What is gestalt therapy? Resnick explains gestalt therapy principles in just 30 minutes with this video. Is Gestalt therapy for you? Watch this.
This is the best video resource to understand, ” what is gestalt therapy?”.
What is gestalt therapy? Resnick explains gestalt therapy principles in just 30 minutes with this video. Is Gestalt therapy for you? Watch this.
This is the best video resource to understand, ” what is gestalt therapy?”.
If the process of psychoanalysis, as defined by Freud’s Anna O., defined as a “talking cure” (Breuer & Freud, 1893/2009), what about Gestalt therapy?
Gestalt therapy is a holistic approach to healing and personal development that emphasizes the importance of experiential learning and self-awareness. Unlike psychoanalysis, which is often thought of as a “talking cure,” gestalt therapy places a greater emphasis on the process of experimentation and the active exploration of emotions and behaviors.
The concept of “experimentation” is central to gestalt therapy, as it is through trying out new behaviors and facing difficult emotions that clients are able to gain insight into themselves and make meaningful changes in their lives. During a gestalt therapy session, clients are encouraged to engage in activities that challenge their current way of thinking and feeling, allowing them to gain a deeper understanding of themselves and the world around them.
One of the key differences between gestalt therapy and psychoanalysis is the use of “aboutism” in gestalt therapy. “Aboutism” refers to the act of talking about something without fully engaging with it or experiencing it. In gestalt therapy, clients are encouraged to move beyond talking about their problems and instead actively engage with them, whether through role-playing, movement, or other experiential exercises.
The curative process of Gestalt therapy is action. Polster and Polster (1974, p.233-284) devote a an entire chapter on their book to the concept of “experimentation” as a therapeutic process. During a gestalt therapy session, the client is encouraged to try out new behaviors, and stay with feelings which he/she would otherwise not dare to (or is not allowed to confront) in daily life.
More than just a “talking cure”, gestalt therapy is like a “doing cure”. The client talks, but his/her talk is not merely a narration or a “talking about” something. Polster and polster uses the term “aboutism” to describe narration without feeling or action.
“Gestalt therapy tries to restore the connection between aboutism and action. By integrating action into the person’s decision-making process, he is pried loose from the stultifying influence of his aboutist ruminations. (p.234)”
The client has a something to say. The therapist encourages the client to put this narrative into action. The above quote gives us also a sense of how gestalt therapy actually releases a person of a key symptom of depression and anxiety — rumination (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2000). Rumination is experienced as having obsessive circulating thoughts.
By encouraging the client to put talk into action, his/her ruminating thoughts gets translated into physical acts of doing. These thoughts no longer get trapped in cognition. As the client acts out thoughts he/she experiences some control of these ruminations. The most likely thing to happen in the process is the out pouring of emotion.
Dialogue is talk in action. Every psychotherapeutic dialogue has the potential of being curative, provided that it encourages the client to move away from the cognitive aspect of the talk — i.e. aboutism or talking about– towards acting and feeling the talk.
To be experimental is to constantly ask the questions, “what if…” or “what would happen if…” . What if you had the chance to say __ to your mother? What if your father were in this room now? What would happen if you tapped you hands quicker? … etc.
Each action is dealt with in the here-and-now. The follow-up questions would sound like, “what is happening now?”, “where are you at the moment?” “what comes to mind at this moment?”
The therapist is also part of the experiment. When the therapist is able to share his/her own experience at the moment, it can help the client better experience the phenomenon taking place.
Hycner (2009) aptly considers a gestalt therapy session a crucible, a small, self-contained space in which the client gets to experience new ways of being in the world. A crucible is what is used in experimental chemistry.
Breuer, J., & Freud, S. (1893/2009). Studies on hysteria. Hachette UK.
Hycner, R. (2009). Relational Approaches in Gestalt Therapy. NY: Gestalt Press.
Polster, E., & Polster, M. (1974). Gestalt therapy integrated: Contours of theory and practice (Vol. 6). Vintage.
Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2000). The role of rumination in depressive disorders and mixed anxiety/depressive symptoms. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 109, 504–511.
