Gestalt psychology is a school of thought that hypothesises that the human brain tends to organise visual elements as a ‘unified whole’ rather than merely a gathering of individual components. When we try to make sense of the world, we look at the several smaller components as a bigger, more complex system. The gestalt theory maintains that the human mind is inclined towards perceiving objects in their entirety before or at the same time as perceiving their individual components.
Gestaltism was developed to oppose Titchener’s ‘structuralism’. Structuralists believed that all experiences can be broken down into individual sensations and emotions. As opposed to this, Wertheimer related psychological experiences to that of watching a film or listening to a harmony. We look at a series of still shots but we perceive it as a movie, we listen to individual notes in progression but we perceive those as a song. Thus, according to Max Wertheimer, perception can only be understood as an entire event. This idea is said to be the origin of Koffka’s famous slogan “the whole is other than the sum of its parts”, often mistranslated as “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”.
“Gestalt” as a concept was introduced by German philosopher Christian Von Ehrenfels in 1890. The term “gestalt” is abstracted from “ungestalt” (German word for ‘deformity’), which is why there is still no exact translation for “gestalt”. According to Webster’s dictionary, gestalt means “something that is made of many parts and yet is somehow more than or different from the combination of its parts”. It is commonly defined as a ‘form, or ‘shape’, a ‘unified whole’ or ‘configuration’. It was later founded as a school of psychology by Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Köhler in 1912.
History of Gestalt Psychology
As mentioned earlier, gestalt as a concept was introduced in 1890 by philosopher Christian Von Ehrenfels. The idea of gestalt is said to have its roots in earlier theories given by David Hume, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Immanuel Kant, David Hartley, and Ernst Mach.
‘Gestaltqualität’ was the term coined by Von Ehrenfels to signify the quality which materialises when several smaller elements are put together to form one complete object or image. According to him, this object or image cannot be reduced to the sum of its elements. Wertheimer contributed to this theory by proposing that the “whole” or “gestalt” that is formed during the process of perception is primary (defining the elements it is composed of), as opposed to the secondary status (of materialising due to the elements) that Von Ehrenfels gave it.
Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Köhler are known to be pioneers in the field of gestalt psychology. These students of Carl Stumpf were interested in studying the holistic nature of human perception. Their ideas were based on the universal approach of perceiving objects and images in the environment as meaningful and complete constructs, rather than breaking them down into smaller fractions.
Humans tend to complete seemingly incomplete visual data by connecting the dots and forming an image which is meaningful. It is a limitation of the brain that it simply must add meaning to everything, it cannot perceive things as they are. This tendency of perceptual organization led to six basic principles of gestalt theory that are universally accepted and used, majorly in branding and advertisement, as well as therapy and counselling.
Gestalt Principles of Perception
Perception is an individual experience. Two people might be looking at an abstract painting when one thinks it symbolises flora and fauna, while the other thinks it’s simply shades of green and pink on a canvas. However different our perceptual constancies might be, everyone follows a few common principles while perceiving certain stimuli. Following are a few gestalt principles that are true for human tendencies at perceiving visual elements:
Continuation: This principle is often used in typography based logos as a branding technique. Continuation occurs when the eye is compelled to move through one object and continue on to another object.
Closure: This phenomenon occurs when an image or element is incomplete or a space is not totally enclosed. If enough of a shape is hinted at, our brain will automatically fill in the information that is missing.
Similarity: Similarity refers to the tendency to perceive things that look similar as being part of one group. When members of a football team wear jerseys of the same colour, the audience can easily understand which player is representing which team even if they are all scattered on the field. Proximity: This occurs when elements are placed close to each other. The positioning of the elements helps us understand the relationship between different parts.
Symmetry: Elements that are symmetrical to each other are perceived as a whole. A design can have one or more symmetries.
Figure and Ground: This principle suggests that the human eye separates an object from its surrounding area. A shape or form is understood as being the figure, and its surrounding area is perceived as the ground. You can choose to focus on the negative or positive space and the image might change accordingly for you.
