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Gestalt Therapy – With the Key Concepts, techniques, and Uses

Gestalt Therapy – With the Key Concepts, techniques, and Uses

Updated on Jul 07, 2023

Reviewed by Dr. Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, MD , Certified Psychiatrist

Gestalt Therapy - Meaning, Theory, Key Concepts, Techniques & More

Key Takeaways

  • Gestalt therapy is a form of therapy based on the humanistic approach to personality development.
  • It focuses on the present moment experiences of the person.
  • It is a holistic and person-centric approach that emphasizes present-day challenges and how to overcome them.
  • Gestalt therapy was first introduced in psychotherapy by Fritz Perls, Laura Perls, and Paul Goodman in the 1940s.
  • Gestalt therapy helps people to understand the context of a person’s life that led to a specific behavior.
  • Gestalt therapy teaches accountability rather than shifting the blame on others.

Gestalt therapy is a form of person-centric psychotherapy that helps to attain closure of past and present sufferings. 

We all have our share of happy and painful moments. Sometimes the past stories of pain and suffering make us overwhelmed. 

We seek ways to close the unfinished business and come to terms with what happened. The therapy helps us in resolving troubling issues of daily life. 

It is built on a basic principle that behavior can be understood on the basis of the context and the current situation of the person.

The therapy stresses the uniqueness of human experiences. It looks into the relation between present experiences and self-awareness that shapes behavior.

The person is also allowed to relive the past moments in the present day scenarios to achieve a non-judgmental awareness of their behavior.

Read on to know more about the varied techniques and benefits of this therapy.

Gestalt Therapy – With the Key Concepts, techniques, and Uses
Gestalt Therapy – With the Key Concepts, & techniques
Gestalt Therapy – With the Key Concepts, techniques, and Uses
Gestalt Therapy – Uses & Benefits

What is Gestalt therapy?

Gestalt therapy is a type of person-centered therapy that aims to improve a person’s awareness of the important sensations and experiences that they come across in their daily lives. The therapy focuses on developing self-direction and feelings of mastery that leads to reasonable responses to situations.

Gestalt therapy is a popular form of a person-centered approach to coping and mastery of adjustment skills to various life situations.

The main guiding principle of this technique is teaching self-awareness to clients. People are taught to remain increasingly aware, be conscious, and think reasonably. 

The client is also guided to act patiently in situations that appear emotionally overwhelming. It helps in emotional regulation as well.

 The therapy teaches self-awareness in the present moment. The person is able to relate the context and their behavior in a rational way, without getting emotionally overwhelmed.

Gestalt therapy relies on the interaction of human beings with their environment.

Individuals are guided to become free, and self-directed so that they can respond in reasonable ways to environmental demands.

At the center of this therapy lies the fact that the context or background of the situation plays an important role in understanding behavior.

It means your behavior in a particular situation will be determined by the context you are in.

For example, if you’re stuck in traffic for a very long time, your obvious response will be anger and irritation.

The context will be the road traffic, along with other factors going on in a hidden way in the situation. 

Maybe you have an important office meeting and you’re worried about getting delayed, or how will other teammates will respond to this delay, etc.

Thus, your behavioral irritation is because of the several other contextual forces operating at the present moment and also in you.

It teaches you to accept responsibility for your actions without shifting blaming or deflecting your negative feelings toward others or the situation. 

The theory and practice of gestalt therapy

Gestalt therapy is a holistic approach that helps people deal with their present-day problems. It helps to develop self-awareness by paying attention to how we assign meaning to situations and try to analyze our experiences. In this way, we try to make a realistic sense of the world around us.

Frederick Perls, a German psychiatrist endowed gestalt therapy with the help of his wife Laura Perls, who was a practicing psychoanalyst. 

In the year 1940, Frederick Perls showed his displeasure about certain clinical aspects of Freud’s psychoanalytic approach.

He went on to develop a person-centered therapy that focuses more on the present-day experiences of the person.

The therapy looks more into the ‘here and now’ aspects and less into the past issues of the person.

The motive of this therapy is to develop self-awareness of the present moment. 

Perls believed that when a person is aware of his / her present state of mind and is able to resolve the issues arising ‘now’; they will also be able to confront the past trauma and sufferings in a healthy way.

