Gestalt therapy refers to a form of psychotherapy that derives from the gestalt school of thought. Developed in the late 1940s by Fritz Perls, gestalt therapy is guided by the relational theory principle that every individual is a whole (mind, body and soul) and that they are best understood in relation to their current situation as he/she experiences it.
The approach combines this relational theory with present state - focusing strongly on self-awareness and the ‘here and now’ (what is happening from one moment to the next). In gestalt therapy, self-awareness is key to personal growth and developing full potential. The approach recognises that sometimes this self-awareness can become blocked by negative thought patterns and behaviours that can leave people feeling dissatisfied and unhappy.
It is the aim of a gestalt therapist to promote a non-judgemental self-awareness that enables clients to develop a unique perspective on life. By helping an individual to become more aware of how they think, feel and act in the present moment, gestalt therapy provides an insight into ways in which a person can alleviate any current issues and distress they are experiencing in order to aspire to their maximum potential.
Below we explain some of the common methods used.
Role play can help individuals to experience different feelings and emotions, and to better understand how they present and organise themselves.
The ‘open chair’ technique
The open chair technique involves two chairs and role play, and give rise to emotional scenes. The client sits opposite an empty chair and must imagine someone (usually themselves or parts of themselves) sitting in it. Next, they will communicate with this imaginary being - asking questions and engaging with what they represent.
Then they must switch chairs so they are physically sitting in the once-empty chair. The conversation continues, but the client has reversed roles - speaking on behalf of the imagined part of their own problem. This technique aims to enable participants to locate a specific feeling or a side of their personality they had previously disowned or tried to ignore. This helps them to accept polarities and acknowledge that conflicts exist in everyone.
A gestalt therapist will need to engage the client in meaningful and authentic dialogue in order to guide them to a particular way of behaving or thinking. This may move beyond simple discussion to more creative forms of expression such as dancing, singing or laughing.
Dreams play an important role in gestalt therapy, as they can help individuals to understand spontaneous aspects of themselves. Fritz Perls frequently asked clients to relive their dreams by playing different objects and people in the dream. During this, they would be asked questions such as, ‘what are you aware of now?’ to sharpen self-awareness.
Attention to body language
Throughout therapy, a gestalt therapist will concentrate on body language, which is considered a subtle indicator of intense emotions. When specific body language is noticed, the therapist may ask the client to exaggerate these movements or behaviours.
This is thought to intensify the emotion attached to the behaviour and highlight an inner meaning. For example, a client may be showing signs of clenched fists or frowning, to which the therapist may ask something such as, ‘what are you saying with this movement?’.