Article Writer: Christina Manfredi
Psychological Counsellor; Existential, Gestalt, & Transpersonal Psychotherapist
“Nobody can stand truth if it is told to him.
Truth can only be tolerated only if you discover it yourself because then
The pride of discovering makes truth palatable.”
– Fritz Perls
Gestalt Psychotherapy is a highly progressive, liberating and holistic therapy that originated in the 1950 with Fritz and Laura Perls. It developed as a creative alternative to the sometimes objectifying and austere Freudian traditional psychoanalytic therapy.
Gestalt Therapy values human relationship, authenticity, freedom, and self responsibility and discovery, advocating that we grow and heal in choiceful, responsive relationship with ourselves, others, and the broader environment. In this sense a trained Gestalt therapist does not sit back as a blank projective screen for the client to ‘project’ onto and free associate as in traditional psychoanalysis, but rather brings her/his humanity to the therapeutic contact and connection, is receptive, contactful, attuned, and dialogically relational with the client in the service of the client’s need.
“If you take responsibility for what you are doing to yourself,
how you produce your symptoms, how you produce your illness,
how you produce your existence-the very moment you get in-touch with yourself
-growth begins, integration begins.”
– Fritz Perls
The word ‘Gestalt” comes from the German language with no English equivalent. In essence it implies: a shape, a pattern, a whole form, a configuration, and a constellation of energetic interrelated processes. Gestalt focuses on how the whole picture and experience of a phenomena presents itself in consciousness in the ‘Here and Now’, and what becomes foreground (what stands out for us) and background (what is the background context) within our awareness of an experience.
Instead of splitting and compartmentalizing people into mind, and body, present, and past, right, and wrong, inside, outside, Gestalt Therapy is committed to human wholeness. The client’s physical body, sensations, the psychological, emotional, spiritual, relational, societal, cultural, and environmental experiences are all taken into account as important variables in understanding the client’s current experience.
Gestalt Therapy is a non-authoritarian, and non-interpretive, authentic and relationally mindful therapy. It focuses on the ‘Here and Now’ and addresses how our family and societal conditioning, and unfinished limiting experiences of the past such as trauma, repetitive emotional distress, limiting beliefs, psychological blockages, and unhealthy relationships continue to interrupt our freedom to live a more satisfying life and to be truly ourselves.
Gestalt Therapy advocates that more choice and freedom to be authentically ourselves is also dependent upon developing a greater capacity for self- responsibility, self-support, self-resourcing, and a deeper acceptance of who and how we are in the world. Acceptance of how we are creating our lives, and awareness of our self-support is the point of organic change.
“Nothing changes until it becomes what it is”
– Fritz Perls
Gestalt therapists advocate that if life-negating and limiting patterns are presented more fully in awareness within the immediate moment, the client in noticing and accepting how they bind themselves to historical distress, paradoxically will then encounter a freeing up of internal psychic and physical energy. This will then lead to a natural organic and authentic flow of energy thereby presenting new possibilities of choice for the client. (Krug; 2009).
When we choose to address re-occurring unhelpful behaviours from the past, with an attitude of self-acceptance, and growing more self-support and self-resourcing, this process in turn allows natural empowering changes to occur. We are then free from the dungeon of the past and can intend and choose a more meaningful, purposeful, and fulfilling life.
“So if you find out how you prevent yourself from growing, from using
your potential, you have a way of increasing this, making life richer,
making you more and more capable of mobilizing yourself.
and our potential is based upon a very particular attitude:
To live and review every fresh second.”
– Fritz Perls
There are several foundations and principles in Gestalt Therapy and these can be identified as follows:
- The primary three foundations that infuse Gestalt Therapy are Dialogic Relating, Phenomenology, and Field Theory/Holism.
- Gestalt Therapy values a commitment to the concepts of full body presence, inclusion, and dialogue.
- The dialogic process, and the I-Thou moment as advocated by the German philosopher and theologian Martin Buber is foremost in the therapist-client contact.
- Phenomenological Investigation as proposed by Edmund Husserl, and the influence of Martin Heidegger provides attention to how the individual’s subjective, arising from an inter-subjective experience is being created in the ‘Here and Now’. This process reveals how people create meaning and purpose in their life.
- Existential concepts are central to Gestalt Therapy understanding and practice. (Please read the article ‘What Is Existentialism’).
