employed during the PS position is projection. The infant projects its negative feelings, such as rage and frustration, onto external objects, often the primary caregiver. This can lead to a distorted perception of the caregiver as a malevolent force, fueling feelings of paranoia and mistrust.

The Depressive Reparative Position: Towards a More Realistic View

As the infant matures and develops more sophisticated cognitive abilities, it gradually transitions into the depressive reparative position (DR). This phase, typically emerging around the end of the first year, is marked by a shift towards a more realistic view of the world. The infant begins to recognize that the caregiver is not simply a good or bad object but a whole person capable of offering both love and frustration.

This newfound understanding brings with it a wave of depressive anxieties. The infant grapples with the fear of having damaged or destroyed the good object through its projected aggression. To alleviate this anxiety, the infant employs the defense mechanism of reparation. Through reparation, the infant attempts to undo the harm it imagines it has caused to the loved object. This might manifest in behaviors like clinging or increased attentiveness to the caregiver.

The DR position also paves the way for the development of empathy and compassion. The infant starts to recognize the caregiver’s own feelings and experiences, marking a significant step towards emotional maturity.

The Role of the Analyst in Facilitating Development

The psychoanalyst plays a crucial role in supporting the patient’s journey through these developmental phases. By providing a safe and non-judgmental space, the analyst allows the patient to explore their unconscious fantasies and anxieties. Through techniques like free association and dream analysis, the analyst helps the patient unearth the roots of their emotional conflicts, often stemming from early childhood experiences.

As the patient confronts these unconscious thoughts and feelings, the analyst acts as a containing object. The analyst’s consistent and supportive presence helps the patient manage the overwhelming emotions that may arise during this process. By fostering a therapeutic alliance, the analyst creates a secure space where the patient can experiment with new ways of relating to themselves and others.

The Importance of Klein’s Theory

Klein’s theory of psychoanalytic development offers valuable insights into the complexities of human behavior. Her emphasis on unconscious defense mechanisms provides a framework for understanding how our early experiences shape our perceptions and emotional responses. By recognizing the influence of the paranoid-schizoid and depressive reparative positions, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the challenges and triumphs encountered on the path towards emotional maturity, which is the process of long term psychotherapy.

Limitations and Further Considerations

While Klein’s theory has been influential in the field of psychoanalysis, it is important to acknowledge its limitations. Gestalt therapy expands on the concept of development and maturity as a therapeutic path by considering the environment and how the infant creatively adjusts to that environment. Gestalt therapy also provides where analysis leaves behind, which is the facilitation of the therapeutic process, by which the practitioner brings the client beyond analysis towards experiencing the state of being in the paranoid-schizoid and depressive reparative positions during the therapy hour.

Despite these limitations, Klein’s work remains a valuable contribution to our understanding of early development and the unconscious mind, providing the foundation for psychotherapy. Her theory continues to inspire contemporary psychoanalytic thought and practice, and is also a wonderful resources for the gestalt therapist.


Wilhelm Reich’s Influence on Gestalt Therapy

Wilhelm Reich was a prominent figure in the early development of psychoanalytic techniques, particularly noted for his integration of body movements and psychological experiences, as well as his focus on sexual liberation and character analysis. Reich’s work was characterized by its active and engaging approach during analysis sessions, which contrasted with the more traditional, passive “abstinent” psychoanalytic methods. He was deeply interested in the link between physical posture and psychological states, a pioneering approach that heavily influenced Fritz Perls.

Reich’s methods, which included his “character analysis” and later the development of vegetotherapy, emphasized the bodily expressions of psychological resistances—a concept that deeply resonated with Perls. During his training analysis with Reich, Perls experienced a dynamic and contact-prone style of psychoanalysis that highlighted the importance of real-life experiences and emotional honesty in therapeutic settings.

“A human being has a right to be right, to have an opinion, without being criticized for it or having to struggle for recognition.”

— Spurgeon-English, recalling Reich’s approach.

Reich’s Influences from Body Movement Studies

Reich was not the first to consider the connection between body and psychological states, but he was among the most influential in the psychoanalytic community. His thoughts were preceded and inspired by the work of others like Otto Fenichel and Sandor Ferenczi, who had also explored how physical expressions and resistances could mirror psychological ones. Ferenczi, for example, experimented with techniques that encouraged emotional expression through body movements, which influenced Reich’s therapeutic approach.

Differences Between Perls and Reich

While Fritz Perls drew heavily on Reich’s theories and methods, particularly in terms of focusing on the here-and-now and the bodily expressions of psychological states, he diverged in his conceptualization of the therapeutic process. Perls developed Gestalt therapy, which emphasized awareness, the holistic aspect of the self, and the environment interacting as parts of a greater whole. This approach shifted somewhat from Reich’s more singular focus on sexual and character dynamics.

Key Importance for Perls: For Fritz Perls, the key lay in awareness and the present moment, which were essential in helping clients to understand and resolve their issues. His therapy style focused less on the analyst’s interpretation and more on the client’s current experiences and perceptions.

Wilhelm Reich’s pioneering work on the integration of body and psychological processes heavily influenced Fritz Perls and the development of Gestalt therapy. Although inspired by Reich, Perls adapted and evolved these concepts to form a new therapeutic approach that emphasized holistic integration and present awareness, marking a significant evolution in psychotherapeutic practices.

Early Conceptualisation of Gestalt Therapy’s Understanding of Introjection

Gestalt therapy, a distinctive form of psychotherapy, developed by Lore and Fritz Perls, offers a nuanced approach to understanding and facilitating human growth and development. This method emerged from the Perls’ personal and professional experiences, as well as the influence of their peers and the cultural environment surrounding them.

In the early stages of their exploration, Lore Perls focused on what might seem mundane—infant feeding and weaning practices. However, her observations provided profound insights into human behavior and psychology. She noted that the manner in which food is introduced to infants—often hurried and without allowing the child to “chew”—parallels how people are introduced to new knowledge and experiences. Lore Perls identified this rushed process as “introjection,” where individuals absorb information without fully processing it, a concept that would become central to Gestalt therapy.

Expanding on this idea, Lore argued that true understanding and learning require time and patience, akin to the physical act of chewing. This metaphor highlighted the importance of fully engaging with and processing new information, rather than passively accepting it. In her 1939 lecture “Child Raising and Peace,” she further discussed the role of aggression in creative change, warning against the suppression of aggressive impulses as it could lead to intellectual inhibition and a lack of critical thinking.

Her insights were complemented by Fritz Perls’ contributions. At the 1936 International Psychoanalytic Congress, Fritz presented a lecture on “Oral Resistances,” where he explored children’s natural resistance to forced feeding. He argued that such resistance is not limited to eating but can extend to intellectual matters as well. Fritz observed that most people conform to the intellectual “diet” they are allowed, while only a few question and choose what truly resonates with them.

These ideas were further elaborated in Fritz Perls’ book “Ego, Hunger and Aggression,” co-written with Lore during their exile in South Africa. The book critiqued traditional psychoanalytic techniques, emphasizing the need for a self-directed assimilation of experiences—a stark contrast to the often authoritarian approach observed in conventional psychoanalysis. Fritz criticized these methods for projecting predetermined notions onto patients, which he termed “intropress,” borrowing from the concepts discussed by Sándor Ferenczi, another influential psychoanalyst who advocated for considering psychoanalytic interpretations as mere suggestions.

