Gestalt Therapy: The Paradoxical Theory of Change

Since its founding, Gestalt therapy has been at odds with the dominant medical and psychiatric paradigm of therapeutic change. In the 1970s and early days of its development, the founders of this therapeutic modality, Fritz & Lore Perls and Paul Goodman crystallized the concept of change in psychotherapy through the work of Arnold Beisser, who named this theory the Paradoxical Theory of Change.

“[T]hat change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not. Change does not take place through a coercive attempt by the individual or by another person to change him, but it does take place if one takes the time and effort to be what he is – to be fully invested in his current positions. By rejecting the role of change agent, we make meaningful and orderly change possible.

Beisser (1970)

Humanistic and existential approaches to psychotherapy emphasize the movement in the here-and-now in the therapeutic relationship. The therapist does not assume the role of fixer or changer but pays attention to the existential meeting with the client. Attunement to the therapeutic situation enables the client and therapist to study and appreciate the phenomenon of their co-created field, which is the physical and emotional environment. In this environment, suffering (or pathos) is felt, grasped and seen. This process of inquiry into pathos is the essence of psychopathology.

People do not change by trying to be who they are not.

Change does not happen through striving or coercion—the person who abandons attempts to disown parts of themselves and tries to change experiences the shift. Hence the paradox, to change, one first seeks to refrain from jumping into influencing change.

The person seeking change in therapy is in conflict, constantly thinking of moving between what they “should be” and what they think they “are”. This dichotomy of personhood is brought to light experientially in therapy. From staying with the discord, the client finds integration.

The Gestalt therapy process is experiential. We use experiments so that clients can learn with an embodied experience. The embodiment of the experience kicks of a cascade of real, percievable change, where the split parts of the self is actualizes into an evolved version. Perls alludes to this spontaneous change in this passage:

[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 sobusy projecting themselves as this or that. This is again the curse of the ideal. The curse that you should not be what you are. (Perls, 1969 p.39)


Beisser, A. (1970). The paradoxical theory of change. Gestalt therapy now1(1), 77-80.

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