Gestalt Therapy

What is Gestalt Therapy?

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Gestalt therapy grew out of the humanistic theoretical orientation. This stance views people as connected to and influenced by the environment around them. Yet, it also views people as generally good and as being capable of choosing to move towards growth and balance.

This theory lies in contrast to its predecessor in the field, psychoanalysis, which had a darker view of people as being full of sometimes destructive instincts that must be controlled. Gestalt therapy does also draw from person- or client-centered approaches. This emphasizes the use of three things: empathy, understanding, and unconditional positive regard to promote positive therapeutic outcomes.

Gestalt Therapy: What is it?

Gestalt Therapy grew out of Humanistic theory. It is one of the client-centered approaches. The focus of this approach is to help clients be more aware of the present moment. This approach also serves to increase people’s understanding of what is truly happening in their lives as opposed to what just their perceptions tell them. To aid with this, clients are asked to experience current and past situations, in the therapy space, where they can analyze them and become more adept at being mentally present.

Gestalt Definition

The term “gestalt” generally means “whole.”  This term was selected as the title of the approach because the maker of gestalt therapy believed that people should be viewed as a whole. This whole is comprised of various parts, including the mind, body, and soul. With gestalt therapy emphasizing the whole, this also means not only the entire person but also the context they reside within. This approach views people as influenced by their contexts.

Gestalt Therapy Theory

As noted, gestalt therapists believe people should be viewed as a whole. Moreover, they believe that people can be most understood when they are personally examined through their own perspectives and in the current moment. It is also thought that difficult feelings including anxiety, anger, pain, and other negative emotions need to be actively experienced and expressed (rather than just distantly discussed). All of this should occur in the present moment or what is called the “here and now” in gestalt therapy.

How Does Gestalt Therapy Suggest the Mind Works?

Gestalt therapists believe that living in the past and distancing one’s self from their emotions can cause psychological and physical symptoms. Further, to alleviate these problems, people must develop their self-awareness so that they can understand themselves better. Improved self-awareness allows a person a person to comprehend the ways that their choices can affect their lives. This allows a person to ultimately have more confidence in their choices. Ultimately, that allows people to deal more effectively with their problems and live fuller lives.

Important Practitioners in Gestalt Therapy

Gestalt therapy was developed in the 1940s. Some of the key developers were Fritz Perls, Laura Perls, and Paul Goodman. The early gestalt therapists were inspired to design this approach as an alternative option to the conventional psychoanalysis that was popular up to that point.

Fritz Perls

Among the early gestalt therapists, Fritz Perls is most typically recognized as the leading founder of this approach. Perls trained with gestalt psychologists, existential philosophers, and psychoanalysts. These interactions and his own work in psychoanalysis helped him to develop gestalt therapy. However, he did not do that work on his own. His wife, Laura Perls, was also active in the founding of this approach. Together, they both helped to popularize it.

How Does Gestalt Therapy Cause Change?

Gestalt therapy approaches are done towards the goal of becoming more aware of one’s self, taking more responsibility for one’s actions, accepting consequences for choices, and learning to meet your needs. Gestalt therapists use a blend of techniques to enhance awareness for one’s sense of choice.

The goal is not to force people to change, but instead to help them accept what is. This allows suppressed emotions to move to the surface, where they can be dealt with. Essentially, when a person can move towards acceptance, they will be able to function better and with less psychological distress.

To accomplish this change, the therapeutic relationship is given strong emphasis in gestalt therapy. Gestalt therapists believe that authenticity can help to build the therapeutic relationship. This aspect makes this approach quite similar to the other humanistic approach, client-centered therapy.

What Happens in a Gestalt Therapy Session?

Gestalt therapy sessions ask the client to focus on what is happening in the current moment. This means that rather than extensively discussing the past, present concerns are discussed so that solutions can be found. At times, clients may be asked to re-enact moments. Clients will certainly be asked to experience and discuss their current, active feelings so that they can move towards acceptance of them.

Techniques Used in Gestalt Therapy

The most commonly used technique in gestalt therapy is the use of questions that will encourage the client to think about their current experiences. Gestalt therapists will ask questions such as “what do you feel in this moment?” Along with asking questions, gestalt therapists will also dialogue with clients, wherein the therapist and client discuss their current experiences and reactions during the session. This brings attention to the “here and now.”

Mental health providers who approach therapy from this framework will also use other techniques such as confrontation, role-playing, guided fantasy, and dream work, to enhance the focus on current struggles and increase personal self-awareness.

Given the variety of techniques that a gestalt therapist might employ, every therapy session may appear somewhat different. Many gestalt therapists will use a variety of techniques in each session as they seem appropriate. One common thread will be to bring things into the “here and now” to work towards that goal of increasing self-awareness and acceptance.