Gestalt therapy, thus, encourages individuals to actively engage with their experiences and emotions in the present moment. It promotes awareness and personal responsibility, enabling individuals to navigate their own psychological landscapes independently. This approach stands in contrast to the intellectual passivity and reliance on authority that the Perls critiqued, particularly within the rigid educational and political systems of their time.

By integrating these psychological insights with broader socio-political observations, the Perls developed Gestalt therapy not just as a therapeutic method, but as a form of intellectual and emotional liberation, advocating for a more mindful, autonomous, and critically engaged way of living and learning.


Bocian, B. (2015). Fritz Perls in Berlin 1893-1933: Expressionism Psychoanalysis Judaism. EHP-Verlag Andreas Kohlhage.

Perls, L. (1997). Der Weg zur Gestalttherapie. Lore Perls im Gespräch mit Daniel Rosenblatt. Wuppertal

Gestalt Therapy: A Tapestry Woven from Psychoanalysis, Gestalt Psychology, and Field Theory

This passage explores the intellectual milieu of Frankfurt in the 1920s, highlighting the cross-pollination of ideas that significantly influenced the development of Gestalt therapy by Fritz Perls. Bocian’s book “Fritz Perls in Berlin” is a great resource for those who wish to fully grasp the theoretical foundations of Gestal therapy.

A Fertile Ground for Interdisciplinary Exchange

The Frankfurt Institute for Social Research (IfS) served as a central hub for intellectual exchange. Here, renowned figures like Gestalt psychologists Ademar Gelb and Kurt Goldstein, social philosopher Paul Tillich, and Marxist sociologists all interacted and debated. Both Lore Posner (later Perls) and Fritz Perls were deeply impacted by these thinkers, particularly Goldstein and his emphasis on the organism as a self-regulating whole.

Psychoanalysis and the South West German Working Group

In 1926, the South West German Working Group for Psychoanalysis was established. Key members like Karl Landauer and Erich Fromm fostered a space for critical engagement with psychoanalysis. Lore Perls underwent training analysis with Clara Happel, a member of the group, and later with Landauer, who Perls greatly respected. The Frankfurt Psychoanalytic Institute (FPI), founded in 1929, further solidified Frankfurt’s position as a center for psychoanalytic thought. Perls and Lore Posner attended lectures by prominent psychoanalysts like Anna Freud and Siegfried Bernfeld at the FPI.

Bridging the Gap Between Psychoanalysis and Gestalt Psychology

While both psychoanalysis and Gestalt psychology explored the human mind, they did so from distinct perspectives. Psychoanalysis focused on the unconscious mind and the role of past experiences, whereas Gestalt psychology emphasized present experience and the formation of meaningful wholes. However, there were attempts to bridge this gap.

  • Siegfried Bernfeld’s work in 1934 explored the relationship between these two schools of thought, highlighting the potential for Gestalt psychology’s holistic view of perception to inform psychoanalytic theory.
  • Psychoanalysts like Alfred Adler and Imre Hermann (Ferenczi’s student) saw connections between their work and Gestalt psychology. Adler’s individual psychology, whichwas already establishe, like Gestalt therapy, viewed humans as integrated wholes within social contexts.

  • Wilhelm Reich and Fritz Perls, who had both studied under Paul Schilder (who reviewed Kurt Koffka), believed Gestalt psychology could contribute to refining psychoanalytic concepts. Perls went on to be in analysis with Reich after having been with Karen Horney.
  • Georg Gero, who also was in analysis with Reich, reviewed and studied the work of Kurt Lewin (theory of the field) and Kurt Lewin’s colleague, Bluma Zeigarnik (unfinished business).
  • Thomas French introduced the concept of “insight” into psychoanalysis, which he had taken over from Wolfgang Köhler, attempting to create a synthesis of psychoanalysis and Lewin’s field theory.
  • Siegmund Fuchs (S.H. Foulkes) who worked with Perls as assistant to Goldstein employed Gestalt and Field theory to groups.
  • George Deveraux drew on gestalt psychology to explain how confrontation stimulate rudimentaty gestalts, while interpretation uncover repressed elements.
  • Wolfgang Hochheimer studied under Goldstein and Gelb published “on the analysis of the therapeutic field, investigating the application of analytical field theory. He acknowledged how the therapist and client’s respective “life fields” overlap has therapeutic significance.

Shared Interests and the Rise of Gestalt Therapy

Fritz Perls, influenced by his exposure to both psychoanalysis and Gestalt psychology, sought to create a synthesis. He was likely further drawn to this path due to his background in Mynona’s polarity philosophy, which emphasized the interplay of opposing forces.

  • Later developments such as the work of René Spitz (a friend of Kurt Lewin who explored Zeigarnik’s unfinished business and their connection to dreams) and the contextualist psychoanalysts further demonstrate the ongoing dialogue between Gestalt therapy and psychoanalysis. Spit developed a concept called “action cycles” that are similar to Gestalt Therapy’s “contact cycle”.
  • This group of psychoanalysts sought to integrate Gestalt psychology and field theory into their practice, focussing attention to the world beyond the client’s inner psyche, the environment (the field) that reciprocates its influences.


Even before Gestalt psychology became a formalized school of thought, Freud, particularly in his Interpretation of Dreams, began to employ concepts that resonated with a Gestalt understanding of the mind. Perls and other Gestalt therapists would later draw on these elements as evidence of psychoanalysis’ latent acknowledgment of the role of wholes and patterns in mental life.

The intellectual ferment of Frankfurt in the 1920s provided a fertile ground for the birth of Gestalt therapy. Perls, drawing inspiration from psychoanalysis, Gestalt psychology, and other influences, wove these diverse threads into a unique therapeutic approach that emphasized present experience, self-awareness, and the organism’s capacity for self-regulation and growth.

Erving Polster (1922-2024): Gestalt Therapy

I’m posting this marking the passing of Erving Polster at 102 last week.

According to the video, Erving Polster, then at 98-years of age, talks about his life and work in Gestalt therapy. The interview is conducted by Talia, who has known Erving for 40 years.

Erving talks about his early experience with Gestalt therapy when he attended a workshop led by Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy. He was impressed by Perls’ charisma and the simplicity and power of Gestalt therapy. Erving had previously been interested in making psychotherapy more accessible to the public, and he thought Gestalt therapy could be a way to achieve this.

Erving describes his work in the 1960s, where he tried to bring Gestalt therapy into everyday life by running therapy sessions in coffee houses. People would come and discuss themes of life, such as hippies and policemen, and act out conversations related to these themes. Erving found this to be a more communal and engaging way to do therapy.

Erving also talks about the importance of enchantment in therapy. He believes that people are often drawn to therapy because of a sense of enchantment with the mystery of life and the possibility of new experiences. However, this enchantment is often overlooked in traditional therapy approaches.

Erving reflects on his life and says that he is proud of having found a way to work that is hospitable to his skills. He talks about his ability to tune into what is going on with another person and his interest in the world around him. Even though he is old, Erving says that he still feels attended to and interested in life.

