Gestalt [pronounced gue (as in guest) – sch – tullt]
is originally a German word (literally meaning form, shape), incorporated into English, with the meaning “an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts”.
Gestalt, or Gestalt therapy is a phenomenological-existential approach to personal development and growth. It was founded by Fritz and Laura Perls in the 1940s, and has from the outset and to present day had a strong influence on contemporary methods for counselling, psychotherapy and personal development.
The phenomenological approach
Using the phenomenological approach, means that we observe our experience as it actually is, in the here-and-now. We focus on our actual, experienced reality, rather than on the concepts, beliefs, theories and ideas that we may have about our experience.
The phenomenological approach helps us explore and become aware of who we are, through our direct experience of ourselves. It involves keeping an open mind and being genuinely curious to find out how we go about being who we are, on every level of our being.
The Existential Perspective
Seen in the existential perspective, people are endlessly discovering and recreating themselves. There is no end point to arrive at, where we have finally established who we truly are. There are forever new horizons, new challenges and new opportunities to explore on the journey of being who we are.
The phenomenological-existential approach focuses on people’s direct experience of existing as human beings, growing and developing, relating to themselves and to others, living through suffering as well as joy.
Awareness and Dialogue
Awareness and dialogue are the two primary components in the Gestalt approach to personal development and growth.
Human beings, like all nature, have an inborn drive toward health and growth. Gestalt recognises this natural drive, and that the key element for change in the direction of health lies in contactful awareness.
Contactful awareness can loosely be described as being in touch with your own experience, while making contact with the world around you and the people you interact with. Awareness is sensory, cognitive and affective – it involves your senses, your thinking and your feelings and emotions.
Awareness includes knowing and accepting yourself as well as the world and the people around you. It also includes knowing that you are in control of and responsible for your own feelings, choices and behaviour. When you are fully aware, you know what you do, how you do it, that there are alternatives, and that you choose to do what you do and be the way you are.
In the phenomenological-existential explorations that form the basis of Gestalt, therefore, the primary goal is awareness.
The means for developing contactful awareness in Gestalt is phenomenological-existential dialogue between the therapist and the client, where they both focus on and communicate about their actual experience, as it is in the present moment.
In the Gestalt perspective, the client’s change and growth is not seen as produced by the therapist. Rather, it is the genuine contact in the dialogue between therapist and client that causes change and development.
This rests on the philosophy of Dialogic Existentialism, which holds that human beings are inherently relational; i.e. we become and discover who we are, through relating to others. We grow and develop through experiences of contacting and relating to other people and the world around us.
The Gestalt therapist, hence, works by engaging in dialogue rather than by manipulating the client toward some therapeutic goal. Such contact is grounded in self-responsibility, directness, caring, acceptance and warmth.
The best single idea for representing Gestalt is the concept of authenticity. The quest for authenticity, for being oneself as one truly is, taking ownership of what is true about oneself, and openly sharing this truth in dialogue with another lies at the very core of the Gestalt approach.
While the focus is certainly on the client, this quest for authenticity applies equally to the therapist. Hence, in Gestalt, the therapist as well as the client shows his full presence. The therapist is actively present, alive, warm, honest and direct, expressing his observations, preferences, feelings, personal experience and thoughts, in dialogue with the client.
In this authentic meeting with the therapist, the client gets to know how she is experienced by the therapist, and also develops greater awareness of her own capacity for being genuinely present in dialogue with another person. She learns to trust and use her immediate experience as a means to personal development and growth, by how she and the therapist engage with each other in authentic dialogue. And undeniably, it is in real contact between real people that growth and development naturally occur.
How is Gestalt done?
In Gestalt the focus is on what the client does and how she does what she does. More so than other approaches, Gestalt emphasises the here-and-now and that direct experience is more reliable than intellectual speculation.
As the dialogue unfolds, the client’s contract with the therapist is to, to the best of her ability, notice and give expression to where she is at, i.e. to communicate what she is experiencing and what she is aware of in the present moment.
