Introduction to Gestalt Therapy

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"Introduction to Gestalt Therapy"
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            In the last 20 or 30 years society has changed. Society has seen new wars emerge between countries, and society has seen the collapse of the American economy, and society has seen record breaking unemployment and layoffs, and people who have lost their pensions to the point that many Americans are facing things that they never thought they would. Things like foreclosure and a record number of Americans are facing depression, “Understanding Gestalt” is the name of this essay and Gestalt therapy is about staying in the present moment.

            The focus of this paper is to help people understand Gestalt therapy better and to introduce readers to its creator Fritz Perls, and the goals of Gestalt therapy, and the weaknesses and strengths and the “I Can Attitude” that Gestalt therapy is designed to teach the individual.


            In order to understand Gestalt therapy, we need to look at its founder Fritz Perls. Fritz Perls was born in 1893 in Berlin into a middle class family, and he saw himself as mostly trouble for his parents. Fritz Perls failed the seventh grade twice, and he was expelled from school because of difficulty with authority. The German school system use to have strict guidelines, at the start of every class they use to lock the classroom doors and if you were late to class you would not be allowed into the class until after their first break. Germany does not have this policy anymore because of a fire in one of the schools that prevented the students from getting out of the classrooms because of the locked doors. 

          Fritz Perls despite his lack for authority managed to receive his medical degree, and in 1916, he joined the German army where he served as a medic during WW1. After the war, he decided to work with brain damaged soldiers in Frankfurt Germany “It was through this association that he came to see the importance of viewing humans as a whole rather than as a sum of discretely functioning parts” (Gerald Corey). Fritz Perls decided to go to Vienna and start his psychoanalytical training but when he came to the United States, he moved away from psychoanalytical traditions, and in 1952, he established the institute for Gestalt therapy in New York City.

          It was towards the end of his career that he settled in Big Sur California where he would do workshops and seminars. Fritz Perls was one of those people that most people described as being either harshly confrontive, or they were in awe of his experiences, while others saw him as “insightful, witty, bright, provocative, manipulative, hostile, demanding, and inspirational” (Gerald Corey) In 1969, he wrote his autobiography "In and Out of the Garbage Pail", he titled his autobiography this because of his highs and lows in life. Fritz Perls died one year later of heart failure.


        Gestalt therapy is designed to put emphasis on the present moment, and if someone is focused on the past, it can prevent them from coming to terms with the present. Gestalt therapy asks "what" and "how" questions and avoids asking "why" questions, although it can be difficult to keep someone in the present because clients will begin to talk, and they will start to reflect on the past. The goal of Gestalt therapy is to bring sadness and pain and the things that are making them confused into the present moment “The goal of Gestalt therapy is to raise clients' awareness regarding how they function in their environment (with family, at work, school, and friends). The focus of therapy is more on what is happening (the moment-to-moment process) than what is being discussed (the content). Awareness is being alert to what are the most important events in clients' lives and their environment with full sensorimotor, emotional, cognitive, and energy support. Support is defined as anything that makes contact with or withdrawal from with the environment possible, including energy, body support, breathing, information, concern for others, and language…” (Gestalt Therapy).  Gestalt therapy is designed to make a person more aware of their environment, so they can begin to understand him or herself better. Gestalt therapy teaches a person to accept him or herself as they are and too make better contact with other people.

        In order for a person to change their personality, they need to have self-awareness because without that, they cannot face and accept change within them “Gestalt therapy is "unpredictable" in that the therapist and client follow moment-to-moment experience and neither knows exactly where this will take them. Gestalt therapy is complex and intuitive…” (Gestalt Therapy). Gestalt therapy is designed to teach awareness and Gestalt therapy will work best if a person is willing to assume responsibility for their own actions, instead of making other people responsible for their thoughts and feelings.

       A person will develop skills and acquire values, and they will learn to ask for and get help from others, and they will eventually be able to help others themselves “The current practice of Gestalt therapy includes treatment of a wide range of problems and has been successfully employed in the treatment of a wide range of "psychosomatic" disorders including migraine, ulcerative colitis, and spastic neck and back. Therapists work with couples and families, and with individuals who have difficulties coping with authority figures. In addition, Gestalt therapy has been used for brief personality disorders …” (Gestalt Therapy). Gestalt therapy is considered to be existential because it deals with the philosophical movement and it views the individual, the self and the experiences of the individual.

      The philosophy part is the freedom to accept the choices that they make. Existential therapy focuses on the individual and Gestalt therapy teaches human beings that they are not alone in the world when they feel loneness, and when a person begins to have those feelings, it can tend to make people think of themselves as meaningless. Gestalt therapy is designed to take the meaningless that we are feeling, and turn it meaningful. Gestalt therapy is not about self-doubt, it is about self-confidence, an example of existential would be the famous line from Stuart Smalley's character on Saturday Night Live, where he starts everyday out by looking into the mirror and saying to himself "I'm going to do a terrific show today, and I'm going to help people because I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and, doggonit, people like me" (Al Franken). That is what Gestalt therapy is; it is having the self-confidence everyday to tell you those few words. Gestalt is about the present and not about the past.