Here are some points that Erving made:

  • Gestalt Therapy and Fritz Perls: Erving became interested in Gestalt therapy after attending a workshop led by Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy. He was impressed by Perls’ charisma and the simplicity and power of Gestalt therapy. Perls’ ideas about focusing on the present moment and the client’s experience resonated with Erving’s own beliefs about the importance of authenticity and connection in therapy.
  • Transforming therapy into a communal event: Erving believed that psychotherapy should be more than just one-on-one sessions in a therapist’s office. He envisioned therapy as a communal event that could help people explore life’s themes in a more engaging and supportive setting. In the 1960s, he experimented with running Gestalt therapy groups in coffee houses. People would come and discuss themes of life, such as hippies and policemen, and act out conversations related to these themes. Erving found this to be a more engaging way to do therapy than the traditional approach.
  • Focus on the present moment: Gestalt therapy emphasizes the importance of focusing on the present moment rather than dwelling on the past or future. Erving believed that people often get stuck in unhelpful patterns of thinking and behavior by focusing on what has already happened or what might happen in the future. By focusing on the present moment, people can become more aware of their thoughts, feelings, and sensations, and this can lead to greater self-awareness and growth.
  • Client-centered approach: Gestalt therapy is a client-centered approach to therapy, which means that the therapist follows the client’s lead and helps them explore their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. The therapist does not provide advice or direction, but rather creates a safe and supportive space for the client to explore themselves.
  • Holistic approach: Gestalt therapy takes a holistic approach to therapy, considering the person’s mind, body, and spirit. Erving believed that it is important to address all aspects of a person’s experience in order to help them grow and change.

Here is a collection of Erving Polster’s books, a couple of which were co-written with his late wife, Miriam:

Erv Polster on YouTube Interview in 2013

Erv Polster on YouTube

Kurt Goldstein’s Influence on Fritz Perls Gestalt Therapy

Fritz Perls’ arrival in Frankfurt during 1926-1927 marked a pivotal point in his career. At Frankfurt University, a renowned center for social sciences in Germany, Gestalt psychology held significant influence. Lore Perls earned her doctorate at this institution, where prominent figures such as Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Kohler, and Kurt Goldstein shaped the intellectual landscape.

Goldstein, director of the Neurological Institute, based his research on war-related brain injuries. Perls served briefly as an assistant within Goldstein’s research group. Renowned for his holistic and organismic approach, Goldstein conceptualized neuronal function as an integrated network. He was among the physicians advocating for a multidisciplinary psychosomatic perspective on human suffering, urging the medical profession to view individuals as integrated wholes. Goldstein criticized both somatic medicine and psychoanalysis for their failure to incorporate the organism’s environment and their reliance on abstractions of reality rather than the integrated mind-body experience.

Perls embraced Goldstein’s organismic theory, which resonated with his professional background and his adoption of contextual, relational thinking influenced by Friedlander. This foundation shaped Perls’ subsequent contributions to the development of Gestalt therapy.

Kurt Goldstein’s ideas on health and self-realization deeply impacted Perls’ personal and professional development.

  • Health as Self-Actualization: For Goldstein, health wasn’t a fixed state but rather the ability of an individual to live authentically and fulfill their potential. As Harrington (2002) explains, health hinges on “the degree to which individual human beings can realize their nature, in other words, that which is important for their lives” (p. 277).
  • Therapy for a Meaningful Life: Goldstein believed therapy shouldn’t just analyze problems; it should empower individuals. The goal, as quoted in Harrington (2002, p. 277), is “a transformation of the patient’s personality” that allows them to “make the right choice” – a choice that aligns with their true nature and makes life feel worthwhile again.
  • Navigating Challenges: A healthy organism actively shapes its environment and experiences clashes, disruptions, and crises. Goldstein emphasizes the importance of courage in facing these challenges, making decisions, and overcoming difficulties.
  • Perls’ Personal Connection: Perls throughout his life exemplified courage in the face of fear. He might have found inspiration in a quote by Kierkegaard, relayed by Goldstein: “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself” (in Harrington, 2002, p. 286).


Harrington, Anne. (2002). Die Suche nach Ganzheit. Die Geschichte biologisch-psychologischer Ganzheitslehren: Vom Kaiserreich bis zur New-Age-Bewegung. Hamburg

Karen Horney’s Influence on Fritz Perls & Gestalt Therapy

Karen Horney (1885-1952) was a pioneering German-American psychoanalyst who challenged traditional Freudian views and made significant contributions to our understanding of personality, neurosis, and feminine psychology. Horney was also Fritz Perls’ analyst, who made an impact on him. Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy, was deeply influenced by various thinkers, including psychoanalysts Karen Horney and Wilhelm Reich. Karen Horney, a significant figure in the Berlin psychoanalytic scene during Perls’s formative years, left a profound imprint on his intellectual development and shaped his therapeutic approach. This article delves into Horney’s influence on Perls, examining the historical context of their interaction, the key theoretical tenets Horney espoused, and their lasting impact on Gestalt therapy.

Why Perls Chose Horney

Several factors likely drew Fritz Perls toward Karen Horney as a psychoanalytic trainer. Firstly, Horney embodied an accessible and less jargon-laden style of psychoanalysis compared to many of her contemporaries. Perls, with his rebellious spirit and disdain for intellectual abstractions, would have found her approach refreshing. Her emphasis on “human involvement without terminology” (Perls 1981, 50) would have resonated with him.

Secondly, Horney was a rare female voice in a field dominated by male theorists, particularly Freud. Her groundbreaking work on feminist psychology challenged the patriarchal biases prevalent in traditional psychoanalysis. This perspective offered Perls a counterpoint to the dominant Freudian discourse.

Thirdly, Horney’s interest in the impact of culture on the human psyche would have aligned with Perls’s later emphasis on the here-and-now and the individual’s interaction with their environment. This focus on social and cultural forces represented a shift away from the purely instinctual drives emphasized by classical Freudian theory.

The Nature of Their Relationship

The book by Bocian, Fritz Perls in Berlin, describes the relationship between Perls and Horney as positive and influential. Perls felt a “kind of love” for Horney and viewed her as one of the few trustworthy people in his life. He admired her warmth, pragmatism, and commitment to a human-centered psychoanalysis. They shared a passion for theatre. In Horney, Perls said that he found “human involvement without terminology” as opposed to most psychonalytic trainers.

Key Influences: Values and Concepts

Karen Horney’s impact on Fritz Perls can be distilled into several crucial points:

  • Growth-Oriented Therapy: Horney’s belief that analysis could not only treat illness but also foster personal growth became central to Perls’s work. She proposed that “analysis … can liberate a person … so that she is free to draw on her own resources again” (Olvedi 1992, 139). This focus on human potential and self-actualization is a key principle of Gestalt therapy.
  • Neurosis as a Coping Strategy: Horney viewed neurotic mechanisms less as inherent pathologies and more as resource-oriented attempts by the individual to navigate a challenging environment, believing they represented attempts “to find paths through a jungle full of unknown dangers” (Horney 1977, 9). This perspective contributed to Gestalt therapy’s focus on understanding how present behaviors, even maladaptive ones, serve the individual.
  • Challenging Freud on Female Psychology: Horney’s pioneering work on female psychology contested Freud’s theories of penis envy and female inferiority. She argued that envy centered on the social advantages granted to men in a patriarchal society, rather than anatomical differences. Horney’s insights into the social construction of gender likely sensitized Perls to the power imbalances that can shape individual experience.
  • Cultural Critique: Horney emphasized the role of culture in shaping individual psychology, rejecting Freud’s drive-based universalism. Her belief that “our whole civilization is a masculine civilization” (Horney 1926, 361) influenced Perls’s attention to the influence of environment and social context on human experience, a core tenet of Gestalt therapy.

