Gestalt Therapy Techniques: A Brief Review

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In this brief overview of Gestalt Therapy Techniques the main topics discussed will be, essential concepts, the therapeutic process, the techniques, it’s uses of the therapy, and some critiques.  Firstly it’s important to understand, Gestalt Therapy is rooted in the common belief that people have problems. Their problems being they are lacking and in need of wholeness, integration, and balance.  Gestalt therapists believe this may happen because of the individual’s unawareness of their own feelings, bodies, and other people. 

This review highlights some main concepts from Gestalt Therapy such as its key techniques. The process in which it’s used by therapists during therapy sessions. The possible reasons why it is used, alongside the critiques that should be taken into consideration.

Some of the techniques associated with Gestalt Therapy include. Body Awareness,  Experimentation, Role Playing, The Empty Chair Technique, Dream work, Psychodrama,  Group Work (Group Settings), and Language Modification, (Day, 2007).  These techniques are modified for the individual through the many uses of Gestalt Therapy.  These techniques have most often worked with people who are overly socialized and who are usually considered rigid.  Aside from these two identified personality types, the therapy can be used very universally with many types of people. In closing, there are just so many uses for gestalt therapy as it’s approach can be very universal.

The Origins of Gestalt Therapy

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Gestalt therapy, originally developed by Fritz and Laura Perls in the 1940s, is a humanistic form of psychotherapy focused on awareness, contact, and the acceptance of polarities. Its purpose is to provide an individual with a sense of support.  Then they will be able to enhance their ability to further develop self-awareness and personal growth.

Using gestalt therapy techniques through the form of therapy, therapists provide support with enriching activities, such as questioning and supporting self-observations. These help individuals in counseling to explore limiting beliefs or behaviors holding them back from living authentically, allowing them to gain awareness of themselves. By exploring boundaries within gestalt therapy without judgment or expectations, practitioners can use the therapeutic environment to bring an heightened awareness of their current reality. The goal of gestalt therapy is ultimately grounded on strengthening self-acceptance by providing access to meaningful experiences that empower an individual’s truth.

Further breaking down the essential concepts of: awareness, contact, polarities, boundaries and support, and interference in mental health tendencies.

Awareness

Awareness considered the key to positive change and growth in an individual’s life.  Clarkson and Machewn, 1993, say awareness is; “The capacity to be in touch with your own existence, to notice what is happening around or inside you. To connect with the environment, other people and yourself and to know what you are feeling, sensing or thinking. How you are reacting at this very moment” (Day, 2007).  

Contact

Contact is the ability to understand and accept your own feelings, reactions, thoughts and sensations. It is about allowing yourself to just “be” without judgement. Allowing yourself to be mindful of what you are feeling and experiencing in that very moment in order to gain insight into how you react or respond to situations.

Polarities

Polarities refer to the division of experience into two contrasting or opposite parts. It is an ability to be able to recognize and accept both sides of a situation. This is done in order to gain an understanding of your own personal values and beliefs. Also you will gain the motivations behind other people’s behavior.

Boundaries and Support

Boundaries and support represent the ability to maintain psychological, physical and emotional distance while in relationships with others. It is also about understanding your own needs and limits, as well as how to ask for help or support when needed. 

Interference in Health Tendencies

Refer to the ability to identify and stop unhealthy patterns of thinking or behavior which interfere with your well-being. These unhealthy patterns can be due to external situations, relationships, or internal processes such as self-criticism or overthinking. It is important to develop strategies for dealing with these tendencies so that they do not become a problem.

What are the polarities & contacts associated with Gestalt Therapy?

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Polarities are the inner conflict all individuals face throughout life.  In other words, Polarities are two extremes on the spectrum. A great example would be: funny vs. serious, Asian vs. Mexican, or independent vs. dependent.   Polarities can also be outward as well with the key concept being that both sides need to be integrated into itself.  Gestalt therapists believe that ideally, everyone is centered, and that one will know which side to give attention to. This is key to achieving a balance between the two sides.

Contact on the other hand is an awareness of what is happening in the here and now and going with the flow of things.  The boundaries are the lines between individuals, either connecting people or separating them. Support comes from the individual, from within, the environment, and other people.  “In Gestalt Therapy the term anxiety occurs when we feel that we do not or will not have the support we need. Perls notes that anxiety comes especially from preoccupation with future events that we fear we can’t handle” (Day, 2007). 

The four types of interference and how do they relate to Gestalt Therapy?

fourpillarsofgestalt

Lastly, interference with health tendencies can be broken down into four types. These are also considered key concepts to the gestalt therapy technique. 

