Gestalt Therapy Verbatim (Perls, 1969): Book Review

A thousand plastic flowers 
Don’t make a desert bloom 
A thousand empty faces 
Don’t fill an empty room.

Fritz Perls

I enjoy reading this book, which is written “ad verbatim”, as the title describes. The presentation style gives us an implicit sense of who Perls is, and his first-person perspectives as a therapist.

“Gestalt therapy verbatim” is a unique book that gives readers a firsthand look at the ideas and techniques of Gestalt therapy through the words of its founder, Fritz Perls. The verbatim format, in which Perls’ words are recorded exactly as he spoke them during therapy sessions, lectures, and workshops, provides an authentic and engaging look at the development and practice of Gestalt therapy. It can be a valuable resource for those interested in learning about Gestalt therapy or for those who are already familiar with the approach and want to gain a deeper understanding of Perls’ thought and practice.

The book is segmented into two parts – first, an introductory section that describes Gestalt therapy and provides brief background information about its origins and development; and second, three case histories that show how Perls applied his approach during his encounter with the clients named in the case studies.

This is an aged enjoyable book. I have assembled some excerpts here.

Perls on “techniques”

One of the objections I have against anyone calling himself a Gestalt therapist is that he uses technique. A technique is a gimmick. […] We’ve got enough people running around collecting gimmicks, more gimmicks, and abusing them.

Perls adds that Gestalt therapy is not about providing instant cure, instant joy, instant gratification. That works in psychiatry, in addictions, and in today’s world, through the likes of pop-cultured therapy. Gestalt therapy offers all the opportunity for growth, and growth is an organic process. The client has to invest in themselves and grow.

Perls on Anxiety

Anxiety is the gap between the now and the then. If you are in the now, you can’t be anxious, because the excitement flows immediately into ongoing spontaneous activity. If you are in the now, you are creative, you are inventive. If you have your senses ready, if you have your eyes and ears open, like every small child, you find a solution. (p. 23).

He differentiates this from hedonism, where one seek pseudo sensory stimulation. Let us perhaps reflect on how we can relate this concept with the problem of compulsive disorders like sex addiction.

Perls on what happens in the splitting of the self and pathology

You are already coming to the point where you begin to understand what happens in pathology. If some of our thoughts, feelings, are unacceptable to us, we want to disown them. “Me, wanting to kill you?” So we disown the killing thought and say, “That’s not me — that’s a compulsion.” Or we remove the killing, or we repress and become blind to that. There are many of these kinds of ways to remain intact, but always only at the cost of disowning many, many valuable parts of ourselves. The fact that we live only on such a small percentage of our potential is due to the fact that we’re not willing — or society or whatever you want to call it is not willing — to accept myself, yourself, as the organism which you are by birth, constitution, and so on. You do not allow yourself — or you are not allowed to be totally yourself. So your ego boundary shrinks more and more. Your power, your energy, becomes smaller and smaller. Your ability to cope with the world becomes less and less — and more and more rigid, more and more allowed only to cope as your character, as your preconceived pattern, prescribes it. (p.31)

Noteworthy is that this book was written in the 1960s, when the polyvagal theroey concept of introception was not yet discovered. In my practice I do guide the client to separate their ruminating thoughts (that is a bottom-up introception) from conscious thoughts.

Perls’ thoughts on trying to change oneself and others

[W]e realize that we cannot deliberately bring about changes in ourselves or in others. This is a very decisive point: Many people dedicate their lives to actualize a concept of what they should be like, rather than to actualize themselves. This difference between self-actualizing and self-image actualizing is very important. Most people only live for their image. Where some people have a self, most people have a void, because they are so busy projecting themselves as this or that. This is again the curse of the ideal. The curse that you should not be what you are. (p.39)

When we reflect on attitudes on mental health today, which modality is most sought after? The modalities that promote self-image actualization, where there is a delusion that we can change ourselves, our thoughts and our relationships, or the ones that are based on the theory of authentic and organic self actualization?

Perls on Growth, the Impasse, and the aim of therapy

[H]ow do we prevent ourselves from maturing? What prevents us from ripening? […] We ask the question, what prevents — or how do you prevent yourself from growing — from going further ahead? […]

My formulation is that maturing is the transcendence from environmental support to self-support. Look upon the unborn baby. It gets all its support from the mother — oxygen, food, warmth, everything. As soon as the baby is born, it has already to do its own breathing. And then we find often the first symptom of what plays a very decisive part in Gestalt therapy. We find the impasse. Please note the word. The impasse is the crucial point in therapy — the crucial point in growth.

The impasse is called by the Russians “the sick point,” a point which the Russians never managed to lick and which other types of psychotherapy so far have not succeeded in licking. The impasse is the position where environmental support or obsolete inner support is not forthcoming and authentic self-support has not yet been achieved. The baby cannot breathe by itself. It doesn’t get the oxygen supply through the placenta anymore. We can’t say that the baby has a choice, because there is no deliberate attempt of thinking out what to do, but the baby either has to die or learn to breathe. There might be some environmental support forthcoming — being slapped, or oxygen might be supplied.The “blue baby” is the prototype of the impasse which we find in every neurosis. (P. 48)

The process of maturation is the transformation from environmental support to self-support, and the aim of therapy is to make the patient not depend upon others, but to make the patient discover from the very first moment that he can do many things, much more than he thinks he can do.

