Gina M Goth M. Ed., CAC, LPC
Gestalt Psychotherapy is a phenomenological-existential psychotherapy founded in the 1940s by Frederick and Laura Perls and subsequently developed by others. It teaches both therapist and client the phenomenological method of awareness in which perceiving, feeling and acting may be distinguished from interpreting and re-arranging pre-existing attitudes, values and opinions.
What is directly perceived and felt is considered more reliable than explanations or interpretations. In Gestalt psychotherapy therapist and client DIALOGUE, i.e. communicate their separate phenomenological perspectives. Differences of perspectives are the focus of experimentation and further dialogue.
The goal is for the client to become aware of what they are doing, how they are doing it and how they can change themselves and learn to value and accept themselves.
Gestalt psychotherapy is a process orientated psychotherapy focusing more on what is happening (process) than what is being discussed (content). What is being experienced at the moment is given more emphasis than what was, might be or should be (Yontef, GM 1993).
Basic Assumptions of the Gestalt Model
1. Gestalt Theory of Personality
Gestalt therapy personality theory has evolved primarily our of clinical experience. The focus has been a theory of personality that supports our task as psychotherapists rather than an overall theory of personality. The constructs of Gestalt therapy theory are field theoretical rather than generic, and phenomenological rather than conceptual (Yontef 1993).
The Organism/Environment Field
A person exists by differentiating self from other by connecting self and other. Contact with the environment requires the risk of reaching out and discovering one’s own boundaries. Healthy self-regulation includes contact in which a person is aware of what is potentially nourishing, or toxic, in the environment. That which is nourishing is assimilated and that which is toxic is rejected. This kind of differentiated contact leads to growth (Polster & Polster 1973).
Regulation of the Contact Boundary
The boundary between self and other must be sufficiently permeable to allow in what is nourishing and sufficiently firm to keep out what is toxic. What is nourishing also needs to be determined according to the dominant need. When the boundary between self and other becomes blurred, lost or impermeable, there is a disturbance of distinction between self and other, a disturbance of contact and awareness (Perls 1973).
Full awareness is the process of being in contact with what is most figure in the individual/environment field with full sensorimotor, emotional, cognitive and energetic support (Yontef 1993). Awareness is of a self in the environment, in dialogue with the environment. From the perspective of Gestalt psychotherapy the Self is formed at the contact boundary. Our sense of self is therefore relational and continuously evolving.
The Paradoxical Nature of Change
The Gestalt theory of change (Beisser 1970) maintains that change occurs when a person becomes what they are, not when they try to become what they are not. Change does not take place through coercion but takes place if a person takes the time and effort to become who they are. When awareness of what IS does not emerge then Gestalt psychotherapy is one way of increasing awareness and hence, choice and responsibly.
2. Theory of Psychotherapy
Goal of Therapy
In classical Gestalt psychotherapy the goal is awareness. This includes greater awareness in a particular area and also greater ability for the client to bring habitual patterns of thinking, feeling and behaviour into awareness. Awareness of content and awareness of process proceed to deeper levels as the therapy progresses.
Contemporary Gestalt psychotherapy focuses on the Client within a therapeutic relationship that seeks horizontality. The therapist and client speak the same language, of present centredness, which emphasises the direct experience of both therapist and client. Complete equality is impossible since the focus is ultimately the wellbeing of the client. The Gestalt therapist is responsible for the quality and quantity of their presence, knowledge about themselves and their client, for maintaining a non-defensive posture and for keeping their awareness and contact processes clear and matched to the client.
Dialogue is central to Gestalt therapy’s methodology and is a manifestation of the existential perspective on relationship. The personal ‘I’ has meaning only in relation to others, in the I-Thou dialogue or in I-It manipulative contact. Gestalt therapists choose to experience the client in dialogue rather than using therapeutic manipulation (I-It). If we manipulate the client towards some therapeutic goal the client cannot be in charge of their own growth and self-support. Dialogue is based on experiencing the other person as they really are and experiencing oneself, sharing reciprocity and co-operation which in turn requires a willingness to be responsible and authentic. The contemporary dialogical approach of Gestalt therapy supports, and is supported by, the views of modern feminist scholarship that maintains the importance of relationship and affiliation in the development of identity (Gilligan 1982) and dialogue, reciprocity and co-operation in the pursuit of understanding (Miller 1976; Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger and Tarute 1986).
Gestalt is a phenomenologically oriented psychotherapy. What happens first is not the past (Childhood) but what is experienced ‘now’. ‘Now’ starts with the present awareness of the client. Prior events may be the object of present awareness but the awareness process is here and now. ‘Now’ is the only moment in which a human being has any direct control. We have no power to change the past and we can only guess about the future.
Gestalt therapy is a relationship therapy in which both the technical skills and the personal contacting of the therapist are indispensable. The qualities of good contact require course members to commit themselves to:
- Increasing awareness
- Becoming response-able
- Engaging in and assessing risks
- Making choices
- Being open to feedback
- Monitoring tendencies to justify, explain or defend
- Critically examining attitudes, opinions and values
- Recognising social, cultural and political components of personal distress
“If we were to choose one key idea to stand as a symbol of the Gestalt approach, it might well be the concept of authenticity, the quest for authenticity. If we regard therapy and the therapist in the pitiless light of authenticity, it becomes apparent that the therapist cannot teach what he does not know. A therapist with some experience really knows within himself that he is communicating to his patient his (the therapist) own fears as well as his clarity. The therapist’s awareness, acceptance and sharing of there truths can be a highly persuasive demonstration of his own authenticity. Obviously such a position is not acquired overnight. It is to be learned and relearned ever more deeply not only throughout one’s career but throughout one’s entire life.”
Levitsky A & Simkin J (1972) Gestalt Therapy in Solomon L & Berzen B (Eds.) New Perspectives on Encounter Groups. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.