Legacy: Horney’s Imprint on Gestalt Therapy

Excerpt from Bocian, 2015, which to contributes to Gestalt Theory of Creative adjustment:

Even her first publication in 1917, »The Technique of Psychoanalytic Therapy,« contains hints of her later independent development. Perls integrated Horney’s early idea that therapy entails not only the treatment of illness, but also helps people to grow. In the article mentioned, Horney writes:

Analysis … can liberate a person whose hands and feet have been bound so that she is free to draw on her own resources again, but it cannot provide her with new arms and legs. Nevertheless, experience has shown that many factors which analysis assumed to be constitutional are merely the results of impediments to growth and can be removed.

Karen Horney in Olvedi 1992, 139

For Horney, many symptoms did not appear to result from inner instinctual conflicts; instead, they were direct reactions to an unloving, hurtful environment and upbringing. Moreover, she viewed neurotic mechanisms as resource oriented as well, and not merely pathological, proceeding from the assumption that these mechanisms are the individual’s attempt »to find paths through a jungle full of unknown dangers« (Horney 1977, 9).

Karen Horney’s influence on Gestalt therapy manifests itself in several key areas:

  • The Here-and-Now Focus: Gestalt therapy prioritizes the client’s present experience, emphasizing the individual’s interaction with their current environment. This reflects Horney’s focus on the influence of current conflicts and social conditions, rather than solely focusing on past childhood experiences.
  • Emphasis on Awareness and Responsibility: Gestalt therapy encourages clients to become more aware of their thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations in the present moment. This emphasis on awareness fosters self-responsibility and the ability to make conscious choices, aligning with Horney’s view of analysis facilitating personal growth.
  • Holism: Gestalt therapy’s holistic perspective considers the individual as a complex interplay of mind, body, emotions, and their relationship to the environment. This holistic approach echoes Horney’s recognition of the intricate ways cultural and social factors shape individual experience.

Key Facts (Bocian, 2015):

  • Psychoanalytic Training: Perls trained under Horney in Berlin (1925) (Bocian 1992a, Cavaleri 1992)
  • Theoretical and Therapeutic Influence: Perls valued Horney’s ideas and incorporated them into his approach (Perls 1977, 49).
  • Focus on Cultural Factors: Horney challenged Freud’s view on female development and emphasized cultural influences (Horney 1926, 361).
  • Concept of Growth: Perls adopted Horney’s view of therapy promoting growth, not just treating illness (Horney 1917).
  • Non-pathological Neurosis: Horney viewed neurotic mechanisms as coping strategies, not purely negative (Horney 1977, 9).
  • Humanistic Approach: Perls appreciated Horney’s focus on human connection over jargon (Perls 1981, 50).
  • Gender Equality: Horney’s influence may have contributed to Perls’ view of Lore Perls as an equal partner (Sreckovic 1999).

Note: Perls did not publicly acknowledge Horney’s work on female psychology.


Bocian, B. (2015). Fritz Perls in Berlin 1893-1933: Expressionism Psychoanalysis Judaism. EHP-Verlag Andreas Kohlhage.

Significance of Karen Horney’s Work

Here’s a breakdown of her significance, life, and influences:

  • Challenging Freud: Horney disagreed with Freud’s emphasis on biological drives, particularly the concept of penis envy. She believed that personality development was primarily shaped by social and environmental factors, not solely instinctual forces.
  • Neurosis as a Coping Mechanism: Horney viewed neurosis as the result of basic anxiety stemming from childhood experiences of neglect or lack of genuine love. To cope with this anxiety, she theorized that people develop neurotic needs (like needs for affection, power, or submission), which become problematic if overly rigid.
  • Feminine Psychology: Horney was a key figure in founding feminist psychology. She criticized the male-centric bias in traditional psychoanalysis and highlighted how cultural and societal factors shape women’s psychological experiences.
  • Emphasis on Self-Realization: Horney placed self-realization at the center of her theory. She believed that people have an innate drive for growth and self-actualization, which can be hampered by anxiety and the adoption of a false idealized self-image.

Life References

  • Early Life and Education: Born in Germany, Horney endured a difficult childhood marked by a distant father and a depressive mother. She excelled academically and became one of the first women in Germany to study medicine.
  • Psychoanalytic Training: Horney trained in psychoanalysis in Berlin, where she became a founding member of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute.
  • Move to the United States: In 1932, she emigrated to the United States, fleeing the rise of Nazism. She settled in New York City and became a prominent figure in the American psychoanalytic scene.
  • Founding the American Institute for Psychoanalysis: Disagreeing with some orthodox Freudian perspectives, Horney co-founded the American Institute for Psychoanalysis, which reflected her more socially-oriented theories.

Influences and Influence

  • Influences: Horney was initially influenced by Freud but later diverged from his views. She was also likely influenced by her personal experiences of gender discrimination and the social and political turmoil of her time. Alfred Adler’s ideas, with their emphasis on social factors, may have also resonated with her.
  • Those Influenced: Horney’s work has influenced numerous fields, including:
    • Neo-Freudians: Psychoanalysts like Erich Fromm and Harry Stack Sullivan were influenced by Horney’s emphasis on social and cultural factors in personality development.
    • Feminist Psychology: Horney is considered a foundational figure in feminist psychology, inspiring later writers and theorists.
    • Humanistic Psychology and Self-help: Horney’s theory of self-realization and the emphasis she placed on self-analysis resonate with approaches in humanistic psychology and the self-help movement.

Further Reading

Gestalt Therapy : Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (1951)

Notes from Gestalt Therapy’s seminal book by Fritz Perls, Ralf Hefferline and Paul Goodman, Published in 1951 republished in 1994, entitled, “Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality.

The book starts with a preface discusses key differences between Gestalt Therapy and Psychoanalysis, from which Gestalt Therapy evolved.

On Aggression Gestalt Therapy vs. Psychoanalysis

Gestalt therapy views aggression positively, in contrast to Freud’s association with the death instinct. Perls theorized aggression stems from “dental aggression,” a process of selectively internalizing experiences. This fosters self-preservation, environmental interaction, and creative agency. Gestalt therapy views the “no” as equally important to the “yes” in healthy personality development. Its repression, due to fear of conflict, is believed to be a core driver of neurotic tendencies.

All psychotherapeutic approaches hold implicit or explicit views on human development. Psychoanalysis encourages regression and reintroduces introjection through interpretation, while Gestalt therapy emphasizes early development of self-determination. Gestalt therapy integrates interpretation with patient-led experiments fostering self-discovery. Importantly, this includes encouraging patients to actively resist or critique the therapist’s interpretations.

