What is Gestalt therapy?

Why the Hero's Journey is key to recovery

Gestalt therapy is a form of therapeutic help that has proven useful to many people suffering from negative feelings. This includes anxiety, resentment, depression, low self-esteem, and anger.

It has even helped with some physical health issues that are perhaps linked to emotional problems. This includes certain types of back pain, some stomach issues, and migraine.

Behind it is the theory that to ease these negative emotions someone needs to actively express them in the present through action or movement. This is rather than just being spoken through as in talk therapy.

For this reason, it is considered an experiential approach. Without doing this, its founders theorized that psychological and physical symptoms will remain.

How did Gestalt therapy develop?

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Gestalt therapy was developed throughout the 1940s by a psychiatrist and psychotherapist married couple Fritz and Laura Perls and writer Paul Goodman. Its theoretical foundations were first described in their book Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality, published in 1951.

Both Fritz and Laura were trained in gestalt psychology – this is a school of thought that regards the mind and human behavior as a whole. Alongside Paul Goodman, they developed a therapy that focused on the person and their unique experiences.

They felt that people are best thought of as entire entities made up of mind, body, and emotions. Their inspiration was that they thought there needed to be an alternative to the traditional therapy that focused on talking.

“Gestalt” actually means “an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts”. It derives from a German word meaning “‘form or shape”.

From their book’s publication onwards, Gestalt therapy gained popularity. In the 1970s and 1980s, training centers for it spread around the world.

What are the aims of Gestalt therapy? 

One of the main aims of Gestalt therapy is to allow someone to build up self-awareness. Then they can see how the decisions they make greatly affect all aspects of their life. 

This can enable the person to free themselves from any blocks in their life. They can also more easily look at any unresolved issues that have arisen during their life.

Previously, they may not have understood the role they have been playing in their own problems, and how experience influences perception. With their new self-awareness, it allows them to see how certain things might have limited their growth.

This will encourage them to look at doing things in new ways to get different more positive outcomes. That includes facing life problems as they arise.

Gestalt techniques are sometimes used in combination with drama, dance, art, and writing therapies.

What are some examples of Gestalt therapy?

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Gestalt therapists are supposed to look for approaches that work best for each client. But some Gestalt therapy exercises are frequently used – including by some other types of therapists.

Facing an empty chair and imagining that someone significant from the client’s life is sitting in it is the most well-known Gestalt therapy method. The therapist will usually suggest that the client talks to the person who is imagined to be there.

It could be one of the client’s parents, another relative, their partner, or anyone who might have shaped them in a major way. Sometimes rather than the chair being empty, the client will go back and forth between positions acting in the roles of both parties.

While this is going on, the therapist will quietly observe. They will pay particular attention to their client’s tone, temperament, and body language.

They might ask questions such as: “How is this making you feel right now?” or “What’s happening at this moment?”

One of the main aims is to address unfinished matters. That could be to resolve past conflicts or situations.

People doing this often find they can feel emotions and see things in a new way that helps them.

Another approach is known as the “exaggeration technique”. The therapist asks their client to exaggerate a specific emotion or behavior, which helps them become aware of the root of their present problems.

Then there’s “top dog and underdog.” In this technique, the client speaks using the more demanding side of their personality; and then the more submissive “underdog” side. This can enable them to become aware of inner conflicts and unhealthy self-talk.

Gestalt therapy is not suitable for everyone though. Firstly, it can be extremely emotional. 

Also, some people are not at all comfortable with “being” with a particular person again in the case of the empty chair technique. Others do not like how they are being so obviously observed by the therapist.

Tikvah Lake’s friendly experienced team has treated people with every type of mental health problem. We offer several treatment options that are completely personalized for each of our guests.

Call us today to have a chat about how we can help you or someone you know.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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