What Is Gestalt Therapy?
Gestalt therapy was developed by Fritz Perls, with the help of his wife at the time, Laura Perls, and introduced in the 1940s as an alternative to more traditional psychoanalysis.
Gestalt therapy is a person-centred form of psychotherapy which focuses on a person’s present life and challenges rather than going into their past experiences. This approach stresses the importance of understanding the context of a person’s life and taking responsibility rather than placing blame. There is an emphasis on how we perceive the world in this particular theory of counselling. Gestalt therapy gives attention to how we place meaning and make sense of our world and our experiences.
There are a number of principle ideas that come into play with gestalt therapy, from perception to self-awareness. Our personal experiences naturally influence how we see and make sense of the world. The therapist offers a space for the client to explore their experiences and how these experiences have affected them.
The key tenet of gestalt therapy is the focus on the present. We work very hard to survive painful experiences, and part of this survival may include shutting down our emotional hurt or painful memory of the event. A gestalt therapist understands though that things such as painful memories or events will come to awareness only when the client is ready for healing in that area.
During gestalt therapy, there will be some exercises that you will do with your therapist. Rather than sitting still and talking, you may be asked to participate actively in something like role play, guided imagery, or the use of props to help communication and understanding. Engaging in these exercises can be a wonderful way to open up and share, especially when it is difficult to find words or when you tend to process in a more visual way.
Words and Language
Attention to language and tone is important in gestalt therapy. The client will learn to use language that reflects a sense of personal ownership rather than focusing on others. For example, rather than saying, “If you didn’t do that I wouldn’t get so annoyed!” a client might be encouraged to say, “I feel really annoyed when he does that because it makes me feel insignificant and I don’t like how it makes me feel.”
The use of “I” statements is important in gestalt therapy.
This is a role-playing exercise that allows a client to imagine and participate in a conversation with another person or another part of themselves. Sitting across from the empty chair, the client enters into a dialogue as if they were speaking with that other person or that other part of themselves. The empty chair exercise can be very helpful in drawing out important perceptions, meanings, and other information that can help clients become more aware of their emotional experience.
Another example of this kind of role-playing might described as “top dog and underdog.” In this role play it is recognized that a client has different parts of self. Similar to the empty chair, the client speaks as both the top dog which is the more demanding side of their personality and the underdog, which is the more submissive and obedient side of their personality. The idea is to become aware of inner conflicts so that the person can better learn how to integrate these parts of self into a more complete whole.
During a session, a gestalt therapist will observe the client’s body language and movement such as tapping their foot, wringing their hands, or making a certain facial expression. The therapist is likely to mention their observation of this and ask what is happening for the person at that moment. Incorporating language, the gestalt therapist may even ask the client to give their foot, hands, or facial expression a voice and speak from that place.
During a session, it is common for people to talk about emotion. Talking about emotion is different than experiencing an emotion. As a client talks about emotion, the therapist may ask them where they feel that emotion in their body. Examples of how a person might describe how they’re experiencing emotion in their body include “a pit in my stomach” or “my chest feels tight.” Being able to bring the emotional experience to awareness in the body helps the client stay present and process their emotions more effectively.
What Gestalt Therapy Can Help With
There are a variety of conditions that gestalt therapy may be used to treat, including:
Low self efficacy
Low self esteem
Benefits of Gestalt Therapy
Some of the potential benefits of gestalt therapy 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