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Gestalt Therapy: An Introduction

This was a final paper for Counseling and Psychotherapeutic Theories & Techniques, a course in my masters in counseling program at Pacifica Graduate Institute. It was written in December 2023.



Self-help author Martha Beck (2021) summed up her philosophy and advice with the following edicts: “Know what you really know. Feel what you really feel. Say what you really mean. Do what you really want” (p. 220). As I read Gary M. Yontef’s (1993) essays on the theory and practice of Gestalt therapy, I found it is a therapy that works toward just that. This paper’s sections explore each of those statements in turn. 


Like other humanistic psychotherapies, Gestalt believes in inherent human goodness (Sharf, 2016). Freudians might fear that humans doing what they truly want would lead to barbaric mayhem. Gestalt psychology instead suggests that true integrated desire is organizing rather than chaotic, spontaneous rather than impulsive, and relational rather than manipulative (Yontef, 1993). The problem arises, according to Gestalt therapy, when there is distance between the ego and one’s wants, or an inability to express them, not with the wants themselves (Yontef, 1993). To explicate how Gestalt therapy supports clients to do what they really want I will discuss the concept of gestalten–how wants arise and fall away, and how Gestalt therapy supports that process if it is thwarted. 


Essential to the formation of gestalten is to be aware of them, to feel them. Gestalt therapy’s phenomenological focus helps clients to feel what they are really feeling by focusing on the here and now, the what and how, rather than on the why and when (Yontef, 1993). The Feel What You Really Feel  section will discuss the Gestalt therapy concept of awareness. 


If unaware of one’s experience, life is lived according to outside morals and inherited scripts, what Yontef (1993) calls a shouldistic orientation. Gestalt therapy helps liberate trapped affect, including the healthy aggression required to live according to one’s own standards and ideals, to stand behind and know what one really knows. Self acceptance and Gestalt therapy’s theory of change are covered in the Know What You Really Know section. 


The primary approach to bring about these types of changes is experimentation. Gestalt therapy urges clients to speak to or from, not about or around, and will often instruct clients to use more direct language (Sharf, 2016), all efforts to support clients in saying what they really mean. The Say What You Really Mean section will focus on Gestalt techniques.


Do What You Really Want: The Healthy Process of Gestalt Formation

The way a person perceives and moves through the world is defined by the needs that arise within the individual (Yontef, 1993). A need draws out a figure of interest from the ground of perception–focus narrows on something specifically (Perls, Hefferline & Goodman, 1951). If I am thirsty, a gestalt will form to pull my water bottle from the ground of my perception and bring it into focus as the figure of my attention. This figure focus is what Gestalt psychology calls gestalt formation (Perls, Hefferline & Goodman, 1951). A gestalt is formed by the pull of a need, which then organizes perception and behavior toward meeting that need. Meeting the need completes the gestalt, which then falls back into the ground of experience (Yontef, 1993). Laura Perls elaborated:

The aim of gestalt therapy is the awareness continuum, the freely ongoing gestalt formation, where what is of greatest concern and interest to the organism…becomes gestalt, comes into the foreground, where it can be fully experienced and coped with…so that then it can melt into the background…and leave the foreground free for the next relevant gestalt. (as quoted in Yontef, 1993, p. 144)

So health, according to Gestalt psychology, is freely feeling, expressing and meeting “what is of greatest concern and interest” (Yontef, 1993, p.144). In other words, doing what one really wants. Anything that interferes with the process of gestalt formation or completion is considered psychopathology by Gestalt therapists.


The inhibition of gestalt formation is the repression of needs (Perls, Hefferline & Goodman, 1951). If gestalten are formed, but not completed, the open loops “clamor for attention and, therefore, interfere with the formation of new gestalten” (Yontef, 1993, p.51).  Gestalt formation and completion are the processes by which humans are self-regulating (Yontef, 1993). When either process is compromised, people instead rely on the psychopathologies of introjection, projection, retroflection, deflection, or confluence, all of which could be categorized as confusions of one’s needs (Sharf, 2016).

