What is Gestalt Therapy? And how can Gestalt Therapy and Principles help me to manage my mental health issues?
Translated from the German word, gestalt implies wholeness, or if used as a verb ‘to make whole.’ Gestalt therapy (often referred to as Gestalt Psychotherapy or Gestalt Counselling) is a relational and experiential form of psychotherapy developed in the 1940s and 1950s by a group of psychologists, psychiatrists, philosophers, and educators.
The founding members of Gestalt therapy are Fritz Perls, Laura Perls, and Paul Goodman. Gestalt focuses on the here and now of a client’s thoughts, feelings, and situation, providing a holistic engagement with the nature of the human condition. It privileges experiential learning, human relating and believes strongly in the therapeutic relationship as a healing relationship. Recently Neuroscience discovered that a relationship with someone who can supply support and understanding reshapes a person’s neurological possibilities. That is, with the right supportive environment, change is possible.
The Four Pillars
Gestalt therapists/counsellors rely heavily on and are guided by four theoretical pillars that make up Gestalt methodology. They are phenomenology, dialogical relationship, field theory and experimentation. They are used holistically within the therapeutic setting and are interrelated and supportive of each other.
Diagnosis in Gestalt Therapy
Diagnosis in Gestalt therapy has historically been rejected. In Gestalt therapy the notion of the diagnosis of personality or mood disorders as being depersonalising and anti-therapeutic, in that, it objectifies the client rather than sees the client as fluid and unique. For this reason, Gestalt methodology relies on intrinsic aesthetic diagnosis, which is, the moment-to-moment interactions of the therapist/client relationship at the contact boundary, using the phenomenological method, as applied to Gestalt therapy. That is, to observe-bracket-describe, in an effort to stay experience near, by focusing on the here and now, whilst bracketing any interpretation, so that the client can discover their own understanding and meaning of their experiences.
Phenomenological observation is descriptive and flexible, rather than simply defining, it is an attempt to see patterns, themes and repetitions in the body, movement, voice and use of language that are unique to the client. Attention is given not to the figure that imposes itself, but to what is related to it in the background. Thus, interventions by the therapist arise from blocks in contact and it is within the therapeutic relationship that the client and therapist co-construct the diagnostic process, pooling together the knowledge (and foreknowledge) of the therapist and client.
Primarily Gestalt diagnosis is an assessment of the person-world situation, that is, a field diagnosis, where both ordered and disordered interactions are understood as a self-organising process of the situation. It is “….. an understanding or assessment of all the ways the client makes meaning and contact with their world” (Joyce & Sills, 2010, p. 58).
Gestalt therapy methodology emphasises staying present in the “here and now” in order to build awareness around what we are doing? And, how we are doing it? Essentially we practice mindfulness.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is about living with awareness. It helps to be aware of what you are doing, as this promotes choice and change. What am I doing now? How am I doing it? Would I like to do it differently? Mindfulness or living with awareness creates space and understanding. As we slow down and become more aware we get to know and understand ourselves and others better. This promotes confidence in ourselves and allows us time to choose something different, rather than behaving in the usual ways that may no longer serve us. What does that feel like when I do this? What does it feel like when I do that? Which would I prefer??
Mindfulness involves taking a step back, observing and describing one’s thoughts, emotions and behaviour without judgement. We become curious about who I am, what I do and how I feel/think/behave in the moment without self-criticism. When we judge ourselves for the way we feel, think or behave we are adding a secondary thought, emotion or action, this clutters the mind, complicates and distracts us from our original feeling, thought or action, which often has a deep desire to be understood or heard. When we are mindful we are connected to ourselves and others in more meaningful ways.
Mindfulness skills training is used to provide assistance for:
Gestalt Cycle of Experience
In Gestalt theory, The Gestalt Cycle of Experience in Gestalt Therapy is used by the counsellor as a tool to view how the client makes and breaks contact with themselves and/or their environment. It is a continual cycle of contact and withdrawal with and from ourselves and our environment. In Gestalt theory, we think of contact as being made at the boundary and that may interact with others and our world in a continual process of meeting our needs. This is a choice response even if we are unaware that we have made a choice.
Figure and Ground – Gestalt Principle
The Gestalt Principle of Figure and Ground simply means that Gestalt therapists not only attend to what is figural for the client at the present moment but also attend to what is in the ground of the client’s experience. That is, what is out of awareness for the client? By allowing what is out of awareness to become figural new meaning for the client and their situation can be made. The therapist explores the client’s experience respectfully and without judgment allowing the client’s experience to unfold for them as it feels right. With time and attention what is out of awareness comes to the attention of both the client and the Gestalt therapist, through exploration of the client’s emotional experience. The whole of the client is regarded, that is, thoughts, non-verbals, feelings, and sensations. By obtaining the new awareness from the ground of the client’s experience the client begins to understand themselves and/or their situation with greater clarity and new meaning is made. The picture above demonstrates how at first glance we only see one picture however with further discernment our perspective changes and we see another picture. This changes our view of the whole.
The picture to the right demonstrates how at first glance we only see one picture however with further discernment our perspective changes and we see another picture. This changes our view of the whole.