Gestalt therapy is a person-centered form of psychotherapy that focuses on the client’s present life and challenges rather than looking into past experiences. An important part of therapy is believed to be an individual’s past life, but Gestalt therapy places greater importance on the ‘here and now’ experience of the client. Understanding the context of a person’s current experiences is vital according to Gestalt therapists. The reason behind such an approach is for the clients to take responsibility rather than placing blame.
Gestalt is a fairly new avenue for therapists across the globe due to its ever evolving nature and extensively broad therapeutic approach that can be catered to a variety of needs. There are existential, behavioural, and phenomenological aspects to this form of therapy that are modeled on more traditional schools of thought; but it is also a unique design that is equally based on philosophy and modern science.
Origin of Gestalt Therapy
Gestalt therapy had numerous influences, right from eastern philosophies to western ideas. The concept of mindfulness and present awareness was picked up from the Asian philosophy of Buddhism, which largely focuses on awareness of the body, feelings, mind, and phenomena. Another eastern philosophy of Taoism, from China, influenced Gestaltists about the importance of “what and how” and “here and now”, due to its propagation of a process approach to life. It teaches the “way” in which an individual can exist in nature by becoming a part of it, thus leaving no room for conflict. The western influence on Gestalt therapy began with Aristotle, whose thinking inspired the importance of an individual’s perception of the figure and ground, and one’s experience as based on what exists. This thought took a phenomenological turn when Kant argued that experience is based on what is presented rather than what really exists. Meanwhile, Kierkegaard stated that one’s faith is a true measure of actualisation of self. Thus the philosophical groundwork of Gestalt was heavily formed through the western religions of Judaism and Christianity. This groundwork mainly focused on an individual’s experience, the understanding of experience, phenomenological perspective of an experience, and the significance of faith and spirituality in this process. As science began taking the shape of a separate entity, Goldstein’s focus on the individual’s experience as coming in the foreground of the environment, and Lewin’s insistence on an individual’s behaviour and personality as a function of the field, stimulated some of the core ideals of Gestalt therapy (Brownwell, 2010).
Fritz Perls founded Gestalt therapy in Germany along with his wife Laura in the 1940s. Friedrich Salomon Perls, better known as Fritz Perls was a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and psychotherapist of German origin. He was trained in psychiatry and psychoanalysis, but he found himself disagreeing with certain Freudian theories, which led him to develop his own form of therapy. He fled Nazi Germany with his wife and moved to the Netherlands, then South Africa, before finally settling in New York City, where he worked on his books. Laura was a Gestalt psychologist before she was a psychoanalyst, which was even before she developed Gestalt therapy with her husband.
Besides Fritz and Laura Perls, the contributions of Paul Goodman, Isadore From, Paul Weisz, Lotte Weisz, Elliot Shapiro, Alison Montague, Sylvester Eastman, and innumerable others, are also of great importance.
Gestalt therapy is an experiential form of therapy that focuses on ‘What and How’ as well as ‘Here and Now’. It emphasizes the importance of description and understanding of current emotions, sensations, and behaviours rather than explanation of past experiences, attitudes, and beliefs. This dynamic, phenomenological-existential form of therapy is an amalgamation of classical therapeutic practices as well as modern concepts.
Basic Concepts of Gestalt Therapy
Gestalt field theory was developed by Kurt Lewin in the 1940s. It states that “behaviour is a function of a person in an environment”. This means that a person’s behaviour can’t be viewed in isolation from the situation they are in. According to this theory, the therapist attends to the entire “field” of the client, including the background, subject matter, and the “here and now” process in the present. This theory views the client’s behaviour as something that can be changed irrespective of the situation. Field theory implies that the individual and their behaviour can be viewed and explored in their individual experience, or in the context of the environment. According to Gestalt therapists, no experience or emotion exists on its own. All the elements in our field interact with, and are dependent upon each other.
