What is Gestalt Therapy

What is Gestalt Therapy?

When would you seek a Gestalt therapist?

When your self-regulatory abilities do not lead you beyond the maladaptive repetitive patterns that you developed originally as coping strategies in difficult circumstances. These strategies are now making you or people around you unhappy.

The only goal of Gestalt therapy is awareness. And then, awareness of awareness. Both awareness as content and awareness as process broaden and deepen as your therapy proceeds.

This type of therapy does not focus on fixing the problem. It focuses on an active relationship and active methods to help you gain the self-support necessary to solve problems. The therapist provides support through the therapeutic relationship and discovers with you how you block your awareness and functioning.

Gestalt therapy is a system that is based on Field Theory, Existentialism and Phenomenology. The emphasis is on the present moment, in contact and conscious awareness. Change is due to the relationship between therapist and patient.


Holism and Field theory

We are inherently self-regulating and growth oriented. We cannot understand our symptoms in isolation from our environment. Our context influences our experiences. We can only be understood with an understanding of our field, or context, in which we live in. No one, including the therapist can have an objective perspective of reality.

We actively organise and reorganise our perception of our circumstances (or field) according to our needs/interests and to prevailing conditions, and endow the events we experience with our own individual meaning. Our motivations affect our perceptions. We experience our lives from a personal perspective, which sometimes may be creative and flexible and at other times fixed, unaware and obsolete. Through exploration, therapy can help us discover how our automatic attitudes may be self-limiting, and how there are a variety of viewpoints and how they create meaning for our selves. For example, if you are hungry you might notice food all around you.


Take a minute to think about what right now in your filed is a dominant influence.

What are some dominant field influences on you in your life now?

What are some dominant field influences on your whole life?



In Gestalt therapy there is a dual focus: what is done and how it is done. As well as the interactions between therapist and patient.

Direct experience is the primary tool of therapy. The focus is in the here and now.

The process of therapy attempts to distinguish between merely knowing about something and owning what one is doing. Sometimes we are aware of something and yet are helpless to make desired changes (often this is an unfelt experience.).



Right now I am aware OF in my thoughts … Right now I am aware OF in my body ….



What happens between therapist and patient is crucial.

Most important is non-verbal SUBTEXT (posture, tone of voice, syntax, and interest level) that communicates tremendous amounts of information to you (and the therapist) about how the therapist sees you and how you see you self.

With the honesty, affection and compassion of the therapist, you become more deeply aware of what has been kept from your awareness. This enables you to experience and express thoughts and emotions that you have not habitually felt safe to share in any RELATIONSHIP.

Real dialogue between therapist and patient must also include the therapist surrendering to the interaction and to what emerges from that interaction. The therapist must be open to being changed in the interaction. This sometimes requires the therapist to acknowledge having been wrong, hurtful, arrogant, or mistaken. This puts them both on a more EVEN plane.


Rupture and Repair

Phenomenological methods

The Gestalt approach is a form of phenomenological field theory. Gestalt therapy allows for multiple possibilities of a “given field or situations as they are experienced subjectively by the people CO-CREATING them at any moment in time” (Spinelli, 1998). It shares the phenomenological premise that it is not possible to establish a single objective or absolute truth but only to be open to a multiplicity of subjective interpretations of reality, for each of us experiences a uniquely interpreted reality. The aim is “to reveal many aspects of the numerous perceptual possibilities and thus obtain a more adequate perception of overall relational situations” (Mackewn, 1997). Reality is always constructed, never known directly.

Bracketing previous assumptions, suspending habitual perspectives and concentrating instead on the primary data of our experience so that our subsequent understanding of the clients and their situations may be fuller. Setting aside expectations we have formulated about clients before meeting them. Basing our impressions on our immediate experience of the person is embraced, both Client-Centred and Gestalt therapy.

 Simple description  offers a “powerful way of working which often allows people to be in touch with the raw data and essence of their existence” (Clarkson and Mackewn, 1993). Working phenomenologically means describing what we observe and experience rather than explaining or interpreting it.

Equalising means treating all aspects of the field that is being described as initially equally significant. This means paying as much attention to what is in the background of the field as to what is currently focus or figure – to what is missing as well as to what is present. A form of cooperative enquiry in which both of us ‘explore the clients’ ways of being in a persistent fashion can work best. Questions such as “how?” and “what?” can be useful in that they invite clients to undertake their own phenomenological exploration and description of their process.


The paradoxical theory of change

This is based on the apparently paradoxical premise that people change by becoming more fully themselves, not by trying to make themselves be something or someone they are not: ‘Change occurs when ONE becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not’ (Beisser, 1970: 77) This too is very much what Roger’s believed and requires a positive attitude in human kind. Essentially both Client-Centred and Gestalt approaches believe that what matters are the way in which people perceive reality, not a concept of objective reality. For this they assume that people’s subjective experience is worthy of the deepest respect even if to others it may seem strange or misguided. Trust in us and in our clients is essential (Thorne, 1992).

A Gestalt therapist is not in the role of “changer”, for his strategy is to encourage, even insist, that the patient be where and what he is. People in therapy want to change – they are constantly moving between what they “should be” and what they think they “are”, never fully identifying with either. The top dog/under dog dichotomy already exists within the patient, with one part trying to change the other, and the therapist must avoid becoming locked into one of these roles. The Gestalt therapist believes that “To heal a suffering one must experience it to the full”. He believes that structures must be transformed into processes. When this occurs, patients can be open to participant interchange with their environment. The therapist does not seek change IN THE CLIENT, but seeks to be who he is. The goal of therapy is not so much to develop a “good, fixed character but to be able to move with the times while retaining some individual stability” (Beisser, 1970: 77)

This can be hard; we learn to avoid feeling angry and frustrated as soon as we experience these feelings. For example, when a toddler wants something that he can’t have we often replace it with something he can have so that he doesn’t get angry/frustrated. The message is, we don’t like him to express anger and frustration.


Contemporary Gestalt: Relational Therapy

We believe that nothing exists outside of relationship (including the self – if tree is not seen it does not EXIST). Breathing air, sitting on a chair is a relationship. Everything is co-created & relative. The in-between matters. We influence each other. There is “U” and there is “I” and then there is “US” –

What does this mean in a therapy session?

It is determined by our interaction…. Example: Do you feel that way with me? (Using the relationship overtly is part of the therapy.)


Since gestalt therapy is so flexible, creative and direct, it is very adaptable to short-term as well as long-term therapy.

Gestalt is a good model for groups, as it works in the here and now.


I will leave you with this thought:

Practising Gestalt therapy (or any relational therapy) becomes not only an expression of your being, but a step in your becoming.

Also, as Walsh says: Allow others to experience who they are through you. (Walsh 1996)

Nicole Renaud, Gestalt Therapist, Melbourne, Australia



Beisser, A. R. (1970) ‘The Paradoxical Theory of Change’ in J. Fagan and I. Shepherd (eds), Gestalt Therapy Now. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books

Clarkson, P. (1998) Gestalt Counselling in Action (2nd Ed). London: Sage.

Clarkson, P., & Mackewn, J. (1993). Fritz Perls, London: Sage.

Mackewn, J. (1997) Developing Gestalt Counselling. London: Sage.

Spinelli, E. (1994), The interpreted world: An introduction to phenomenological psychology. London: Sage.

Walsh, N. D. (1996). Conversations with God: An uncommon dialogue. New York: Penguin Putman Inc.


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Nicole Renaud

Nicole Renaud

English, French and German B.A. (USA), M.Couns & H.S.(Australia), PACFA Adv. Dip. Gestalt Therapie, GANZ

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