Perls on Character

The more character a person has, the less potential he has. That sounds paradoxical, but a character is a person that is predictable, that has only a number of fixed responses, or as T. S. Eliot said in The Cocktail Party, “You are nothing but a set of obsolete responses.” (P. 53)

Character is a fixed response that we develop in childhood to manipulate the environment, to get our needs met. The basic need is love from the child’s caregivers, and manipulation comes in the form of playing roles that keep the individual immature.

On changing every question to a statement

“One fool can ask more questions than a thousand wise men can answer.” All the answers are given. Most questions are simply inventions to torture ourselves and other people. The way to develop our own intelligence is by changing every question into a statement. If you change your question into a statement, the background out of which the question arose opens up, and the possibilities are found by the questioner himself.

[…]Every time you refuse to answer a question, you help the other person to develop his own resources. Learning is nothing but discovery that something is possible. To teach means to show a person that something is possible.

Why and because are dirty words in Gestalt therapy.” (p. 64)

when we ask why we get an explanation and we will fail to get an understanding.

Perls on Resentment

We see guilt as projected resentment. Whenever you feel guilty, find out what you resent, and the guilt will vanish and you will try to make the other person feel guilty. […]

If you have any difficulties in communication with somebody, look for your resentments. Resentments are among the worst possible unfinished situations — unfinished gestalts. If you resent, you can neither let go nor have it out. Resentment is an emotion of central importance. The resentment is the most important expression of an impasse — of being stuck. If you feel resentment, be able to express your resentment. A resentment unexpressed often is experienced as, or changes into, feelings of guilt. Whenever you feel guilty, find out what you are resenting and express it and make your demands explicit. This alone will help a lot. (p. 68)

Perls goes on to explain how resentment that is articulated, then switched to appreciation is healing.

Perls on Nothingness and the Fertile Void

The whole philosophy of nothingness is very fascinating. In our culture “nothingness” has a different meaning than it has in the Eastern religions. When we say “nothingness,” there is a void, an emptiness, something deathlike. When the Eastern person says “nothingness,” he calls it “no-thingness” — there are no things there. There is only process, happening. Nothingness doesn’t exist for us, in the strictest sense, because nothingness is based on awareness of nothingness, so there is the awareness of nothingness, so there is something there. And we find when we accept and enter this nothingness, the void, then the desert starts to bloom. The empty void becomes alive, is being filled. The sterile void becomes the fertile void. I am getting more and more right on the point of writing quite a bit about the philosophy of nothing. I feel this way, as if I am nothing, just function. “I’ve got plenty of nothing.” Nothing equals real. (pp. 77-78)

The concept of the Fertile Void is critical to the understanding of Gestalt therapy, a topic which is discussed in these pages:

Perls on taking responsibility and blaming

All the so-called traumata which are supposed to be the root of the neurosis are an invention of the patient to save his self-esteem. None of these traumata has ever been proved to exist. I haven’t seen a single case of infantile trauma that wasn’t a falsification. They are all lies to be hung onto in order to justify one’s unwillingness to grow. To be mature means to take responsibility for your life, to be on your own. Psychoanalysis fosters the infantile state by considering that the past is responsible for the illness. The patient isn’t responsible — no, the trauma is responsible, or the Oedipus complex is responsible, and so on. I suggest that you read a beautiful little pocketbook called I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, by Hannah Green. There you see a typical example, how that girl invented this childhood trauma, to have her raison d’etre, her basis to fight the world, her justification for her craziness, her illness. We have got such an idea about the importance of this invented memory, where the whole illness is supposed to be based on this memory. No wonder that all the wild goose chases of the psychoanalyst to find out why I am now like this can never come to an end, can never prove a real opening up of the person himself. (P. 62)

Considering that trauma work is a critical part of therapy, could Perls’ words in the above passage put into question his credibility on the subject of trauma? Well, before the “Harry & Meghan” saga at the turn of this year, 2023, and before “woke-ism” lost its meaning, which is compassion, I might have considered Perls’ opinion here archaic. However, now I understand what he’s saying. Perls warns us in 1969 that we will want to redeem ourselves from our low self-esteem, and the easy way out of true healing from this shame is to lay blame or make excuses for ourselves. Laying blame is relinquishing responsibility, not what trauma work or psychotherapy is about.

The work with trauma, revealing and processing traumatic events in psychotherapy functions to bring to light childhood pain that the client was not previously able to access. In childhood, the individual adapts to suffering out of context. Adaption to suffering ultimately becomes a fixed pattern of being in the world. This pattern is the personality. When the pain of the past is revealed, it can be felt, sensed and shared. In therapy, the therapist witnesses the suffering that is shared. When this happens, there is enlightenment. The client can then fully grasp feelings they have dissociated from in childhood and infancy. Only then can these feelings be relegated to the past. Feelings relegated to the past will less likely interfere with the present and future without awareness.