- The integration of Western and Eastern understandings of awareness mindfulness, and insight. The therapeutic process of awareness, mindfulness and insight are regarded as necessary for self- actualisation. There is a focus on the processes of awareness and insight, and advocating a responsibility of how we are creating our lived experiences.
- Gestalt Therapy embraces the Socrates statement of “Know Thy Self”. The ‘self’ in Gestalt Therapy as stated by Fritz Perls, is not a static entity, the ‘self’ is an active process of ‘being’ and is formed and discovered in the immediate environment from which it arises.
- Awareness of contact/connection-boundaries-separation with self, other and environment is implicit in the therapeutic process. This addresses the way we form attachments and connection inter-subjectively, and how we may or may not have a boundary between self and other, a we-ness and experience of I-ness. The contact boundary is imperative in understanding how we support a boundary of our unique self whilst still remaining in nourishing contact with others and the environment.
- The concept of authentic organismic need satisfaction, and cycle of awareness are implicit processes.
- Gestalt Therapy addresses unfinished business from the past not just for the sake of it, but because it arrives still operating and limiting personal freedom and satisfaction in the Here and Now.
- Identifying and working with the psychological processes of Introjects, Projections, Proflections, Deflections, Desensitization, Retroflection, Confluence, and Egotism. These psychological processes provide an understanding of how the client interrupts their organismic need satisfaction.
- The exploration of the client’s whole experiential field is one of the foundational premises. In this holistic way the client is regarded as living within a broader context that informs their sense of ‘self’, and experience of life. Hence Gestalt Therapy explores the inter-relationship between a client’s psychology, physical body-sensation, emotional, spiritual, and relational, societal, cultural and environmental lived experience. The client is encouraged to listen to all aspects of the self, nothing is discounted. There is an emphasis of interconnectedness, and interdependence of human experience to the wider historical, sociocultural, and ecological environment. Gestalt Therapy advocates that the individual can only more fully be understood in relationship to the unique broader context of their life.
According to Friedmann (1992), “We do not actually exist divided into “inner” and “outer” . . . In reality we are a whole in every moment in streaming interaction with everybody and everything” (p. 19).
- Authentic change in a person’s inner life and consequently their outer life is understood within the concept of the Paradoxical Theory of Change. Authentic inner change paradoxically occurs when a client becomes more fully aware of who and what s/he is in any moment and accepts this. Once any of us accept whom we are, how we are behaving, how we feel, think, perceive, and relate, then change that is authentic, and natural will flow in a holistic manner. Little authentic true organismic change is possible without awareness and acceptance of who we are and how we are.
- We develop authentic and healthy organismic self-regulation by developing awareness of our needs, our choices, self response-ability, and our capacity to self-support and resource.
- Gestalt Therapy emphasizes self response-ability/responsibility, choice, experimentation, and creative possibilities.
In conclusion, Gestalt Therapy is highly interactive, relational and humanistic with an emphasis in integrating some psychoanalytic concepts, humanistic psychology, existentialism, and Western and Eastern approaches to personal development and healing. The aim of Gestalt Therapy is to liberate us from limiting conditioned and stuck patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. It encourages our authentic choice, responsibility, freedom and creativity to live with awareness and generate more of the positive life that we intention in a meaningful and purposeful way.
“We live in a house of mirrors and think we are looking out of the windows”
– Fritz Perls
Buber, M. (1970). I and thou (W. Kaufmann, Trans.) New York: Scribner’s.
Krug, O.T. (2009, Summer). James Bugenal and Irvin Yalom: Two masters of existential therapy cultivate presence in the therapeutic encounter. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 49, 329-354.
Perls, F. (1971) Gestalt Therapy Verbatim. New York: Bantam Books.
Perls, F. (1991) Ego, Hunger and Aggression: A Revision of Freud’s Theory and Method. Gestalt Journal Press In. Gouldsboro, M E.
Yontef, G. M. (1991) Awareness Dialogue & Process: Essays on Gestalt Therapy. Gestalt Journal Press In. Gouldsboro, M E.
Zinker, J. (1977) Creative Process in Gestalt Therapy: New York: Brunner/Mazel Publishers.
“Self-awareness or self-consciousness can lead to the enlarging of consciousness. It can lead to the expansion of control of one’s life. Self-awareness involves the capacity of not only looking back, but also looking ahead. Self-awareness is not only a gift, but it is a responsibility.”
– Mufti James Hannush