Two chairs face each other. A man, Mark, sits in one chair and tells the “person” in the empty chair exactly how he feels: he’s angry, he’s saddened, and he’s hurt. This other person is supposed to be his father, and Mark wants to mend their relationship. What is happening here? It is one scenario out of millions that have played out in “the empty chair,” which is an exercise in gestalt therapy to help people deal with conflict in their lives.

Gestalt therapy is a psychotherapeutic approach, which was developed by Fritz Perls—a 20th century psychiatrist—in the 1940s. And unlike most prominent therapies then, it does not focus on discussing a person’s past or analyzing the unconscious. Instead, it focuses on the present. Gestalt therapy also acknowledges that people are made up of three separate components—mind, body, and soul—which function as a whole. In fact, the word “gestalt” is German for “whole” or a configuration which is greater than the sum of it’s parts.

Gestalt therapists focus on the present to help people work through their unfinished business, such as the conflict between Mark and his father—while the past is important and certainly not left out, gestalt therapy is not about what happened then but, instead, how it affects a person now. By accepting and appreciating themselves completely, patients are free to move past pain, fear, anxiety, depression, and even low self-esteem. In this way, they can find out who they are and feel free to grow in the ways that are right for them. Gestalt therapy is an approach that creates or borrows techniques that are aimed at helping people take the steps to fulfill their personal growth and development.

Quick Facts About Gestalt Therapy

  • Gestalt therapy appeals to school counselors, because it is based on the assumption that people respond to a variety of levels of awareness.
  • Therapists challenge clients with questions to increase their awareness of feelings so they have the ability to deal with everyday situations.
  • Gestalt therapy includes repeated statements and exaggerated gestures. It focuses on the person’s verbal and nonverbal behaviors and the empty chair—acting out both sides of the conversation (e.g., parent versus child). These exercises are done to help the client learn a more effective way to cope and take responsibility for things in his or her own life.
  • What is being done “here and now” is emphasized rather than what happened in the past.
  • The client learns that what is experienced and what is felt currently is more reliable than interpretations that are based on prior experiences and attitudes.
  • The goal is for the client to be aware of what he is doing, how he is doing it and how to change himself—and at the same time, the client learns how to accept himself.
  • Responsibility is important in gestalt therapy. It gives the person the ability to respond instead of react. When people find out how they contribute to a situation, the knowledge helps them to increase their power to change the outcome instead of feeling like a victim.
  • Many people cut off their emotions, thoughts, and feelings when they are uncomfortable. In Gestalt Therapy, people work on owning their experiences and developing their whole person.

What are the Concepts of Gestalt Therapy?

  • Gestalt Therapy deals with wholeness, which means the whole person—or, the person’s mind, body, and soul as one unit instead of as separate parts. In addition, integration is about how these parts fit together and how the person “integrates” or mixes into the environment.
  • Awareness is important and a goal for people in gestalt therapy. If they are aware, they’re able to manage themselves in their surroundings. People lack awareness because of two key factors: preoccupation with the past (as well as flaws that make them unaware of the entire picture) and self-esteem. Three ways people become aware through therapy are by having contact with the environment (e.g., looking, listening, touching, smelling, tasting); focusing on the here and now—the person lives in the moment instead of dwelling on the past or the future; and taking responsibility for their life instead of blaming others.
  • In gestalt therapy, therapists focus on the energy in the body and how it is used, as well as the ways the energy may be causing a blockage—or resistance. For example, a person might not be using eye contact. Gestalt therapy identifies that as being a “blockage” or problem and works with the person to change it so it will not hinder his awareness.
  • Therapists work on growth disorders or emotional problems that cause people not to interact with their environments fully. When growth disorders are resolved, people can deal with changes in life positively and approach problems they encounter in a defensive way.
  • A main goal of gestalt therapy is to work with people through their “unfinished business” to bring them closure—people may resent the past, because they are unable to focus on the present.

Gestalt Therapy and the Client

Gestalt therapists rely on spontaneity, invention, and being in the present. Some of the interactions between the client and therapist include the following:

  • Many types of therapy ask the person questions, such as how they are feeling or what they are thinking. In gestalt therapy, the person may be asked to start a sentence in a particular way or to repeat a behavior. They are often told to “feel it out” as part of the therapy.
  • The speech patterns of people are thought to be an expression of their feelings, thoughts, and attitudes. Some people may avoid strong emotions or not take responsibility by using the pronouns “it” and “you.” In gestalt therapy, they are told to use “I” when it is appropriate in order to take responsibility for what they say. In addition, therapists work with the person to take control and not use the words “maybe,” “perhaps,” or “I guess.” This takes the tentativeness or hesitation out of the person’s vocabulary and switches to more direct words and statements. Therapists also instruct clients to use “I won’t” instead of “I can’t,” because can’t sounds like the client is unable to do something. They also change “should” and “ought” to “I choose to” or “I want to,” because it gives the person more control of his life.
  • Therapists focus on nonverbal behavior to make people more aware of how they show different feelings with their bodies: the therapist will watch a person’s eyes, shoulders, hands, arms, and legs, as well as listen to their voice. An example of connecting a part of the body with what a person is saying is if he is expressing anger, but also smiling.
  • In self-dialogue, therapists help people get in touch with the feelings that they may not have been aware of. This helps to increase the integration of different parts of the person that do not match, or conflict. For instance, a conflict may be the “good side” versus the “bad side” of the person. The person learns to live with his differences and doesn’t have to get rid of any one part.
  • Therapists also use guided fantasy or visualization, whereas people close their eyes and imagine a scene from their past or something in the future. They are asked to use details to describe the scene using their senses and thoughts.

The Goal of Gestalt Therapy

Gestalt therapists do not work to change people, but instead help them develop their own self-awareness and presence in the moment. Doing this helps them to improve the issues they face in life. Let’s look back on the example of Mark using the empty chair technique: he may be confronting issues that began long ago, but they affect him in the present as well. And in talking to the empty chair as if it were his father, he’s expressing the thoughts and feelings he has in present day. This demands Mark to acknowledge his emotions related to his father and their conflict and helps him move on from his pain and ill will.

Who Benefits from Gestalt Therapy?

When it was first developed, gestalt therapy was mostly used for individuals who were anxious or depressed and were not showing serious pathological symptoms. It is still used for anxiety and depression, but it has also been successful for clients with personality disorders, as well as for couples and families. And you know who else it can benefit? You! If you’ve been thinking about trying therapy and gestalt therapy sounds like it may be a great fit for you, give it a shot—because you can thrive and we can help. Click here to see a counselor or coach this week, if not within 24 hours.