Gestalt Therapy: An Introduction


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This is an introduction to Gestalt Therapy, invented by Fritz Perls, presented by Glenn Berger, PhD. I learned the method at the Gestalt Associates for Psychotherapy in New York, under the auspices of Alan Cohen. I cover the discovery of Gestalt, contrasts to analysis, Field Theory, Figure/Ground, Contact Boundary, the Need Cycle, Layers of the Personality, Awareness, I/Thou, existential phenomenological method, and the goals of Gestalt therapy.

Gestalt Therapy: An Introduction

  1. 1. Gestalt Therapy An Introduction
  2. 2. What are you aware of right now? • Body • Environment • Thoughts • Feelings • Stories • Judgments
  3. 3. How Fritz Perls Invented Gestalt Facing reality is the cure.
  4. 4. Fritz Perls 1893 - 1970
  5. 5. A Reaction to Analysis • Contactful/Isolating Health comes from full contact. The therapy room is a place to experiment with contact. Analysis removes contact, believing that if you isolate something you can experiment on it. Gestalt view is that everything exists within a field, and you cannot remove a person from their surround.
  6. 6. A Reaction to Analysis • Relational/Transference Exploring fantasies based on the past keeps people in unreality.
  7. 7. A Reaction to Analysis • Present-Centered/Historical Gestalt is interested in how you interrupt, not why.
  8. 8. A Reaction to Analysis • Active/Passive It is a misconception of human reality to reify processes into things. You can go to the book club about heaven, or go to heaven.
  9. 9. A Reaction to Analysis • Experiential/Cognitive Learning happens through experience. Cognitive understanding has a limited effect on changing patterns of being.
  10. 10. A Reaction to Analysis • Holistic/Analytical Analysis separates. Gestalt unifies mind, feeling, body, spirit.
  11. 11. A Reaction to Analysis • Process/Content The analytical method of focusing on content keeps the person out of contact with themselves and others.
  12. 12. Figure/Ground Gestalt Psychology - We form wholes out of data • Man is the meaning making animal • Figures form in a process • A clear figure is formed on the basis of need, and freedom of the apparatus • A clear figure leads to need satisfaction • Truth is emergent • The formation of a clear figure, or gestalt, is the cure.
  13. 13. Figure/Ground Langer, in Philosophy in a New Key stated that ". . . the brain is actively translating experiences into symbols, in fulfillment of a basic need to do so. It carries on a constant process of ideation." In fact, "symbolization is the essential act of mind." That which occurs at the meeting place of self and environment is mediated by a symbolic process. As James Hillman put it, ". . . this concatenation of inner and outer . . . we (called) a symbol." This is where experience occurs. Experience and perception is an active process, and, each of us creates a representation of self and other.
  14. 14. Figure/Ground Gestalt Psychology - We form wholes out of data • Man is the meaning making animal • Figures form in a process • A clear figure is formed on the basis of need, and freedom of the apparatus • A clear figure leads to need satisfaction • Truth is emergent • The formation of a clear figure, or gestalt, is the cure.
  15. 15. Figure/Ground A figure is the result of our natural process of organizing complex experience into meaningful wholes through delineation and differentiation. The figure is what results from separating an interactional pattern between world and self out and making it something particular. By the nature of the figure’s complexity it reflects desire and gives rise to emotion. It is pervaded with a quality of identity. It can motivate action. When fully realized the figure results in a unity and completion. This realized representation of a need, thought, emotion, action and satisfaction pattern is what is called a gestalt, where gestalt means a complete form or figure.
  16. 16. The Gestalt • The gestalt is the whole that is more than the sum of the parts. • The tendency of mind to form data in patterns with meaning.
  17. 17. Figure/Ground Gestalt Psychology - We form wholes out of data • Man is the meaning making animal • Figures form in a process • A clear figure is formed on the basis of need, and freedom of the apparatus • A clear figure leads to need satisfaction • Truth is emergent • The formation of a clear figure, or gestalt, is the cure.
  18. 18. Figure/Ground The greater our capacity for gestalt formation, or the realization of highly delineated and differentiated figures, the greater our awareness and the deeper our experience of self, and the more capable we are of meeting, and interacting with, the other. Such figure formation activity leads to identity, agency, meaning, understanding, and significance.
  19. 19. The Gestalt Goal The capacity to form clearly delineated, differentiated, complex figures spontaneously in an interactive process of meeting the environment is one way of defining the realization of the human being. As Perls, Hefferline and Goodman put it in Gestalt Therapy, ". . . the achievement of a strong gestalt is itself the cure . . . the contact is heightened, the awareness brightened and the behavior energized. The figure of contact is not a sign of, but is itself the creative integration of experience."
  20. 20. The Gestalt Goal Our freedom comes from our ability to not be limited by rigid, stereotypical interpretations of ourselves and the world, but to continuously expand our repertoire of possible interpretations, and to see ourselves and the world in more and more nuanced and complex ways.
  21. 21. The Need Cycle • Need • Emotion • Action • Satisfaction
