Therapy Lingo

Gestalt Therapy

By: Dr. Suzanne LaCombe 
Reviewed by: Dr. Bea Mackay

Gestalt therapy was founded by Fritz and Laura Perls in the 1940's. Although popular among both the public and therapists in the 60's and 70's, it lost ground thereafter when the cognitive behavioural approaches became popular.

However, Gestalt Therapy - like so many things from the mid-twentieth century - is getting a second look. With the hindsight of recent research in the neurosciences, it's evident that the Perls were on the right track. In particular, their emphasis on the power and importance of staying in the present moment in therapy was far ahead of their time.

Here's Fritz Perls in action. He's doing a session with a famous client, 'Gloria' who allowed herself to be filmed by experts in different therapeutic fields. Gloria was to say later that of all three approaches she underwent, she felt the Gestalt one would have the greatest potential for personal change.

If Your Therapist Uses Gestalt Therapy

If your therapist says they use Gestalt Therapy, he or she will undoubtedly subscribe to the following principles:


...being in therapy means being in the "present moment"; it is in the present moments with your therapist that personal changes are made.

Gestalt Therapy recognizes the reality and power of implicit, body-based communication. As a body psychotherapist, I certainly do. And Daniel Stern just might be a fan of Gestalt Therapy given his recent book "The Present Moment".

How does this differ than talking about your past?

Well, psychologically speaking, the "past" is anything that isn't happening in the present. Let's say you just described how you and your partner are not connecting very well. Your therapist might draw attention to how you are feeling in the moment connecting with him or her.

The challenge is not to gloss over the feelings or discomfort you might be feeling. You would be encouraged to take your time to feel any and all sensations and emotions that arise.

The process is important.

What happens implicitly within the relationship between you and your therapist is often more important than the explicit content you bring to your sessions.

We learn best through experience; the therapeutic relationship is an optimal learning experience.

In the above example, the "story" of how you and your partner are not connecting is less relevant than how you are connecting to your therapist as you talk about the topic.

It's not that the problem with your partner isn't important, it's just that changing how you connect to others isn't going to happen unless you work on the feelings directly. This is what neuroscience is helping us to understand.

You alone are responsible for your life.

Ouch! So true, but so hard to accept unconditionally.

In the above example, you would be gently encouraged to be aware of the role you are playing in the lack of connection you're feeling with your partner.

Therapy's larger purpose is to enable and encourage clients to continually strive for creative fulfillment and discover a passion for living.

Gestalt therapy began with a strong humanistic element. It proposes that symptom reduction is only the beginning of one's therapeutic journey, not the destination. (So you can understand why myShrink is a big fan!)

The therapist must "show up" for the work to be successful.

Wow, way ahead of it's time!

Using the same example above, your therapist might share his or her experience of being with you. For instance, he or she might notice that you felt farther away and more distanced in this conversation than in others you've had.

(Question: how can you tell if your therapist is indeed "showing up"?...stay tuned for future offerings from MyShrink smiley-wink.gif)

Gestalt Therapy is Famous For:

  • The Empty Chair Technique
  • Being in the 'Here and Now'

Related Links

Gestalt Therapy and Humanistic Psychology by Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.

Gestalt Therapy

I haven't found any articles that examine the neuroscience underlying Gestalt therapy but I think it would be a great research topic. Please drop me a line if you find one!

Schools of psychotherapy are always borrowing concepts from each other. For instance, Leslie Greenberg based his Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT) model on both Gestalt Therapy and Rogerian principles.

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Reader Comments

Jaass (USA)

Hope you get things resolved for yourself Jackie...

jackie (colorado, USA though home is UK)

Has anyone here done some EMDR? I have done one this week and am left feeling flat - not sure what I feel though I spent the whole session crying!! My therapist has asked me to write down each day whatever has come up and really nothing - just this flat, worn out feeling.


Moved to EMDR.

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