The “woke” movement of popular culture today has used the psychotherapeutic process as a Trojan horse for its agenda. Instead of realising suffering and being compassionate to their child-self, the woke seek to redeem themselves of the shame (‘low self-esteem’) from having to suffer childhood helplessness by taking revenge. Revenge is a need for release, to lash out, to whine at the world, to complain and criticise, and it is cathartic. The act of revenge is infantile. The woke person plays the role of victim and perpetrator. In so doing, they fail to mature. They become toddlers in grow-up bodies that can cause destructive revenge. Revenge is violent, and the acts do not heal anyone. Revenge is the transfer of pain from the sufferer to their victims through violence. Violence is the transference of pain that is absent in the perpetrator to the victim. Pain is transferred until it is transformed (Weil, 1952, in this article).

Perls on Group therapy

Basically I am doing a kind of individual therapy in a group setting, but it’s not limited to this; very often a group happening happens to happen. Usually I only interfere if the group happening comes merely to mind-fucking. Most group therapy is nothing but mind-fucking. Ping-pong games, “who’s right?,” opinion exchanges, interpretations, all that crap. If people do this, I interfere. If they are giving their experience, if they are honest in their expression — wonderful. Often the group is very supportive, but if they are merely “helpful,” I cut them out. Helpers are con men, interfering. People have to grow by frustration — by skillful frustration. Otherwise, they have no incentive to develop their own means and ways of coping with the world. But sometimes very beautiful things do happen, and basically there are not too many conflicts, everybody who is in the group participates. Sometimes I have people who don’t say a single word through the whole five-week workshop and they go away and say that they have changed tremendously, that they did their own private therapy work or whatever you want to call it. So anything can happen. As long as you don’t structure it, as long as you work with your intuition, your eyes and ears, then something is bound to happen. (p. 93)

Reference

Perls, Frederick (Fritz). (1969/1992) Gestalt Therapy Verbatim (p. 93). The Gestalt Journal Press. Kindle Edition.

Fritz Perls: What is Gestalt? 1970 Video

The founder of Gestalt therapy, Fritz Perls tells us in his own voice in this gem of a video. What gestalt therapy is. Listen to this, and we can make up our minds as to how relevant this modality of psychotherapy Gestalt therapy is, and has developed till today.

This is what Fritz tells us…

The idea of Gestalt therapy is to change paper people to real people. To make the hollow men of our time come to life and teach him to use his inborn potential. To be a leader without rebelliousness. Having a center without being lopsided.

The social milieu in which we find ourselves, regulated by “should-isms”, by Puritanism where you do your thing whether you like it or not; or by the other extreme, hedonism, “where we live for fun and enjoyment, being turned on anything goes as long as it is nice.”. We become phobic towards pain and suffering.

We avoid and run away from frustration or pain. The result is the lack of growth. [He is not talking about masochism].

The main idea about Gestalt is that Gestalt is about the whole; about being complete. This involves guiding the person to feel, sense and perceive the present (the now), even painful emotions, and allowing the self understand the now and be integrated in the experience.

We ask how. We don’t ask why. Asking ‘how’ helps us to understand. It is in understanding that we can change structure of our life script.

3 Approaches to Psychotherapy: A Quick Comparison of the Gloria Tapes

This is a video I made to compare the Gloria sessions with three psychotherapists, Fritz Perls, Carl Rogers and Albert Ellis.

The psychotherapists demonstrate their different psychotherapeutic schools. Perls is a Gestalt therapist, Rogers is a person Centered Therapist and Ellis is a behavioral therapist.

Psychotherapy research of today has shown us that the he personality of the therapist is an essential factor in therapy process.

0:59 When we observe how the client at first moments of meeting the therapists behaves differently in each session, we may be able to understand the phenomenon of this idea.

At 3:37, we look at the body language of the therapist and client. 4:40 Non-verbal communication is sometimes more telling of the interaction.

At 5:50, we compare who spoke more, who had more air-time in the sessions.

To end the video, the representing theme of the Gloria tapes were discussed.

Fritz Perls: Quotes on Therapy in Groups

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.”

group therapy

… 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):

Fritz Perls: Working with Dreams in Gestalt Therapy

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 seem to us mysterious: on the one hand there seem 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.

From the 9th Century didactic poem of Titus Lucretius Carus, De Rerum Natura (IV, v. 959),

The unconscious material in dreams are 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 the proof that in people who suffer sleep disorders, the problem are the result of the mind not being able to let go of the external world. This is a world of the senses, and of spiraling thoughts.

Dream work in Gestalt Therapy

Sigmund Freud has, in one of his most-read book, 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 of mine find Perls’ style brash and some even find it bullying. Before we judge, it is important to ask ourselves if the work that Perls demonstrated served the volunteer. Mostly it has. The members found greater self awareness, and many have experienced a closed gestalt, or an integration of their split parts. Also it is useful to note that Perls’ clients are actually 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.

“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.”

Read also: Dreams and Dream Work in Psychotherapy 

References

Freud, S., & Strachey, J. E. (1964). The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud.

Perls, F. S. (1969). Gestalt therapy verbatim.