Introduction to Gestalt Psychology

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The term "Gestalt" is the German word for "whole." Gestalt therapy aims to bring a person's whole existence, mental, emotional, and physical, into therapy, and promote unity of the self in the world. This is achieved through a focus on the present moment and awareness of current physical and emotional states. Gestalt therapy has been used for many types of problems and in many different settings. Depression, schizophrenia, and relationship issues are common issues that respond well to Gestalt therapy. Gestalt therapy is used in private practices, group therapy, institutions, and even jails. Some practitioners utilize Gestalt methods and exercises in combination with their regular style of practice.

Gestalt therapy was founded by Fritz Perls, a psychoanalyst whose career was often mired in both controversy and fame. Fritz Perls was a German Jewish psychoanalyst, who served in the German Army during World War I. Following the War, he began to study psychiatry, as a follower of Sigmund Freud. When Hitler rose to power, Perls fled to Europe and later to America.

Once in America, Perls studied with famous analysts Karen Horney and Willhelm Reich. In 1946 he compiled his own beliefs, notes, and theories into a cohesive paper entitled "Gestalt Therapy." Later Perls expanded on Gestalt therapy, founding Esalen institute in California to expand on his work.

Perls was a dynamic and intense man, which both attracted followers and controversy. Time magazine once called him the "Hippie Guru," a term that gave him recognition for his charisma, but also devalued the importance of his work. Perls went on to write many books, the most well-known of which is "In and Out of the Garbage Can," his autobiography.

Gestalt therapy emphasizes the present moment. In Gestalt therapy, clients amplify their feelings and seek to heal and integrate damaged or rejected parts of themselves through exercises and experiments. The Gestalt therapist tends to be directive, but also needs to be balanced and attuned to the client in order to avoid pushing too hard.

Well-known exercises include the Chair Exercise, the Reversal Exercise, Making the Rounds, and the Exaggeration Exercise.

In the Chair Exercise, the client sits in front of an empty chair. The client imagines a person, thing, emotion, or unresolved issue is sitting in the chair. For example, this could be their father, boss, depression, or food. The client then speaks directly to the person or item in the chair, telling that person/item exactly how they feel, what the experience of dealing with them is like, and allowing themselves to fully express their issues in a direct manner. In some instances, the thing in the chair is then voiced by the client, allowing the client to hear the response they need from the chair item to resolve the issue or at least be able to put it down.

In the Reversal Exercise, a client plays out the opposite of their experience. For example, a shy, timid, and anxious person may play the role of an extroverted, strong, and outspoken person. By acting out their opposites, clients give a voice to their "dark sides" or repressed aspects of their personalities, letting them become more integrated as a person.

Making the Rounds is a group exercise where one client goes to each group member and says or does something with them. The purpose is to take new risks, confront feelings and fears, and disclose the true self. For example, a person who has been quiet in group therapy, feeling rejected, may perform Making the Rounds by going to each member and finishing the following sentence, "I'm having trouble trusting you because.." This is especially good for introverted or anxious clients.

In the Exaggeration Exercise, the client becomes more aware of their body's signals, needs, and cues, both that they are sending to others and as internal communications. Gestures, postures, and movements can be very significant, yet subtle or incomplete. Through Exaggeration, these cues are magnified over and over, stronger and stronger, until their real message is made clear. Behaviors that work well for Exaggeration are shaking, fist clenching, arm crossing, sighing, and posture.

Gestalt therapy is a complex experiment in the present between the clinician and the client. It is elegant and powerful when done correctly. A true Gestalt primer would require an entire book, this is only meant as an introductory sample. If you are interested in learning about Fritz Perls, Gestalt therapy, or how you can be more present in the world, I would recommend the following books:

Corey, Gerald. 2005. Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy.
Perls. Frederick. 1994. Gestalt Therapy.
Sinay, Sergio; Blasberg, Pablo; Solanet, Mariana. 1998. Gestalt for Beginners.

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