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In this article, we share an essential guide to Gestalt therapy. It looks at what it is, who it’s used for, key concepts and techniques. It is ultimately to help you know if it’s right for you.
What is Gestalt therapy?
Gestalt therapy, as we know it, is a combined effort among psychologists. It gets its start from Fritz and Laura Perls, with others, that is, Kurt Goldstein and Kurt Lewin that developed it further. Psychoanalysis is the father of all theories, and from there, various people took it upon themselves to revise it because it wasn’t perfect.
The focus of Gestalt therapy has a humanistic approach, and it is experiential. It doesn’t merely focus on analyzing the unconscious mind the way psychoanalysis does.
The main difference of Gestalt therapy is the belief that human functions as a whole. There is no separation between the mind and body, or the body and the soul, or even between thoughts, feelings, and actions.
It states that you can get your sense of self-based on how you interact with your environment. That is where the word Gestalt comes from; it is the German word for “whole” and other synonyms.
Who is Gestalt therapy for?
The use of this kind of therapy is common in those suffering from anxiety and depression but are not showing pathological symptoms that are considered severe. However, this same kind of treatment has proven useful in treating patients with personality disorders, primarily borderline personality disorder.
In the subsequent parts of this article, you shall see examples of techniques that make that possible. The other areas that Gestalt therapy proves effective are in group, family, and couples counseling.
Gestalt therapy falls under the person-centered/ humanistic umbrella of theories. What indeed makes it different from other approaches is what Perls added to it. Let’s explore.
As mentioned, this kind of therapy believes that there is no separation between the mind and the body, and instead, they work as one. It is this singular unit in which a person integrates with their environment and be in harmony with it.
However, not everyone can integrate with their environment, and as a result, they have to seek therapy to be able to do so.
One of the goals of treatment, and a marker of success, is when a client gains self-awareness. When a person is self-aware, they can regulate their environment and restore balance when it is lost. There two hindrances to self-awareness.
The first is low self-esteem and preoccupation with a singular personal narrative such as one’s past, flaws, and strengths to the point they are unable to see the full picture.
In Gestalt therapy, there are three ways in which you can achieve self-awareness. The first is through using all your five senses when interacting with the environment and interact with it appropriately.
The second one is to focus on the “here and now.” It means choosing to be present always and not focusing or worrying about the past and the future. That is what we refer to as actuality.
If you don’t focus on the present, you end up escaping the need to work to change the present. What ties one’s self-awareness journey together is taking responsibility for one’s life instead of blaming others.
Those who did not interact entirely with their environment and generally lack awareness tend to have psychological problems. That means they’re unable to cope well with whatever changes that take place in their environment. You will find such people to be very defensive in their speech instead of dealing with and solving the problems they have.
One cause of emotional blocks is overly focused on the past and the pain associated with it. When you’re always looking at the past, you’re unable to focus on the “here and now.”
Therefore, in Gestalt therapy, one of the key objectives is to help the client move forward from past pains and bringing closure. The language used ought to change where the client takes responsibility for their life instead of blaming others.
Role of Gestalt in personality development
This therapy teaches clients to identify and understand what they are experiencing rather than only interpreting events. It requires the client to explore their thoughts, feelings, behavior, values, and beliefs to be self-aware of their present self.
From there, clients learn how to respond to their environment appropriately. The techniques at play held the client identify the part they play in their issues as they recognize patterns of thinking and behavior that hinder them from reaching their full potential.
The thought behind Gestalt is that one cannot be separated from their environment, and more so, they should motivate themselves to solve the problems that are a result of interacting with the said environment.
A sign of health for someone who has been through the Gestalt therapy is if they can be self-regulating and also change and adapt to their environment. From that, there should be a wholeness brought about by the harmony between the mind and body.
Role of the therapist
One key pointer to note is that the therapist’s job is to foster independence in the client. It is geared toward ensuring that the client is in charge of their personal development. In that case, the therapist takes up the role of facilitator or a guide and creates a safe environment for the client can explore and experiment on what works for them.
When that gets upheld, there is no dependency on the client’s part. Also, it is not the job of the therapists to offer solutions because those lie within the client.
Another aspect to emphasize when it comes to the role of the therapist is they don’t have the mandate to change the client. When they help facilitate self-awareness in a client, the client themselves will then be in a better position to solve the issues affecting them.
For that to happen, the environment created ought to be one of experimentation where the client keeps an open mind on the possibilities in life. Overall, with Gestalt therapy, what we have is an active partnership between client and therapist.