Yontef (1993) described how poorly formed gestalten or incompleted gestalten represent a rift in awareness: “Effective awareness is grounded in and energized by the dominant present need of the organism…Any denial of the situation and its demands or of one’s wants and chosen response is a disturbance of awareness” (p. 144). If one is not aware of one’s needs or the ways in which expression of needs is thwarted or confused, those needs cannot be addressed. Therefore, Gestalt therapy focuses on enhancing awareness, the topic of the next section.


Feel What You Really Feel: Awareness in Gestalt Therapy

Gestalt therapy is not so interested in what clients have to say about their past, nor what their clients think (Yontef, 1993). Instead, it focuses on what clients are experiencing and how (Yontef, 1993). The thinking channel often eclipses the channels of sensing and emoting, so Gestalt therapy works to enliven those neglected ways of knowing, and therefore grow awareness (Yontef, 1993). With awareness comes the capacity to see how one is repressing needs and to experiment with other ways of being. Yontef (1993) described:  

By resensitizing the patient, the patient can become aware once again of the mechanism by which he (ego) rejects awareness and expression of impulses. When the organism once again controls the censor, it can fight the battles of survival with its own sensorimotor behavior, learn and become integrated, that is to say, self accepting. (p. 55)

The repression of needs is self-rejecting, because how one truly feels is sacrificed for what one has learned is the socially appropriate way to feel (Yontef, 1993). To accept oneself, the capacity to feel what is actually present must be awakened. 


The route to knowing one’s own experience is employing the phenomenological methodology of awareness. “Awareness is a form of experience that may be loosely defined as being in touch with one’s own existence, with what is” (Yontef, p.144). Yontef (1993) compared Gestalt methodology with psychoanalytic psychotherapy, “‘What are you doing (or aware of) right now, and how are you doing it?’ replaced ‘Why did you do that?’ As the prototypical question” (p.7).  Instead of focusing on what is repressed, Gestalt focuses on how repression happens (Perls, Hefferline & Goodman, 1951). Here is a dialogue from Yontef (1993) that illustrates a phenomenological method that prioritizes awareness and experiencing en lieu of talking about something, and also focuses on the how of repression:

P: [looks sad]

T: What are you aware of?

P: I am sad.

T: Stay with it.

P: [tears well up. Then the patient tightens and looks away and starts to look thoughtful]

T: I see you are tightening. What are you aware of?

P: I don’t want to stay with the sadness.

T: Stay with the not wanting to. Put words to the not wanting to. (p.156)

This exchange also illustrates a permissiveness. It is okay that the patient does not want to stay with the sadness. The patient is invited to stay with what they are actually feeling and experiencing, to feel what they really feel.


If awareness is limited, the person is out of touch with their own knowing and has to rely on ideas of what is right:

The process of being separate from feeling and expressing needs causes alienation. This division, unawareness and self rejection can be maintained only by restricting the organisms experiencing…Without experiencing needs and impulses, organismic self-regulation is impaired, and reliance on moralistic external regulation is necessitated. (Yontef, p. 53)

Next I discuss the process of becoming integrated, self-regulated, and living according to one’s own felt-sense knowing.


Know What You Really Know: Self-Acceptance, Aggression and the Paradoxical Theory of Change

Gestalt therapy recognizes that self-acceptance is the bedrock of change (Yontef, 1993). If one is alienated from how they truly feel and what they really want, they have no choice but to follow a shouldistic script (Yontef, 1993):

In organismic self-regulation, choosing and learning happen holistically, with a natural integration of mind and body, thoughts and feelings, spontaneity and deliberateness. In shouldistic regulation, cognition rains, and there’s no felt, holistic sense. (p. 143)

For Gestalt, knowing what you really know is a whole organism process, not a cognitive one. It relies on the integration of one’s true feelings and needs, on self-acceptance. 


