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Gestalt Therapy

Gestalt is represented strongly in only a few cities in the United States – mainly New York and Cleveland – but is a method of choice in many other parts of the world including Australia and Europe but in particular in Germany and Austria, where it has its roots – alongside most all forms of psychotherapy.  Gestalt descends from the methods of psychoanalysis of Dr. Sigmund Freud and – to a lesser degree – C.G. Jung, and the founder of Gestalt therapy, Dr. Friedrich (Fritz) Perls, was himself a physician and psychoanalyst like Freud.  But he felt some things had to change to make the therapy more effective and realistic.

Like many psychoanalysts, such as Freud, Perls was also Jewish and fled the Nazi regime to save his own life, eventually landing in the United States with his wife Laura Perls, who contributed significantly to Gestalt therapy, eventually developing her own branch of it.

A notable change Perls made in his approach was to work in the here-and-now as opposed to plumbing the depths of the past, for Perls felt that the “past” did not exist.  Think about it – if you are currently pondering some memory, you are still in the present remembering something.  You are not travelling back to some other point in time in a time machine.  And your memory is not a perfect record of your past but is the remnant you carry with you, which affects the way you feel and think.  In his here-and-now approach, Perls was influenced by Zen Buddhism.  Gestalt therapists work with memories of the past as they surface in the present.

Perls also treated the body and the soul as a single, inseparable unit.  Simply put – I’m explaining it here consciously in terms as if body and soul were separate – when something happens to the body, it is equally visible in the soul and the other way around.  Now, it’s easy to understand that when someone is seriously injured, he or she might scream, wince or cry and feel pain, fear and sadness.  The physical discomfort has an immediate emotional component, and people generally accept that this is the case.  No one would doubt for a moment that breaking a limb is going to change the way someone is feeling – or what they are thinking about.

But it also works the other way around.   Again, I’m consciously explaining in terms that assume a separation of soul and body: when someone feels something, it causes reactions in the body. Worry triggers an increased heart rate and stomach churning.  Fear makes you breathe faster.  Sadness makes the corner of your mouth quiver.  Perls believed that when something happens to us emotionally, even very deep down, it sends out signals through the body that client, therapist or both can pick up on.  Thoughts set off emotions and vice versa, and these are intimately connected to our bodies, which react accordingly.  In fact  Perls felt the “organism”, as he put it, had to produce a tangible physical reaction to emotions.

So, a big part of what a Gestalt therapist does is to help the client become more aware of these signals in order to gain more insight into and a more complete connection with her- or himself.

Perls also did not believe that psychology was far advanced enough to make a therapist the expert in another human’s life, and he changed the term “patient” to “client”.  He also did not believe that an analyst could remain completely objective and detached and that processes were going on inside the therapist as a result of the contact with the client that were also important and useful to the client (and the other way around as well!).  Therefore Perls did not sit at the head of a couch as was customary with psychoanalysts – out of their patient’s view – but instead he sat face-to-face with the client to be able to observe and experience the client in contact and share with the client his own experience in that contact as it seemed helpful and useful.

“Contact” is probably the single-most important term in Gestalt therapy.  In Gestalt the healthier the individual, the better he or she is able to regulate contact – with her- or himself, the environment and other people.  This can include participating intensely in contact and later withdrawing from that contact for the sake of regeneration.  Although the focus is primarily on the ability to participate in contact, it can also mean avoiding harmful contact.

In accordance with not being able to be an expert in the client’s life, Gestalt does not interpret but lets the client work with what arises in uncomfortable, painful or funny and enlivening chunks, reconcile with them and re-integrate them back into one’s personality. The therapist encourages the client to experiment and explore in the process, as you will see in the videos posted with this article.

In Gestalt there is a professional, therapeutic relationship between the therapist and the client instead of a doctor-patient detachment.  As with psychoanalysis, we do deal with the ghosts of the past – but as they live in the present and taint life now.  And we process them to keep life going in the here-and-now.  We work towards a wholeness of mind, body and soul to live life to its fullest – in all its imperfection, accepting its rough edges, bumps and quirks and dealing with them creatively.  It’s about owning life’s path, not smoothing over pain but accepting it with the joy, beauty and even monotony we encounter in life – but a life that belongs to you.  (I often fear today that therapy, counselling and life coaching especially are practiced as quick-fixes and feel-good massages, thereby losing their depth and helping deplete those involved of liveliness and existential meaning in their lives.)

The term “client” instead of “patient” thus reflects Gestalt’s turning away from a medical approach, in which matters of the psyche are treated as “illnesses” to be “cured” and are instead seen by Gestaltists as coping strategies that are painful and uncomfortable but processes that a conscious being needs to reconcile with – as they are – before moving on to healthier forms of coping with life and one’s self.   Rather than focusing on conforming a patient’s mental state to a standard from a health manual, Gestalt seeks creative, often non-conformist paths and honours the individual’s life path with all the bumps in the road.