A client who has just started therapy will experience different kind of session as a client who has been with the therapist for a longer period of time. Similarly, clients who experience psychosis would benefit from different style of therapy than clients who have issues based on neurosis. Then there are clients who seek therapy because they are facing really difficult existential issues in their lives. Their therapy would be experienced differently.
Gestalt therapy is known for its multi-variant techniques. However, what is seen as techniques is not Gestalt therapy. Gestalt therapy is the principles that lie under these techniques, within the dialogue between patient and therapists.
Different people, different needs at different times.
The basis of all good therapy work is work with empathy, listening and validating. Being present, attentive, authentic and connecting with the client and inviting the client to be in contact. Contact work as such is healing, as it works towards reducing anxiety and loneliness that comes with it. Being present is really about the therapist putting aside prejudices, need to help, self-evaluation, analyzing the client or giving advise. This is very important fundamental attitude for therapists in the session. It is also the most challenging.
This is also the only way to help clients who are psychologically very fragile and fragmented heal.
Irvin Yalom, in his biography, talks about one of his first clients, Sarah B., the wife of a business tycoon who suffered catatonic schizophrenia, who existed in a frozen state, not able to react to stimuli. Being a new in the profession, he was at a loss for what to do. He decided, during his rounds at the hospital ward, to converse with his non-reacting patient. He spent these 15 or so minutes talking to her about his day, the headlines etc. It was not till new neuroleptics came to existence did Sarah B. was able to move again. When she came around, the author mentioned to her of his multitude of doubts that he was of help to her in all those hours. She answered, “but Dr. Yalom, you were my bread and butter.”
As the therapy progresses, and depending on the client, more work is done on the awareness of the body. This is not bodywork, but the momentarily focus on tension in the muscles and breathing. This is done in a dialogical way.
The more stable client would get sessions that looks like a play of being present. Looking at the phenomenon of the moment. What is going on, how the interaction feels like in the moment. What comes to mind now, etc. is discussed.
The use of creative medium, like art and music is useful at this stage for self reflection and sharing one’s internal structure with the therapist.
Further into the course of therapy, the client gets to work on relationships intra-psychic and external. Gestalt therapy is known for it’s two-chair work.
Very stable, self-sustaining clients who need therapy for self-awareness, who already have months or years of sessions with the therapist, may appreciate the challenge that involves frustration of resistances, etc. This is done with all the first three levels intact. Gestalt therapy is never without level 1 !
What is being “frustrated” is the clients tendency to deprive him/herself of his/her need. For example, a client feels loneliness and longs to ask a lady for a date. He is, however, so fearful of being rejected that he keeps to himself rather than calling her. The therapeutic frustration here is the confrontation of his fear of rejection.
Most therapy with clients do not reach the confrontative stage, and most sessions of gestalt therapy do not involve empty chair work. All clients at all stages of therapy are served best at the first level. It is also the most challenging part of the work.
Kernberg’s model of personality organization provides us with a helpful visual of how differently experienced psychological symptoms relate with each other. Symptoms of personality disorder are very individual and unique each client. The “severity” of the symptom is phenomena “felt” by other people in the community and the therapist. It is therefore more accurate to base our assessment of the client’s problems on the effect the client’s behavior has on others and therapist, and based on how fixated the client is on this behavioral pattern. It is assumed that the more fixated one is on a mode of behavior, the less one is able to function socially and economically.
Kernberg established 3 main group of personality organization. These are arranged in increasing order of “severity”: 1. the Neurotic Personality Organization (NPO), 2. The Borderline Personality Organization (BPO), and 3. the Psychotic Personality Organization (PPO).
Horizontally, Kernberg also categorizes the symptoms as a spectrum of introvertion and extrovertion. This describes how much the individual with such diagnosis interacts with the other. The more introverted would keep the self in isolation. This would range from shyness to complete fear of being with others (as in severe paranoid PD / schizoid PD). The extrovert range would range from being dependent on the presence of others ( as with the dependent PD) to victimizing others (as in malignant narcissism PD or antisocial PD).
Most severe condition is the psychotic condition.
