The Gestalt Theory and Therapy

May 31,2024

Social Care And Health

Introduction to Gestalt Theory and Therapy

The foundations of Gestalt theory and Therapy derive from psychotherapy as it focuses on using psychological methods that emphasise the importance of personal responsibility in self-transformation or reformation. In practice, it focuses on several issues pertinent to an individual's mental health, such as their life's social and environmental circumstances. This includes their relationships with therapists and other acquaintances. In addition to their present experiences and the changes they have made to cope with the current issues. 

The Gestalt theory and Therapy were developed between the 1940s and 50s by collective works of the psychotherapist duo Laura Perls, Fritz Perls and the social critic Paul Goodman. They coined the term Gestalt Therapy in their book same name. 

What is the meaning of Gestalt theory and Therapy?

Gestalt theory and Therapy have two central principles and ideas based on their practice. The first idea crucial to any successful psychotherapy practice is a focus on the present experience of the subject or client. And the second idea is realising that people are part of a large, interconnected web of relationships, making our identity linked to others we know. Therefore, we must understand our relationships with others to understand and analyse ourselves. So, these principle ideas led to the development of four theories that govern the application and practice of The Gestalt Theory and Therapy. In addition, these theories include the Phenomenological method and dialogical relationship. 

Gestalt theory is based on the belief that people are perfection-seekers who wish to become wholesome. The term 'gestalt' itself means 'whole'.  

Gestalt theory and Therapy is an amalgamation of several theories and philosophies, including:

  • Eastern philosophy
  • The new religion
  • Psychoanalysis
  • Existential phenomenology
  • Experimental theatre
  • Anarchy
  • Systems study

How does it work?

The Gestalt form of Therapy focuses on the process rather than the content. Gestalt theory and Therapy shift the client's focus and the therapist from the thoughts of the past and future. In The Gestalt theory and Therapy, the question is always based on the present and the actions in the present. The Gestalt theory and Therapy aim to make the clients aware of their predicament without providing a second-hand interpretation. 

The practitioners or therapists of this form of treatment believe that by doing so, people become capable of analysing and understanding their predicament, which helps them become entirely aware of their actions and thoughts that will produce efficient decision making, which would bring about an ideal change.

Gestalt theory primarily seeks to remove all mental blocks that have been with them for a while. This might be holding people back from attaining fulfilment, satisfaction, and growth.  This approach categorises Gestalt Therapy as humanistic psychotherapy. Since it also involves the analysis of mental scapes and how individuals are engaged in a meaning-making process, the method is also considered cognitive. 

As the practice consists of the relationship and bond between the therapist and the client over several sessions spanning a significant period, this Therapy also adopts the interpersonal approach. Due to its involvement in all these various spectrums of strategies, The Gestalt theory and Therapy are also multi-systematic. Many consider Gestalt theory an experimental approach as there are no set rules or sequence of instructions for a therapist or client to follow.

In the clinical domain, the Gestalt theory and therapy practice draws from the theories of medicine, neuroscience, and physics of the early twentieth century. The Gestalt theory and Therapy also adopt Buddhist techniques that promote mindfulness and self-healing through awareness, like behavioural Therapy.

Gestalt Theory and Therapy

Practice and Theory

As formulated by Perls and Goodman, the initial tenets of Gestalt theory focused on the client's individual experiences and experiential knowledge as its experimental scope. This notion was increased and extended to include the contact between oneself and the other. This is in a system of dialogical relationships between the client and the therapist.

Gestalt theory and Therapy have been integrated into meditation to form one, a whole unified program for individual development called the Gestalt practice. Gestalt theory has been a presence in the development of organisational fields, such as coaching. The four central pillars on which the views of the Gestalt theory and therapy rest are:

Phenomenological method :

The phenomenological approach is what seeks to bring about a sense of awareness. Only through understanding can one avoid errors committed through the influence of bias. The phenomenological approach takes place initially through the epoch rule, in which one identifies their preference and sets it apart to suspend assumptions and expectations. The description rule follows the phenomenological approach. It states that an individual tries to engage with the self rather than getting in with the act of explanation. Following the last practice, the horizontal station rule helps avoid hierarchies or unwarranted prioritisation, which helps categorise the data related to the experiences in order.

Dialogical Relationship:

To set up a dialogical relationship in Therapy, which involves prioritising the client and the therapist, the therapist first begins to 'set a stage' because they have clear ideas about the physical space they must occupy. This denotes the space where the client can enter and make themselves comfortable. This space intends to create an individual feel inclusive. It helps surrender themselves to the process with complete trust rather than being counter-productive and attempting to take control of it instead. While the client feels inclusive, they also sense the wholesome 'presence' of the therapist, which creates the impression for the clients that their therapist is an authentic and 'whole' person, as opposed to perceiving them as an assuming individual who puts on a false façade. The therapist then considers a client's values, strengths, and weaknesses. 

Being inclusive in the sense of a practising professional would mean accepting the clients' values and prejudices without making them feel uncomfortable or threatened by their beliefs or value systems. For example, imposing the notion of atheism on a pious, religious client will not make them feel inclusive, and it might make them shut themselves down mentally for the rest of the session or stop Therapy altogether.

Field- Theory strategies :

Influenced by physics, field theory states that things are not independent, discreet units but a component of something much more prominent in a grand scheme of things. Individual issues are from the influences from the past and the personal observations of the world around them. Field theory comprises ontological and phenomenological dimensions. While ontological dimensions include the physical conception of space and environment, which has places such as one's house, workplace, a place for socialising, the country in which they are citizen, etc. In contrast, phenomenological dimensions include the mental spaces of an individual, such as their conception of the idea of self, their experiences, memories, traumas and unfortunate occurrences that are 'mapped' in their brains. While the ontological dimension is objective, the phenomenological dimension is subjective for each individual. The choice of field dynamics contributes to the strategies developed by a therapist.