When you know the significant sensations operating in you along with the context of ‘why’ and ‘how’ these are happening, you become self-aware.

Thus, the therapy helps you peep inside yourself, self reflect on your thoughts and feelings.

It also makes you aware of the environmental influences that led to a specific experience and behavior.

Perls also pointed out that we do not assign meaning to the parts, or fragmented experiences in isolation; rather a ‘whole’ scenario is interpreted in a meaningful way.

The therapy helps to resolve conflicts and remove ambiguities that arise when you do not assign meaning to situations based on rationality.

When faulty thinking and overwhelming emotions operate, everything appears hazy and blurred.

Thus, the gestalt therapist helps to remove this ambiguity and bring better clarity and awareness.

What is Gestalt?

The word gestalt means ‘form or shape.’ Sometimes, it also means a pattern or configuration. This term came from the Gestalt school of psychology which believed that the ‘whole of anything is greater than its parts.’

According to Patterson (1986), the word “Gestalt” is of German origin. It refers to a “whole, configuration, integration, pattern or form” 

In 1912, the gestalt school of thought or Gestalt theory came into existence with wide-scale research work in the field of human perception.

Its founder was German psychologists Wolfgong Kohler and Kurt Koffka.

The term ‘Gestalt’ was borrowed from Gestalt psychology. You must be wondering why Frederick Perls borrowed the term ‘gestalt’ and used it in his therapy technique.

How does the term gestalt become meaningful in therapy?

As the term gestalt means ‘form’ or ‘pattern’; Perls noted that every person is a blend or an ‘entity’ of the mind, body, and soul.

This means that each small experience that we come across in our lives is a unified whole.

Our experiences are unique and our realities are defined by ‘wholeness’. Nothing operates in isolation.

The meaning that we assign to our experiences includes the way we think, the emotions we feel, and the actions we take to overcome our varied life issues.

Gestalt therapy is person-centric, which means that human experiences are unique. The same situation and context can be perceived in different ways by two different persons.

Thus, he wished to develop a therapy technique where patients will be taught to develop insight into their inner processes. 

At the same time, clients are helped to focus on the present experiences and understand the contexts that led to the behavior.

Once they become aware of the ‘here and now’; they can also confront past traumas and seek closure to an unfinished business through emotional healing.

As a result of this awareness, clients understand that their current perceptions and behaviors merge to establish an interconnection between them and their immediate environment.

The 7 key concepts in Gestalt therapy

Gestalt therapy proposes that there is no duality between mind and body, thinking and feeling, perceptions and actions. 

We do not function as separate components, but rather as a whole configuration. You can define who you are by understanding the inner and outer forces that impact you every moment.

Your sense of self is defined by the choices you make by either reacting or responding in healthy ways to environmental demands.

Gestalt therapy has many similarities with cognitive behavior therapy. But this is not a typical behavioral therapy. 

It is better than CBT because it gives the client an opportunity to explore their internal ‘self’ in a free manner and resolve deeper issues that arise in the situation

The key concepts of gestalt therapy are similar to client-centric therapy and existential therapy.

Here, the individual is allowed to share their experiences with the therapist in a non-judgmental way.

The therapist shows unconditional positive regard to the client that helps them speak their mind in a safe space of empathy and acceptance.

Some of the key concepts used in gestalt therapy are as follows:

1. Perception is influenced by your experience

This therapy believes that you cannot be always objective and rational in your thoughts and feelings. This is because your perception is shaped by subjective experience.

You will always be influenced by your past experiences and environmental issues to form an idea about certain things in life. 

Thus, the gestalt therapist allows a safe space for the clients to discuss their issues and what’s bothering them a lot these days.

The therapy session is non-judgmental. It means the therapist listens patiently to the patient without evaluating right or wrong.

The client’s experiences are considered true and valid. 

In this therapy, the patient is allowed to express themselves freely, so that they can gather insight into their personal experiences and the environmental cues that is influencing their behavior.

2. The role of context

During the therapy sessions, the therapist focuses on understanding the experiences of the patient in detail. So, patients are allowed to speak their minds without inhibitions.

The client is asked about the various social contexts and how they responded to them.

This gives an insight into patients themselves whether their response was worthy or they could have behaved in some other ways.