The therapist may facilitate the client’s increasing awareness by means of questions, such as simply, “What are you aware of right now?”, “What are you feeling?”, “What are you thinking?”, or perhaps, “What are you doing with your right hand?”
The client’s awareness may be further expanded, beyond her initial experience, by means of Gestalt techniques facilitated by the therapist. These techniques can be seen as experimental tasks, designed for the explicit purpose of expanding the client’s awareness of her actual experience. A simple example could be, “Try exaggerating what you are doing with your hand, and notice what you become aware of.”
Another example of how Gestalt emphasises direct experience, is when the client is encouraged to talk to a person as if they were present, rather talking about the person. By talking to the person, the client’s awareness of her experience and feeling reactions relating to this person is mobilised in a way that talking about them is unlikely to be able to do.
Obviously there are techniques and methods in Gestalt other than those mentioned above, with varying degrees of complexity in their design. In fact, Gestalt therapists may use any techniques or methods which aim at increasing awareness, which emerge out of the phenomenological-existential dialogue, and which are within the parameters of ethical practice.
Who can benefit from Gestalt?
Anyone who wishes to increase their awareness of who they are and how they function in relation to others will find Gestalt to be a rewarding approach to personal growth and development. For people who struggle to overcome limitations in regard to being fully who they know they truly are and can be, Gestalt fosters new perspectives and insights, which lead to old barriers and blockages naturally dissolving.
Gestalt techniques and methods are suitable for dealing with any kind of personal problems. It can be used effectively with anyone whom the therapist understands and feels comfortable with. If the therapist can relate to the client, then the Gestalt principles of awareness and dialogue can be fruitfully applied.
Gestalt facilitates problem solving in a way that leads to increased awareness, freedom, self-determination and self-support. It is particularly useful for people who have accumulated intellectual knowledge and understanding of themselves, yet have found that the growth they are seeking still is not fully achieved.
Gestalt promotes the expansion of awareness as well as the enhancement of contact. As sensory awareness increases in accuracy and vividness, and as the client becomes better at making contact with the surrounding world and the people in it, these skills for contactful awareness carry over into the client’s everyday life. Increased abilities for awareness and contact cause people to grow and develop, and hence their personal relationships and their way of functioning in the world naturally improve.
Gestalt Awareness & Dialogue Process formats
Gestalt is applied in a great variety of formats; from ongoing individual counselling/therapy, to weekend intensives in the form of seminars and workshops. What these formats all have in common is that they are based on the general principles of: (a) focus on what and how in the here-and-now, (b) emphasis on awareness, direct experience and experimenting, and (c) use of genuine contact and authentic presence.
The individual format is often preferred by people who are struggling with an acute, specific life challenge, and feel a need to have the therapist’s exclusive attention to address their issues. Usually sessions are attended weekly, giving clients sufficient time between sessions to digest new insights and awareness, while still maintaining a sense of continuity in the therapy process. In some circumstances clients can utilise more frequent sessions, but it is rarely adequate to have sessions less often than once a fortnight.
Depending on the client’s needs, individual counselling/therapy may go on for a period of a few weeks to several months, sometimes in parallel with the client participating in an ongoing Gestalt group, to further enhance the benefits from the individual counselling/therapy process.
Commonly, as the client’s need for exclusive therapist attention gradually lessens, they find that the ongoing group format, with the particular opportunities for insight and awareness that this format offers [see below], becomes the preferred option. Hence, it is common that clients in individual counselling/therapy move on, to join an ongoing Gestalt group, for continuing personal exploration, growth and development.
Couples in relationship, who are experiencing difficulties in understanding each other, agreeing on how to go about being a couple, have problems with trust, intimacy issues or any other of the many challenges that come with being in relationship, can use the Gestalt approach to gain new awareness and perspectives on how to overcome their difficulties.
Gestalt’s focus on awareness and experimentation lends itself very well to the rediscovery of appreciation and affection, when couples have become stuck in old, unproductive ways of dealing with life’s challenges together.
