Gestalt therapy is a humanistic treatment developed by Fritz Perls in conjunction with his wife, Laura, in the 1940s. It has roots in Gestalt psychology, which looks at the human mind and behavior as a whole, rather than as a sum of its parts. Perls collaborated with Paul Goodman and Ralph Hefferline in 1951 on the first book on the subject, Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. Soon after, he set up the first Gestalt therapy training facility in New York City. Gestalt therapy shares similarities with other humanistic therapies, such as person-centered therapy, but differs in key ways. Here is what you need to know about Gestalt Therapy.
Concepts of Gestalt therapy
Unlike most newer therapies, Gestalt therapy is not structured. There are beliefs to be explored and techniques to employ, but not a manual to obey or set stages to follow. The following are the key concepts of Gestalt therapy:
As with other humanistic therapies, Gestalt therapy is client-centered. The therapist does not act as an expert as much as a collaborator. They are empathetic and understanding. They respect the client’s experience and allow it to lead the therapeutic process.
Focus on the present
Unlike traditional psychodynamic therapy, the focus of Gestalt therapy is on the present. Clients may bring in past experiences but are then asked to process them in the session as it relates to the present day. The therapist will likely concentrate on what is happening in the session and what it means to the client. By concentrating on the here and now, the client can take responsibility for their present behavior.
In Gestalt therapy, helping the client understand their experience is critical in facilitating change. The therapist accepts the client’s experience as truth, rather than interpreting or imposing their judgments onto the client. Personal development arises from the acceptance of that experience rather than trying to replace their thoughts, feelings, and behavior. The objective is for the client to come to trust their experience in order to reduce feelings of distress.
By emphasizing self-awareness, Gestalt therapy aims to help clients better understand themselves and how the decisions they make affect their well-being. With this knowledge, clients can begin to understand how their emotional and physical selves are connected and develop the self-confidence to more effectively face problems when they arise. Suppressed emotions are brought to light in session and examined in an effort to alleviate pain and conflict. Understanding the internal self is seen as the key to understanding behavior.
Gestalt therapy techniques
Empty chair technique
In this exercise, the therapist asks the client to role play having a conversation with another person or a part of themselves. The therapist will ask the client how they experienced this discussion and explore previously unexpressed emotions. This might bring to the surface the issues underlying the relationship and help them become more aware of their perceptions. The ultimate goal is to resolve issues that the client may have with that person or with themselves.
When using the exaggeration technique, the therapist will note a client’s body language or expression during the session, such as bouncing their leg or smiling. The therapist may even ask the client to recreate their behavior in an exaggerated manner. The goal is to make the person aware of the thoughts and emotions that are fueling their behavior. In this way, Perls was a pioneer in acknowledging the importance of the mind-body connection.
Effectiveness of Gestalt therapy
The benefits of Gestalt therapy may be substantial but the research on its efficacy is limited. As with many hard-to-measure psychotherapy techniques, there is a relatively small pool of research. While there is little doubt that Gestalt therapy helps develop self-awareness, self-confidence, and responsibility, these variables are hard to measure. Further, it has been claimed that Gestalt therapy can help with physical ailments and addiction, but there is little credible research to support these assertions.
That being said, Gestalt therapy has been shown to reduce depressive and anxiety symptoms. In particular, it has alleviated anxiety in a research study on worried parents. It has also been shown to help depressed women when compared to other treatments. In addition, it has exhibited success in treating anxiety and depression in older populations.
Gestalt therapy training
Becoming a Gestalt therapist is an involved process. Basic training in Gestalt principles is going to require many hours of education and is not widely taught. This is not a type of therapy where you can find a day-long training nearby and become certified in six hours. Instead, you will need to find an institute that specializes in Gestalt therapy and be prepared to spend a significant amount of time and money on training. For example, the Gestalt Center for Psychotherapy and Training in New York City offers a years-long part-time certification. For those that want something slightly quicker and more convenient, Gestalt Associates Training Los Angeles offers a six-weekend training program that therapists can take online. As you can see, becoming a skilled Gestalt therapist is not something to take lightly.
Gestalt Therapy Resources
Here are some helpful Gestalt therapy resources:
- Another useful book for clinicians is Gestalt Therapy: 100 Key Points and Techniques, which provides practical information every Gestalt therapist can use.
- In this case study, a contemporary Gestalt therapist debunks myths about Gestalt therapy.
- In one of the most influential training videos of all time, Fritz Perls performs Gestalt therapy with a client.
Gestalt therapy is a holistic therapy approach that aims to increase client awareness and help work through unresolved issues. It has had success in treating anxiety and depression but it is not very well-researched, despite its longevity. If you would like more information about Gestalt therapy and other forms of treatment, you will find TheraPlatform a valuable resource.
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