When clients are free to share, they develop awareness and a deeper understanding of their innate psychological processes. 

The clients are helped to gather perspectives of the contexts in present-day scenarios and evaluate their behavior in rational ways.

Gestalt therapy doesn’t target past issues. Rather the patient is made aware of the present moment. All the old experiences are seen in a new light of awareness and clarity.

The job of the therapist is to listen, and help clients uncover some deepest secrets through self-awareness and taking responsibility for their actions.

3. Focus on the present time

Gestalt therapy focuses on the present moment.

The ‘here and now’ awareness makes the patient comfortable with the overwhelming emotions and the irrational thoughts that are responsible for their maladaptive behaviors.

In the therapy session, the therapist builds a good rapport with the client. The client is helped to stay aware of the present time. 

If they are found to talk more about their past sufferings or think too much about the uncertain future, the therapist helps them to get back to the present time.

The clients can be asked questions about what they can see in the room right now, or would they like to share any good moments they have experienced in the last few hours.

Moreover, things like observing facial expressions or body language can also bring back a client’s awareness of the present moment.

4. Self-awareness

Gestalt therapy aims to develop the self-awareness of the client. While the therapy is in process, the client is encouraged to do some mental exercises with the therapist. 

The therapy focuses on talking, role-playing, and guided imageries, to develop awareness. 

The patient is encouraged to open up and share their concerns with the therapist.

When clients find it hard to express themselves clearly, they can role-play to communicate their deepest feelings to the therapist.

The therapy helps to develop awareness in three ways. They are as follows:

  • Be present in the surroundings – here the client is asked to look around, listen to the sounds around them, or talk, move, or react to environmental cues. The client is motivated to be present in the moments they are in. Their senses are aroused to keep them stay focused where they are.
  • ‘Here and now’ – to closely connect with their senses and be mindful of everything happening around them. Mindfulness is a conscious process of tuning oneself to the present moment. It discourages negative thinking about past hurts. At the same time, the patient is also guided not to think too much about an uncertain future.
  • Responsibility – when you are a self-aware person, you know how to take responsibility for your actions. You will not blame others or the circumstances for the suffering caused to you.

5. Working through past pains

Gestalt therapy is a person-centric approach. The focus of this approach is to help patients confront their agonies and past hurts without being judged or evaluated.

The client is given a safe space to explore their hurts and wounds. They are given enough support by the therapist to explore their pains and heal from within.

The gestalt therapist shows unconditional acceptance to the client. The client will be encouraged to heal only when they are ready to do so.

6. Energy blocks are removed

The gestalt therapist works closely with the clients to remove energy blocks that act as resistance to personal growth

Energy blocks can be inadequate breathing, pain in the body, avoiding eye contact, or improper body gestures.

The client is guided to find and release energy blockages so as to undergo healing and rejuvenation of the mind and body.

7. Closure of an unfinished business that is restricting personal growth

Gestalt therapist also works with the client to seek closure of an unfinished business. There are many people who remain stuck in their past sufferings.

This is because they lack awareness about how to resolve the old issues. Here, the therapist can help them face their uncomfortable feelings.

They are encouraged to express and heal their pains so that it doesn’t act as a barrier to personal growth.

The therapist helps the client by making them face the painful situation by role-playing and enacting the situation all over again in the present moment. 

Slowly, the client faces the suffering all over again, just to gather clarity and awareness. In this way, they are made to accept the changes and act less defensively as possible.

Goals of Gestalt therapy

The major goals of gestalt therapy are as follows:

  • Increase awareness of Self.
  • Integrating self with the present moment.
  • Developing maturity that will help face life issues, rather than avoiding or becoming defensive about them.
  • Be authentic to yourself and others. Just be who you are. There is no need to pretend and act like someone else.
  • Regulation of emotions and begin the healing process.
  • Taking responsibility for one’s actions.
  • No blame-shifting on others.
  • Behavior change or modification as advised by the therapist.
  • Living in the present and tuning your internal ‘self’ with what’s happening here and now

10 Gestalt therapy techniques

Some traditional therapies such as psychodynamic therapy put emphasis on a therapist’s role as a guide or buddy who will help the client to overcome their underlying issues.