Many people who at first have been reluctant to pursue personal exploration, growth and development together with “a group of strangers” have found participating in a Gestalt group to be one of the most rewarding experiences of their lives. What a group can offer that individual counselling/therapy cannot, is obviously the presence of other participants, which allows for other dimensions of the Gestalt approach to be explored.
There are many variations on how the group process may unfold from session to session. At times one individual will be at the centre of attention, doing one-on-one work with the therapist, with involvement from the other group members as appropriate. Other times all the members of the group may explore a theme that initially related to one particular person. Other times again the group may focus on and explore group interrelationships, i.e. how they make contact with one another in the group setting, or how the group functions as a “multi-people” entity.
Regardless of how the Gestalt process unfolds in each session, and over the course of several sessions, the feedback and the support that other group members provide readily becomes an invaluable component in the personal development and growth of each participant.
Equally, the insight into other people’s life challenges, fears and limitations as well as their successes, empowerment and growth, creates a sense of common ground and belonging which reaches deeper into our being than the regular interactions that we have with people in our everyday lives. Hence, it is not uncommon that people who are in a Gestalt group together over an extended period of time, forge deep bonds of friendship and a special sense of closeness which remain for the rest of their lives.
Gestalt groups are typically made up of 6 to 10 people, who contract to meet weekly for a period of between three months to a year. When the contracted period reaches its end, the group may choose to continue with the same group members, or to take on new members, perhaps to replace members who are leaving the group.
Even though, in a group, not every participant can have the therapist’s exclusive attention every session for the whole of the session, the parallel experience of the group process itself unquestionably has its own special rewards. Furthermore, since the therapist fees are paid jointly by all the participants, the group format ends up being an economical alternative to individual counselling/therapy, when exclusive therapist attention is not urgent.
Gestalt workshops are similar to the ongoing group format, but instead of being spread out over several weeks or months, they take place in a shorter yet more intense time frame. Workshops are commonly offered as a full day or weekend process. Occasionally retreats spanning over a whole week are scheduled.
A Gestalt workshop may be a spontaneous process based on the Gestalt approach to personal discovery, development and growth, or it may be particularly focussing on a specific theme, such as dreams, relationship, family, spirituality or any other theme.
The workshop format allows participants to immerse themselves completely in the Gestalt method for the duration of the workshop. This powerful process often opens up awareness of deeper personal dynamics and leads to personal insights and breakthroughs on other levels, than when the process is spread out over a number of shorter meetings.
Because workshops are limited to a compressed time frame, and only so many hours are available to share between participants, sometimes rules are established so that each participant gets an equal opportunity for therapeutic attention. Other times no such rules are set, so that the dynamics of the group process and each participant’s willingness and drive determines where the therapeutic attention flows.
A hybrid between the ongoing group and the workshop formats, the Gestalt Open Forum is an ongoing event, with each forum open to anyone interested in attending. Open Forums are typically held weekly or fortnightly over a period of several months, and the number of participants is limited only by the number of seats available, on a first-in first-seated basis.
Active contribution in an Open Forum is voluntary for each participant, hence allowing people to attend as passive participants in the Gestalt process, or simply observers, should they wish to. The therapeutic process consists of one-on-one work between the therapist and participants who choose to be actively involved by bringing up an issue they wish to address. Other participants may contribute in the therapeutic process as appropriate.
The Open Forum cannot serve as a substitute for participation in an ongoing group, where deeper personal contacts, bonds and dynamics evolve over time. Neither can it serve as a substitute for the powerful intensity that the workshop format offers. It is, however, an excellent opportunity to explore the Gestalt approach to personal exploration and growth with a minimal commitment of time and money, with its open format and its nominal participation fees.
Find out more
Gestalt is experiential. It is impossible to fully appreciate how powerfully it can contribute to your personal development and growth, without actually experiencing it for yourself. No amount of reading, and no amount of self-help work, can replace the personal facilitation of an experienced and skilful Gestalt therapist.
Hence, if you wish to find out more about what Gestalt really has to offer, the best advice is that you schedule in a few sessions of individual counselling/therapy, or join an ongoing group, alternatively participate in a workshop or an Open Forum. Contact me for more information and bookings…