When we connect this with Melanie Klien’s (Kernberg is a Kleinian) model, we can see that the BPO represents the condition where an individual is stuck at the paranoid-schizoid phase. The NPO represents the individuals who have developed into the depressive phase. Note that the terminology here is very confusing, because “paranoid-schizoid” and “depressive” used in this context has not much to do with the absolute meaning, but rather serves to describe a phase. Please refer to this article for clarification on this topic.
When we consider Kernberg’s diagram, we may be able to appreciate how if the individual is fixed to the BPO, he/she may be holding on to maintain an intact sense of self. The consequence of not having the symptoms may lead to breakdown and possibly psychosis. As therapists, we must be very aware of this “ability” of the client to support him/herself in this way, even though his/her behavior is hurtful/harmful/not helping.
In Gestalt therapy we talk about contact. Contact is a means of a organism (a person) getting in touch with his/her needs and being able to get his/her needs fulfilled. This is not unlike Marslow’s concept of the hierarchy of needs. Needs not met will end up in the individual being weakened or even harmed as a result of accumulated stress. A very simple example: if a person’s body is lacking in nutrients, the person needs food. If he does not get this food, he suffers. Needs are always present. We have to be able to first realize the needs. In Gestalt therapy, the work of the therapist, for example, is to help the client uncover his needs of the moment, how he denies his needs by numbing himself from the sensation of the need, how he attributes the needs to someone else by projecting the needs and how he is not able to feel satisfied once the need is met.
Below is my sketch of the contact cycle in gestalt therapy. It is complicated, but there are simpler diagrams on the net or in books.
When the need is recognized, acted upon and assimilated, the gestalt is closed. The client is relieved of a stressful condition (that may have pervaded his life).
Shame at the Pre-contact Phase: When we look at the contact cycle, we can see that the hinderance to pre-contact is desensitization. The client does not know about this need. Oftentimes this is attributed to shame: when it is too shameful to even tell oneself that one has this need. Many people do not feel shame also for this reason. They anesthetize themselves from the sensation.
Anxiety at the Action Phase: The next part of the cycle is when one feels a need but acts inappropriately so as not to be able to fulfill the need. This is a miss-action normally caused by projecting what one feels or needs to others. For example when one is completely angry at another, he/she instead thinks that the other is hostile. Oftentimes the projection is brought about by anxiety or a dreaded fear of acting accordingly, but instead act by splitting this action from the self onto the environment.
Guilt at the Assimilation Phase: At the end of the phase, problems arise when the person is not able to assimilate what he/she has felt and done. This is probably the problem with overeating (this a simple example): the person is hungry, eats, but cannot feel nourished. In the realm of personality disorder, it is often the problem of the individual not being able to recognized his deeds, and avoids the feeling by not being able to feel a sensation of satisfaction (lustfulness). There would be continued hunger for whatever the need may be. In serious cases (perhaps antisocial PD) if one has committed a crime, one is not able to sense guilt or remorse.
In the figure below, I try to fit the 2 models together. This is of course, like all models and classifications, a way of conceptualizing, and not fixed truism. One would be well served to look at all graphical representation of psychic phenomena as as spectrum rather than as in discreet boxes and lines.
Personalities “stuck” in the avoidance of guilt end of the contact cycle, for example is caricaturized by the cold-blooded malignant narcissist or sociopath. When we look closely at all other personality fixations we can also see avoidance of guilt. Ultimately, this is all related to context.
Connecting these concepts can be useful to the gestalt therapists who use the contact cycle as means of understanding the mental processes of the client. It also helps us to access what difficult emotions underlie the personality structure of the client. Work with personality disorder is extremely complex because it deals with contact, not only with the environment, but also with the therapist’s personality.
I hope this idea is useful.
Kernberg, O. (2008). Aggressivity, Narcissism, and Self-Destructiveness in the Psychotherapeutic Rela: New Developments in the Psychopathology and Psychotherapy of Severe Personality Disorders. Yale University Press.
Polster and Polster (1973, p. 176) in their book Gestalt therapy integrated explains the syntax of the contact episode as moving through eight stages:
This cycle may last for only a minute, or it may play out for months and years. When the circle is not complete, there exists an incomplete gestalt, or unfinished business. In therapy the client is supported to complete pressing needs that are open. The closure of the cycle can bring about catharsis.
