Invented by Fritz Perls, Gestalt therapy is one of the most widespread psychotherapies of the humanist movement. It helps to have a global vision of oneself to better understand how one works. What is Gestalt therapy? What is its history? What is the basic goal of gestalt therapy? What are the main indications of Gestalt therapy? What are the benefits of Gestalt therapy?
I – History of Gestalt Therapy
The son of a Jewish ghetto merchant in Berlin, Friedrich Perls (known as Fritz) already has his doctorate in medicine when he begins his first psychoanalysis (he will make three others, the last with Wilhelm Reich, the precursor of bioenergy), before fleeing Nazi Germany to settle in South Africa. In 1942, becoming a renowned psychoanalyst, he published his first book, which critiques and revises Freud’s theories, and initiates a break with his colleagues and the international psychoanalytic community.
To be in accord with himself, he abandons his rich clientele and his comfortable life, in order to emigrate to the United States, in 1946. He leads a bohemian life on the other side of the Atlantic, frequenting the intellectuals of the new wave. Marginal, Perls does not bend to social conventions and always expresses spontaneously and directly what he feels. This does not please everyone, but he makes no concessions: he thus experiences, in himself, the direct expression, one of the keys of his method. In 1951 he published “Gestalt Therapy”. A total flop. But he persists, teaching his method all over the country. This one remained rather confidential until the magazine “Life” published, in 1968, the photo of Perls on the cover, titling thus: “Here a man who lives in the absolute authenticity and embodies what he professed! ”
At a time when new values were being sought, it was rare enough to be reported … The public then flocked to its courses, and Gestalt therapy came out of the shadows. He can finally realize his dream: to found a kind of kibbutz where everyone can “live the Gestalt 24 hours a day”. The project begins on Vancouver Island. Perls dies two years later.
II – What is Gestalt Therapy?
Gestalt therapy is a therapeutic approach derived from psychology. Gestalt is a humanist and existential approach. It integrates how we create meaning and existing in the present moment, i.e. the whole of our body, our thoughts, and our emotions. It allows you to create choices for a better life.
Gestalt is a German word that can be translated as “the form”, “what appears”, the “figure”.
In other words, what is taking shape at this moment in the relational and organizational field between the patient and the therapist? Appeared in Germany in the early twentieth century, the theory of Gestalt is first of all philosophy and psychology. It developed partially in reaction to the prevailing trend in psychology at that time, where we sought to isolate the elements from each other. Now, according to the Gestalt, what we perceive, on all the planes, is organized not by aggregates of pieces, but by sets – the whole being greater than the sum of its parts and different from these. When you recognize someone, for example, it’s instantly the entire face that makes sense.
Gestalt psychotherapy is a major current in psychotherapy that is due to Frederick S. Perls (commonly known as Fritz), a physician, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst, and to his wife Laura, a psychologist. Born in Germany, but having fled the Nazi regime in 1934 when they were in their forties, the Perls were strongly imbued with the thought of the Gestalt. Their work was also inspired by the psychoanalysis of Freud and Jung, by Wilhelm Reich’s character analysis, by the existential philosophical current, and by Eastern religions, such as Taoism and Zen.
Gestalt therapy is a medium-to-long-term approach, averaging 1 session per week for 2 to 3 years. In most cases, the approach would result in a positive change in the client’s condition in 4 to 20 encounters. In-depth, longer-term work puts sustainable flexibility back into defense mechanisms and helps consolidate developments.
This is to say the richness of the approach, but also the complexity of the theory.
III – What Is the Basic Goal of Gestalt Therapy?
Emerging from an individualistic conception of the human being, Gestalt therapy focuses on the interactions of the individual with his environment and aims to restore a fair and fluid relationship between the two, more authentic contact with others.
It emphasizes the observation of what is apparent in the “here and now” and promotes the description of the patient’s overall subjective intimate experience, in its sensory, emotional, cognitive and even spiritual dimensions.
It aims to set in motion what has become, as a result of painful events, repetitive conduct, blockage, or avoidance, in order to restore autonomy, responsibility, and creativity in the conduct of our existence.
*** Gestalt Therapy: A Therapeutic Alternative
Gestalt therapy, humanistic and relational psychotherapy, is, in its phenomenological, experiential, and holistic dimensions, an original alternative to psychoanalysis or behavioral and cognitive therapies.
To explain the origins of our difficulties, it rehabilitates the emotional and bodily feeling and, by welcoming what emerges “here and now”, places the temporality in the center of its device, allowing the perspective of past, present, and future.