Gestalt Therapy

To aid this, the therapist may actively draw attention to things that happen in the therapy space, such as the client’s nonverbal behavior, especially if there are expressive changes that could increase awareness. One specific approach that counselors may use in conjunction with this is to have clients do an exaggeration exercise, where they exaggerate some mannerism to become increasingly aware of it. This can be one method to increase personal self-awareness.

Empty Chair Technique

One of the techniques often used in gestalt therapy is the empty chair technique (although it can also be used in other therapy approaches too). This is an interactive technique designed to help the client engage with their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

In this technique, clients are asked to interact with an empty chair, to work through whatever it is they need to work through. In most cases, the empty chair will take on the role of a person that the client needs to communicate with. By interacting with an empty chair, the client is able to communicate what they need to, in a safe setting, in a way that lets them actually learn more about themselves. At other times, the empty chair can be used to allow the client to interact with and integrate various part of themselves (working towards that ever-important wholeness).

The empty chair technique may feel unusual for the client at first. However, it does seem to allow clients to actively experience conflicts and conversations that they want or need to resolve. For this reason, it is considered a very effective technique, making it popular among gestalt therapists and as noted, it can be adapted for use in other approaches too.

Does Gestalt Therapy Work?

Gestalt therapy is practiced in both individual and group settings. The approaches used do seem to be helpful for increasing personal awareness and helping people to accept what is.

What Kinds of Concern is Gestalt Therapy Best For?

Individuals choose to attend therapy for a variety of reasons. Some presenting concerns are better served by specific therapeutic approaches. Anyone who wants to increase their self-awareness may find gestalt therapy helpful. It also seems to be helpful for clients who have issues related to self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and relationship challenges. It has also been proven helpful for health problems such as migraines, back spasms, and ulcerative colitis.

How Are Gestalt Therapy Specialists Trained?

Gestalt therapists typically have a foundational training and education in mental health. That education may be in clinical or counseling psychology. It could also be in marriage and family therapy. Beyond that education, these individuals may have adopted gestalt therapy as an approach they preferred and then sought additional training. That training could be informal and experiential. It could also be through more formal means such as through attending specialized trainings, seminars, and conferences.

Concerns/Limitations in Gestalt Therapy

Gestalt therapy may be helpful for a range of presenting clinical concerns, as noted above. However, it may be less helpful for more severe mental health concerns, such as Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia. These clients may need other approaches, including perhaps medication. Moreover, some clients may just not respond as well to this approach. A therapist should monitor client response and adjust accordingly. Alternatively, clients who seek this approach or who would prefer not to partake of this approach should look for a therapist that will match their specific interests and needs.

How to Find a Therapist

If you are interested in pursuing therapy, there are many ways to find the right therapist for you. Many people start by asking their medical primary care provider for recommendations. You might also ask friends and family members who they would recommend. It can also be helpful to research potential providers online, where you can view information about them and sometimes even read client reviews.

What Should I be Looking for in an LMHP?

When you search for a licensed mental health professional (LMHP) you first and foremost want somebody who is properly educated and licensed in their field. You will also want to make sure they have experience treating the presenting issues or concerns you want to address.

If you want to participate in gestalt therapy, then you can look for someone who is experienced in using this approach. You might ask if they have received any additional education and training in gestalt therapy approaches. You might also ask if they can apply this approach to your case.

When you look for a therapist, you also want someone who you feel comfortable with, which you can probably best assess during a consultative phone call or the first face-to-face session. When you feel comfortable with your therapist it will be easier to make progress in therapy.

Questions to Ask a Potential Therapist

Before you meet with a therapist, you may have the opportunity to ask them questions via email or phone call. If not before the first session, then certainly during your first meeting with a therapist you want to ask them some important questions to assess that it is the right fit.

You may want to ask your potential therapist some logistical questions such as their hours and fee structure. More importantly, you want to find out if they have the training and experience needed to treat your presenting concerns. You may also want to ask what approach your potential therapist will take, how long therapy will take, and how they will assess your progress.

Find a Therapist Now

If you want to find a therapist, there are websites to help you find local options. One helpful site is Psychology Today, which allows you to search for providers according to your location. The SAMSHA website also has a provider locator to find nearby low-cost treatment options. Of course, today, many people choose to obtain therapy through online platforms.

If you elect to pursue therapy online, you will want to use a convenient and confidential platform. One quality option is Thrive Talk. This platform is easy to use. You start by setting up an account and then get matched with the right therapist for you. There are many potential providers to choose from. Each is trained and appropriately licensed in their field. Then, you can use the online platform to schedule an appointment at the time that is most convenient for you.

Final Thoughts on Gestalt Therapy

Today, gestalt therapy remains a popular approach. At a minimum, many mental health providers use at least some of the components as part of an integrative approach. Some of the components may also be integrated into therapy in subtle ways. Moreover, some of the specific techniques may be used by any provider who feels they may be valuable to a specific client to help them meet their clinical needs.

About the Author Depression Alliance Staff

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