This sketch describes the dialogical self in contact with the environment and the resistances that denies the self from experiencing the environment, thus denying the needs of the self. Included are also the introjects that arise from past traumatic experiences and creative adjustments that ensues when these resistances are in play.
Dissociation is known to be another contact interruption strategy. The person who is dissociated avoids contact with the stimuli, by retreating in his/her mind. This is a strategy of children who feel trapped in a situation, but it can also be something we do, like daydreaming while pretending to be attentive in school..
Adapted from :
Clarkson, P., & Cavicchia, S. (2013). Gestalt counselling in action. Sage.
Fritz Perls on his work with groups:
“Basically I am doing a kind of individual therapy in a group setting, but it is not limited to this; very often a group happening happens to happen.”
… on mind-fucking:
“Usually I interfere if the group happening comes merely to mind-fucking (…) ping-pong game, (…) opinion exchanges, interpretations, all that crap.”
to Perls, a group is wonderful if:
“If they are giving their experience, if they ae honest in their expression…”
Perls on helpfulness in groups:
“Often the group is very supportive, but if they are merely “helpful,” I cut them out. Helpers are con men, interfering.”
Basically, to Perls, the group should be a supportive place for people to share their experiences, and to take in each other’s experiences. Being helpful by giving advice, intellectualizing (or mind-fucking), is not being supportive, but actually blocks the other person from developing new means to deal with the world.
This snippet is cited from this book (introduction to dreamwork seminar):
This five phases of change is also termed as five levels of neurosis. Whatever the terminology, it describes a process by which a client goes through when lasting and cathartic change happens.
There are several terminologies for these phases, however for this article we shall use the terms: Fixation, Differentiation, Diffusion, Vacuum (impasse) and Integration.
At this level what is noticed in the client is a stiffness, being stuck in ideas / conclusions / habits / patterns, feeling trapped, in other words desperation. The reason for therapy usually describes this condition. The client is stuck in roles, routines that do not serve him. It causes stress and conflicts in his daily life. The client is often also not aware of this point of what he really needs, because these needs are forgotten or relegated to the unconscious. This feeling of “stuckness” in repeating patterns has become part of his way of life and he cannot imagine things being different. He is however affected negatively by it at the present time.
An example :
Mr D addresses his problem of having long term relationships with women. He says that after a while he gets bored with them and wants to move on. He feels empty and lonely, and expresses this to his therapist.
During therapy a picture of the stagnation in the client’s life is formed. There is now awareness about this. The client can decide if and how he would like to proceed.
With the experiencing of the needs (as in the above case), or the feelings of anxiety, avoidance impulses. The client’s attention to the present moment is distracted by memories of the past or hopes for the future. He escapes into chains of thought, ideas and gets into debates and intellectualization.
This roundabout thoughts and decision making is a sign of unfinished business, which the client cannot complete and there is too much anxiety / anxiety of pain involved for the client to face up to the unfinished situation.
At this point, the therapist’s work is to support the client to stay in the moment. Providing a secure environment to face the anxiety — to relive conflicts, the tension between what he/she needs, emotions, impulses to move forward and its resistance, the blockages to act.
When the client is able to see his polarities, he can come to terms with taking responsibility for which direction he decides to move towards.
Mr D’s talk with his therapist has led Mr D to the knowledge of himself– that he is able to share only superficial parts of himself to the other person. In turn, he gets to know only superficial parts of the other. This superficiality is colorless and gets boring very quickly. When this happens, his impulse is to leave the present relationship for another.
This is a phase of acceptance. Acceptance of the Situation without avoidance of the issues. The existing situation is no longer working for the client, but alternatives are elusive to him/her. Usually when clients decide to have therapy, they are open to this phase. It is the phase of acceptance. The client accepts his/her responsibility for his/her situation, and realizes that he/she has the resource to work through the situation. This usually happens after an alliance with therapist is grounded.
Mr. D realizes that it is not that the girl(s) are boring, or that he is more interesting. He takes the viewpoint that since this is his experience with every relationship he faces (even non-romantic relationships), something in his way of connecting with others, has something to do with his own psychic defenses.