Phenomenology is almost artistic in nature. It is the notion that nothing can be known unless the knowing comes through consciousness. It is a method of enquiry into how clients have made meaning in their life. It seeks to understand how the “experience is experienced by the experiencer”. It functions on the presumption that one is not taking one’s previous experiences into account, which leads to gaining ‘self awareness’, which is the ultimate goal of phenomenological exploration. A therapist creates meaning out of what s/he observes during the therapy, instead of relying on experience and expertise. The client is also encouraged to do the same. Both the therapist and the client are expected to bring all their emotions, feelings, senses to the table during therapy and construct an understanding of the current situation from a fresh perspective.
3 steps of phenomenological method.
Rule of epoché: Setting aside initial biases and prejudices in order to suspend expectations and assumptions.
Rule of description: One occupies oneself with describing instead of explaining.
Rule of horizontalisation: Avoids hierarchical assignment of importance such that the date of experience becomes prioritised and categorised as they are received.
In order to create awareness, a phenomenological and existential dialogue between the therapist and client is necessary. In Gestalt, change in the client is not brought about by the therapist, but rather by the contact that is formed between the two through honest dialogue. Thus, the therapist engages the client in dialogue instead of manipulating the client towards the therapeutic goals. Genuine contact is formed through honesty, awareness, acceptance, and empathy.
A dialogue also requires the therapist to be fully present in the conversation here and now, accept the clients for who they are their capabilities- also known as confirmation, and apply the I-Thou mode of relating as it creates a non-hierarchical therapeutic environment and employs awareness, directness and mutuality. A dialogical relationship is not created with the sole aim to achieve a certain goal. Rather it is formed to gain full awareness of the ‘self’ and take responsibility of the same. It is a therapeutic process that leads to psychological healing. The therapist is fully committed to, and trusts, the process. For a dialogical relationship to form there has to be:
Presence and awareness of the process,
Presence of the therapist’s authentic self,
A non-judgemental approach, and
Awareness is the primary goal of the Gestalt process. Being aware means being fully in touch with yourself and your surroundings, which include the people around you. Awareness includes all your senses, feelings, emotions, and thinking. Awareness also includes full acceptance of self and others, taking responsibility for your own emotions, behaviours, and actions. Gestalt aims for awareness to be a continuous process.
Awareness is often used alternatively with consciousness as they are somewhat congruent in nature. But the major point of difference would be that the state of consciousness is completely involuntary while the state of awareness is purely voluntary. We cannot choose what we are conscious of, but we can choose what we are aware of. “To be aware is to shine the light of interest and personal investment into one’s state of consciousness. Awareness in gestalt therapy consists of the first person perspective of self-conscious experience in which one “owns” his or her experience” (Brownwell, 2010).
Mindfulness is the state of active, open attention in the present. When you are mindful, you carefully observe your thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad. Mindfulness thus, can be called as the practice of awareness related to feelings, emotions, sensations, sounds, thoughts, activities, and behaviours. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk propagated and popularized mindfulness in the West during the 1970s. He talked about mindfulness and being aware of the present in daily life in his book “The Miracle of Mindfulness”. He urged people to pay attention to what they were experiencing in the present and focus especially on their breathing. He did not believe in disengaging to be mindful.
Paradoxical theory of change
Change, or alter, is defined as making a difference in the state or condition of a thing or substituting another state or condition. During the course of therapy, clients may change their attitudes, values, or behaviours. But the therapist must remain unattached, unemotional, and non-objective towards this phenomena. According to The Bristol Therapist (2017); “The Gestalt approach to therapy understands genuine change to be a paradox. Simply put, the paradoxical theory of change states the more you try to be something you are not, the more you’ll stay right where you are. Change is an organic process that takes place as a side effect of organismic growth. Organismic growth is what happens when we make full contact with our experience”.