But, in gestalt therapy, the client functions in a safe space. They are given an opportunity to explore, understand, and be aware of their present-day experiences.

The client can express themself freely without the fear of being judged or criticized. The role of the therapist is that of an active listener who will provide input to behavior change, if necessary.

The therapist and client work together in the therapy session. The gestalt therapist helps the client move towards personal growth. 

Sometimes, the client is motivated to identify the roadblocks to awareness, so that the path of healing becomes easy.

The therapist shows unconditional acceptance of the client’s deepest secrets. They are never judged or criticized.

Rather, they are helped to uncover those trauma-laden parts of them that require healing.

Within the field of gestalt therapy, the therapist uses some techniques that are meant for awareness building and behavior change to meet the demands of the environment.

Some of the well-known techniques of gestalt therapy that client and therapist work through in therapy sessions are as follows:

1. Use of words and language

During the therapy, the client is encouraged to use words and language that reveals their exact emotions related to the situation. 

For example, if they are angry with someone, they may show their irritation during the session.

This displeasure is revealed through the bad mouth or blaming the other person. The aim of gestalt therapy is to help the client use words that show the exact reason for their displeasure.

So, instead of saying, “If she had not behaved with me in such an uncivilized manner, I would have not reacted in such a way”, the client is helped to use words wisely. 

They can say, “I reacted badly to what she said because I was hurt and didn’t like her behavior.”

Gestalt therapy helps the client to use ‘I’ when they are narrating an experience. This gives an insight into the exact reason for their misconduct. 

When you are aware of the reasons behind your negative feelings and behavior, you can actually take a step ahead toward changing them.

2. Empty chair technique

In the empty chair technique, the client is given an exercise of role-playing. It makes the client imagine that another person or a part of their ‘self’ is sitting right across them.

The client is talking to the other person freely, discussing issues that are propped up. This open dialogue develops self-awareness. 

They will be able to communicate their feelings to the other person as if both are trying to close an unfinished business.

This is one of the best role-playing tools used in gestalt therapy. The purpose of this method is to allow catharsis, a free-flowing process of emotional manifestation.

It allows the client to deal with what has been repressed and never allowed to surface.

The grief and losses, unfulfilled wishes, agonies, and sufferings are allowed to flow onto the surface for a complete healing process.

The empty chair technique is helpful in sorting out breakups or toxic relationships. Here, the client can face their sufferings without getting judged.

It’s an insight into an inner world that was hard to be relived again.

In this technique, the therapist works as a facilitator, who seems to observe and note down the dialogues of the client. 

They may instruct the client to change the chairs, so as to develop an awareness of the other person’s point of view.

3. The ‘top dog’ and ‘under dog’ method

This is a role-play method. It works like the empty chair method where the client faces the different shades of one’s personality.

Here, the client communicates with both the ‘top dog’ and the ‘underdog.’

This means that the client talks to their demanding and dominating side; (top dog) as well as the vulnerable and weaker side, (underdog).

The motive is to make the client face both the sides of oneself; s that they can integrate these two separate parts into a unified whole.

The technique teaches awareness and helps the client realize that each life experience is a complete whole.

There are so many things that work in unison to perceive things in a proper way. This technique is used when the therapist notices duality and dilemma in the client. 

If the client appears unsure about themselves, or when their perceptions appear faulty, this technique brings clarity and removes mental clouding.

4. Body language and non-verbal communication

While the therapy session is going on, the gestalt therapist observes the body language and facial expressions of the client. 

Gestures like facial displeasure, and feelings of irritation, while they are narrating their story, are noted. This gives an important insight into their inner processes.

Then, there are specific things like tapping foot, changes in voice tone or nodding head as if in deep thought are all noted and referred back to the client.

The therapist may ask the client about what they are thinking at the present moment. Whether their disturbing emotions are trying to hold them back in some way, etc.

As this is a client-focused approach, the therapist maximizes acceptance and minimizes making any sort of evaluation, so that client feels safe to share what they really want to share.

5. The ‘here and now’ practice

In this technique, the client is encouraged to free expression of thoughts and emotions. 

They are encouraged to relive the past moments in the present context; so that they can be aware of their faulty ways of thinking and help themselves remove them fully.

The ‘here and now’ practice focuses on the present moment. It helps to reduce the anxiety that comes with overthinking past trauma and the uncertain future.

