Applied Psychology

What is Gestalt Therapy?

Apr 09, 2024 | By Jenna Van Schoor

Fritz Perls, Laura Perls, and Paul Goodman developed Gestalt therapy in the 1940s and 1950s. Gestalt psychology and psychoanalytic trends of the time influenced its development. Interestingly, the concept of “holism” created by South African politician Jan Smuts also helped shape this therapeutic modality. 

While many forms of treatment focus on dealing with past experiences and specific problems, this modality focuses more on being in the present moment and developing self-awareness.

The word “gestalt” doesn’t have a direct translation in English. However, it loosely translates to “whole,” “pattern,” or “form.” In other words, this type of psychotherapy focuses on treating people holistically, bringing together mind, body, emotions, and spirit.

Gestalt therapy is also helpful for treating anxiety, depression, self-esteem issues, relationship difficulties and behavioural health issues. For example, becoming more self-aware can help people struggling with anxiety to become more aware of what triggers them in the present moment.

In this post, we’ll outline some of this therapy’s key components and briefly discuss how this modality can help when counselling children and adolescents. 

Key concepts

The key focus of this therapeutic modality is to help a person develop self-awareness by bringing them into the present moment. Instead of rehashing past experiences and trying to make sense of them, it’s more about understanding how we immediately respond to what is happening.

By becoming more self-aware, we can better understand our thoughts, emotions, and behaviour. Auxiliary modalities like Gestalt play therapy can also add value for young children and adults. This related modality allows a person to engage with feelings that arise in the present moment through various activities such as storytelling, drawing, role-playing and imaginative play. 

Therapists use similar techniques in general sessions, as described below. 

Gestalt therapy techniques

In addition to being used in play therapy, Gestalt therapy uses various techniques that can be used individually or in a group. These techniques include exercises and experiments to help people engage with the present moment and become more aware of their immediate reality. 

Techniques may include creative expression techniques such as role-playing, guided imagery and dream work, dialogue, and experiential exercises. 

Some examples include the following:

Developing self-acceptance

As mentioned, this type of psychotherapy focuses on bringing a person into the present moment and developing self-acceptance. Accepting who we are can avoid distress and improve our overall mood.

Focusing on being present allows us to pay attention to internal and external experiences without judgement or interpretation. Therapists will use various techniques to guide clients to engage with the present moment while effectively holding space for them.

Building the ability to be present

Focusing on the here and now can help people let go of the past by focusing on now and the future. While past experiences undoubtedly shape who we are, this therapy focuses on assisting people in living in the present and making positive changes.

For this reason, practical exercises are valuable, as they can help shift the focus from talking about past events to engaging with their immediate emotions and behaviour. 

Exaggeration technique

Gestalt therapists trained in this modality may ask a person to exaggerate a specific behaviour or emotion. This technique can help discover the underlying feelings behind particular thoughts and behaviours by fully engaging with them.  

Empty chair technique

Gestalt therapists can help people open up about their feelings and experiences by getting them to pretend they are talking to someone else they imagine sitting in an empty chair in front of them.

This technique works by visualising talking to a specific person (who they might not have been able to communicate effectively with previously). By having these “conversations,” people can start to heal and express themselves in a way they haven’t been able to before. 

Why use Gestalt therapy?

We’ve covered some of this modality’s critical philosophical and conceptual points, but what are its benefits?

As we’ve touched on, some benefits include increased self-awareness and self-confidence, increased self-acceptance, better ability to cope with stressful situations, and enhanced capacity to take responsibility for behaviour and mistakes without blaming others. 

This approach is especially beneficial when counselling children and youth, as it helps develop relationships and effective play interventions, which, as mentioned above, can include a variety of age-appropriate exercises and activities. 

As this approach allows for spontaneous and authentic self-exploration, it is an approach that can help support youth as they navigate complex emotions and experiences.

Learn more about Gestalt therapy

If you want to learn more about this modality, SACAP Global is offering a live online workshop on 30 April 2024 at 18:00, entitled Integrating Gestalt Therapy When Working with Children.

This CPD (Continuing Professional Development) workshop will explore a selection of Gestalt Theories that are effective in child and adolescent counselling. 

For those who would like to expand their knowledge, we also offer a range of related short online courses:

If you’d like more information about CPD points, please read our post: What Are HPCSA Points in South Africa? 

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