Contact and Boundary
We are constantly in contact with something, either concrete or abstract. Contact happens when the ‘self’ comes in touch with the environment. Here, the ‘self’ becomes the subject, and the environment becomes the ‘other’. The ‘self’ arises out of contact as it reaches out and discovers its boundaries, and thus forms relationships. The clear distinction between self and others is the contact boundary. It should be equally permeable (for new experiences) and firm (for autonomy).
Therapy takes place at the contact boundary, where the client is the subject and the therapist, the environment. Gestalt therapy aims at identifying and resolving disturbances caused at the contact boundary.
Gestalt therapist Gary Yontef classifies regulation as ‘shouldistic’ and ‘organismic’. Shouldistic refers to the regulation that is imposed by what an external controller thinks should or should not be done. In this case, our choices are not controlled by us-- “I won’t eat another piece of cake because people will think I am greedy”.
Organismic self regulation refers to the policing we impose on ourselves. In such a situation, the choice is made by our cognition and preferences coming together-- “I won’t eat another piece of cake because I am on a diet”. Organismic self regulation is the creative adjustment that the client makes in relation to the environment. The gestalt therapist finds out what the client’s ‘figure’ is as it changes pertaining to their needs.
Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, is a way to eliminate or control distressing symptoms of various mental illnesses or disorders, or emotional problems. Psychotherapy is useful for a wide variety of issues ranging from depression, anxiety, trauma to impact of financial, socio-economic, political unrest, losing a loved one, losing a job, relationship problems, and so on. Psychotherapy may be coupled with medication or other forms of therapy for optimum outcomes.
Psychotherapy can be administered in individual, couple, or group settings. It can help children as well as adults of any age. In psychotherapy, it is essential for the client to be actively involved as it helps the process and can draw out desirable results.
Gestalt therapy is an integration of numerous concepts and therapies of the past. The most prominent bases for this therapy are psychoanalysis, neuropsychology, and cognitive behavioural therapy. Gestalt is a contemporary and dynamic approach that was originally born as an extension of psychoanalysis, but then later developed its separate identity as a humanistic approach. According to Abraham Maslow (1968), humanistic approach is the “third force” in psychology after psychoanalysis and behaviourism. The humanistic approach essentially studies the whole person and especially their uniqueness. This approach revolves around a person’s worth, values, morals, creativity, and resilience.
How does Gestalt Psychotherapy work?
Gary Yontef describes Gestalt therapy as an exploration. In this form of therapy, direct modification of cognition and behaviour is avoided. Rather, a therapist comes in contact with the client and offers a safe space for growth and development through real time feedback. The therapist is honest, relatable, non-judgemental and respectful of the client’s thoughts and opinions.
The goal of Gestalt therapy is constant awareness, and continued growth and development even in the absence of the therapist, whose aim is merely facilitating the growth and awareness process. This form of therapy aims at integrating all components of the individual and making those a part of their conscious experience. This is how, according to Gestalt therapists, an individual learns to take responsibility and ownership of all alienated parts and become a ‘whole’.
The most effective way to help clients during therapy is through the use of any experiments necessary, allowing the patient to actually experience something instead of simply talking about the experience. Gestalt therapy uses the client’s ‘freedom’ to give suggestions to the client. For e.g., acting on their fears or uncertainties. Gestalt therapists ask the clients to act out or do something instead of just talking about it. Some of the benefits of experimentation are:
Full engagement on a different level.
Achieving greater self- awareness.
Greater allowance to complete unfinished business.
Having a better understanding of own emotions, feelings, strengths, and weaknesses.
Understanding own problems and issues and making more rational decisions.
In this therapy technique, the client imagines someone or some part of themself, or a feeling/ emotion in an empty chair facing them. The client then communicates to the imagined second party, as if they are present. At some point, the client goes and sits in that empty chair- occupying the new role. The conversation continues where the client is acting on behalf of the second party. The client can shift between the chairs as often as it is necessary.
This technique helps the client to experience different roles of themselves and/ or others. One can get in touch with one’s own feelings. It is especially beneficial for people who have difficulty expressing their emotions.
