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Gestalt therapy

Gestalt therapy is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on the present moment and the individual’s experience of it. It is based on the idea that people are capable of self-regulation and growth, and that they can become more aware of their needs, feelings, and choices through the therapeutic relationship. Gestalt therapy aims to help clients increase their awareness of how they interact with their environment, and how they can change their patterns of behaviour that are causing them distress. Gestalt therapy also emphasizes the importance of creativity, experimentation, and authenticity in the therapeutic process.

The history of gestalt therapy

Gestalt therapy is a humanistic method of psychotherapy that takes a holistic approach to human experience by stressing individual responsibility and awareness of present psychological and physical needs. It was founded in the 1940s by Frederick (Fritz) Perls and his wife Laura, who were both psychoanalysts from Germany. They broke away from Freud’s analytic theory and created their own synthesis of ideas from various disciplines, such as existentialism, phenomenology, and gestalt psychology. Gestalt therapy focuses on the process of experience rather than discrete events, and emphasizes the here-and-now interactions between the client and the therapist. It also uses dialectical thinking and polarization to help the client achieve balance, equilibrium, contact, and health. Gestalt therapy aims to resolve the conflicts and ambiguities that result from the failure to integrate features of the personality, and to teach people to become aware of significant sensations within themselves and their environment so that they respond fully and reasonably to situations.

Theoretical foundations of gestalt therapy

The theoretical foundations of gestalt therapy can be summarized by four main pillars: phenomenological method, dialogical relationship, field-theoretical strategies, and experimental freedom. These pillars reflect the influence of various disciplines and perspectives on the development of gestalt therapy, such as gestalt psychology, existentialism, phenomenology, field theory, dialogue, and humanism.

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The phenomenological method refers to the process of exploring and describing one’s subjective experience without imposing preconceived interpretations or judgments. It involves being attentive to what is present and observable in the here and now, as well as to how one makes sense of it. The phenomenological method also involves bracketing or suspending one’s assumptions and biases, and being open to new possibilities and perspectives.

Dialogical relationship refers to the quality of interaction between the therapist and the client, as well as between the client and their environment. It involves mutual respect, curiosity, empathy, and authenticity. Dialogical relationship also involves recognizing and honouring the differences and similarities between oneself and others, as well as the interdependence and co-creation of meaning that occurs in communication. Dialogical relationship fosters a sense of contact, connection, and collaboration.

Field-theoretical strategies refer to the ways of understanding and working with the complex and dynamic system of influences that shape one’s experience. It involves viewing oneself as part of a larger whole, rather than as a separate entity. Field-theoretical strategies also involve identifying and exploring the boundaries, polarities, conflicts, and patterns that emerge in one’s field of awareness, as well as the potential for change and growth that lies within them.

Experimental freedom refers to the attitude of openness, creativity, and flexibility that characterizes gestalt therapy. It involves being willing to try out new ways of thinking, feeling, behaving, and relating, as well as to learn from one’s experiments. Experimental freedom also involves being playful, spontaneous, and expressive, as well as being respectful of one’s own and others’ limits and preferences.

A walk through of a typical gestalt therapy session

A gestalt therapy session is a form of psychotherapy that helps clients focus on the present and understand what is actually happening in their lives at this moment, and how it makes them feel in the moment, rather than what they may assume to be happening based on past experience. The term “gestalt” means “whole” or “put together”, and the therapy aims to help clients integrate different aspects of themselves and take responsibility for their actions.

During a gestalt therapy session, the therapist does not interpret or directly alter the client’s behaviour, but rather raises their awareness of what they are thinking, doing, sensing, and feeling at the moment. The therapist also observes the client’s body language and movement, such as tapping their foot, wringing their hands, or making a certain facial expression, and asks what is happening for the person at that moment. The therapist uses techniques such as dream work, guided fantasy, role-playing, and re-enactment to help the client bring past and current struggles to life in the therapeutic setting.

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A gestalt therapy session is not just about talking, but about engaging in intellectual and physical experiences that can help the client learn to become more aware of their thoughts and actions, of how negative thought patterns and behaviours may be blocking their self-awareness and making them unhappy, and how they can change. The therapist creates a safe and supportive environment for the client to explore their feelings and sensations, and to discover new ways of relating to themselves and others.

The evidence for the efficacy of gestalt therapy

Gestalt therapy has been applied to various clinical and social issues, such as anxiety, personality disorders, trauma, addiction, and violence. However, the empirical evidence for its effectiveness is still limited and controversial. In this paragraph, we will review some of the recent studies that have investigated the efficacy of gestalt therapy using different methods and settings.

One of the most comprehensive reviews of gestalt therapy effectiveness was conducted by Raffagnino, who systematically searched for empirical studies published in international peer-reviewed journals in English and Italian languages from 2006 to 2018. She found 11 studies that met her inclusion criteria, which covered different topics such as depression, anxiety, personality disorders, chronic pain, eating disorders, and domestic violence. They concluded that gestalt therapy intervention was especially effective in group therapy settings, not only for clinical disorders but also for other social issues. She also suggested some directions for future research, such as using more rigorous designs, increasing the sample size and diversity, and exploring the mechanisms of change.

Another study that used a rigorous design was conducted by Kepner et al., who employed a single-case experimental design with time series analysis to examine the efficacy of gestalt therapy for anxiety in practice-based settings. They recruited six clients who suffered from anxiety disorders and provided them with 12 sessions of gestalt therapy. They measured their anxiety levels before, during, and after the intervention using standardized instruments. Furthermore, they found that gestalt therapy was effective in reducing anxiety for five out of six clients, with large effect sizes and clinically significant changes. Also, they found that gestalt therapy enhanced the clients’ awareness, self-regulation, and contact skills.

A more recent study that explored the effectiveness of gestalt therapy was conducted by Smith et al., who compared gestalt therapy with cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veterans. They randomly assigned 60 veterans with PTSD to either gestalt therapy or CBT and provided them with 12 sessions of individual therapy. They measured their PTSD symptoms, depression, anxiety, and quality of life before and after the intervention using standardized instruments. Furthermore, they found that both gestalt therapy and CBT were effective in reducing PTSD symptoms and improving quality of life, with no significant differences between the two groups. They also found that gestalt therapy was more effective than CBT in reducing depression and anxiety.

These studies suggest that gestalt therapy can be an effective alternative to other psychotherapy approaches for treating various conditions and issues. However, more research is needed to confirm these findings and to explore the specific factors that contribute to its efficacy.

How self-transcendence relates to gestalt therapy

self-transcendence is the realization that one is a part of something greater than oneself, such as humanity, nature, the universe, or a divine power. Gestalt therapy is an approach to psychotherapy that helps clients focus on the present and become more aware of their thoughts, feelings, and actions. How does self-transcendence relate to gestalt therapy?

One possible way to answer this question is to consider how both concepts aim to help clients achieve a greater sense of wholeness and integration. By building self-awareness, gestalt therapy helps clients to better understand themselves and how the choices they make affect their health and their relationships. With this understanding, clients can begin to comprehend how their emotional and physical selves are connected and not separate parts. Similarly, by transcending the self, clients can expand their perspective and see themselves as part of a larger context that gives meaning and purpose to their lives. In this way, both self-transcendence and gestalt therapy can foster a holistic view of oneself and one’s place in the world.

Another possible way to answer this question is to consider how both concepts challenge clients to confront their limitations and grow beyond them. Gestalt therapy encourages clients to experiment with new ways of thinking and behaving that may be more authentic and satisfying than their habitual patterns. By doing so, clients can discover new aspects of themselves and develop their potential. Likewise, self-transcendence involves going beyond one’s ego and personal concerns and embracing a higher or broader reality that transcends one’s individual boundaries. By doing so, clients can experience a sense of awe, wonder, gratitude, and compassion that enriches their lives.

How the therapist can use gestalt therapy to achieve self-transcendence in their clients


There are several ways that the therapist can use gestalt therapy to facilitate self-transcendence in their clients. Some of them are:

Using the empty chair technique, which involves asking the client to imagine someone or something that represents a part of themselves or their situation, and to have a dialogue with them. This can help the client gain insight into their inner conflicts and unresolved issues, as well as develop empathy and compassion for others.

Using the paradoxical theory of change, which states that change occurs when the client fully accepts themselves as they are, rather than trying to change themselves. This can help the client reduce their resistance and anxiety, and embrace their authentic self.

Using the cycle of experience, which describes the stages of awareness, mobilization, action, contact, satisfaction, withdrawal, and closure that occur in any meaningful interaction. This can help the client become more aware of their needs and wants, and how they can fulfil them in a healthy and satisfying way.

Using experiments, which are creative interventions that challenge the client’s habitual patterns and invite them to try new behaviours or perspectives. This can help the client expand their range of possibilities and discover new aspects of themselves.

By using these techniques, the therapist can help the client achieve self-transcendence by increasing their awareness, acceptance, responsibility, and choice in their lives.

Further reading

If you are interested in learning more about gestalt therapy, here are some weblinks for further reading:

Gestalt Therapy: Definition, Techniques, Efficacy – Verywell Mind: This article provides an overview of the history, principles, techniques, and goals of gestalt therapy. It also explains how gestalt therapy can help with various issues such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and relationship difficulties.

Gestalt Therapy | Psychology Today: This article describes the main features of gestalt therapy, such as the emphasis on awareness, responsibility, and wholeness. It also discusses how gestalt therapy works and what to expect from a gestalt therapist.

Gestalt therapy – Wikipedia: This article gives a comprehensive introduction to gestalt therapy, covering its origins, theoretical foundations, methods, applications, and criticisms. It also includes links to related topics and resources.

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