At this stage, the client experiences confusion (not knowing how to react). It would be counter-productive at this phase for the therapist to step in and provide analysis of the situation– even if the answers are glaringly clear. The therapist is advised to wait, and allow the client to assimilate this rather uncomfortable phase. Any solutions-orientated premature direction provided by the therapist would compromise the clients’ healing process. Such intervention by the therapist could lead the client to be fixated on the opposite pole of the problem.
For example, the same client Mr D talks to the therapist who realizes that in their own relationship in the here-and-now, the client avoids deeper communication by answering with the words “”I don’t know” or “I feel bored”. The therapist may have the need to either ignore the “I don’t know” and thereby moving away from the stalemate, or the therapist may “unbore” the session by doing /saying something to fix the situation. This is an example of rescuing the client from the vacuum.
The client will benefit more if he/she is allowed to endure this momentarily discomfort. Being in a vacuum does not last more than a couple of seconds. The client can be trusted to creatively adjust to the situation and find his/her own solutions. All he/she needs is support to stay in the vacuum long enough for movement to take place.
In this vacuum stage, the client experiences the push and pull of both poles of the problem. He/she feels “stuck in the middle”. The polarities surface from the background of his/her awareness and become clear to him/her. Through this clarity, the client can make decisions to swing between the poles and not get unconsciously stuck at any extreme. There is freedom of choice.
A person who is able to stay in the momentary state of emptiness in a vacuum, in confusion, in not knowing which way to turn, eventually reaches an “ah-ha” moment. Fritz Perls (1976) mentions this in his writings often. The problem with us most of the time is that we are afraid of this vacuum. Almost always we bail out by finding solutions, distracting ourselves from the situation, forgetting, being clueless, or deadening our experiences.
In the therapy session, a safe environment is provided for the client to sit into the emptiness long enough to gain valuable “ah-ha” insight / understanding and experiences. The greatest difficulty is abstaining from intellectualizing, and making meaning of what’s going on while in this state of “stuckness”. This requires the trust of client.
What usually happens is when the client is held by the therapist to stay in position of emptiness, the client does not use his/her old patterns of escaping the problems. This is an opportunity for the client to reach into past unfinished experiences and experience the needs and feelings involved in these experiences. Here is where enlightenment is achieved.
Mr. D, in sitting with the therapist, and feeling bored, and needing to “flee” the encounter, realizes his anxiety of being seen. He recounts how as a child he was always doted upon by adults, and part of this attention brought also criticism of his emotions, usually negative emotions. He felt lots of expectations on him to be the happy child.
This is a simple example of how integration of the past experiences to the present takes place. The client sees how his unease with connecting with another person is linked to how he lived as a child.
For the rest of the therapy sessions, Mr. D experiments with being authentic in the presence of the therapist. He is also encouraged to attend group therapy and work through interaction with a group.
Perls, F. S., & Andreas, S. (1969). Gestalt therapy verbatim.
Voitsmeier-Röhr, A., Wulf, R. (2017). Gestalttherapie. Ernst Reinhart Verlag: Munich. p. 143-148.
Dreams. What are they? For those of us who know already, dreams are the windows to our unconscious. To fall asleep and dream is to let go of our outer world. In doing so, the life of our inner world takes shape. Since our innermost consciousness is in sleep, separate from our senses that communicate with the outside world, the life of dreams seems to us mysterious: on the one hand, there seems to have meaning in the dreams, and on the other hand the context is an amalgamation of experiences and emotions mixed together and makes little sense. Most of our dreams are forgotten, and if we try to remember them, we cannot be sure if the memory of the dream is even accurate.
The unconscious material in dreams is useful and important for psychotherapeutic work. This is especially so when the dream is a recurring one. According to Fritz Perls (1969):
“(T)he most important dreams– the recurrent dreams. (…) If something comes up again and again, it means that a gestalt is not closed. There is a problem which has not been completed and finished and therefore can’t recede into the background.”
Another proof that dreams are the stuff of the unconscious is proof that in people who suffer from sleep disorders, the problem is the result of the mind not being able to let go of the external world. This is a world of the senses and of spiralling thoughts.
