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What is gestalt therapy?

Gestalt therapy was developed in the 1940s by Fritz and Laura Perls with the help of Paul Goodman and many others. It is a holistic approach and has integrated so many ideas (such as phenomenology, field theory, existentialism, Eastern religion, experimental theatre and neuroscience) that it is difficult to give a succinct definition. That being said, I will try to give a basic overview (in the sections below) of what gestalt therapy is. Every gestalt therapist will practice their own form of gestalt which will emerge from their own intellectual and embodied understanding, who they are as a person as well as the clients they chose to work with. I will also touch on the kind of person I am, how I understand gestalt therapy and therefore, how I practice it.




Most of you probably have an idea of what awareness means, particularly those who do some sort of meditation practice - whether sitting on a cushion at home or walking mindfully in the woods. This kind of self-awareness is interested in our present moment experience - what is happening and how it feels. This includes thoughts, feelings and sensations. In typical meditation these "figures" are simply observed, without judgement, and allowed to pass. Gestalt awareness is like this - and may at times be exactly the same - but it can also differs in two subtle ways.


Firstly, in gestalt we do not simply notice these figures from a detached place, but we often expand and enliven them. A figure such as grief (which may be a mix of emotion and sensations) may have been long kept out of awareness because historically it has been too much for the person to face. But in a more supportive environment, that figure may be brought into awareness so the client can feel their feelings, integrate this experience, and let go.


Secondly, gestalt is a relational psychotherapy. It does not believe that people are independent, detached entities but rather intrinsically social beings who need each other for our own sense of identity and ongoing autonomic regulation. Even on a celluar level there is an incredible level of co-operation and contact between micro-organisms and viruses. Embracing this, gestalt therapists often ask questions like: "How does it feel to be here with me?"  "How are we doing?" "How is it to be seen my me?" Much of our suffering and pathologies are relational in nature. The shame we feel about parts of ourselves only makes sense from a relational perspective. Therefore, it also makes sense that the healing work must have a relational element also. Unlike other modalities, this lies at the heart of gestalt therapy.



Phenomenology is a philosophical tradition that began in the early 20th century by Edmund Husserl. He was interested in how people make meaning and takes human experience as the starting point of any inquiry. We can doubt any philosophical statement about the world but we cannot doubt our own subjective experience. "Husserl believed that knowledge begins with wonder, the sort of wonder we see in a child's eyes as they experience something for the first time." (Mann, D.)


Husserl was a mathematician and tried to bring a scientific rigour into the world of philosophy. He thought we could study people's experiences from a neutral stance and thus gain knowledge of an objective world. However, such a neutral stance is quite impossible. In the therapy room, the therapist themselves becomes "an inseparable part of his situation" (ibid.). I may be tempted to think that I have an angry or resistant client in front of me but I must ask myself what part I am playing in that anger or resistance. As a white, male therapist, I will undoubtedly perceive a female, person of colour differently that another therapist of differing gender and race. This awareness that all phenomena has a context and perspective comes under another branch of gestalt known as field theory.


While I do not believe a therapist can ever observe from a neutral stance, that does not mean that we should not try to hold back our own judgements, values, prejudices and goals when we meet our clients.

Field Theory


Simply put, a field theoretical approach sees behaviour as a function of the person-environment field. Everything has a context and the meaning of a behaviour cannot be understood separately. Laughter at a funeral will have a different meaning to laughter a a comedy club. One student's B grade could have a drastically different meaning to another's depending on their chosen university's threshold, their parental expectations etc.


Anything that exists in the present may be part of a person's phemonenal field - their culture, beliefs, biology, goals, traumas, sexuality, unfinished business etc. In the therapy room the therapist also becomes part of their field. Acknowledging this, a gestalt therapist must also consider how their field shapes their experience of their client. If a therapist has been cheated on by a romantic partner, how will this influence their response to a client having an extra-marital affair? Therapists can and will bring their own traumas, unfinished business, shame and values into the therapy room. This is unavoidable, but through awareness and dialogue there is potential to learn and grow.


Another aspect of field theory that I like is the principle of changing process - we never step into the same river twice. Just because something held true at one point, doesn't mean it will next time. My son gives me ample opportunities to realise this. When I am trying to get his nappy on and resists furiously, I remind myself of this principle. I give it some time and try again. More often that not the field has changed in some way and what seemed impossible without force one moment, becomes possible another.  This may seem obvious, but as we grow up, things tend to become fixed in our minds and bodies. We tell ourselves that something is not possible for us any more or that I am this kind of person, I can do this and I can't do that. But all we really know is that such was the case in the past. Now things are different and we don't know until we try. It may be fear perpetuating this fixed belief or pattern. In session with my clients we may experiment with this, look at the fear, consider what might support the new experience.

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