An attitude of non-conformity is prevalent in Gestalt, which may help explain the hay day it experienced in the US during the 1960′s – a boom, which lead to an unfortunate bust of sorts on the North American continent. Gestalt is not interested in pressing the client into a mould derived from society’s expectations or a diagnostic scale but supports getting along in the world we live in as the people we are – while becoming healthier ourselves and influencing our environment in the same direction.  It strives to help us “be our…selves” and survive and thrive in our environments via “creative adaptation” – unlocking the power of who we are to deal with life and society and to contribute to it.  Gestalt does this by helping clients tap into the wealth of creativity and possibilities each of us is endowed with and channelling it into our lives and surroundings.  This focus on honouring human imperfection and converting it into human potential rather than approaching it as “illnesses” that must be “cured” is the reason why Gestalt therapy is counted as part of the humanistic psychology movement.  Gestalt is less about feeling good and more about feeling good about owning and taking control of your life.

Reason for Gestalt Therapy

·         Dealing with unfinished business.

·         Developing human potential.

·         Enhancing fluid contact with self & others.

·         Increasing current awareness levels leading to broader, healthier and more choice full living. 

Gestalt Principles

·         Awareness is an integral part of Gestalt therapy. it is an ongoing process which is always available and of and by itself is able to initiate change.

·         The therapist is his/her own instrument. (The therapist uses his/her own psychological, physical and energetic state as an instrument of therapy. It is as if a therapist becomes a resonating chamber for what is going on between him/herself and the client.)

·         Responsibility (The ability to respond rather than the compulsion to react) Power in the present, the journey is in the here and now.

·         Experience and experiment counts most.

·         The basic technique of this is to not explain things to the client, but to provide the client with opportunities to understand and to discover him or herself.

·         Everybody is already whole.

·         Growth takes place in relationship to other and self. (dialogical relationship)

·         Everything is connected (field theory)

·         We work with the paradoxical theory of change. Change occurs when I become what I am, not what I try to become, what I am not. This takes great self acceptance.

·         Gestalt works in a phenomenological approach. It helps the client to know "who he is and how he is."

Meaning of the Word Gestalt

The German word, "Gestalt" is untranslatable into a single English term. It covers a multitude of related concepts like countenance, shape, form, figure, configuration, structural entity, a whole that is something more than, or different from, the sum of its parts. A Gestalt stands out from the background; it "exists", and the relationship of a figure to its ground is what we call "meaning". If this relationship is tenuous or nonexistent, or if, for whatever reasons (cultural, educational), we are unable to recognise and understand it, we say: "It doesn't make sense. It is absurd, bizarre, meaningless." 

(Laura Perls, Chapter 16, "Comments on the New Directions", THE GROWING EDGE OF GESTALT THERAPY, p. 221 Edward W. L. Smith)

Gestalt Therapy

Gestalt therapy is a well-established and accepted form of psychotherapy, historically arising from the solid foundation of classical Analysis and its further development, of the Object-relations Psychodynamic schools of psychotherapy, influenced by the Reichian approach to the physical body and Moreno's techniques, and later by the concept of the Gestalt Psychologists. This approach emphasises the human potential of movement towards self-actualisation and responsibility, rather than allowing the self to be "healed" by the therapist. This form of psychotherapy can be used with a larger variety of clients than most other approaches.

Present-Centeredness in Gestalt Therapy

Whatever exists is here and now. The past exists now as memory, nostalgia, regret, resentment, fantasy, legend, history. The future exists here and now in the actual present as anticipation, planning, rehearsal, expectation and hope, or dread and despair. Gestalt therapy takes its bearings from what is here and now, not from what has been or what should be. It is an existential - phenomenological approach, and as such it has to be experiential and experimental.

The actual experience of any present situation does not need to be explained or interpreted: it can be directly contacted, felt and described here and now...

The goal of Gestalt therapy is the awareness continuum, the freely ongoing Gestalt formation where what is of greatest concern and interest to the organism, the relationship, the group or society becomes Gestalt, comes into the foreground where it can be fully experienced and coped with (acknowledged, worked through, sorted out, changed, disposed of, etc.) so that then it can melt into the background (be forgotten or assimilated and integrated) and leave the foreground free for the next relevant Gestalt.

Thought Provoking Quotes From Gestalt Literature:

"To be aware of our body in terms of the things we know and do, is to feel alive. This awareness is an essential part of our existence as sensuous people." (Erving and Miriam Polster)

"A most difficult to teach is that only the present exists now and that to stray fom it, distracts from the living quality of reality." (Erving and Miriam Polster)

"Bringing alienated parts of an individual back into contact with each other is a natural extension of the fundamental Gestalt principals that contact creates change." (Erving and Miriam Polster)

How could Gestalt Therapy Benefit me?

§  To help you live out your dreams.

§  To help alleviate personal suffering and emotional pain.

§  To grow emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

§  To find a way out of cloudy numbness and start feeling again.

§  To work on becoming more successful in life, work and relationships.

§  To get a footing in a raging storm of emotions or forge a path out of seemingly endless, gray drear.

§  To get in touch with that inner voice and gain clarity on your own thoughts and feelings.

§  To work through confusion and attain concentration.

§  To get longer, deeper, more restful sleep.

§  To shake an addiction.

§  To understand one’s own life better, in order to make the changes you can and learn to accept what you can’t change.

§  To move from the drama of black-and-white thinking to the peace of shades of gray and the joy of a mental rainbow of color.

§  To get a handle on that murky but unpleasant feeling and deal with it.

§  To unlock the mysteries of one’s own soul.

§  To sort things out.

 

  • Sunday, 23 September 2012

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