For the sessions to be beneficial, the therapist does require a full understanding of the client’s experience. For that to be possible, the therapist ought to be aware of the client’s verbal and non-verbal communication. What is even more important is the non-verbal communication.
Careful observation ought to go into observing the client’s tone, movements, gestures, hesitation, and also the posture. These are telling signs of what the client is going through.
Therapeutic techniques of Gestalt therapy
There are various ways in which the therapist can facilitate a client’s personal growth. Let’s look at the methods available to them.
A popular technique that Gestalt is known for is the empty chair technique. It is essentially an exercise where the client gets to role-talk and have a conversation between themselves and another party that would like to talk to or between them and other parts of their personality.
How it works is two chairs are put facing each other, where the empty chair represents the other person or the opposing personality. After the roles are changed, the client now moves to the empty seat and talks from that perspective.
The therapist’s role is to facilitate the session. They can guide the conversation, bring attention to certain aspects, or ask the client to exaggerate specific phrases or actions. The purpose of this exercise is indeed to draw the client’s emotions to the surface, allow them to feel them in the present moment, and also find resolve.
The resolve could be between them and the person they have an issue with, a societal norm or between the different personalities the client might have.
Part of Gestalt therapy success lies in the client taking responsibility for their thoughts, emotions, words, and behaviors. A therapist can do that by encouraging the use of statements that begin with “I” to show ownership of the stated human attributes.
Another way that language gets used in this form of therapy is to focus on present tense when talking to avoid the client dwelling on the past and the present. It helps to promote the idea of being “here and now.”
All Gestalt therapists are to focus on a client’s body language. It is usually a subtle indicator of intense emotions the client might be having. Once the therapist does notice something, they can ask the client to exaggerate the behavior or movement.
For example, if the client uses a lot of hand gestures, the therapist can ask for them to amplify them. The reason behind this is, when the action is exaggerated, it tends to intensify the emotions that are driving it.
Additionally, the therapist can ask the client what the driving force behind the action they are doing is. It gives voice to emotions that the client is not fully aware of and allows them to bring it to the forefront. Body language is crucial as it helps the therapist to identify points of emotional blockage.
One thing therapists ask of their clients is to be more aware of their dreams and also recall them. As they do so, the therapist asks the client to play the role of various people or objects in the dream. The purpose of this is not necessary to tie into the unconscious but the projections of the same.
It is looking at the role the client plays in the dreams. It also explores the significance of the same in terms of how they relate to their environment. The goal here is indeed for the client to become increasingly aware of their thoughts and emotions, even of their dreams.
Experiments and exploration
The role of experiments in Gestalt therapy is to promote self-awareness. That gets done by the use of activities such as role-play, enactment, homework, or other such activities. The purpose of these activities is to also bring about learning and understanding of the client’s part.
When the client experiments, they can cope better in real-life situations because they’ve had ample time to work through various scenarios beforehand.
Drawbacks of Gestalt therapy
Gestalt therapy is not without its flaws. Perhaps the greatest is that it hasn’t been developed with regards to techniques and the theoretical base itself. For that reason, you’ll find that interpretation and application of the same may vary between therapists.
The other aspect is the focus of the here and now. The therapy focuses on how past experiences affect one in the present state, but it doesn’t look at the big picture of the role someone’s past plays in their present.
Another concern with Gestalt is the therapist has to have a high level of personal development. The reason for that is to ensure that countertransference doesn’t take place.
Given that role-playing and other activities are potential triggers, the therapist needs to have overcome most of the challenges the client displays. Even with that, people from different schools of thought fear that therapists can abuse their power over their clients even as they guide them through the various techniques.
Gestalt therapy, apart from also lacking a strong theoretical base, it also doesn’t deal with diagnosis and testing. Tests are vital when it comes to establishing a client’s current state.
It could be that some of what they are experiencing is also biological, and they, therefore, need to see a physician. It also doesn’t use specific tests such as those for depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse, and the like to give an accurate diagnosis of the client.
What makes the Gestalt therapy preferred is that it focuses on a person as a whole and not the sum of their parts. It brings about integration into all these facets of our lives into one singular entity that is then able to interact, and healthily so, with their environment.
The other goal of this therapy is to bring self-awareness to the client and equally give them power over their life as they begin to take responsibility for their lives. The focus on the present also helps the client deal with issues in a hands-on manner without reverting to the past or fantasies for solace.