Gestalt therapy was developed by Frederick (Fritz) Perls (1893 -1970) in collaboration with Laura Perls, Ralph Hefferline and Paul Goodman.
Perls began his psychiatric career as a Freudian analyst, but soon came to the conclusion that although many of Freuds’ ideas were extremely valuable, much of the philosophy and methodology of psychoanalysis had become obsolete. In the 1920’s Perls became nterested in system of psychology being developed by Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Kohler and Kurt Koffka. These three were conceptualizing a system of psychology that was in direct opposition to both the psychoanalytic and behaviorist series that were permeating the field of psychotherapy at the time.
Wertheimer, Kohler and Koffka’s theory of behaviour was based on the idea that psychological phenomena are organised and synthesised wholes rather than constellations of specific molecular parts. This system they referred to as Gestalt. The German Gestalt word does not have an exact English equivalent. However it can be defined as “a form, a configuration or a totality that has, as a unified whole, properties which cannot be derived by summation from the parts and their relationships”.
Gestalt psychology was primarily concerned with describing perceptual and learning processes, but Perls noticed that several propositions within the theory had powerful implications for Psychotherapy.
A person tends to seek closure.
A person will complete Gestalts in accordance with his current need.
A person’s behaviour is a whole which is greater than the sum of it’s specific components.
A person’s behaviour can only be meaningfully understood in context.
A person experiences the world according to the principals of ‘figure’ and ‘ground’.
Gestalt therapy, like many other humanistic approaches, accepts several pivotal assumptions about the nature of man:
A person is a whole who is (rather than has) a body, emotions, thoughts, sensations and perceptions, all of which function in an inter-related way.
A person is a part of their environment and cannot be understood outside of it.
A person is capable of being aware of their own sensations, thoughts, emotions and perceptions.
A person can only truly experience them self in the present moment. The past and the future can only be experienced through remembering and anticipating.
A person is neither innately good nor bad.
According to Perls “every individual, every plant, every animal has only one inborn goal – to actualise itself as it is”. The purpose of an individual’s behaviour can thus be understood as a quest to become them self. The pursuit of this self-actualisation is the persons’ primary need at any given moment. As part of this need for actualisation there are other biological and social needs. Basic biological needs include:
Social needs include:
• Coping with other people
• Maintaining one’s identity
• Dealing with environmental restrictions.
There is no universal hierarchy of needs. Needs move in and out of a persons ‘figure’ and ‘ground’ fields. At any particular moment a need can emerge and demand attention from the individual. This need then moves from ground to figure. When this need has been met it recedes into ground and the most urgent need in the ‘new’ now emerges from the ground as a figure.
One of the basic tenets of Gestalt psychology and Gestalt therapy is that a person cannot be considered as separate from the environmental field. This field includes physical and social objects as well as forces with which the person is in contact. Virtually all of a person’s behaviour is related, in some way, to this person-environment complex. The interaction between the person and their environment forms a relationship that takes the form of a Gestalt. A person can form a unified Gestalt between their need, their means of coping with their need and environmental resources available to them. Learning or growth takes place when the person can make changes or adjustments in order to reform existing Gestalts when the need arises.
The Gestalt outlook is basically a unitary, harmonious, holistic approach to life. We have learned during 300 years of rationalism to separate body and mind artificially. According to Perls we have become “fractionalized people” – people who are split up into bits and pieces. The aim of Gestalt therapy is to integrate all the dispersed and disowned parts of the self so that the person functions as a
whole being comprised of feelings, perceptions, thoughts, physical movements and sensations.
In keeping with this holistic approach Perls incorporated activities associated with both the left and right hemispheres of the brain into his therapeutic approach. Both psychoanalysis and behaviourism emphasise rationality, causality and analysis, which are activities associated with the left hemisphere of the brain. Perls utilized fantasy, imagination and spontaneous play in his therapy to incorporate right brain activities. He encouraged the creative side of both client and therapist and popularised all sorts of experimental playful active approaches to psychotherapy. This encompassing attitude of synthesising body and mind has since made such an impact upon the psychotherapeutic world that it is now almost taken for granted.
The function of the Gestalt therapist is to raise the patient’s awareness of what they are sensing, feeling, doing and thinking in the here and now present moment. Some of the techniques and interventions a Gestalt therapist might employ to do this are :
• Focusing on the relationship between verbal and non-verbal behaviour
• Acting out both sides of a dialogue i.e. 2 chair work
• Playing out fantasies and dreams to their conclusion
• Doing to others what the person does to himself as a means of clarification
Despite the fact that Perls rejected and modified many of Freud’s ideas he still integrated some of Freud’s contributions into the foundation upon which he built Gestalt therapy. For example, he accepted and developed Freud’s revolutionary ideas that there is some underlying meaning to neurotic and psychotic behaviour, and that childhood experiences influence adult behaviour.
Perls was also influenced by many of the people who started out as psychoanalysts but who later broke away from the mainstream. He borrowed Adler’s holistic view of the individual as an integral part of a social system; Karen Horney’s emphasis on interpersonal factors both in childhood development and in the therapeutic relationship; and Wilhelm Reich’s idea that psychological defenses are inextricably entwined in muscular positions or “body armour”.
Perls also borrowed from Moreno’s psychodrama (expressing feelings by acting them out) and he expanded on Karl Roger’s idea of feedback as a therapeutic tool by including body posture, word tone, eye movements, feelings and gestures. Throughout Gestalt therapy there is also evidence of the existential and humanistic view of humanity from Eastern religion and thought.