In addition, she proposes to experiment with solutions in the free construction of meaning: in search of knowing why, she adds the “feel how and to what”, mobilizer of change.
In Gestalt therapy, we will, therefore, promote the patient’s awareness of how he or she is connected, in the current process, from moment to moment:
– With himself:
How is he present to his bodily sensations, his breathing, his posture, how does he welcome his feelings, his emotions, his emotions, his needs, his aspirations, and his anxiety?
– With others:
Including the therapist of course: how does he come into contact and let himself be approached, what are his blockages, his difficulties, his inhibitions, his repetitions, but also what are his resources?
– With his environment more broadly:
Is he rather turned towards himself or does he show curiosity, openness to what is going on around him?
Furthermore, in Gestalt Therapy, we assume that any blockage or symptom has meaning and function for the patient; we do not seek to suppress it, not necessarily to find the root cause, but rather to identify its present utility:
– In what way does it serve the person?
– What is the positive and important element for her, even vital?
– What does it allow him to avoid in the situation of the moment?
Whatever the elements that emerge, we invite the patient to welcome them with respect and “benevolent curiosity”, which allows them to develop a more complete, integrated, and unified vision of themselves.
In addition, the energy stuck in the symptom or placed in the avoidance can be put at the service of the search for an innovative and more appropriate solution.
This involves an analysis of the person’s representations of the situation she is confronted with, in order to clarify her perceptions and validate what belongs to the current situation and the non-conscious transpositions of old situations painfully experienced and projected. in the present.
Once the remains of “unfinished situations of the past” have been identified, and the true purpose of the interaction, we can see with the person how they could do otherwise, taking into account both their aspiration, the reality of the situation, and his skills and personal resources.
In other words, we accompany the person in a process of “creative adjustment”, a key concept in Gestalt therapy, which makes it possible “to make the difference between the obsolete responses and the behavior, unique and new, that the situation requires. (Perls and Goodman)
IV – Conduct a Meeting of Gestalt Therapy
A Gestalt practitioner is active and active, but never directive. He uses various techniques, verbal or not. “It’s about” controlled involvement, “says Gonzague Masquelier, former director of the Paris School of Gestalt. The therapist deliberately shares some of his feelings in order to help the client explore his difficulty.”
Here are the most common exercises.
• Amplification is to make explicit what is implicit, to become aware of the way we operate in the “here and now” by projecting outside what is happening inside the head and body. The therapist spots our unconscious, automatic gestures, these “lapses of the body”, and asks us to exaggerate them because they reveal certain aspects of our functioning.
• The “monodrama” invites us to express the different characters that are inside us. Playing these roles brings out the contradictory facets of our personality, the aspects we hide, that we do not want to see or project on others. We can also interpret the main characters of our daily relationships (mother, children, spouse, boss …). We can then use the technique of Hot Seat – translated by the “empty chair” – a symbolic object that gives voice to absentees.
• The action allows you to play an episode of life, real or imaginary, past, present, or future. The therapist notably locates what he calls the “unfinished Gestalt”: these are traces of past traumatic events (terrible punishment, an ill-asserted or even hidden death, sexual aggression in childhood …) that parasitize the current life. Replaying them not only makes it possible to erase them, but also to integrate them into their psychic structure, to give them meaning, to go beyond them, to prepare themselves for a future situation.
• Awareness is a global awareness of the constant flow of our physical sensations, ideas, concerns, desires, emotions … Being attentive to yourself during a whole session can connect elements that are sometimes thought to be separate (body/mind, for example). It is the importance of the true presence, “here and now”, dear to Orientals, that Perls preferred to call the “now and how”.
• The direct inquiry consists of never talking about or about someone (basic goal of gestalt therapy) but speaking to him directly even if he is absent. One chooses an object, another person from the group, or the empty chair. This makes it possible to bring up more quickly an emotion, a difficulty on which one can work.
V – What Are the Benefits of Gestalt Therapy?
Gestalt therapy is practiced in groups or individually. Each problem of life can be approached with Gestalt therapy: difficult separations or mourning, restore/take care of the existing link with oneself or the others, contribute to solving some psychological problems, somatic or existential, like the shyness, the feeling of rejection, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, trauma…
1 – Contribute to Solving Relationship Problems
The results of a controlled study reveal that the two-seat dialogue technique (the client invests each of the two places alternately) would be useful to improve intimacy and marital harmony. In this study, 45 couples were divided into 3 groups: 2-seat dialogue and development of empathy; problem-solving learning according to the cognitive-behavioral approach; and control group (waiting list). Both interventions performed better than the control group, and the gestalt-therapy intervention was superior to the cognitive-behavioral approach.