The Structure of Growth

1. The Contact Boundary

“Experience occurs at the boundary between the organism and its environment, primarily the skin surface and the other organs of sensory and motor response.” (p. 3).

Interaction of Organism and Environment

Experiences occur at the boundary between Organism and Environment. The point of contact is where the Self meets the environment. The self is always in contact with the environment. When we breathe, our lungs come into contact with atmospheric oxygen in the environment.

Contact in the context of human interaction means different things in English. E.g. when we say “I contact you” means to give someone a call or a text message.  Contact in Gestalt therapy, is a  theoretical concept, which describes a process of awareness. This process is ever changing and dynamic.

“Experience occurs at the boundary between the organism and its environment, primarily the skin surface and the other organs of sensory and motor response.”

Contact boundary connects and separates the organism and environment.

“When we say “boundary” we think of a “boundary between”; but the contact-boundary, where experience occurs, does not separate the organism and its environment; rather it limits the organism, contains and protects it, and at the same time it touches the environment.” (p.5)

Contact is dynamic and creative because contact with the environment is novel. Contact is not passive but an active process, which must end with assimilation. “All contact is a creative adjustment between organism and environment”. It is how the organism grows in the field. Interruption of contact hinders movement and growth.

Creative and adjustment are polar and mutually necessary.

The figure of contact against the ground of the organism/environment field is clear and vivid. The figure/ground formation is a dynamic one.

Gestalt therapy focuses on the ‘contact boundary,’ the dynamic interface between self and other. This boundary is where experiences unfold, needs are met or thwarted, and growth occurs through interactions with the environment. The therapist’s role is not to analyze the past but to help the patient identify and work through present anxieties that hinder their capacity for contact and growth.

Therapy is a process of analysing Gestalt, where the therapist looks out for interruptions to the contact through what is said, body language and the chatacter of the therapeutic encounter.

Chapter V: Maturing and the Recollection of Childhood

This chapter explores the role of memory and anticipation in present experience, specifically in the context of psychotherapy. It argues against an overemphasis on recovering past memories or future plans, but instead focuses on present self-awareness and creative adaptation. The emphasis here is on the importance of working with the present experience in therapy, while acknowledging the influence of past experiences on how we function in the present. Therapists and patients should celebrate the value of so-called “childish” traits. It argues that true “maturity” involves reclaiming the joyful and vital aspects of childhood often lost in a restrictive adult world.

  1. Past and Future in the Present Actuality: Memories and plans are present acts of imagination. Dwelling on the past or future can be unproductive, leading to feelings of regret, guilt, or inadequacy. True self-worth comes from actively engaging in the present.
  2. The Importance of Past and Future in Therapy: While recovering past memories can be helpful, it’s not the sole focus. Therapy aims to expand the patient’s “self” by addressing underlying patterns and unfinished situations from the past that continue to impact the present.
  3. Past Effects as Fixed Forms in the Present: The past affects us through fixed forms in the present, such as habits or memories. These can be either healthy (e.g., useful skills) or neurotic (e.g., compulsive behavior).
  4. The Compulsion to Repeat: Neurotic behavior stems from a need to repeat an uncompleted situation from the past. This repetition is unsuccessful because the circumstances have changed, and the fixed attitude used is outdated.
  5. The Structure of a Forgotten Scene and its Recall: Repressed memories function like bad habits, actively suppressed in the present. Recalling them involves relaxing the present inhibition, allowing the underlying feelings and the associated memory (the “scene”) to resurface.
  6. The “Trauma” as Unfinished Situation: The chapter rejects the idea that recovering repressed memories is the sole focus of therapy. It emphasizes that the primary task is to free the underlying feelings and attitudes which were blocked at the time of the trauma.
  7. The Therapeutic use of the Recovered Scene: the recollection of the therapeutic scene serves to bring into awareness renewed flooding of feelings associated with the traumatic event. This allows the client to explain to himself what the feelings mean and express them in the safety of the present.
  8. The Erroneous Conception of “Infantile” vs. “Mature” : The authors strongly critique the use of these terms. They argue that many so-called “infantile” traits like spontaneity, playfulness, and direct curiosity are essential for a fulfilling adult life.
  9. What is True Maturation? The authors suggest that rather than fixating on “growing up”, we need to recover the valuable and joyful elements of childhood. They point out that many supposed hallmarks of maturity are, in fact, signs of neurosis.
  10. Freud’s View on Maturation: The chapter analyzes Freud’s ideas on maturation, acknowledging that while he made a sharp split between childhood and adulthood, he often valued the “child heart.”
  11. Childish Emotions and “Reality”: The authors challenge Freud’s idea that mature people adapt to reality by suppressing desire. They argue children can engage with reality through play and imagination, traits that inflexible adults often lack.

Chapter VI: Human Nature and the Anthropology of Neurosis

Psychotherapy must consider social, cultural, and biological factors in human development. “Normality” isn’t always a healthy goal within a dysfunctional society. Neurosis reveals where society fails to support the thriving of its members. Evolutionary changes influence current anxieties and coping mechanisms.

1: The Subject-Matter of Anthropology Anthropology studies the relationship between human biology and culture. Understanding these connections helps us recognize the “lost” human powers that often contribute to our current social and psychological problems.

2: The Importance of this Subject for Psychotherapy Psychotherapy must go beyond biological health to address the uniquely human aspects: feelings, interests, and societal influences. A therapist can’t assume “normal” adjustment to a dysfunctional society is the goal. Instead, the goal is helping patients create a more fulfilling life even within societal constraints.

3: “Human Nature” and the Average In a healthy society, cultural norms would define a thriving human. Since our institutions are often harmful, a therapist must look beyond them. Many patients seeking psychotherapy are not “sick” but desire greater fulfillment. This suggests they have potential exceeding the average – a factor for therapists to consider.

4: Neurotic Mechanisms as Healthy Functions Neurosis is a relatively recent human adaptation. The mechanisms behind it (hallucination, isolation, etc.) are safety-valves for protecting the self in the face of overwhelming threat. In neurosis, these safety mechanisms overshadow more “normal” functions. This highlights societal dysfunction, where “normal” behaviors are the root cause of the problem. The therapist’s goal is not to eliminate these valuable self-protective mechanisms but to help the patient integrate them healthily.

5: Erect Posture, Freedom of Hands and Head

  • Advantages: Upright posture improved perception, manipulation, and abstract thinking.
  • Disadvantages: This led to a disconnect between the head and its more instinctual senses (smell, taste). It also made isolation and the fear of falling new anxieties.
  • Consequences: While the ability to abstract and analyze improved, some immediacy in sensing the environment was lost. This can lead to getting stuck in past experiences rather than engaging fully in the present.

6: Tools, Language, Sexual Differentiation, and Society

  • Tools & Language: These emerged from our heightened ability to abstract and symbolize. While useful, they can lead to a disconnect if we mistake these abstractions for the primary source of connection with ourselves, others, or the world.
  • Sexual Differentiation: Intricate sexual systems evolved for reproduction, strengthening social bonds. However, this complexity also creates vulnerabilities in individual well-being, especially with the potential for social exploitation.

