Gestalt Therapy and its Implication in Clinical Social Work.
Gestalt therapy is a form of psychotherapy which emphasizes personal responsibility, and focuses upon the individual’s experience in the present moment, the therapist–client relationship, the environmental and social contexts of a person’s life, and the self-regulating adjustments people make as a result of their overall situation. It was developed by Fritz Perls, Laura Perls and Paul Goodman in the 1940s and 1950s, and was first described in the 1951 book Gestalt Therapy.
Gestalt Therapy rejects the dualities of mind and body, body and soul, thinking and feeling, and feeling and action. According to Perls, people are not made up of separate components, this is, and mind, body and soul, rather human beings function as a whole. In doing so, one defines who one is (sense of self) by choice of responses to environmental interactions (boundaries). The word “Gestalt” (of German origin) refers to a “whole, configuration, integration, pattern or form” (Patterson, 1986).
The form of Gestalt Therapy practiced today utilizes ideas, data and interventions from multiple sources, as well as some of the original techniques known to be ‘Gestalt Therapy techniques’. It is noted that Gestalt Therapy has a history of being an approach which creates or borrows specific techniques that are focused on assisting the client to take the next step in their personal growth and development.
Several key concepts underlie Gestalt Therapy, many of which are similar to that of person-centered and existential therapy. However, what does differentiate Gestalt Therapy from these therapies are some of the ideas added by Perls and associates as well as distinctive therapeutic techniques that will be covered further down (Seligman, 2006). The following are the key concepts of Gestalt Therapy:
Wholeness and Integration:
Wholeness refers to the whole person or the individual’s mind and body as a unit rather than as separate parts (Seligman, 2006). Integration refers to how these parts fit together and how the individual integrates into the environment. Often people who come to therapy do not have these parts fitting together in their environment, Gestalt Therapy is about facilitating clients to integrate themselves as whole persons and help restore balance in their environment.
Awareness is one of the most important elements in Gestalt Therapy as it is seen as a “hallmark of the healthy person and a goal of treatment” (Seligman, 2006). When individuals are “aware”, they are able to self-regulate in their environment.
There are two main causes lacking awareness:
- Preoccupation with one’s past, fantasies, flaws and strengths that the individual becomes unaware of the whole picture.
- Low self-esteem.
There are three ways people may achieve awareness through therapy:
- Contact with the environment:
This is through looking, listening, touching, talking, moving, smelling, and tasting. This enables the individual to grow in his or her environment through reacting to the environment and changing.
- Here and now:
This is the individual living in and being conscious at the present moment rather than worrying about the past or the future.
This refers to the individual taking responsibility for his or her own life rather than blaming others.
Energy and blocks to energy:
Gestalt Therapists often focus on where energy is in the body, how it is used, and how it may be causing a blockage (Corey, 2005). Blocked energy is a form of resistance, for example, tension in a part of the body, not breathing deeply, or avoiding eye contact. Gestalt Therapy is about finding and releasing the blockages that may be inhibiting awareness.
Growth disorders refer to emotional problems that are caused by people who lack awareness and do not interact with their environment completely. In doing so, people are unable to cope with the changes in their lives successfully and, instead deal with the problems in a defensive manner (Seligman, 2006).
Unfinished business refers to people who do not finish things in their lives and is often related to people with a “growth disorder” (Seligman, 2006). People with unfinished business often resent the past and because of this are unable to focus on the here and now. One of the major goals of Gestalt Therapy is to help people work through their unfinished business and bring about closure.
General Ideas about Personality Development
Gestalt Therapy deems that people cannot be considered as separate from their environment or from interpersonal relations. The individual is seen as being self-regulating and is able to motivate oneself to solve problems. Individuals are able to work towards growth and develop as their environments allow.
A psychologically healthy person is someone who is self-regulating through the changes in life and has developed a sense of “wholeness” between mind and body (Corsini & Wedding, (2000).
4 Key Concepts and Principles
The German word gestalt has no perfect English translation, but a close approximation is “whole.”
Gestalt therapy is based on gestalt psychology, a discipline of experimental psychology founded in Germany in 1912. Gestalt psychologists argued that human beings perceive entire patterns or configurations, not merely individual components.
This is why when we see a group of dots arranged as a triangle, we see a triangle instead of random dots. Our brains organize information into complete configurations, or gestalts (O’Leary, 2013).
Additionally, the individual is thought of as being involved in a constant construction of gestalts, organizing and reorganizing their experience, searching for patterns and a feeling of wholeness. Gestalt therapy associates feeling whole with feeling alive and connected to one’s own unique experience of existence.
Gestalt therapists apply this philosophy of wholeness to their clients. They believe that a human being cannot be understood by generalizing one part of the self to understand the whole person (O’Leary, 2013). For example, the client cannot be understood solely by their diagnosis, or by one interaction, but must be considered the total of all they are.