Another study involving couples with one of the members suffering from moderate-stage Alzheimer’s disease also yielded promising results.
2 – Contribute to Resolving Difficult and Unresolved past Situations
Two studies evaluated the effectiveness of the empty chair dialogue technique in this regard. A study published in 2002 was conducted with people who suffered from various interpersonal problems and childhood abuse. Their main difficulty was an unresolved situation with a parent. The basic goal of gestalt therapy was to reconnect with the emotions related to the problem in order to reduce the impact. Twenty-nine subjects followed 12 to 14 weekly individual sessions of 1 hour. The results indicate that 45% of them would have solved their problem with satisfaction.
The other study, conducted among 34 individuals with unresolved interpersonal problems, was published in 1995. The researchers compared the dialogue of the empty chair (12 weekly sessions of 50 minutes) to a control condition (discussion sessions and reading about unresolved conflicts). The gestalt-therapy technique resulted in significant improvements for most subjects, and the changes lasted 4 months, and 1 year later. While some improvements were also observed in the control group, the empty chair technique was significantly more effective in reducing discomfort and interpersonal distress, as well as in bringing about concrete changes and resolving unresolved conflicts.
3 – Promote the Expression of Emotions
A randomized study assessed the effects of gestalt therapy on anxiety, depression, and anger in 43 people 65 years of age and older. The subjects were placed either in a control group or in group therapy (1h30 per week for 6 weeks). The therapy consisted of expressing and exploring negative emotions and developing coping strategies to reduce their impact. Compared to the control group, gestalt therapy would have contributed to greater expression of anger, development of a less hostile and more pleasant attitude, as well as a significant decrease in confusion and greater clarity of thoughts.
4 – Promote Creative Adjustments in Everyday Life
By focusing on how the process of tension is at work, the therapist can identify thoughts, feelings, etc. on the occasion of the difficulty. This self-awareness and the proposed experiment brings the possibility to create new and gradually develop the autonomy of the customer.
5 – Improve Self-Confidence to Dare to Live Life to the Full
Self-confidence is acquired through various recognized experiences. When a person suffers from a lack of self-esteem and confidence in his abilities, the benevolent accompaniment of the therapist is a valuable support that allows him to reveal his potentials, according to Nietzsche’s famous “Become Who You Are”.
6 – Other Uses
The scientific literature mentions that gestalt therapy can be used for various applications. A small randomized study of 14 subjects with newly hospitalized schizophrenia reveals that gestalt therapy, combined with standard hospital treatment, may be useful in stimulating re-engagement with reality. In addition, a case study suggests that the approach facilitates the acceptance of chronic or very serious illnesses. Another case study mentions that this therapy may facilitate the integration of the altered body image following breast cancer surgery.
Perls said: “The Gestalt is a method too effective to be reserved only for patients! This is why, beyond the therapeutic aspect, it is often presented as an art of living, even as an “existential philosophy“.
Every problem in life can be tackled: from shyness to sexual difficulties, from family problems to spiritual seeking, from anxiety to emotional suffering. Great vigilance is observed to make the difference between “staging” and “acting out”.
Each problem of life can be approached in Gestalt therapy: shyness, difficult separations, feelings of exclusion, difficulties in making choices, relationship problems, psychosomatic or anxiety disorders, eating disorders, existential problems, …
However, Gestalt therapy is particularly suitable for people who:
– seek to understand the meaning and function of their suffering or difficulties by working concretely on current situations,
– wish to evolve in their way of being in relation,
– want to reclaim their feelings and emotions,
– seek out repetitions, impasses, or difficulties of choice by “discovering” in their own resources, ways of fulfilling their potential and achieving a better life,
– are committed to actively participating in their evolution, to take the co-responsibility, to be the co-authors.
In Definition, Gestalt therapy, sometimes called Gestalt, is a therapeutic approach, a body of concepts, and a set of practices aimed at personal, psychosocial, and organizational change.
– This therapeutic approach is centered on the constant interaction of the human being with his environment. She is interested in how this interaction takes shape and tries to put motion when this form is fixed and repetitive. Indeed, the German term “Gestalt” is translated as “form”, in the sense of “take shape”, “organize”, “build”.
– The body of concepts is organized around the notion of contact as a process. The person as an organism is in contact with the environment and no organism subsists without exchange with the environment. The theory of Gestalt therapy allows modeling this process by relying on phenomenological and pragmatic philosophy.
– This vision of interactions and the integration of concepts is updated in a set of practices that support individuals, groups, and organizations. The focus is on subjective experience and taking into account what is happening in the present situation.