Why go to a Gestalt therapist?

Posted on September 21, 2010


For one or more of these reasons…

  • To help you live out your dreams.
  • To help alleviate personal suffering and emotional pain.
  • To grow emotionally, mentally and spiritually.
  • To find a way out of cloudy numbness and start feeling again.
  • To work on becoming more successful in life, work and relationships.
  • To get a footing in a raging storm of emotions or forge a path out of seemingly endless, gray drear.
  • To get in touch with that inner voice and gain clarity on your own thoughts and feelings.
  • To work through confusion and attain concentration.
  • To get longer, deeper, more restful sleep.
  • To shake an addiction.
  • To understand one’s own life better, in order to make the changes you can and learn to accept what you can’t change.
  • To move from the drama of black-and-white thinking to the peace of shades of gray and the joy of a mental rainbow of color.
  • To get a handle on that murky but unpleasant feeling and deal with it.
  • To unlock the mysteries of one’s own soul.
  • To sort things out.
  • To suffer less and enjoy life more.

What is Gestalt and why choose a Gestalt therapist?

(By the way, the Wikipedia page on Gestalt therapy is very theoretical but has become quite good for clinicians who want understand better what we do.)

First some background:

Gestalt is represented strongly in only a few cities in the United States – mainly New York and Cleveland – but is a method of choice in many other parts of the world including Australia and Europe but in particular in Germany and Austria, where it has its roots – alongside most all forms of psychotherapy.  Gestalt descends from the methods of psychoanalysis of Dr. Sigmund Freud and – to a lesser degree – C.G. Jung, and the founder of Gestalt therapy, Dr. Friedrich Perls, was himself a physician and psychoanalyst like Freud.  But he felt some things had to change to make the therapy more effective and realistic.

Like many psychoanalysts, such as Freud, Perls was also Jewish and fled the Nazi regime to save his own life, eventually landing in the United States with his wife Laura Perls, who contributed significantly to Gestalt therapy, eventually developing her own branch of it.

A notable change Perls made in his approach was to work in the here-and-now as opposed to plumbing the depths of the past, for Perls felt that the “past” did not exist.  Think about it – if you are currently pondering some memory, you are still in the present remembering something.  You are not travelling back to some other point in time in a time machine.  And your memory is not a perfect record of your past but is the remnant you carry with you, which affects the way you feel and think.  In his here-and-now approach, Perls was influenced by Zen Buddhism.  Gestalt therapists work with memories of the past as they surface in the present.

Perls also treated the body and the soul as a single, inseparable unit.  Simply put – I’m explaining it here consciously in terms as if body and soul were separate – when something happens to the body, it is equally visible in the soul and the other way around.  Now, it’s easy to understand that when someone is seriously injured, he or she might scream, wince or cry and feel pain, fear and sadness.  The physical discomfort has an immediate emotional component, and people generally accept that this is the case.  No one would doubt for a moment that breaking a limb is going to change the way someone is feeling – or what they are thinking about.

But it also works the other way around.   Again, I’m consciously explaining in terms that assume a separation of soul and body: when someone feels something, it causes reactions in the body. Worry triggers an increased heart rate and stomach churning.  Fear makes you breathe faster.  Sadness makes the corner of your mouth quiver.  Perls believed that when something happens to us emotionally, even very deep down, it sends out signals through the body that client, therapist or both can pick up on.  Thoughts set off emotions and vice versa, and these are intimately connected to our bodies, which react accordingly.  In fact Perls felt the “organism”, as he put it, had to produce a tangible physical reaction to emotions.

So, a big part of what a Gestalt therapist does is to help the client become more aware of these signals in order to gain more insight into and a more complete connection with her- or himself.