To understand what it means to be healthy in gestalt therapy, we must first understand the ideas of figure and ground. To illustrate, let’s use an image called the Rubin Vase.
There is a black outline of a vase on the screen, and at first, this is all the viewer notices, but after a moment, the viewer’s attention shifts and they notice the two faces outlined in the white part of the screen, one on either side of the vase.
In the first perception, the black vase is called the figure, and the white faces are called the ground. But the viewer can shift their attention, and through this act, the figure and ground switch, with the white faces becoming the figure, and the black vase the ground.
Gestalt therapists apply this perceptual phenomenon to human experience. Going through the world, we are engaged in a constant process of differentiating figures and grounds. The figure is whatever we are paying attention to, while the ground is whatever is happening in the background. Healthy functioning is the ability to attend flexibly to the figure that is most important at the time (O’Leary, 2013).
Gestalt therapy sees healthy living is a series of creative adjustments (Latner, 1973, p. 54). This means adjusting one’s behavior, naturally and flexibly, to the figure in awareness.
Here is another example of this process: As I am writing, I realize that my lips are dry and my mouth is parched. I get up, pour a glass of water, and then return to my writing. In response to my feeling of thirst, I shift my frame of awareness from my writing, to drinking water, and then back to my writing. The act of drinking water, satisfying my thirst, completes the gestalt, and I am free to return to my work.
In contrast, unhealthy living results when one’s attention flits from one figure to the other without ever achieving wholeness.
An easy example of this can be seen through our relationships with our phones. If we are working on something important and our phone rings, we can make a decision to ignore it for the moment, finish our work, and then call the person back later. If there is a deadline for our project, this may be the healthy choice. But if we allow our attention to be divided each time our phone rings, we may never finish our project.
Healthy living requires the individual to attend flexibly and intentionally to the most crucial figure in their awareness.
Although we cannot help but live in the present, it is clear to anyone living that we can direct our attention away from it. Gestalt therapists prioritize present moment awareness and the notion that paying attention to the events unfolding in the here-and-now is the way to achieve healthy living.
Awareness allows for the figure/ground differentiation process to work naturally, helping us form gestalts, satisfy our needs, and make sense of our experience (Latner, 1973, p. 72). Awareness is both the goal and the methodology of gestalt therapy (O’Leary, 2013).
Therapists use what is present in the here-and-now, including actions, posture, gesticulations, tone of voice, and how the client relates to them, to inform their work (O’Leary, 2013). The past is thought of as significant insofar as it exists in the present (O’Leary, 2013).
Gestalt therapists focus on helping their clients restore their natural awareness of the present moment by focusing on the here-and-now in the therapy room. Experiences and feelings that have not been fully processed in the past are revisited and worked through in the present, such as with the empty chair technique, explored later in this post.
In gestalt therapy, there are two ways of thinking about responsibility. According to Latner (1973, p. 70), we are responsible when we are “aware of what is happening to us” and when we “own up to acts, impulses, and feelings.” Gestalt therapists help their clients take both kinds of personal responsibility.
When therapy begins, clients do not internalize feelings, emotions, or problems, often externalizing and shifting responsibility for their actions as the fault or consequence of others (O’Leary, 2013). They may be stuck in the past, ruminating on mistakes or regrets about their actions.
When clients are better able to take responsibility for them, they come to realize how much they can do for themselves (O’Leary, 2013).
To do this, clients must have an awareness of what is happening to them in the present moment, as well as awareness of their part of the interaction. Increasing this type of awareness, completing past experiences, and encouraging new and flexible behaviors are some of the ways that gestalt therapists help their clients take personal responsibility.
Originally Gestalt Therapy was predominantly used to treat individuals who were anxious and/or depressed and who were not showing serious pathological symptoms. Although still used in the treatment of anxiety and depression, Gestalt Therapy has been effective in treating clients with personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder.
Gestalt Therapy is also effective in counseling groups, couples, and families (Corsini & Wedding, 2000).
Uses and Benefits
There are a variety of conditions that Gestalt therapy may be used to treat, including:
- Low self-efficacy
- Low self-esteem
- Relationship problems
Gestalt therapy can also be useful for helping people gain greater self-awareness and a greater ability to live in the present moment.
Other potential benefits may include:
- An improved sense of self-control
- Better ability to monitor and regulate mental states
- Better awareness of your needs
- Better tolerance for negative emotions
- Improved communication skills
- Improved mindfulness
- Increased emotional understanding
- There is empirical research to support Gestalt Therapy and its techniques (Corsini & Wedding, 2000). Specifically,
- Gestalt Therapy is equal to or greater than other therapies in treating various disorders, Gestalt Therapy has a beneficial impact with personality disorders, and the effects of therapy are stable.
