When I mention I am trained in Gestalt Psychotherapy, many people say ‘oh, that’s the one with the empty chair’. Gestalt seems to have been remembered as the therapy with the empty chair. It is true that an empty chair could be used in therapy at some point, but gestalt therapy is much more than that. It also has a reputation for being confrontational, which again has some truth and Fritz Perls (1970) one of its originators, could be quite direct and over bearing in his demonstrations of the gestalt approach. My experience of being in gestalt therapy is that it is a gentle but direct approach, getting to the nub of things at the same time as supporting clients to progress at their own pace.
Here are some of the elements of The Gestalt approach, sometimes called the ‘Four Pillars of Gestalt’.
- Here and Now
Gestalt therapy focuses on ‘here and now’, the client’s immediate experience. This may include thoughts, sensations and emotions. This does not mean to say that the past is irrelevant, unimportant or never explored; after all it informs our perception of things. The therapist is interested in what is actually happening in the moment and may ask questions like ‘what’ and ‘how’ rather than being concerned with analysing or interpreting. This method is known as ‘phenomenology’ and asks the client to describe rather than explain what is happening. The ‘here and now’ focus supports the heightening of awareness and moment by moment contact.
- The Therapeutic relationship
The quality relationship between the therapist and the client is considered integral in Gestalt therapy. ‘Dialogue’ is the process that occurs between the therapist and client and the attitudes that the therapist holds toward meeting the client. While it requests discipline from the therapist to pay attention to moment to moment contact between themselves and the client, it also requires that the therapist pay attention to their own internal process and be as authentic, attentive and present as they can possibly be. While I have used the terms client and therapist in this paragraph, when talking about dialogue it would be more accurate to use the term person and person, as the approach is more concerned with the meeting of two people rather than any role that they might be assigned to.
- Field Theory
The connection between the person and their environment is a central feature of the Gestalt approach. ‘Field Theory’ was founded by the German Psychologist Kurt Lewin (1952) and embraces this connection between a person’s present psychological wellbeing and their immediate environment. The central theme of field theory is based on Lewin’s belief that all behaviour is rooted in the ‘here-and-now’ rather than in the past, and that it is impossible to really understand a person without first acknowledging their current environmental circumstances, for example their relationships, work, living situation etc.…
Gestalt Psychotherapy embraces both speech and action as a means of personal exploration. People communicate in many ways, not just verbally; often much of this communication is unconscious. Gestalt experiments are offered as an opportunity to engage in action based exercises that heighten a person’s awareness as they make contact with their environment. Gestalt Psychotherapy attends to repeating patterns and experiments offer the opportunity to examine these patterns and decide whether they are helpful or not.