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.

Reference

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 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, 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 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.

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

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.

Dreamwork in Gestalt Therapy

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.”

Gestalt Therapy Dreamwork

This dreamwork is an excerpt from my article in EUJPC. The full article is found here.

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.