What Is Gestalt

What is Gestalt therapy?

– a brief explanation for people considering therapy.

Why might people come to therapy?

People come to psychotherapy when their way of ‘doing things’, has become unsatisfactory, counter-productive, perhaps distressing. They may want to change how they feel about themselves, and how they relate to others. They often want relief from the distress that goes with these old patterns.

Throughout life, we can become stuck in a habitual way of doing things. The fixed pattern is known as a gestalt. The pattern ay have worked well for us in the past, and is now creating problems: relationships, personal distress, physical conditions, making the challenges of life more difficult to manage.

Gestalt therapy aims to explore these patterns so that people are more aware of how the patterns are formed and are still active, affecting present life.

What is Gestalt?

Gestalt is a German word which refers to the total shape of something. Gestalt psychology, which has influenced gestalt therapy, maintains that we are “hard wired” to find meaning and patterns in life. These patterns help to organize memory, relationships, imagine or plan the future.

We absorb our experience using all our faculties – sensations, emotions, thoughts and ideas, and memory. We experience everything in relationship to others and the world around us. Some of our experiences happen outside of our awareness, some lead us to reflect on what has occurred.

Gestalt therapy supports people to explore these patterns of experience and reflect on them. Gestalt therapy considers:

  • the experience of each person in the context of his or her life
  • and each person in the context of his or her environment.

Experiencing a gestalt means having a sudden moment of clarity, sometimes described as “the penny dropped” or the “ah-ha” moment. After this moment our understanding of ourselves shifts. We feel changed.

What is Gestalt therapy?

Gestalt therapy is optimistic and has a positive view of human development.

Gestalt therapy maintains that not only do people have the capacity to solve their problems and face their difficulties, but also, that they have the ability to live well with others.

Coming to therapy is one way of finding support to realise this human capacity and experiment with new options.

Gestalt therapy does not consider Health in the context of illness, nor the client as a ‘patient to be cured’. It defines Health as the ability to identify, acknowledge and prioritise our needs, both in relation to ourselves and to others important to us, and consequently mobilise ourselves in relation to getting those needs met.

So how does Gestalt therapy effect change? In what has now become a “classic” of Gestalt therapy literature, Arnold Beisser described Gestalt’s paradoxical theory of change. The paradox is that the more we attempt to change ourselves, the more we stay the same. Change emerges as a result of “full acceptance of what is, rather than a striving to be different“.

What happens in a Gestalt therapy session?

A gestalt therapy session offers a safe environment in which you will be able to explore how you relate to others (known as exploring boundary dynamics). Using the relationship with the therapist, you can practice and experiment with this.

The therapist will pay a lot of attention to how you and she interact – and invite you to notice some of the ways this happens (known as the phenomenological approach). She will from time to time invite you to try a different way of interacting, solely as exploration and without any ‘right or wrong’ expectation. This is the ‘experimental’ stance, one of the hallmarks of gestalt therapy.

In learning how you respond to another, you may discover which of your needs you are meeting, and which you are unaware of, or setting aside. You will practice moment-by-moment awareness, and use this to discover new relational possibilities. This art of dialogue as practiced in a gestalt therapy session uses awareness, the therapist’s skill in attuning to the client, the client’s expert knowledge on themselves and their context, and the commitment of both to explore the unfolding experience.

What is of interest in a gestalt therapy session is the client’s total situation, from the concern they have brought to therapy today, such as bereavement, parent-child or other relationship issues, trauma, stress, problems at work, addiction, and many other concerns of modern living, to how they are experiencing themselves in the world at this time, including what they still carry from their past as unfinished, and how they think of their future. This is known as the field of the client.

While many gestalt therapists will not require, at the outset, a complete history of the client’s life, most importantly they will want to hear what meaning the client makes today of their experiences. That meaning naturally evolves from session to session, as does the client’s relational style and their awareness of themselves in relation to others.

Gestalt therapy work can be brief or medium to long-term. It can be time-bound or open-ended. The length, frequency and duration of sessions are agreed between client and therapist, will vary from client to client, and are always negotiable.