- Works with the past by making it relevant to the present (Corey, 2005).
- Versatile and flexible in its approach to therapy. It has many techniques and may be applied to different therapeutic issues.
- For Gestalt Therapy to be effective, the therapist must have a high level of personal development (Corey, 2005).
- Effectiveness of the confronting and theatrical techniques of Gestalt Therapy is limited and has not been well established.
- It has been considered to be a self-centered approach which is concerned with just individual development.
- Potential danger for therapists to abuse the power they have with clients (Corey, 2005).
- Lacks a strong theoretical base.
- Deals only with the here and now.
- Does not deal with diagnosis and testing.
Gestalt Therapy focuses on the integration between the “whole” person and his or her environment. This therapy sees a healthy individual as being someone who has awareness in his or her life and lives in the here and now rather than focusing on the past or future. Gestalt Therapy has a number of successful techniques that are applicable in therapy today and may be utilised across a broad spectrum of emotional issues.
Gestalt therapy is effective (Coven, 1977; Greenberg & Clarke, 1986; Greenberg & Webster, 1982; Corey, 2009). It is a positive, humanistic therapy. It helps adherents (both clients and therapists) to become responsible for their own experiences and to experiment with new ways of behaving and thinking. It helps them practice and fully experience key moments and emotions in life (Corey, 2009). Awareness of key themes or patterns encourages practitioners and clients alike to become more genuine, and more open to transition or change.
Yontef (1993) proffers that Gestalt therapy has founded many useful and creative innovations for psychotherapy theory and practice. Kohler (1954) affirms this. He notes that the enthusiasm and undertakings of early Gestalt psychologists were virtues because they produced new revelations and observations. Further, Yontef (1993) says that many of these discoveries and techniques have been integrated into general practice, many times without credit. Even so, Gestalt techniques and methods form a good model for psychotherapy and should continue to be applied and developed (Yontef, 1993). Gestalt ideas and concepts should thus be embraced and researched by more psychologists because of its many positive contributions to the field of psychology.
Although Koffka lamented psychology as a discipline at the beginning of this text, he also affirmed it. He asserted that it is science because it is founded on both facts and data on one side, and on the other side, hypotheses, emotions, and hunches. Sometimes it is difficult to consolidate psychology into cold, hard facts, but it is a human science, one that examines the mind, behavior, and the human condition. It is a comprehensive and an exclusive science in many ways, one that is fluid and always being refined.
Psychology in itself is inherently gestalt in its qualities; it studies entire worlds the human mind and thoughts, human behavior, interactions with the environment, human existence. Because of its experimental nature and benefits, Gestalt psychology is very suitable for further practice and study.
- 1. Corey, C. (2005). Theory and practice of counseling & psychotherapy. (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Learning.
- Seligman, L. (2006). Theories of counseling and psychotherapy: Systems, strategies, and skills. (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Ltd.
- Corsini, R.J., & Wedding, D. (Eds.). (2000). Current Psychotherapies. (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Learning, Inc.
- O’Leary, E. (2013). Key concepts of gestalt therapy and processing. In E. O’Leary (Ed.), Gestalt therapy around the world (pp. 15–36). Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons.
- Latner, J. (1973). The Gestalt therapy book: A holistic guide to the theory, principles, and techniques of Gestalt therapy developed by Frederick S. Perls and others. New York, NY: Julian Press.
- Coven, A.B. (1977). Using gestalt psychodrama experiments in rehabilitation counseling. Personnel and guidance journal, 56, 3, 143-147.
- Clarke, K. M. & Greenberg, L.S. (1986). Differential effects of the Gestalt two-chair intervention and problem-solving in resolving decisional conflict. Journal of counseling psychology, 33(1), 11-15.
- Corey, G. (2009). Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing.
- Yontef, G. (1993). Awareness, Dialogue, and Process. Gestalt Journal Press, Gouldsboro, ME. Retrieved on August 10, 2011 from http://www.gestalt.org/yontef.htm.
- Kohler, W. (1954). Gestalt psychology today. American psychologist, 14, 727-734.
 Nevis, E. (2000) Introduction, in Gestalt therapy: Perspectives and Applications. Edwin Nevis (ed.). Cambridge, MA: Gestalt Press. p. 3.
 O’Leary, E. (2013). Key concepts of gestalt therapy and processing. In E. O’Leary (Ed.), Gestalt therapy around the world (pp. 15–36). Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons.
 Latner, J. (1973). The Gestalt therapy book: A holistic guide to the theory, principles, and techniques of Gestalt therapy developed by Frederick S. Perls and others. New York, NY: Julian Press.
 Leung GSM, Khor SH. Gestalt intervention groups for anxious parents in Hong Kong: a quasi-experimental design. J Evid Inf Soc Work. 2017;14(3):183-200. doi:10.1080/23761407.2017.1311814