The past and present are not in our conscious control.

We can only change the present time. This technique helps the past happenings to be seen in a newer light. The therapist allows expressions to flow out spontaneously without inhibitions.

The client builds awareness about the things that are holding them back.  Things that have hostage for a long time are released and forgiven.

The past moments are relived in new contexts so that the patent feels happy and healthy.

6. Repetition and exaggeration of certain bodily sensations

In this method, the therapist tells the client to repeat certain gestures so that the intensity of response slows down over time. 

The client may be told to tap their feet or notice the bodily changes that accompany such a repetitive behavior.

Exaggeration means to go on doing the same thing for a long time so that its emotional impact reduces.

This method tells the client to notice every minute detail and express these detailed feelings in words to the therapist.

The therapist acts as a guide only. They help clients to process emotions easily without getting overwhelmed. 

At the same time, they also learn to disconnect their emotions from the subtle physical sensations occurring out of the repetition of body movements.

7. Locating emotions

In this technique, the client talks about feelings, both good and bad. They try to express feelings with clarity. It means they are aware of the reasons behind their emotions.

While talking about their emotions, they are guided by the therapist to locate the part of the body where they can actually experience their feelings. 

Some of the examples of such experiences could be ‘butterflies in my stomach’, ‘my heart is beating faster now’, or ‘I can feel some pain in my forehead’, or ‘my chest feels tight,’ etc.

The aim of this technique is to bring their emotional experiences to the surface and allow them to describe how they are feeling at the moment based on some somatic (physical) responses.

8. Processing emotions through creative endeavors

Sometimes clients are advised to draw, paint, or create new ideas that will help to process emotions.

Staying present in moments allows mindfulness. The client becomes more self-aware and can heal from within.

The creative pursuit allows free expression of those issues that are bothering them. 

If they are carrying emotional baggage, this method also calls for expressing those hurts they were never faced in reality, at the present time.

The unpleasant feelings of the past needed awareness but were avoided because they gave rise to a lot of criticism.

But, in this therapeutic technique, the patient encounters their fears and insecurities through artistic pursuits.

9. Removing confusion

In dealing with confusion, the therapist helps the client by drawing their attention to all those situations that created hesitation, and dilemma. 

The aim of this technique is to again make them conscious of all those thoughts that were repressed and avoided because of their unpleasantness.

Patterson (1986) noted that the state of hesitation symbolizes a lack of clarity about why they are thinking and how they are trying to process negative emotions. 

It is manifested through avoidance, fantasy, and sudden blank feeling. As if the client has totally forgotten what had happened.

The therapist asks them questions that are disturbing and the client is again made to confront the confusing parts in a safe space of empathy and understanding.

10. Confrontation

Gestalt therapy also challenges the client directly. This is done by frustrating the client and helping them reveal and share their concerns with the therapist.

The client is challenged to face the issues with sensitivity and compassion.

They are helped to resolve the issues that are bothering them by staying conscious of their inner processes.

Through this, they have clarity about what’s going on in their lives and how to overcome the situations that are troublesome.

They are allowed to cry, smile, laugh, and feel in whatever way they wish to without getting judged or criticized.

Conditions that can be treated with gestalt therapy 

Gestalt therapy can be used with a wide variety of mental health issues. But the efficacy of the technique relies on the individual. 

The therapy practice works well with patients who are keen to master self-awareness.

In the therapy session, the role of the therapist is just a facilitator who gives a safe space to explore the ‘self.’

The goal of Gestalt therapy is to attain autonomy and responsibility without compulsion and judgments. Here, the client is guided through an active awareness exercise. 

This active awareness opens consciousness and the client is able to clearly see and challenge his / her inner world.