Experimental Freedom:

Gestalt theory is experimental because it shifts from mere talking sessions to performative therapy instances. The leniency towards action rather than verbal resolution is regarded as the experimental curve since treatment becomes highly subjective in this area. The client is also free to consider the relationship between the Gestalt theory and Therapy as being practical, as it sometimes adopts corrective methods.

Therapists may employ any reasonably backed methodology that they can professionally choose to eliminate a problem or a predicament the client's faces. For example, suppose a client feels that they have a significant issue of not being able to communicate with their parents. The therapist may prompt individuals to imagine that their parents or parents are present and talk to them. The therapist may also assume the role of a parent and have the conversation directed at themselves. If a person has issues asserting their presence, the therapists may allow them to talk assertively, boosting their self-confidence. A therapist may also work on the posture and breathing patterns of the client.

 A therapist may also request a client to exaggerate a particular non-verbal gesture that they often do if this gesture is demeaning to their personality and exaggerating this expression. It is helping them identify how it may be destructive for them in the long run, emphasising working on the process instead of the content. The therapist focuses on the 'how' instead of the 'what'.

Issues of Gestalt theory and therapy

The Concept of Self

Per the phenomenological approach, the idea of the self is from one's relation to others. Again, how one perceives the concept of others is in contrast to their ideas on the self. This might bring some individuals to a standstill where they may not possess the ability to comprehend a picture of the self fully. This might lead to cases where an individual cannot socialise or interact with others. This will lead to a person acting according to preconceived notions or stereotypes, becoming a social deviant, and distancing others or influencing them in harmful ways.

The Gestalt theory and Therapy are not a means of fixing or healing the 'self' of a client. Instead, it is an exploration of the creation of a self and concepts of others. In Therapy, therapists deal with severe self problems by gradually cultivating a strong bond with the therapist. This, in turn, becomes an experimental base for self-exploration for the client.

Gestalt theory therapists undergo therapies to safeguard their mental health before they begin to practice. It is because building an idea of the self for a client would mean involving the therapist's own experiences. By doing this, the therapists create an example for the clients, showing them how to deal with their own experiences.


Change is a paradoxical phenomenon. The one who attempts to change themselves with merely the intent would never change. On the other hand, by attempting to understand our true selves, through introspection of our experiences, our growth support and sense of 'wholeness' changes. To state it simply, change comes from acceptance rather than deliberate attempts of trying to be changed.

Empty Chair Method

The empty chair method in a typical Gestalt theory and therapy session can cure many deeply rooted issues. Meanwhile, a deeply rooted issue can be associated with anything in one's life. In an empty chair exercise, a patient assumes that sitting opposite them is a reflection of themselves.

They can talk and interact with the empty chair or the idea placed on the empty chair. The client may also switch places with the chair in a symbolic act of trying on another person's shoe to widen one's perspective. The intention of the exercise is a passive attempt to purge an individual's pent-up emotions and frustrations. Effective use of this technique lets the client personally get in touch with their feelings. In addition, it helps them move ahead in their lives.

Influences that shaped the Gestalt theory and Therapy

The works of the German neuroscientist Kurt Goldstein deeply influenced Laura and Fritz Perls during their school days. 

Goldstein's Organismic theory impressed them both. In theory, he considered the composition of a human in terms of their unified and holistic experience. Holistic context considers the body, mind and culture of an individual. Organismic theory can be considered a base for developing the Gestalt theory and Therapy. Both fields encourage the perspective of finding the 'big picture in all things.

In its emphasis on personal responsibility and choice, Gestalt theory borrows from existentialism. The movements in the 1950s and 60s promoted personal growth and human potential. This movement in California contributed significantly to the development of the Gestalt theory and Therapy.

Fritz Perls studied psychoanalysis in Vienna and Berlin. Although The Gestalt theory and Therapy draw parallels to psychoanalysis, there are several significant differences. One major difference between Gestalt theory's psychoanalytical approach is rejecting the idea of 'introjection'. Freud identified introjection as the phase wherein babies develop their teeth and begin to 'consume' food. In psychoanalysis, this process of introjection is also applicable in later stages in one's life. According to Freud, we learn from our experiences unconsciously. 

However, Gestalt theory suggests the development of the sensation of taste. By taking it as an example, a child rejects some food while accepting others. Through this, the Gestalt theory and Therapy want to advocate that individuals do not merely 'consume' experience. Rather they are actively engaged in choosing them. Thus, a therapist may not only interpret a client's experiences but provide them with an opportunity for self-discovery.

In this way, a gestalt therapist helps clients achieve an increased sense of awareness about themselves. In addition, they achieve more wholesome experiences of their possibilities.

Present Status

As a practice, Gestalt theory attained its zenith during the late 1970s and 80s. Later the Gestalt theory and Therapy lost their wings and assimilated into coaching, teaching and organisational development. Recent developments in attachment theories have also been integrated into Gestalt Theory and Therapy. This made it more dynamic and wholesome for the present scenario. Gestalt theory and Therapy have seen widespread acceptance across Europe, where several training institutions and practitioners exist.

Gestalt Centre in London is an example of this; they have trained thousands in the last four decades. Their presence has played a major role in strengthening Gestalt therapy and its practitioners.




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