Gestalt therapy is a branch of psychotherapy which places emphasis on a person’s personal responsibility and which helps individuals focus on the present moment, whether it be in a session with the therapist or in their everyday life. Gestalt therapy focuses on process over content. In other words, it focuses on what is actually happening in a therapeutic session as opposed to focusing on what is being talked about. What is being done at the present moment? What is being thought at that moment? What is being felt at the present moment? The emphasis is on how things are in the present and not how they should be, how they could be, or how they could have been. Thinking in terms other than the present, and especially in terms of how things could have been done differently, are seen as barriers to satisfaction with ones life. The objective of gestalt therapy, then, is to enable the patient to free themselves from these blocks, which acts to diminish satisfaction, fulfilment, and growth, and to experiment with new ways of being (2).
The goals of gestalt therapy are based on phenomenology, with focus placed on increasing awareness, increasing the degree of choice, and making it easier for the client to be in a more total contact with themselves and their environment (1). In gestalt therapy there is less focus placed on problem solving and changing oneself but rather on the reality of the situation. In other words, by focusing on ‘what is’, the patient is able to become aware of alternatives and can then be free to choose an alternative.
Gestalt therapy was created in the 1940s and 1950s by Fritz Perls, his wife Laura Perls, and Paul Goodman. Fritz was educated as a medical doctor after serving in the German Army during World War I. He completed an education in psychoanalysis with Wilhelm Reich and became a psychiatrist. While assisting Kurt Goldstein at Frankfurt University, he met his future wife, Laura Posner, who had earned a doctorate in Gestalt psychology. In 1933, Fritz and Laura Perls fled Nazi Germany and settled in South Africa, where they later published their major book: Gestalt Therapy Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality, in 1951 with two other authors, Paul Goodman and Ralph Hefferline. Most of the second part of the book was written by Paul Goodman from Perls’ notes and contains most of the core of gestalt theory, while Hefferline contributed the section containing practical exercises. By 1952, Fritz and his wife were living in Manhattan and it was then that the two founded the first gestalt institute. At the institute, monthly meetings were held where the principles of gestalt therapy were discussed and demonstrated using the “hot seat” method, where the meeting leader worked with one individual in front of the others, who would watch and learn. Some notable therapists who emerged from these trainings included Isidore Form, Richard Kitzler, Dan Bloom, Carl Hodges, Bud Feder, and Ruth Ronall.
1. Ford, C. (2007). A short introduction to psychotherapy. Los Angeles, Ca.: SAGE.
2. Zinker, J. C. (1977). Creative process in Gestalt therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel.