Practitioners of gestalt therapy – developed by Laura and Friedrich (‘Fritz’) Perls in the 1940s and 1950s, and defined as ‘a distinctive method of counselling and therapy … which emphasises immediacy, experiencing and personal responsibility’ (Feltham and Dryden, 1993: 75) – are guided by four theoretical pillars:
- dialogical relationship
- field theory
Used holistically within therapy, these four pillars are interrelated and support each other.
Gestalt therapy focuses on the here and now, that is the immediate experience of the client. While the past certainly affects how we perceive the world, the gestalt therapist wants to understand what is happening for the client in the moment. Thus, the therapist asks the client to describe their feelings rather than trying to analyse or interpreting. This method is known as ‘phenomenology’; it heightens awareness and relational depth.
Originating in philosophy, phenomenology – ‘an approach to psychology (and other sciences) based on the study of immediate experience’ (Tudor & Merry, 2006: 107) –recognises that to each individual, their own experience holds far greater authority than anything else. As well as gestalt therapy, phenomenology also underpins transactional analysis and person-centred counselling.
The basic ideas underlying phenomenology can be traced back to the Greek philosopher Plato, though the specific historical movement was developed in the first half of the 20th century by philosophers and thinkers such as:
- Edmund Husserl
- Martin Heidegger
- Maurice Merleau-Ponty
- Jean-Paul Sartre.
The therapeutic relationship needs a working alliance and a dialogic relationship. In Gestalt, the dialogical relationship is where the therapist is required to bring their whole self to the relational contact with the client. The counsellor must be fully present, understanding, validating and authentic. In so doing, they provide presence, confirmation, inclusion and open communication. The dialogical relationship requires the therapist to pay attention not only to their moment-to-moment contact with the client but also to their own internal process, being as authentic, attentive and present as possible.
Yontef and Jacobs (2005: 320) write:
Dialogue is the basis of the gestalt therapy relationship. In dialogue, the therapist practices inclusion, empathic engagement, and personal presence, e.g. self-disclosure. In the process of doing this, the therapist confirms the existence and potential of the patient, the therapist imagines the reality of the patient’s experience and in doing so confirms existence of the patient.
Field theory investigates interaction patterns between individual people and the ‘field’, i.e. the environment. Tudor and Merry (2006: 56) define ‘field theory’ as ‘the view, developed by Lewin (1952) and taken up particularly by gestalt therapy, that psychological relationships may – and indeed, can only – be studied and understood in terms of their surrounding “field”’.
Field theory underpins the holistic view of the client. There are three types of field: experiential field, relational field and wider field, which are interconnected. The field will be in constant flux so the counsellor needs to keep a flexible focus on what is figural, as well as shuttling between the three fields, to understand how the client is making meaning of the experiences.
Gestalt therapy explores the person not only through what they say but also through how they act. People communicate in many ways, not just verbally; often much of this communication is unconscious. Gestalt experiments offer clients the chance to become involved in action-based exercises that heighten their awareness as they make contact with their environment. For example, the therapist may comment on repetitive physical patterns, facilitating the client to examine these and to decide whether or not they are helpful.
Because of its focus on action as well as talk, gestalt therapy is considered an experiential approach. Clients have the opportunity, through experiments, to try out new behaviours – first in the safety of the therapeutic relationship (even just through talking about them) and then (where appropriate) in the outside world. This can help clients to express themselves behaviourally.
Feltham C and Dryden W (1993) Dictionary of Counselling, Whurr Publishers
Lewin (1952) Field Theory in Social Science, Harper & Rowe
Tudor K and Merry T (2006) Dictionary of Person-Centred Psychology, PCCS Books
Yontef G and Jacobs L (2005) ‘Gestalt Therapy’ in Corsini R and Wedding D, Current Psychotherapies, Thomson Brookes/Cole