Unfinished business refers to undone tasks or unresolved feelings over a long time, that hinders a person’s growth. People who have some unfinished business are often noticed to be dwelling on the past, and away from the ‘here and now’. One of the aims of Gestalt therapy is to help people get closure for their unfinished business. Resolving past conflicts helps relieve the person from pain and sorrow.
Dream work or dream analysis is a therapy technique which aims at making people realise that they are 100% responsible for all their dream images. For e.g., if someone dreams about a big monster attacking a small child, then both the characters are manifestations of the dreamer. Gestalt therapy suggests that dreams have a significance related directly to the dreamer. Not only every character, but also every object in the dream is a manifestation of some part of the dreamer.
Exaggeration and Repetition
This therapy technique provides the client with a ‘magnifying glass’ on behaviour that wasn’t clearly visible or audible earlier. Exaggerating and repeating certain gestures, facial expressions, or postures helps in intensifying the emotion associated with that behaviour which leads to an understanding of it.
Guided imagery and Fantasy
This therapeutic tool aims to actualise scenarios that lead to a desirable outcome for the clients by encouraging them to visualise or imagine sounds, pictures, smells, and other sensations associated with reaching a goal. This visualisation of alternative scenarios is done with the idea that these mental images will turn into real strategies for reaching a goal as well as healthy coping skills.
Suppressive techniques are used on certain elements, like undesirable mood, which get minimized or eliminated through our conscious efforts. Suppression is essentially not engaging in counter- productive behaviours which include certain thinking patterns and emotions. This results in better regulation of our mood, reduction of distress, and feeling more in control of our emotions. Suppressive techniques can be applied in regular life by avoiding ‘aboutism’, ‘shouldism’, and ‘stale patterns’.
Aboutism is over- reliance on intellectualisation and second- hand learning rather than own experience. Instead of learning from others, one should use their own experiences in order to gain knowledge. For e.g., relationships are not learned from a book, but from personal experience.
Shouldism is idealism of those who escape from reality into a fantasy world. Living in an idealistic world is a sign of not being aware of the present, which must be avoided.
Avoiding the use of phrases, words, sentences that are continuously repeated by the person, which are mostly negative comments about themselves or others.
Assessment in Gestalt therapy
In Gestalt therapy, diagnosis is rejected. Diagnosing a client with a problem is rigid and the Gestalt approach believes that the client is fluid. Assessment is done in real time as the contact is forming. The general assessment pattern is observe- bracket- describe. Observation is phenomenological hence it is flexible, and takes into consideration the field along with patterns of behaviour and body language. Interpretation is bracketed and is meant for the therapist only as they want to help the client form their own interpretations. Description of the visible behaviour is given from the therapist’s point of view. Overall, the Gestalt approach is a field approach, hence the person’s existence and interaction with the world is assessed.
As Gestalt therapists all around the globe have rejected a rigid pattern of the way Gestalt therapy should be practiced, it is growing and developing as and how propagators and learners let it. It can be beneficial for individuals, couples, groups, the young and the old alike.
People can become greater versions of themselves through the integrative techniques used in Gestalt therapy. Clients become more aware and responsible, as well as learn how to finish the unfinished by forming effective contact with themselves and their surroundings through Gestalt therapy.
All in all, Fritz Perls’ creative genius led to a turning point in the field of psychotherapy. According to him, Gestalt is not just a form of therapy, it is a way of life. From its inception, Gestalt therapy has built a space for enthusiastic and innovative minds that offer effective short-cuts as well as deep, meaningful experiences to those who seek to become full, complete versions of themselves.
“I do my thing and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations. And you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you, and I am I. and if by chance, we find each other it’s beautiful. If not, it can’t be helped”. - Fritz Perls (1969).
This article is written by Rucha Lidbide who has been a part of the Global Internship Research Program (GIRP). Rucha is a student of psychology. She is in her final year of graduation.