  22. 22. The Contact Boundary • The figure rises out of the background field at the place where our need meets the surround. This process point, where “inner” interacts with “outer,” is called the Contact Boundary.
  23. 23. Interruptions at the Contact Boundary • Limited means of interpreting data that leads to an impoverishment of awareness. • The normal fluidity of these processes becomes habitually disturbed. • Contact boundary disturbances describe habits in which a response manifests in the individual even though the original circumstances under which the disturbance may have had adaptive value (e.g., threat of punishment for speaking out) are not present (e.g., speaking the truth to others will not engender punishment). When one of these contact boundary disturbances occurs, the Gestalt Cycle is interrupted: a gestalt remains incomplete. . . .there remains unfinished business.
  24. 24. Interruptions at the Contact Boundary • Projection • Retroflection • Introjection • Confluence These processes narrow meaning, choice, and action. Used stereotypically, they define pathology.
  25. 25. Interruptions in the Need Cycle • Lack of awareness of need • Lack of awareness of emotion • Non-action • Non-satisfaction
  26. 26. Unfinished Business • Example: • I want to be in a relationship. • My mother taught me I am worthless.(Introjection) • I imagine I will be rejected. (projection) • I want to talk to that person, but I get drunk instead. (retroflection) • I leave the party.(unfinished business)
  27. 27. Layers of the Personality • Games Layer • Impasse Layer • Hurt-Child Layer • Death Layer • Life Layer
  28. 28. Games Layer Indirect, manipulative communication patterns. Example: She says: Did you check the kid’s car seat? He says: That’s a stupid question!
  29. 29. Hurt Child Layer Direct experience and expression of historical “unfinished business.” Example: Whenever you ask me a question, I am reminded of my mother beating me. I am scared you are telling me I am doing something wrong and I will be punished for it.
  30. 30. Death Layer The deeply resisted mourning of the lost existential opportunity. Example: I am grieving because I will never have the mother I need.
  31. 31. Life Layer The freeing of energy that was bound in the resistance. Example: All things are possible now that I don’t need you to be my mother.
  32. 32. Awareness Phenomenological method The goal of a phenomenological exploration is awareness. This exploration deepens one’s self concept, and provides freedom of choice.
  33. 33. Awareness To promote this phonomenological method, the therapist: • Cultivates Beginner’s Mind • No interpretation • Authentic, non-hierarchical relationship between therapist and client
  34. 34. Tracking Process • Staying with the client’s experience. So for you, you can’t imagine that you will ever find someone to love. • A deep entering of the client’s experience without judgment. You have a core conviction that because you are so ugly you will never be loved. Then, you suddenly feel hatred of your father. • Observation of what is. I notice you smile when you say that you want your father dead.
  35. 35. Operationalize • If your smile could speak, what would it say. • Could you say that directly to your father? • Could you squeeze this pillow like you were strangling him?
  36. 36. I/Thou • The relationship between the therapist and the client is the most important aspect of psychotherapy. Dialogue is an essential part of Gestalt therapy's methodology. • Relationship grows out of contact. Through contact people grow and form identities. Contact is the experience of interacting with the not-me while maintaining a self-identity separate from the not-me. Gestalt therapists prefer experiencing the patient in dialogue to using therapeutic manipulation (I-It). • Gestalt therapy helps clients develop their own support for desired contact or withdrawal (L. Perls, 1976, 1978). Support refers to anything that makes contact or withdrawal possible. Support mobilizes resources for contact or withdrawal. • The Gestalt therapist works by engaging in dialogue rather than by manipulating the patient toward some therapeutic goal. Such contact is marked by straightforward caring, warmth, acceptance and self-responsibility. When therapists move patients toward some goal, the patients cannot be in charge of their own growth and self-support. Dialogue is based on experiencing the other person as he or she really is and showing the true self, sharing phenomenological awareness. The Gestalt therapist says what he or she means and encourages the patient to do the same. Gestalt dialogue embodies authenticity and responsibility.
  37. 37. I/Thou Dialogical relationship • Presence • Authenticity • Acceptance • Validation
  38. 38. The Empty Chair • Working With Polarities • The top dog/underdog game • Bringing the client to the impasse and leaving them there
  39. 39. The Gestalt Ideal An experiencing that is vital, free and spontaneous, which inventor of Gestalt therapy, Fritz Perls, would call aliveness itself.
  40. 40. Bibliography • Frederick S. Perls, “Finding Self Through Gestalt Therapy,” The Gestalt Journal under “Cooper Union Forum – Lecture Series: “The Self” (accessed December 26, 2009). • James Hillman, Emotion (London: Routledge, 1999), 253. • Richard Bandler and John Grinder, The Structure of Magic (Palo Alto: Science and Behavior Books, 1975), 7 • “Gestalt,” Art Term Glossary, htm (accessed December 27, 2009). • Frederick Perls, John Goodman, Ralph Hefferline Gestalt Therapy ( Highland: Gestalt Journal Press, 1977), 232. • Frederick Perls, The Gestalt Approach & Eye Witness to Therapy (Ben Lomond: Science & Behavior Books, 1973), 102.
  41. 41. Glenn Berger PhD 917 596 0650
  42. 42. Resources Gestalt Therapy Institute of Los Angeles Gestalt Institute of Cleveland Gestalt Associates for Psychotherapy, New York Esalen Institute, Big Sur, California