     People have a purpose in this world, and people have to believe that they have a purpose in this world and that they do belong in society. Gestalt therapy can help a person to understand their place in this world and in society while staying in the present moment while understanding their thoughts and feelings “ It is the task of the therapist, therefore, not only to help the patient become aware, but even more significantly to help him transmute this awareness into consciousness..” (Rollo May)  In order for Gestalt therapy to work the individual has to see them as a part of society, and Gestalt therapy will not work if a person is feeling lost in the world and if they believe they will never be able to find their way back “This is most experienced by most people as the moment of most heightened awareness…” (Rollo May). A person who is suffering from loneliness and isolation tends to believe their world has become broken.

    In order for Gestalt to work, a person has to become depersonalized, which means that they are going to have to interact with others, and that person is going to have to stop covering up their problems and start facing them. Gestalt therapy gets a person thinking about themselves in positive ways, it changes their thinking from “I guess I can do that",” I will try and do that''. “I think I can do that"; into “I can do that". I will do that". “I know I can do that". It is not uncommon for a person to feel estranged from nature “When a person lacks commitment his dreams may be staid, flat, impoverished. But when he does assume a decisive orientation toward himself and his life, his dreams often takes over the creative process of exploring…” (Rollo May). A person with self doubt has to rediscover the world, and they have to begin to see the world as meaningful and it is up to an individual to see the openness of the world, and the possibilities for themselves, or they can accept the world as closed, and continue to live in the past, or they can begin to live in the present.


   Gestalt therapy works well if an individual has a lot of problems because Gestalt therapy will build up to the problems and eventually the individual will find a solution to all the problems, and allow them to deal with new challenges while staying in the present moment. Gestalt therapy is designed for a person to take all their problems and all their beliefs about the world and create a positive outlook without relying on past events.

   Gestalt therapy teaches a person to take the “I can attitude”. Gestalt therapy is not for everyone, and Gestalt therapy can sometimes be harsh if an individual is not ready to except responsibility for their own life “Well-known Gestalt techniques include increasing the awareness of "body language" and of negative internal "messages"; emphasizing the client's self-awareness by making him or her speak continually in the present tense and in the first person; concentrating on a part of a client's personality, perhaps even on just one emotion, and addressing it...”(Gestalt Therapy Techniques). A Gestalt therapist will not feel sorry for you or your life or the choices that you have made, and if an individual goes into Gestalt therapy blaming other people for their problems, the therapist is going to turn it around on them.

  Gestalt therapy has one main purpose, and that is to make the individual take responsibility for their own life and the choices that they have made, and the choices that they are going to make “A weakness in Gestalt therapy is an under emphasis on the responsibility of truly liberated persons to strive to change the oppressive structures of society. Peris was keenly aware of the social sources of diminished growth. It is from the collective psychosis of our culture that we learn our phony, deadening games. But in response to this awareness he offered only the image of the autonomous, self-directed individual standing against the insanities of society” (Howard J. Clinebell Jr.) The weaknesses of Gestalt therapy is that not everybody is ready to take responsibility for their own lives and the choices that they have made, and if someone begins Gestalt therapy and they are not ready for it, it could send a person into serious depression, and it can make a person really believe they do not belong in this world, and that they are the fault of their own problems. In order for Gestalt to work, a person has to be 100% committed to taking responsibility and control of their own lives.

  The strengths of Gestalt therapy are if a person is ready to take responsibility head on and not look back; they can have a whole new outlook on life. The final stage in Maslow's pyramid is self actualization “Self-Actualization is described by Maslow as an ongoing process involved in a cause outside their own skin. People on this need level, work at something very precious. This is a vocation or a calling in the old priestly sense. These people are very fine, healthy, strong, sagacious (that is, very smart) and creative” (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). Gestalt therapy attempts to help individuals reach the final stage in Maslow's pyramid, and an individual will know if Gestalt therapy has worked for them because they will be in control of their own life, their own choices, and their own future, and the individual will stop relying on other people, and they will stop blaming others for why their life is the way it is


  There are many types of therapies that a person can try for overcoming almost anything in life. Gestalt therapy attempts to keep people in the present moment without relying on past events, and Gestalt therapy attempts to teach an individual a new way of facing everyday challenges in a positive way without feeling self doubt.

  Gestalt therapy like many other therapies does have weaknesses and strengths, and if a person is ready to take the “I Can Attitude” instead of the “I Think I Can Do That” approach than Gestalt therapy might be the right therapy for that individual. If we as individuals look back at yesterday and do not look at tomorrow in a positive way, than we as individuals are not moving forward at all.

More about this author: Timothy Root

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