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What is Gestalt Therapy and When is It Used?

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Gestalt therapy was founded by Frederick (Fritz) and Laura Perls in the 1940s and is a technique centered on the phenomenological method of awareness. Put simply, gestalt therapy is a humanistic and person-centered type of psychotherapy that draws focus toward an individual’s present life where other forms of psychotherapy might try to dissect the past. 

An important distinction of Gestalt therapy from other forms of psychotherapy is that this approach focuses on the responsibility one has over their own actions rather than trying to blame them on experiences or people in the past. 

By definition, the word “gestalt” refers to a holistic perception of something rather than a perception based on the sum of its parts. Where some therapists might utilize traditional methods of psychotherapy that focus on adding up past experiences to understand the present, gestalt might encourage clients to re-experience them and experience new events, understanding them as they happen in the present time. 

The overall goal of gestalt therapy is to help clients become aware of how their own negative thinking coupled with hyper fixation on past events is unintentionally preventing them from achieving happiness in their life. 

Core Concepts

There is Value in Context

In this approach, context is recognized as one of the more valuable things necessary for understanding one’s self. Gestalt therapy adopts the concept created by Kurt Lewin known as “the field.” This theory operates under the understanding that each individual functions in conjunction with their environment or “the field” around them. Gestalt theorists believe that in order to understand and predict a person’s behavior, you have to first understand the field in which they operate or the context that impacts their perception of themselves and of the world. 

Working Through Pain Rather Than Avoid it

Part of being in the present is allowing yourself to feel things as they happen. It is natural for an individual to avoid things that are painful to them. This is a coping strategy that is usually learned as a child as means of protection and it stays with individuals through their entire lives. Gestalt therapy urges clients to stay in the present moment, experience their pain as it happens, and work with their therapist to learn healthy strategies to cope with that pain rather than avoid it. 

Awareness

One of the main skills taught by therapists in gestalt therapy is how to remain self-aware or aware in general. One of the most integral theories that exist in gestalt therapy is that remaining aware is how a person heals from painful experiences. It is the job of the therapist to make sure their client is staying in the present moment by drawing in their attention should they veer too far in the past or in the future. The client needs to learn how to return their attention to “what is” rather than “what is not.”

Theory of Paradoxical Change

Lastly, gestalt therapy and theory hinge on the idea that change happens only when a person becomes more fully themselves and more aware and that it does not truly happen when people are trying to change into who they are not. This is also known as the theory of paradoxical change (Mackewn, 1997).

Techniques to Practice Gestalt Therapy

Language 

Language plays a vital role in how an individual perceives the world around them as well as themselves. Therapists should work with clients to identify language that is empowering, present-centered, and encourages ownership of one’s actions rather than put blame on others. 

For example, if a client is saying things like “I am only this way because my mother made me this way,” therapists should teach techniques that change that thought to one of responsibility for one’s actions like “I acted in this way because it is how I have always responded.” One statement places blame on someone else, one takes responsibility. 

Identifying Physical Emotion

A huge component of gestalt therapy is helping clients become self-aware. Part of helping clients do this is teaching them techniques for identifying their own emotions when they find themselves in different situations. 

A great way to do this is to give clients the opportunity to describe where they physically feel whatever emotion they may be experiencing. For example, if a client is talking about how a certain situation is making them angry, ask them to describe where the anger exists in their body. They may say they feel it in their tummy or their head. This helps bring the client into the present moment by connecting them to their body. 

There are dozens of techniques for executing the gestalt therapy approach with clients. This technique, when properly applied, might be a great option for clients that battle anxiety, dwelling on the past, identifying their emotions, and more.

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