Healthy aggression follows self-acceptance (Yontef, 1993). For Gestalt therapy, aggression is the permission and capacity to meet one’s own needs, acknowledge and seek desires, and welcome and hold feelings (Yontef, 1993). Aggression is the life force to be who one really is. The process of cultivating healthy aggression often involves becoming aware of how aggression is turned toward the self, and experimenting with turning it instead toward other pursuits, such as creativity or authentic relating (Yontef, 1993). Aggression turned toward the self can look like trying to be better, but the trying itself gets in the way of any helpful movement (Yontef, 1993).


Trying, pushing, and confronting, in either the client or on the part of the therapist, are all approaches that carry the tune of disapproval, and the more that song is sung, the less the person changes. Gestalt therapy calls this the paradoxical theory of change: it is only with self-acceptance that real change can happen (Yontef, 1993). In Gestalt therapy, the client is accepted exactly as they are, and encouraged to become aware of how they are. Then, knowing how they live, they are free to explore, to experiment, and to change. Gestalt’s experimental nature is discussed next.  


Say What You Really Mean: The Experimental Attitude

Yontef (1993) shared a clinical vignette in which the patient is invited to speak from, or as, their eyes, which keep looking away. This experiment was designed to increase the patient’s awareness, deepening her into the experience she was having. Another common Gestalt experiment is the open chair technique (Sharf, 2016). If the client begins to talk about another person, the therapist invites a shift: talking to them. The client imagines the person in an empty chair and speaks directly to the person, then often gets up, moves to the other chair, and speaks as that person (Sharf, 2016). In speaking directly, the experience becomes more present and more alive, increasing awareness.


Gestalt also recommends experimentation with language itself (Sharf, 2016), so that clients are saying what they really mean. Usually, for example, when someone says “I can’t”, what they really mean is, “I won’t” (Yontef, 1993); “have to”, is often truly “choose to” (Sharf, 2016). Gestalt therapists recommend those semantic shifts to increase personal responsibility and bring awareness to what is actually happening (Sharf, 2016; Yontef, 1993). Likewise, “and” is often offered as an alternative to “but”, and “it” is replaced with more identifying language–instead of addressing a part of the body as “it”, addressing it as “me” (Yontef, 1993).


These are examples of a general experimental attitude within Gestalt therapy, which differs from psychoanalysis and behavior therapy:

Gestalt therapy was based on the power of experimentation, of trying something new and letting awareness emerge from the new behavior. Rather than a methodology limited to free association and analyzing the transference, Gestalt therapy made room for a more powerful methodology…The alternatives to this utilization of the experimental attitude were the psychoanalytic attitude of treating new behavior as acting out and the behavioristic attitude of controlling behavior with the principles of reinforcement. (Yontef, 1993, p. 7)

Experimenting is a powerful and empowering methodology that focuses on what people can learn by increasing awareness.


How I Really Feel About Gestalt Therapy

Like Gestalt therapy, I have a deep trust in human nature. It is my belief that many human troubles arise when we are too distant from our instinctive selves. My healing journey has focused mostly on increasing permission to feel what I am actually feeling, to have and meet my needs, and to maintain healthy boundaries. While I have not been in Gestalt therapy, I accomplished this by slowing down and paying attention, by increasing awareness. I have also taken to an experimental approach as a way of life. I have found that not only does this bring greater awareness and change, but is also playful and fun. Since my journey has led me to an orientation similar to Gestalt, I am very curious to continue learning about its methodology and how I could employ its philosophy and technique as a psychotherapist. 


​​References​ 

Beck, M. (2021). The way of integrity. Penguin Random House.


Perls, F., Hefferline, R.F., & Goodman, P. (1951). Gestalt therapy: Excitement and growth in the human personality. Souvenir Press.


Sharf, R. (2016). Gestalt therapy: An experiential therapy. In Theories of psychotherapy and counseling: Concepts and cases (6th ed.). Brooks Cole Publishing.


Yontef, G.M. (1993). Awareness dialogue & process: Essays on gestalt therapy. BookMasters, Inc.


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