7: Differentiations of Sensory, Motoric, and Vegetative

  • The Split: The separation of sensory/thought centers from motor control greatly improved deliberation and action planning. In neurosis, this split can become a means to prevent spontaneity and block the embodied experience of thought translating into action.

8: Verbal Difficulties in this Exposition

  • Complexities of “Self”: Discussing human development highlights the blurred lines between concepts like “person,” “self,” and “organism.” This reflects the reality of evolving identity: we are simultaneously animalistic, individual, and shaped by social forces.
  • Historical Shifts: Theories about the primacy of either individuals or society have evolved over time. These shifts, even if confusing, reflect our complex nature and attempts to understand ourselves.

9: Symbols

  • The Rise of Abstraction: Recent millennia saw a surge in abstract symbols used for orientation, manipulation, and societal organization. This brought power but also alienation from direct experience.
  • Dangers Realized: Symbolic structures (money, politics, even science) can become ends in themselves, devoid of the personal satisfaction that provides intrinsic stability. People are crudely slotted into meaningless roles, working blindly toward nebulous goals. They consume stereotyped images of passion instead of experiencing it authentically.

10: Neurotic Split

  • Safety Valve: Faced with the unsatisfying nature of modern life, the neurotic split becomes a survival mechanism. The vulnerable points where past evolutionary advances created potential conflict (upright posture, abstract thought) are now used to break down the integrated self.
  • The Task: Instead of healthy integration, the neurotic clings to the extremes: pure mental abstraction or pure animalistic regression. Past threats to well-being have become full-blown symptoms.

11: Golden Age, Civilization, and Introjections

  • Lost Powers: Neurotic repression of past strengths leads to idealizations of bygone eras (Golden Age, Happy Primitive). Artists become the keepers of memories of what it meant to be fully human.
  • The Human Condition: Individual expression may always be at odds with social demands. Current ethical standards likely idealize a more personal, instinctual past, while modern realities leave little room for such expression. Perhaps, however, this tension and the suffering it causes are themselves essential to human experience, propelling us into unknown potentials.
  • Symbolic, abstract life disconnects us from personal fulfillment.
  • Neurosis arises when new developments repress former strengths rather than integrating them.
  • We seek images of lost wholeness from idealized pasts.
  • The conflict between the individual and society may be an inherent part of what it means to be human.

Chapter VII: Verbalising and Poetry

  • Words Gone Astray: Speech, meant to connect us, can become a hollow substitute for genuine experience. We spin words “instead of” living, creating a shell of a self – the “verbalizing personality.”

1: Social, Interpersonal, and Personal

  • The Woven Self: Our selves are born in wordless communion, followed by the echoing stories we tell ourselves. In health, this storytelling remains open, a dance between our depths and the world. When the dance falters, we harden into rigid personas echoing voices not our own.
  • The Poetic Cure: Fixating on the rules of language won’t heal this split. We won’t find wholeness through silence either. We must rediscover speech as poetry – words as tools of the soul.

2: Contactful Speech and Poetry

  • The Living Word: When speech is alive, it channels the “I” (our needs and presence), the “Thou” (how we connect with others), and the “It” (truths of the world). It weaves thought with breath, unfinished whispers of the heart with silent awareness.
  • The Poet’s Task: Poets solve inner riddles through the very act of speaking. They find words that sing their unspoken pain or longing, completing a melody only the soul knew. Unlike the verbalizer who spins in circles, the poet’s words trace a path with a beginning, middle, and end.

3: Verbalizing and Poetry

  • Verbalizing as Cage: When cut off from its roots, speech becomes a cage, a substitute for life. The verbalizer protects their isolation with a mask of sound – a false “I,” irrelevant posturing toward an absent “Thou”, and content that reveals nothing.
  • The Poet’s Freedom: Poets feast on the unfinished whispers within, finding a hidden audience in their own hearts. They bend words like clay to express a truth deeper than fact. This act of creation releases them from the cycle of repetition that haunts the verbalizer.

4: Critique of Free-Association as a Technique of Therapy

  • Mechanical Speech: In free-association, we spill words like beads watched by a silent observer. This can become an exercise in more emptiness, with the therapist’s insights feeling like pronouncements from on high, not self-discoveries.
  • The Better Path: We must reclaim responsibility for our own spoken world! This might mean exploring dreams through drawing, or simply listening more closely to our own voice as we freely associate, noticing the music beneath the chatter.

5: Free-Association as an Experiment in Language

  • Potential in the Chaos: Freeing words from their usual order can break down frozen thought patterns, revealing hidden truths bubbling up from within. This encourages a new curiosity, showing us our unconscious isn’t mere darkness but an untapped wellspring.
  • Shared Interpretation: The therapist should be a guide, not an oracle. Sharing the tools of interpretation empowers patients to discover their own meaning, transforming this process into active exploration.

6: Philosophies of Language-Reform

  • The Limits of Logic: Efforts to make language perfectly “clear” often focus on things we can point to or outcomes we desire. But this leaves no room for the heart of speech – feeling, tone, the way words can twist and transform.
  • Poetry as Essential: To heal our speech, we must learn the language of poets! It’s here that feeling becomes structured knowledge, and words become a way of knowing the world, not just pointing at it. This kind of speech makes ethics possible – where our deepest values aren’t abstract rules, but emerge from the very texture of our experience.

Chapter VIII: The Antisocial and Aggression

The Social and the Antisocial

  • Our personalities are shaped by social interactions. There’s a natural tension between individual desires and societal norms. Sometimes, behavior that goes against societal norms is necessary for personal growth.

Changes in What’s Considered Antisocial

  • What’s considered antisocial changes over time. Behaviors that were once deemed unacceptable may become more tolerated.
  • Psychoanalysis has played a role in these changes, bringing awareness to previously repressed desires.

Unequal Progress and Social Reaction

  • Societal changes often happen unevenly, leading to new problems. For example, increased sexual freedom may lead to a lack of emotional connection.
  • Society tries to control these changes through various means, like education or social norms.

The Antisocial is Presently the Aggressive

  • Our current social climate is marked by violence and a lack of healthy aggression. This is because our aggressive tendencies are repressed.
  • Freud focused on deprivation and frustration as the main causes of neurosis. Today, a lack of healthy outlets for aggression may be a bigger problem.

Annihilating and Destroying

  • The term “aggression” encompasses a range of behaviors, some positive and some negative.
  • Annihilation is a defensive response to pain or danger, while destruction is a necessary part of growth and development.
  • Repressing aggression can lead to problems like self-hatred and a lack of confidence.

Initiative and Anger

  • Healthy aggression involves taking initiative and expressing anger appropriately.
  • When these drives are repressed, people may become withdrawn or lose their sense of purpose.
  • Anger is a natural response to frustration, but it becomes destructive when it’s combined with a desire to annihilate.

Fixations of the Above, and Sadomasochism

  • When healthy aggression becomes fixated on hatred, revenge, or domination, it becomes self-destructive.
  • Sadomasochism is a result of repressing aggression and turning it inward or outward.

