Gestalt therapy is a humanistic therapy technique that focuses on gaining an awareness of emotions and behaviors in the present rather than in the past. The therapist does not interpret experiences for the patient. Instead, the therapist and patient work together to help the patient understand him/herself. This type of therapy focuses on experiencing the present situation rather than talking about what occurred in the past. Patients are encouraged to become aware of immediate needs, meet them, and let them recede into the background. The well-adjusted person is seen as someone who has a constant flow of needs and is able to satisfy those needs.
In Gestalt therapy (from the German word meaning form), the major goal is self-awareness. Patients work on uncovering and resolving interpersonal issues during
The choice of a therapist is crucial. Some people who call themselves "therapists" have limited training in Gestalt therapy. It is important that the therapist be a licensed mental health professional. Additionally, some individuals may not be able to tolerate the intensity of this type of therapy.
Gestalt therapy has developed into a form of therapy that emphasizes medium to large groups, although many Gestalt techniques can be used in one-on-one therapy. Gestalt therapy probably has a greater range of formats than any other therapy technique. It is practiced in individual, couples, and family therapies, as well as in therapy with children.
Ideally, the patient identifies current sensations and emotions, particularly ones that are painful or disruptive. Patients are confronted with their unconscious feelings and needs, and are assisted to accept and assert those repressed parts of themselves.
The most powerful techniques involve role-playing. For example, the patient talks to an empty chair as they imagine that a person associated with an unresolved issue is sitting in the chair. As the patient talks to the "person" in the chair, the patient imagines that the person responds to the expressed feelings. Although this technique may sound artificial and might make some people feel self-conscious, it can be a powerful way to approach buried feelings and gain new insight into them.
Sometimes patients use battacca bats, padded sticks that can be used to hit chairs or sofas. Using a battacca bat can help a patient safely express anger. A patient may also experience a Gestalt therapy marathon, where the participants and one or more facilitators have nonstop group therapy over a weekend. The effects of the intense emotion and the lack of sleep can eliminate many psychological defenses and allow significant progress to be made in a short time. This is true only if the patient has adequate psychological strength for a marathon and is carefully monitored by the therapist.
Gestalt therapy begins with the first contact. There is no separate diagnostic or assessment period. Instead, assessment and screening are done as part of the ongoing relationship between patient and therapist. This assessment includes determining the patient's willingness and support for work using Gestalt methods, as well as determining the compatibility between the patient and the therapist. Unfortunately, some "encounter groups" led by poorly trained individuals do not provide adequate pretherapy screening and assessment.
Sessions are usually held once a week. Frequency of sessions held is based on how long the patient can go between sessions without losing the momentum from the previous session. Patients and therapists discuss when to start sessions, when to stop sessions, and what kind of activities to use during a session. However, the patient is encouraged and required to make choices.
Disturbed people with severe mental illness may not be suitable candidates for Gestalt therapy. Facilities that provide Gestalt therapy and train Gestalt therapists vary. Since there are no national standards for these Gestalt facilities, there are no set national standards for Gestalt therapy or Gestalt therapists.
Scientific documentation on the effectiveness of Gestalt therapy is limited. Evidence suggests that this type of therapy may not be reliably effective.
This approach can be anti-intellectual and can discount thoughts, thought patterns, and beliefs. In the hands of an ineffective therapist, Gestalt procedures can become a series of mechanical exercises, allowing the therapist as a person to stay hidden. Moreover, there is a potential for the therapist to manipulate the patient with powerful techniques, especially in therapy marathons where fatigue may make a patient vulnerable.
Ellis, Willis D. A Source Book of Gestalt Psychology. New York: Routledge & Gegan Paul, 1969.
Kendall, Philip C., and Julian D. Norton-Ford. Clinical Psychology: Scientific and Professional Dimensions. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1982.
Kohler, Wolfgang Gestalt Psychology. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1947.
Pursglove, Paul David. Recognitions in Gestalt Therapy. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1968.
Yontef, Gary. Awareness, Dialogue, and Process. Highland, NY: The Gestalt Journal Press, 1993.
Association for the Advancement of Gestalt Therapy. 400 East 58th St., New York, NY 10022. (212) 486-1581. <http://www.aagt.org>.
David James Doermann