Introduction to gestalt therapy

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It is easy to get lost in the variety of methods offered by modern psychology. Therefore, we decided to do a series of interviews with representatives of different approaches in order to help you figure out which modality fits you better, which work practices feel more appropriate to you, and where to go for help. 

The author of this article is Akhmetsafina Sofia. Practicing psychologist-consultant, certified accredited gestalt therapist, supervisor, group leader, member of the society of practicing psychologists “Gestalt-approach”. 

  • What is at the basis of gestalt-approach? 

The main idea is to focus on what the client is avoiding. If people try to avoid unpleasant experiences, then the experiences begin to bother them, and eventually will become a source of neurosis. When an experience is swallowed, not chewed, then it is important to retrieve it and to chew on it. One should not leave it lying in the human psyche like a tangled lump, like a stone. 

In the process of gestalt therapy, we take our ideas, events, experiences and analyze them. 

  • How did gestalt-therapy come about? 

Remember Freud? When he invented his psychoanalysis, he had a lot of students. And at some point, his students, as often happens, began to argue with him and come up with their own alternative visions. This is how humanistic therapy appeared. It says that not everything boils down to the sexual instinct.  

Frederick (Fritz) Perls, along with his wife Laura, created gestalt therapy. They were Jews and they lived in Germany. In 1933, soon after Hitler came to power, they fled to the Netherlands, and a year later they came to South Africa. During WWII, Frederick joined the South African army, where he worked as a psychiatrist. In the process of work and observation, he came to the conclusion that our main instinct is food. He began to identify and represent mental processes through the concept of the food instinct. 

Consider a being that somehow interacts with the environment: it consumes something and releases something. When the processes of consumption and excretion are well established, the creature is well-adapted, it feels harmonious. It has enough resources not to be poisoned by what it has absorbed, and in general, it is able to exist well. 

Perls formulated his thoughts and showed them to Freud at a conference in 1936. Freud wouldn’t even listen to him. Feeling offended by his mentor, Perls started developing his own theory. 

In other words, this approach was created as if in spite of. 

In 1946, Frederick and Laura Perls moved to the US. They lived in Manhattan, where they created the first Gestalt Institute. They conducted a lot of workshops, training, and experiments, and sometimes this looked quite exotic. From that point on, gestalt-therapy started spreading all around the world. Gradually, many therapists accepted this method and started learning it. 

Even though the Perls started with individual therapy, eventually they concluded that group therapy is more effective, and started practicing it. 

  • With what kind of problems should you come to gestalt-therapy? 

I think, first of all, with the problems of choice. When it is hard to tell where to go next. What do I want from my relationships? What do I want from myself? From my life? From people? 

Gestalt therapy is great for developing the skill of making choices. How to choose, want prevents you from choosing, what choice to make, etc. 

Also, gestalt-therapy is used in clinical situations. But in this case, the therapist should also have training as a clinical psychologist. Clinical cases require a lot of knowledge and depth. 

  • How a visit to a gestalt-therapist is structured? 

Let me tell you about my therapeutic sessions. If it is the first visit, then we get acquainted. I tell them about myself and about my work methods. We discuss the contract, the confidentiality, the safety, the Stop Rule, ethics, the cancellation policy, and how the therapy ends. We also talk about the nuances, related to our personal interaction, such as negative and positive projections, which can hinder or help our work. 

I ask the person about their problem. I learn a little bit about them, who they are, and what they want. It is very important for me to ask the person what they want, what is their question so that we could formulate the task, the specification. The better the specification, the clearer the result. When the person sets for themselves some realistic task for the near future, they are able to create a plan, to set achievable goals, and they can evaluate their progress towards the desired outcome. 

Then we start the therapy – this may go differently with different people.  

Sometimes, the person tells me that they need to talk, and they need me to listen. They say: “Please hear me out, and in the end tell me what you think about this.” 

Another option is when the person says: “I want to investigate why I act this way.” 

Yet another option is when they say, “I need to make a choice between this and that.” Or they may say, “I want to understand how I should behave myself on the next date.” 

Depending on the client’s question, I use different approaches. I see what works best: maybe it is a conversation, or investigation, or perhaps some activity, such as drawing, moving, “hot seat”, mock dialogs, etc. Everything that can help them with their question.  

At the end of the session, I ask the client how they feel. Did they get something from the session? How do they feel? Were they able to get from the session something they needed? 

Sometimes, I give homework. For example, to observe yourself, to keep a journal of bodily sensations, etc. The task of every therapist is to help the person to be mindful. The more mindful they are about their experiences, the better they can manage their life. 

What are the biggest pros of gestalt-therapy? 
Gestalt-therapy is based on integration. It can encompass all the good practices from other therapies. It is very flexible, changing, and dynamic. It is easy to adapt it to new developments. Gestalt-therapy is evolving along with the paradigms and values of the people. It is adaptable to our environment. 
2. To me, gestalt-therapy seems very interesting. It has many different directions, many experiments. Everything that you want, that you like, you can find it within gestalt-therapy. You can create and develop your own methods. For example, we created a practice called “Funeral of the Dream”.

3. We offered this practice to our clients. They had to select roles for themselves. Someone was burying their dream, someone was wailing, someone was personnel at the cemetery, we even had an ambulance. Altogether, we were burying the dream – it was a very interesting experience for everyone involved. Obviously, we had to think about safety too. You can try many different things, many experiments, you can always make new discoveries. 

Sofia, in your opinion, what is lacking in this approach? 

Because gestalt-therapy is always mixing things, sometimes I want more structure. Perhaps, I would want one book that would tell me, like a Bible, this is this and that is that. I would want a more structured approach. 

How to choose a gestalt-therapist? 

There is this joke: 

  • How will I know if this gestalt-therapist is right for me? 
  • You will want to kill him! 

First thing, if you are searching online, you can check what kind of education they have. Where did they study, do they have a supervisor, do they have their own practice? These are important aspects. 

It would be good if they had some additional training, not just the basic courses. 

Pay attention to how you feel with them: it is pleasant to communicate with them; do you feel comfortable in their office? 

Notice if they comply with the ethical standards. They should not offer you any dual relationships. They should respect your boundaries. How do they react if you violate their boundaries? Do such episodes happen? 

If you were to describe gestalt-therapy in three words, what would they be? 

Flexibility, creativity, and freedom. 

If you could draw a picture describing gestalt-therapy, what would you draw? 

For me, it is probably, “Water Lilies” by Claude Monet, or “The Starry Night” by Van Gogh. Something like this. What does it mean? Perception, sensing, sensual experience… And at the same time something very creative, with many-many beautiful colors and images. Perception of nature, of the environment through the senses. 

If it were music, what kind of music would it be? 

On one hand, it would be light and gentle music. On the other, it would have some depth. Behind the gentle touch of the sounds, you could feel a big depth. Like a low note in the background.