Some of the conditions that can be successfully treated by gestalt therapy are as follows:

Books on Gestalt therapy

If you are interested to know more about how gestalt therapy works, you can read some self-enhancement good reads,

Some of the best-sellers are as follows:

Gestalt Therapy – 100 Key Points and Techniques – by Dave Mann

The Gestalt Therapy Book: A Holistic Guide to the Theory, Principles, and Techniques of Gestalt Therapy – By Joel Latner

Here, Now, Next – Paul Goodman and The Origins of Gestalt Therapy – by Taylor Stoehr

Gestalt Therapy practice – Theory and Experiential learning by Gro Skottun and Ashield Kruger

Strengths and benefits of Gestalt therapy

Some of the strengths of gestalt therapy are as follows:

  • Ability to control emotions and regulate emotional states
  • Improved self-esteem
  • Clarity in thinking
  • Improved self-awareness
  • Aware of one’s needs
  • The person develops better communication skills
  • More empathetic
  • Better ability to understand the emotions of others
  • The person develops good mindfulness
  • Can tolerate negative emotions in a healthy way
  • Shows better adjustment in intimate relationships
  • Improved control over one’s overwhelming emotions
  • Less irritability and anger
  • The person develops insight into one’s internal state of being
  • Looks for personal growth
  • Acceptance and owning of one’s own experiences
  • No shift blaming or deflection of emotions occur

The effectiveness of gestalt therapy

From all the above discussion, it becomes clear that gestalt therapy has many uses in treating anxiety disorders, and personality illnesses.

It found that the treatment was as effective as cognitive behavior therapy and more effective in dealing with depression symptoms than the antidepressant drugs.

  • Another research study showed that four weeks of gestalt therapy on anxiety patients helped to lessen the intensity of their anxiousness to a great extent. The patients were less avoidant and became more mindful of their inner experiences. 
  • A research study conducted on divorced women who recently ended their marriage showed that 12 weeks of therapy has improved their sense of self-esteem. They became more self-reliant and were able to cope with the breakup in healthier ways.
  • Gestalt therapy efficacy was also studied with patients suffering from bipolar disorder. The study findings revealed that Gestalt therapy is used with outpatients and it helped to improve the symptoms of mania and depression.

The therapy sessions were helpful to guide patients toward a healthy adjustment in work, and social life.

What to expect from the therapy sessions?

The gestalt therapy sessions are supportive and empowering. The therapist creates a secure space for the client to express themselves freely.

So, if you are looking to go for a therapy session, you can expect the following things:

  • You will be allowed to share your experiences freely.
  • The therapeutic relationship between you and the gestalt therapist will be based on acceptance and empathy.
  • No one will judge your thoughts and feelings in any way.
  • Your conscious awareness will be guided towards the present moment.
  • Encouragement for self-exploration of thoughts and feelings.
  • You will be guided to remove the roadblocks to personal growth.
  • Exploration of bodily sensations will be encouraged.
  • You will be given guided exercises for self-reflection and healing.

While you look for a therapist, always find out the details of their clinical practice or years of experience in this therapy use.

It will benefit you in endless ways in your journey through the process of therapy.

Criticisms of the gestalt therapy

Gestalt therapy has been criticized on the following grounds.

  • The therapy has over-emphasized the present moment. The person may not be able to relive their last moments as vividly in the present time.
  • Gestalt therapy is all about developing self-awareness and insight. This therapy process needs an expert therapist who is skilled in using the therapeutic techniques; otherwise, the therapy exercises will not be beneficial for the clients.
  • Gestalt therapy sessions can take a longer time to get done.
  • Sometimes the therapy evokes overwhelming emotions that the client may find hard to process in a healthy manner.
  • In one way, Frederick Perls emphasized honest interaction between the client and the therapist during the session, however, the gestalt therapist is not allowed to ask personal questions to the clients unless necessary. So, this appears quite controversial.

The video link shared below shows the workings of Gestalt therapy. Do check out.

Summing Up from ‘ThePleasantMind’

From all the discussion done so far, we can conclude that gestalt therapy focuses on the present moment. It enables clients not only to talk about their feelings but to experience them deeply.

In this way, the therapy is an awareness program. It focuses on reenacting the past in the present time and discusses how it really feels now. 

Whether the past pains are still the same or it hurts lesser when you become more aware and clear about your internal state of mind.

Gestalt therapy is a non-judgmental approach where clients are guided to become more responsible, and self-reliant. 

The therapeutic relationship between the gestalt therapist and client is based on acceptance, empathy, and unconditional regard.

GesThe focus of the therapy is to assist clients to experience the present moment, living in the ‘now’ and experiencing the real-time right now, right here.

Are you interested to know more about ‘Logotherapy’ then click here?

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