Below is a video of a Gestalt therapist at work in Australia (not me):

Perls also did not believe that psychology was far advanced enough to make a therapist the expert in another human’s life, and he changed the term “patient” to “client”.  He also did not believe that an analyst could remain completely objective and detached and that processes were going on inside the therapist as a result of the contact with the client that were also important and useful to the client (and the other way around as well!).  Therefore Perls did not sit at the head of a couch as was customary with psychoanalysts – out of their patient’s view – but instead he sat face-to-face with the client to be able to observe and experience the client in contact and share with the client his own experience in that contact as it seemed helpful and useful.

“Contact” is probably the single-most important term in Gestalt therapy.  In Gestalt the healthier the individual, the better he or she is able to regulate contact – with her- or himself, the environment and other people.  This can include participating intensely in contact and later withdrawing from that contact for the sake of regeneration.  Although the focus is primarily on the ability to participate in contact, it can also mean avoiding harmful contact. Today in the USA, we tend to (over)use terms like “connect” or “connection” to mean a similar thing.

In accordance with not being able to be an expert in the client’s life, Gestalt does not interpret but lets the client work with what arises in uncomfortable, painful or funny and enlivening chunks, reconcile with them and re-integrate them back into one’s personality. The therapist encourages the client to experiment and explore in the process, as you will see in the videos posted with this article.

In Gestalt there is a professional, therapeutic relationship between the therapist and the client instead of a doctor-patient detachment.  As with psychoanalysis, we do deal with the ghosts of the past – but as they live in the present and taint life now.  And we process them to keep life going in the here-and-now.  We work towards a wholeness of mind, body and soul to live life to its fullest – in all its imperfection, accepting its rough edges, bumps and quirks and dealing with them creatively.  It’s about owning life’s path, not smoothing over pain. It’s about accepting and guiding your own life with the joy, beauty, disappointments and even monotony we encounter – but a life that belongs to you.  (I fear therapy, counselling and coaching are  sometimes practiced as feel-good massages, thereby losing their depth and helping deplete those involved of liveliness and existential meaning in their lives.)

The term “client” instead of “patient” thus reflects Gestalt’s turning away from a medical approach, in which matters of the psyche are treated as “illnesses” to be “cured” and are instead seen as coping strategies that are painful and uncomfortable but that a conscious being needs to reconcile with – as they are – before moving on to healthier forms of coping with life and one’s self.   Rather than focusing on conforming a patient’s mental state to a standard from a health manual, Gestalt seeks creative, often non-conformist paths and honors the individual’s life path with all the bumps in the road.

An attitude of non-conformity is prevalent in Gestalt, which may help explain the hay day it experienced in the US during the 1960’s – a boom, which lead to an unfortunate bust of sorts on the North American continent. Gestalt is not interested in pressing the client into a mold derived from society’s expectations or a diagnostic scale but supports getting along in the world we live in as the people we are – while becoming healthier ourselves and influencing our environment in the same direction.  It strives to help us “be our…selves” and survive and thrive in our environments via “creative adaptation” – unlocking the power of who we are to deal with life and society and to contribute to it.  Gestalt does this by helping clients tap into the wealth of creativity and possibilities each of us is endowed with and channeling it into our lives and surroundings.  This focus on honoring human imperfection and converting it into human potential rather than approaching it as “illnesses” that must be “cured” is the reason why Gestalt therapy is counted as part of the humanistic psychology movement.  Gestalt is less about feel-good and more about feeling good about owning your life.  And that makes life feel better.

Fritz Perls himself at work:

Ben is a certified Gestalt therapist (Gestalt Therapy Counselor), who graduated from the Insitut für humanistische Psychologie in Eschweiler, Germany with ca. 1200 hours of training.  Ben has also trained in organizational psychology, art therapy, transactional analysis, body-oriented psychotherapy, orientation analysis and other forms of humanistic psychology as well as psychopathology.  Ben currently resides in the greater Atlanta, GA area and can be reached at: benbrum@gmail.com.

Feel free to contact me with your questions or needs.  

(Disclaimer: Not a clinical psychologist and does not hold the U.S. title of “professional counselor”.)

Posted in: What is Gestalt?