Modern War is Mass-Suicide Without Guiltiness

(Modern Violence and Discontent)

  • Our society is marked by wealth and peace, yet also by deep anxiety and dissatisfaction. This creates a desire to destroy the existing order, which seems to have failed.
  • Mass-destructive fantasies are prevalent, fueled by a lack of outlets for aggression in daily life. People project their anger onto distant “Enemies.”
  • War becomes an acceptable outlet for repressed aggression, offering security, authority, and organized sadism. People become resigned to disaster, drawn to the idea of mass suicide as a solution.

Freud’s Thanatos: A Critique

  • Freud saw a destructive “death instinct” in the violence of his time, compulsive repetition of trauma, and primary masochism. His theory has a powerful logic, but we can propose a different analysis that avoids bleak conclusions:
    • Compulsive repetition can be seen as an attempt to finish unfinished situations, not a wish for death.
    • Masochism is a result of releasing energy without strengthening the self’s coping mechanisms.
    • Organisms seek to complete their current stage of life, not revert to simpler states. Seeking equilibrium isn’t a drive for death.
    • Freud’s chain of causes misunderstands causation and isolates the organism from its environment.


  • Growth involves both aggressiveness (destroying outmoded forms) and love (joyful engagement with the new).
  • When society blocks aggression, it turns against both the self and society. This can lead to either revolutionary change or a path of mutual destruction.

Chapter IX: Conflict and Self-Conquest

Here’s a reworked version aimed at conciseness while retaining the core arguments:

1: Conflict and Creative Disinterestedness

  • Neurotics crave victory to make up for past humiliations, avoiding genuine conflicts because of the risk of loss.
  • “Creative disinterestedness” is the opposite: embracing conflict, accepting risk, and letting go of clinging to the past. This allows growth and the excitement of changing into something new.
  • The hallmark of this attitude is faith – a trust in oneself and in the field of life to support the change.

2: Critique of the Theory of the “Removal of Inner Conflict”: Meaning of “Inner”

  • The distinction between “inner” conflict (personal) and “outer” conflict (social) is not always useful. Here’s why:
    • Many conflicts are in a child’s environment, not just inside them. Individual therapy would miss the larger field issues.
    • Societal problems can’t be reduced to the neuroses of individuals. There are problems within the larger social field that require collective solutions.
    • Primitive struggles with nature show us that conflicts not rooted in personal flaws can still disrupt the individual and their relationship with the world.
  • The valuable truth hidden in the term “inner conflict” is this: our internal systems (body, mind, dreams) are largely trustworthy and self-regulating. Often, it’s the interference of external social forces into these inner systems that causes trouble.
  • Much of therapy involves helping clients disengage these external, unreliable forces (prestige, competition, money-based values) from interfering with their internal wisdom and the flow of primary personal life (love, grief, anger, etc.).

Meaning of “Conflict”


Self-Conquest: premature pacification

Self-Conquest: satisfactions of conquest

self-control and character

Relation of theory and method

what is inhibited in self conquest

Chapter XII: Creative Adjustment

1. Fore-contacting and Contacting

Physiology and Psychology

Physiological functions involve the continuous interaction between organisms and the environment, allowing for organic adjustments to happen. The contact between organism and the environment happens at what is known as the organism/environment boundary. The self is more than physiology, since physiology is a function on the environment. The self is thus inclusive of the organism-environment field. “in a certain sense, the self is nothing but a function of the physiology; but in another sense it is not part of the organism at all, but is a function of the field, it is the way the field includes the organism.” (p.179)

Fore-contact: Periodic and Aperiodic

The fore-contact is the excitement of the organism in response to an internal need of something from the environment. Periodic urges (to breathe or eat) the organism towards the environment. That is why breathing is so important in therapy. Focusing on our breath keeps us in touch with the environment. Disturbance in breathing is often accompanied by anxiety. Periodic urges happens frequently, equilibrium (homoeostasis). In in situations of pain, the body becomes the focus (foreground figure). Aperiodic pains direct contact towards the body. These excitations initiate the figure / ground process.

when painful, disease situations persist, the body will create new physiological patterns as an attempt to adapt. These reactions are automatic and often out of awareness.

First stages of Contact

The contact process is initiated by excitement at the contact boundary, where the object figure becomes sharpened from the background. As the organism becomes aware of this figure, it begins to move towards approaching the figure, appreciating the figure, overcoming obstacles to get to the figure, connecting with a figure and finally, assimilating the experience.

Fore-contact –> Contacting –> Final Contact –> Post Contact

Fore-contact: the body is the ground and the environment stimulus is the figure.

Contacting: a) the excitement becomes the ground and some object of possibilities is the figure. b) there is a choosing and rejecting the possibilities, a question in approaching a deliberate orientation and manipulation.

Final Contact: the lively goal is the figure , and there is contact. There is a relaxation. The awareness of the self is is its brightest.

Post Contact: there is a flowing, and equilibrium, the self diminishes into the background.

Gratuitous Creativity

The self that is hardly responsive to excitations and environmental stimuli, but acts “as if hallucinating”. There is heavy stress on the “creative” and little on the “adjusting”; a flight from reality. Gratuitous creativity is borne out of the need to express unfinished businesses which lie outside consciousness, and a expression of dissatisfaction of the self. This is not an adjustment of the organism to the environment, and neither is it a satisfactory completion of a contact, but an act without real purpose. “it is not an adjustment of the organism to the environment, not a satisfactory completion of an organic drive in the environment, but it is an adjustment of the whole field to the self, to the surface of contact.” (p.184) There is a sense of purpose without a purpose.

Gratuitous creativity of the arts, philosophy and sciences is a function of the contact-boundary, where the result is carthartic release, enjoyment and reaching of goals. It is not an organismic adaptation, nor a fulfillment of a drive, rather an interaction of the self, harmonising with the field.

What is the function then for gratuitous creativity? When the environmental Field is difficult for the organism, and there is a need to flee from the reality, then gratuitous creativity serves as a recreation, enabling us to breathe.

(Can this be interpreted as compulsions?)

Creativity / Adjustment

Contact is a creativity and adjustment leading to the transformation of the organism and environment. “(C) reativity that is not continually destroying and assimilating the environment given in perception and resisting manipulation is useless to the organism and remains superficial and lacking in energy; it does not become deeply exciting, and its own languishes. It is useless to the organism because there is no completion of unfinished physiological situations without, ultimately, new environmental material for assimilation.” (p. 185)


Emotions are the products, the “integrative awareness” of the organism-environment field. By focusing attention and inducing specific muscle movements, therapists can evoke particular bodily states. These states, like clenching fists or gasping, can lead to a feeling of frustrated anger. However, if an environmental element is added through fantasy or perception (e.g., a person to be angry at), the emotion intensifies and becomes clear. Conversely, acknowledging the corresponding bodily state often precedes the full experience of an emotion. For example, clenching one’s fist may precede the conscious feeling of anger.

(This partially validates the James-Lange theory of emotions, which suggests emotions arise from bodily states. The key addition here is that the bodily state must be oriented towards a specific environmental manipulation. It’s not simply running that creates fear, but running away from something.)

(This partially validates the James-Lange theory of emotions, which suggests emotions arise from bodily states. The key addition here is that the bodily state must be oriented towards a specific environmental manipulation. It’s not simply running that creates fear, but running away from something.)