Sigmund Freud, in one of his most-read books, The Interpretation of Dreams, gives us an idea of how dreams are interpreted in psychoanalysis (Freud & Strachey, 1964) .
In this article, I focus on the dream work in Gestalt therapy. Gestalt therapy has a tradition of non-interpretation on the part of the therapist. So how does one work with dreams without interpretation? Much of the recorded dream work of Fritz Perls is found in this book, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim. Here are case studies of work conducted by Perls in front of a group. On reading this book alone, some colleagues find Perls’ style brash, and some even find it bullying. Before judging, we must ask ourselves if Perls’s work served the volunteer. Mostly it has. The members found greater self-awareness; many have experienced a closed gestalt or an integration of their split parts. Also it is useful to note that Perls’ clients are mostly students of therapy themselves and not “patients” in the true sense of the word.
Below is a video of Perls’ dream work. There is a lot of emotionality that arises from the client herself. Perls as a therapist merely supported her. He does not interpret (or at least that is the intention). What the meaning of the dream really was about is actually not verbalized. The patient derived her own sense of what it meant. She has also experienced the meaning and not only thought about it intellectually.
This non-interpretation is a different attitude from psychoanalysis. In Gestalt Therapy, the client is asked to play component parts of the dream. They may even play the dream itself. For example, the client says “I am my dream, and I am vague, and I am not there for you to remember me…” or “I am my dream, but I am incomplete.”
In the example below, the lady plays the water, “I am the water…”
This is called projection. It helps the client to feel the part of him/herself that he/she has disowned and has projected onto objects of the dream. Disowned parts of the self are in the unconscious, and integration is the work of therapy.
“The dream is an excellent opportunity to find the holes in the personality. They come out as voids, as blank spaces, and when you get into the vicinity of these holes, you get confused or nervous. There is a dreadful experience, the expectation, “If I approach this, there will be catastrophe. I will be nothing.” I have already talked a bit about the philosophy of nothingness.” Perls, in Gestalt Therapy Verbatim (p. 90).
“Every dream or every story contains all the material we need. The difficulty is to understand the idea of fragmentation. All the different parts are distributed all over the place. A person, for instance who has lost his eyes — who has a hole instead of exes will always find the exes in the environment. He will always feel the world is looking at him.”
This dreamwork is an excerpt from my article in EUJPC. The full article is found here.
Read also: Dreams and Dream Work in Psychotherapy
Freud, S., & Strachey, J. E. (1964). The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud.
Perls, F. S. (1969). Gestalt therapy verbatim.
Bobby McFerrin is famous for his hit song, “Don’t Worry Be Happy”. In this video, he demonstrates how the crowd intuitively synchronizes to the pentatonic scale. Ferrin says, “What’s interesting to me about that, is, regardless of where I am, anywhere, every audience gets that.”
How can we use this act to explain the Gestalt therapy theory?
McFerrin says, it works all the time. Yes. The theory of Gestalt Therapy is more than humanistic. It is a theory of phenomenon and contact. The other men on stage says that there is some neuro-biology involved. Yes. There is. This is how the theory of Gestalt therapy functions, through contact leading to physiological change.
Gestalt therapy is a modality of psychotherapy which is founded on philosophical principles to guide the practicing therapist towards meeting and supporting the client authentically for who he/she is. The pillars of Gestalt therapy theory include: the field theory, contact process, phenomenology, and the closing of the gestalt.
The therapeutic aspect of Gestalt therapy happens when the client is able to come into contact with his/her disowned aspects of his/her personality (“the dark side”, some would say). Often these are realities that are too painful or shameful to acknowledge, but are at the same time ever-present in the the life of the person. The effort (usually unconscious) of putting away these disowned parts of the self, utilizes a lot of energy, and is the source of inner conflicts, stress, depression and in severe cases, psychosis.
The Gestalt therapy work is to provide the patient a safe environment to play out, and experience these disowned parts of the self. In the process, the patient learns about these parts, and is given the ability to integrate these parts in their present lives. The net result is a better, less stressful quality of life and also better relationship with others.