Gestalt Therapy

Gestalt Therapy


Gestalt therapy is a type of counselling that focuses on increasing self-awareness in the present moment. It was developed by psychologists Fritz Perls, Laura Perls and Paul Goodman back in the 1940s and 1950s as a new approach based on direct experience rather than traditional diagnosis methods.

The main idea behind gestalt therapy is that people constantly organise what they perceive into meaningful “wholes” or patterns. But sometimes this process gets interrupted, leaving an experience feeling incomplete. When parts of oneself feel unfinished in this way, people can unconsciously end up repeating old behaviours and stuck emotions without realizing it.

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The therapist’s role is to guide the client towards greater awareness of these incomplete patterns causing issues in their life. They help create insightful “aha!” moments using experiential experiments and lively dialogues. This allows old feelings to fully emerge so the person can finish the lingering “unfinished business” of the past. By re-owning and accepting all parts of themselves with compassion, clients regain a sense of wholeness. This frees them up to respond flexibly to their current needs instead of just reacting out of old wounds.

The Theoretical Basis

The founders of gestalt therapy were influenced by various psychological, philosophical and psychoanalytic approaches of the early 20th century. Key influences came from thinkers who viewed human experience holistically and focused on concepts like self-actualization. Gestalt therapy integrates these phenomenological insights about peoples’ inner world with a dynamic outlook toward unmet needs shaping personality.

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An important concept is that people naturally strive to integrate opposing aspects of themselves to attain wholeness, similar to how the mind seeks closure in perceiving incomplete patterns. By becoming aware of the tensions between such “polarities” inside oneself, extreme reactions can be avoided. For instance, someone restricting their need for others may compensate by becoming withdrawn. Gestalt experiments help to embrace these neglected aspects.

Instead of diagnostic labels, gestalt therapists focus on the client’s unique living experience as it unfolds moment-by-moment. The emphasis is on immersing oneself in the vivid “what” and “how” of their feelings rather than the content. This reveals the underlying processes by which experience gets organized. The therapist also avoids interpretations, trusting that intimate client-therapist dialogue leads to insight. Authentic presence is valued over technical expertise.

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Some other core principles are:
  • Polarities and Paradoxes: Opposing self-needs form tension-filled paradoxes seeking integration. By accepting the full continuum between extremes, flexible responding opens up.
  • Unfinished Business: Past interruptions cause unmet needs to persist unconsciously. By becoming aware and completing the unfinished situations, rigidity is released.
  • Emerging Figures Against Background: Focal impressions form clearer “figures” against the vagueness of surrounding “background” elements. Unclear figures sinking prematurely into the background create lingering incompletion.
  • Experiments and Enactments: Clients experiment with new behaviours to actively finish unfinished situations. Through bold action, lost parts of themselves emerge from the background into the forgiving foreground.
  • Owning Projections: Aspects of oneself that feel uncomfortable often get unconsciously projected onto others. By embracing these again, integration occurs.

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The Unfinished Business Model of Neurosis

Central to the theory underlying gestalt therapy is the “unfinished business” concept derived from Lewin’s field theory. This framework explains neurotic behaviours as resulting from unmet needs that constantly press for closure within the psychological force field made up of perception, emotion and needs. Unfinished business refers to meaningful experiences that get interrupted midway before reaching a resolution or gestalt.

When this happens repeatedly due to external prohibitions or self-prohibitions, the unfinished situation persists as unresolved tensions seeking expression. Individuals start automatically repeating associated behaviours rigidly across time despite diminishing relevance because the underlying hunger for completion becomes unsatisfied. Eventually these constant tensions drain awareness and vitality.

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In Gestalt theory, interruptions to authentic experience and expression cause people to disown parts of themselves. The unfinished business then wields excessive organising power over the rest of the personality system. Healing involves rediscovering and reintegrating alienated aspects of oneself. The therapist helps facilitate this through experiments that activate and complete the unfinished gestalt. Thereby clients reclaim their ability for flexible, needs-based responding unhindered by the past.

Criticisms and Limitations of Gestalt Therapy

However, gestalt therapy has also garnered criticism over the years. Critics argue its active, confrontational style can feel too overwhelming or stressful for some clients. Researchers also highlight the need for more controlled outcome studies to empirically demonstrate Gestalt therapy’s effectiveness as the existing evidence base remains limited.

Practitioners themselves acknowledge gestalt requires creative, relationally skilled therapists to apply experiments skilfully matched to clients’ momentary needs. At times, over-emphasis on dramatic breakthroughs over gradual insight can also be counterproductive. Hence, considerable therapist judgement goes into discerning what interventions serve healing versus gratifying therapist needs for visible action. Thus, gestalt techniques offer adventurous, presence-based ways of resolving emotional suffering through awareness. By recognizing that the “whole” is greater than the sum of incomplete parts, rich self-support becomes available in the client’s life world itself.

References +
  • Brownell, P. (2017). Contextualizing gestalt therapy: Clinical practice beyond the one-to-one therapeutic relationship. In P. Brownell (Ed.), Handbook for Theory, Research, and Practice in Gestalt Therapy (pp. 81-106). Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
  • Jacobs, L. (2017). From health to pathology: Evolution of the concept of self-regulation in gestalt therapy literature. Gestalt Review,21(3), 243-259.
  • Levin, M. (2017). The practical application of gestalt therapy principles in treating combat veterans with ptsd: An adjunctive approach. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 15(4), 954–969.
  • Melnick, J., March Nevis, S. (2005). Gestalt Therapy Methodology. Gestalt Review, 9(1), 30–49.
  • Polster, E. & Polster M. (1973) Gestalt Therapy Integrated: Contours of theory and practice. New York: Brunner/Mazel.
  • Yontef, G. M. (2005). Gestalt Therapy Theory of Change. Gestalt!, 9(1). Retrieved from
  • Yontef, G. (1993). Awareness, dialogue, and process: Essays on Gestalt therapy. Highland, NY: The Gestalt Journal Press.
  • Zinker, J. (1978). Creative process in gestalt therapy. New York, NY: Vintage

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