Gestalt Therapy

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According Gary Yontef (1989) Gestalt Therapy was founded by Fredrick and Laura Perls in the 1940’s. Its practice focuses on contact and awareness.  Kirchner states that the German word Gestalt cannot be translated into an English word but can be defined as “a shape, a pattern, a whole form, and a configuration.” This existential form of therapy believes that each person is unique, is a whole, and has the ability and responsibility to create the life they want.  It should be noted that gestalt therapy is not Gestalt psychology. The therapy stems from the psychology but is also influenced by somatically-oriented psychoanalysis, European existentialism, and phenomenology. (Ridgeway, 2007)

Fredrick Perls, also known as Fritz, was a Jewish psychiatrist. In WWI he was a medic in the Army, and later married his wife Lore, also known as Laura, in 1930. She had at doctorate in psychology. After the rise of the Nazis, the Perls fled to the Netherlands, then later to America.  After their immigration to the states, they broke away from the mainstream psychoanalytic psychology and began to develop gestalt therapy. Fritz and Laura established the New York Institute for Gestalt therapy in 1952 and departed the institute in the mid 1950’s.

There are four basic perspectives of Gestalt therapy: Phenomenological perspective, field theory perspective, the existential perspective, and dialog. The phenomenological perspective implies that everything someone “feels” is subjective. The phenomenological perspective focuses on awareness. In order for someone to be aware, they must take the feelings that are subjective and understand the situation as a whole, however, objective reality does not exist.. Not only not this perspective suggest that the client should be aware, but be aware of awareness and its process.

The field theory perspective is the foundation of the phenomenological perspective. This theory describes an entire field. The “event” in concern is a piece of the field along with immediate relationships. Field is a set of interdependent elements. The field is constantly changing and the client must be seen in its context or environment, yet there are boundaries between people and environments. The field theory perspective does not speculate, classify or interprets, but describes and clarifies the structure of what is being studied. 

The existential perspective is based on the phenomenological perspective. It focuses on direct experiences of feelings such as: joy, anger, happiness, anxiety, and relationships with others. Conventional thought distorts how the world really is, for most people. In other words, most people self-deceive themselves and have an obscured view of their relations in the world and their personal choices. This lack of authenticity begets feelings of anxiety, emptiness, and guilt. This perspective concludes that people are indefinitely reforming themselves because the contexts of their lives are ever changing. 

The last and probably most important concept of gestalt therapy (and all psychotherapies) is dialog. In Gestalt therapy, there are four main characteristics of therapy. The first characteristic is inclusion. Inclusion involves emerging oneself fully into the experience of the other while still remaining autonomous. The one practicing inclusion must avoid judging, interpreting, or analyzing. Inclusion helps the therapist to understand the client and creates a safe environment built on trust for the client. 

The next characteristic is presence. The therapists expresses to the client preferences, observations, thoughts, feelings, personal experience. This method of dialog helps the patient trust and use the immediate experience to obtain awareness. The goal of presences is to encourage the client to regulate their self without losing their autonomy. 

The third characteristic of dialog in Gestalt therapy is commitment to dialog. Instead of having an agenda to talk about, the therapist focuses on the here and now. The therapist understands that dialog must be used by client and therapist and not dominated by one or the other. It is an interpersonal process that allows the contact to happen without manipulation. 

The last characteristic of dialog is dialog is lived. Gestalt therapy encourages different modes of dialog such as: dancing, song, words, or any form of expression that creates movement and energy between the therapist and client. In other words, dialog is not just talked about, it is lived.  It is important to note, however, that lived dialog should not contradict the code of ethics or therapeutic tasks.    

To conclude, gestalt therapy can be described as a phenomenological-existential therapy. It focuses on the moment instead of the past and future. Phenomenological perspective, field theory perspective, the existential perspective set gestalt theory a part from any other theory. Focusing on communication and the present tense, this therapy is client centered with the intention to change lifestyles in lieu of feelings. 

More about this author: Lauren Swafford

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