The four main types are shoulds are:

  1. considered tactics of neurotic self regulations
  2. contact boundary disturbances (failure to make contact with self and others)
  3. interruptions
  4. intrusion of unfinished business.

Intrusion of unfinished business are considered unresolved emotions and issues from the past that affect the focus on the present moment. (Day, 2007) 

Tactics of neurotic self regulations 

When it comes to self regulation, there is a tendency to rely on shoulds or “should-ing” oneself. This is when someone tells themselves what they should do and how they should act in order to meet the expectations of others. In some cases, this type of “self-talk” can be helpful in getting things done. However, when “should-ing” takes over and becomes the primary focus, it can be damaging to the individual and the relationships they maintain.

Contact Boundary Disturbances 

Another type of self-regulatory behavior is contact boundary disturbances. This occurs when someone has difficulty making contact with their own feelings. And instead, they would rather focuses on the feelings of another. In order to avoid dealing with their own issues, they may try to control or manipulate the other person in an attempt to get them to meet their needs. This type of behavior can lead to increased anxiety and a decrease in intimacy in relationships. 

Interruptions

Interruptions are when someone breaks off a task or conversation before it is finished in order to avoid dealing with the issue at hand. This often leads to unfulfilled commitments, as the individual fails to finish what they started. Unfulfilled commitments can lead to resentment from those affected by the interruption and can further damage relationships. 

Avoidance Tactics

Some individuals may use avoidance tactics in order to cope with difficult emotions and topics. They may put off or avoid conversations and tasks that make them uncomfortable. Further creating additional feelings of guilt and reducing intimacy in a relationship. 

By learning how to recognize these behaviors, one can begin to take steps towards changing them. In taking the time to listen to and understand one’s own feelings. Along with the feelings of others. One can help create more meaningful conversations and relationships. It is important to remember that it is ok to feel overwhelmed or uncomfortable in certain situations – the key is how one chooses to respond in such instances. 

Intrusion of Unfinished Business

 (IUB) is an approach which acknowledges and addresses the avoidance behavior in order to better cope with difficult topics. IUB involves discussing unresolved feelings or issues from the past that might be preventing individuals from having intimate relationships. It can help identify patterns of behavior, develop empathy, and strengthen communication skills. Through the practice of IUB, one can gain greater insight into their own emotions and those of others. This allows them to create more meaningful conversations and relationships. 

In Summary

Through the therapeutic process the goal is for clients to realize that they, the individual, actually has all the inner support they need within themselves.  Gestalt therapists also believe that the therapist should act bored, irritated, or impatient with the client. This is to purposely frustrate them when needed.  Polster, another Gestalt expert in the client counselor relationship was quoted. “It is enough for the therapist in this extraordinary context to exercise ordinary kindness, simplicity, clear-mindedness, good language, recognition of implication, and enduring fascination.”  With an optimal exercise of these qualities by the therapist, the patient’s connection with the therapist develops considerable magnitude.  The relationship is then in a position to compete for influence with the patients life long adherence to anachronistic selves,” (Day, 2007).

Polster's three stages of change that must occur

polster

Polster’s view of Gestalt Therapy is that three stages of change must occur for individuals to move forward. They happen to be discovery, accommodation, and assimilation.  Perls explains this therapeutic relationship in the analogy of “peeling off an onion’s layers”.  

The onion layers going from outward in are.

  • the phony layer
  • the phobic layer
  • the impasse layer
  • the implosive layer
  • the explosive layer

All these layers and stages of the therapeutic process will effectively work through many different techniques. You can see how these 3 changes of change overlap into Perl’s 4 layers of change. 

How Gestalt Therapy goes from Theory to Practice

Pyschodynamic vs Pyschoanalytical

There are many uses for gestalt therapy techniques. Some of the primary uses include: gendered lives, couples and families, traumatized clients, and psychosomatic complaints.(Day, 2007)  

Because of this broad variety of application, there are some critiques that professionals have made.  One critique being that Gestalt Therapy is cultural and individually limited.  An example being, the therapy tends to only accommodate White American males. This would be leaving the rest of the world’s population on the outskirts from this technique. In addition to, the therapy has been accused of being anti-intellectual, further ostracizing others who pride themselves as intellects.  These individuals might be very opposed to putting their emotions and not intellect at top priority.

NorthStar Counseling & Therapy, has therapists that believe the style of Gestalt Therapy can be very useful for particular clients. Especially due to the fact it’s spectrum in practice can be so broad. Therefore we believe in its potential for use in the modern day clinic. 

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Megan Corrieri

Megan Corrieri

Owner, Clinician, Wife & Mom

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