As a result of the work you do with your therapist you can expect: a growing awareness of yourself in relation to other people and your environment

  • a growing sense of your own capacity to manage your life and make choices
  • a growing capacity for dialogue – the basis of effective relationships

Some elements of Gestalt Therapy theory and practice

Briefly outlined below are a number of guiding principles for working with a Gestalt approach:

  1. Working in the present (here and now) Gestalt therapy focuses on what is emerging, or happening, in the present moment between therapist and client. Known as the ‘figure of interest’ this may relate to friends, job, family, hopes for the future, memories of the past. However, Gestalt is present-centred: therefore what has happened in the past or is imagined about the future form part of how the client understands their current experience. Exploring the past is not the focus of the client’s work – nor is the future. They are considered only insofar as they can shine some light on – and affect – the current situation.
  2. Phenomenology Gestalt it in order make clear. The therapist will encourage the client to distinguish what they notice, imagine and feel about any experience, in order to deepen their awareness and understanding.
  3. Field theory Gestalt therapy intervenes with the client’s whole situation, taking account of all the forces at play on the client’s experience at the time. This points to the uniqueness of each client’s experience as being shaped by that client’s context and experiences up to that moment. Working with the whole situation of a client means bringing awareness to:
    • the past and the future only as they impact on this client’s present experience
    • the interconnectedness of this client and his or her environment
    • the importance of this client-therapist relationship
    • the ever-changing nature of experience as people impact one on the other.
  4. Dialogue
    The relationship between the therapist and the client is the most important aspect of psychotherapy. This relationship is a microcosm of all other relationships the client has, and is used by the client as a safe space to explore their patterns of relating.
    The Gestalt therapist works by engaging in dialogue rather than by moving the client towards some therapeutic goal and without judging, analysing or interpreting what the client says or does. The Gestalt therapist says what he or she means and experiences during the therapy session. By doing so the client is encouraged to do the same. In turn this will support the client’s growing self-awareness and trust in his/her own experience .
  5. Existentialist perspective
    Gestalt therapy works with the understanding that there is now fixed notion of ‘human nature’. We become who we are as a process of engagement with our environment, and so there are always new possibilities. This supports a developing capacity for resilience in the face of difficulties.
    The existentialist perspective in Gestalt therapy is a “focus on people’s existence, relations with each other, joys and suffering, etc., as directly experienced. […] Gestalt therapy provides a way of being authentic and meaningfully responsible for oneself. By becoming aware, one becomes able to choose and/or organise one’s own existence in a meaningful manner.”
  6. Boundary dynamics
    An important focus of the work is the way in which we respond to others in the moment, whether we choose to join with them or stay apart, whether we express our experience or hold it in, whether we absorb or reject others’ influence. These ways of relating to others, whether aware or unaware, chosen or part of our learned behaviour, are known as ‘boundary dynamics’. They are a useful way to describe and understand patterns of interaction between us and others, and how these shape our relationships, and ultimately change us over time.

Gestalt Therapy and other approaches

While Gestalt therapy has a lot in common with many other forms of psychotherapy, shares its origins with psychoanalysis and many of its philosophical tenets with existential and humanistic therapies, nevertheless it is useful to know that:

  • unlike person-centred therapy – with which it shares its humanistic and phenomenological stance – gestalt therapy is centred on the client-therapist relationship as the microcosm and learning space for all relationships.
  • unlike psychodynamic therapy – with which it shares its focus on the client-therapist relationship – when analysts focus on the client-therapist relationship they do so through the use of ‘transference’ that is where the relationship is formed in the shape of other, earlier relationships. The older structure is deconstructed through interpretations to bring a light to the client’s experiences in relationships.
    In gestalt therapy however, transference and counter transference are named explicitly and form part the dialogue and experimentation with the therapist. The client’s own search for meaning takes precedence in Gestalt therapy.
  • unlike cognitive-behavioural therapy – with which it shares its interest for the obvious, that is the observable behavior – gestalt therapy does not have behavioural change as its goal. Gestalt therapy views behaviour as the outward expression of the client’s ‘best shot’ at managing his or her experience, and further holds that change will emerge organically once clients have fully accepted how they are as their ‘best self’ in the circumstances.

With thanks to various authors: Seán Gaffney, Gary Yontef, Lynn Jacobs, Peter Philippson,