Understanding these integrated connections is crucial for an organism’s survival. Animals must accurately perceive their relationship to the environment and be driven to act based on that knowledge. Emotions provide this motivating knowledge. They allow an animal to experience the environment as a place to grow, protect itself, and thrive. For instance, longing intensifies an appetite when faced with a distant object, propelling us to overcome obstacles. Grief results from the tension of loss, prompting withdrawal and recuperation. Anger fuels the drive to destroy barriers to our desires. Spite, targeted towards an unavoidable enemy, is a means of avoiding complete surrender. Compassion motivates us to help others, preventing our own sense of loss.

Emotions succeed urges and appetites in guiding behavior. This motivational force is strengthened by the specific object of the emotion. However, in complex situations, emotions give way to feelings – the actualized virtues and vices (courage, determination, etc.) – which represent habits and stronger, more focused drives for action. This shift involves incorporating more of the organism itself (habits) and the environment.

Emotions, far from being simple impulses, are well-defined functional structures. Crude emotions reflect a general lack of refinement in one’s overall experience. Language often struggles to express the complexities of emotions effectively. Artistic expression, through visual and musical forms, provides a richer language for emotions, conveying them as powerful statements.

Emotions can be seen as a form of cognition – a unique way to understand the state of the organism-environment field. They are essential for assessing whether our actions align with our needs in the world. While fallible, they can be refined by attempting to transform them into settled feelings associated with deliberate actions (e.g., enthusiasm into conviction, lust into love).

Psychotherapy, through “emotion training,” highlights the need for a combined approach. We must address the external world (relationships, memories), release bodily restrictions and desires, and also consider the internal structure of the self’s emotions.

Excitement and Anxiety

The process of creative adjustment is accompanied by escalating excitement, peaking at the final contact. Even obstacles and setbacks don’t diminish this excitement entirely. However, they can lead to spectacular disruptions in the self’s organization. Rage explodes into tantrums, grief and exhaustion set in, and hallucinations might emerge (fantasies of victory, revenge, or gratification). These are emergency mechanisms that release tension and allow for a fresh start. While frustrating, this process isn’t inherently unhealthy. However, it doesn’t facilitate learning as the self is too disrupted to integrate any new information.

Interrupted excitement, the metaphorical and practical holding of one’s breath, this is anxiety. The clearest illustration of healthy anxiety is fright – the sudden choking off of emotions and movements when facing immediate danger. This can be particularly traumatic, unlike ordinary fear. Fear involves anticipating a threat, allowing for deliberate and defensive actions. When retreat becomes necessary, the approach to the environment remains open, enabling future confrontation and potential solution. However, in fright, the overwhelming threat triggers a complete withdrawal, a shutting down of the environment (“playing dead”). The resulting anxiety, the dammed-up excitement, can take a long time to dissipate until normal breathing resumes.

Projection and Repression

Interruptions can occur at different stages of “contacting,” leading to anxiety and a cautious approach towards the original impulse. This caution manifests as:

  • Aversion: Shifting focus away from the impulse.
  • Distraction: Engaging in other activities to divert attention.
  • Muscular Restriction: Clenching muscles to suppress the urge.

This restriction creates pain because natural urges tend to be expansive. The body becomes the central figure, while the self (the deliberate ego) acts as the ground. This process remains conscious – a deliberate attempt at creative adjustment, working on the body instead of the environment. However, persistent deliberate suppression can lead to repression – unconscious suppression.

Identifying and Alienating


In the context of “contacting,” the ego’s function involves identifying, alienating, and establishing boundaries. “Accepting an impulse as one’s own” implies incorporating it into the foundation for the next development. This identification c an be deliberate, and a well-functioning ego aligns itself with grounds that facilitate the development of positive figures, provided these grounds have sufficient energy and potential.

Conflict arises when the ground is disrupted, hindering the emergence of a clear and vibrant figure. Conflicting excitations bring forth alternative figures for dominance. Attempts to force a single figure when the ground is unstable result in a weak and unenergetic outcome.

However, if the conflict itself is embraced, the resulting figure will be exciting and energetic, even if destructive and painful. Every conflict stems from conflicting needs, desires, and self-images within the ground. The self’s function is to navigate these conflicts, endure losses and transformations, and ultimately alter the given situation.

When the ground is harmonious, choosing foreground objects or actions rarely leads to true conflict. In such cases, a better solution usually emerges spontaneously. A strong conflict in the foreground often signifies a concealed and alienated background conflict, as seen in obsessive doubts.

Embracing Conflict vs. Anxiety

From this perspective, we can re-evaluate the notion that “exciting the conflict weakens the self.” The perceived danger lies in the significant self-investment in a weak figure – the result of a past, facile choice. Accepting a new excitation from the alienated background disrupts this weak “self,” which appears threatening. However, the self isn’t truly invested in the weak figure; the self is the act of creating the figure, not the figure itself. Therefore, therapeutic methods that aim to strengthen the self should focus on connecting the weak foreground figure to its underlying ground, bringing more awareness to it.

This approach, as opposed to downplaying the new excitation, can lead to painful transitional excitement, a sign of creative growth. This is the opposite of anxiety. Anxiety is unpleasant, static, and breathless, while a conflict in the grounds brings about destruction and suffering. False conflicts, on the other hand, create dilemmas accompanied by anxiety. The purpose of such false conflicts is to interrupt excitement; anxiety, as an emotion, is the dread of one’s own daring.

The Illusion of Security vs. The Power of Readiness

Two intertwined fears hinder creativity: the pain inherent in rising excitement and the fear of rejection and change. This fear of change draws its strength from a false sense of security found in clinging to past achievements and the status quo. True security, however, is impossible as it would require a completely inflexible self. Without irrational fear, the focus shifts from seeking security to addressing challenges.

A false sense of security signals a weakness – a constant anticipation of its collapse. This illusion is fueled by a hidden struggle. Unfinished internal needs clash with aggression turned inward due to past defeats. This conflict creates a deceptive feeling of stability and control. In reality, the self lacks the power to engage outwardly. The person locked in this pattern repeats familiar struggles, avoiding any newness or vulnerability. They mistakenly label this avoidance as “realism.” Thus, an accepted defeat oddly provides a sense of control and a distorted notion of “adjustment.” Sadly, this sacrifices excitement, growth, and vitality.

In contrast, a self with energy and potential does not seek security. It embraces excitement, has faith in the inherent adaptability of the organism, and a flexible optimism about facing challenges. This “readiness” is the answer when someone asks, “Can you do it?” True power and a sense of adequacy emerge from meeting challenges head-on, generating new solutions and unexpected outcomes.

Final Contact and Post Contact

Unity of Figure and Ground

Final contact, the objective of the contacting process, finds the self fully engaged in the figure. All concerned of the self is embodied, making the self the figure. The self is actualised, transformed, set in its own reality, in acceptance of the reality of the environment.

CONCERN and Its object
Example of Sexual Touch etc
Post Contact
Passagefrom the psychological to the Physiological
Formation of personality: Loyalty
Formation of Personality: Morality
Formation of Personality:Rhetorical Attitudes

Book Reference

Perls, F., Hefferline, R., & Goodman, P. (1951/1994). Gestalt therapy: Excitement and growth in the human personality. Kindle Edition. ME: The Gestalt Journal Press.