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Gestalt therapy: A holistic approach to mental wellness

Gestalt therapy: A holistic approach to mental wellness

Gestalt therapy is a counseling theory that acknowledges the separation of the mind, body, and soul and the different “parts” working together. In fact, the word “gestalt” is German for “whole” or a configuration that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Gestalt therapists focus on the present to help people work through their unfinished business. 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, clients are free to move past pain, fear, anxiety, depression, and even low self-esteem.

What Is Gestalt Therapy? Understanding the Basics of Gestalt Therapy

Gestalt therapy is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on the client being fully present in the here and now. It uses grounding and mindfulness techniques to help the client embrace their current reality instead of letting past experiences color current events. 

Gestalt therapy focuses on the whole body experience. It immerses clients in processing emotions psychologically and somatically and encourages them to develop insight and personal accountability

Gestalt therapy may also borrow techniques from other modalities that are focused on helping people take the steps to fulfill their personal growth and development.

What Is Done in Gestalt Therapy?

Gestalt therapy is unique in that it can use many therapeutic interventions to help the client be fully immersed and present in their immediate environment and reality. Gestalt therapy uses techniques that focus on one’s beliefs surrounding their personal levels of control in what happens to them, the goal being to increase personal accountability and insight and foster a desire for inner growth. 

It also tends to be somatic, focusing on the sensations of the body and recognizing what different parts are saying. The purpose is to give voice to quiet parts, what lies in the background, and bring them to the foreground.

This therapeutic intervention is mostly used for individuals, though it can be used to help couples or families as well.

What Is an Example of Gestalt Therapy?

Gestalt therapy is an eclectic approach that works with specific, identifiable behavioral patterns while still staying flexible enough to meet the client’s needs and personality. 

In a Gestalt therapy session, you can expect that your therapist might be very reflective and, at times, non-directive. They may try to model the behavior that they wish you to emulate. 

Many Gestalt therapy sessions involve “emotional honoring” — that is, allowing yourself the freedom to experience any and every emotion that comes your way without having a specific “agenda” to complete within each session. Reflection and gaining insight are critical factors in Gestalt therapy, as well as somatic and emotional processing.

What Are the Main Goals of Gestalt Therapy?

The main goal of Gestalt therapy is to get people to appreciate themselves as a whole, not just their parts. It also aims to help individuals gain greater personal awareness and insight while finding ways to ground people in the present moment. Gestalt therapists do not work to change people, but instead help them develop their own self-awareness. Doing this helps one improve their ability to deal with the issues they face in life. 

Other central goals of Gestalt therapy are to help people tolerate distress and discomfort, build resiliency, and deal with difficult emotions in a productive way. Gestalt therapy aims to help people process the external world by looking at, evaluating, and identifying patterns that lie within one’s inner world or “psyche.”

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Assessing Your Needs: Is Gestalt Therapy a Good Fit?

Gestalt therapy would be a good fit for you if you desire to improve your self-awareness and understand that it might require you to be more vulnerable and open in your processing than in other therapies. 

If you are someone who has a difficult time allowing yourself to process emotions, Gestalt therapy is wonderful at teaching and encouraging healthy somatic processing of feelings, something that is difficult for many clients.

What Are the Benefits of Gestalt Therapy?

The benefits of Gestalt therapy are numerous. Gestalt therapy is great for a variety of conditions, including:

Gestalt can be a great introduction to experiencing and truly feeling emotions, and connects the “head and the heart knowledge” to foster self-awareness. Gestalt also allows you to freely explore your brain and your experienced emotions. 

Gestalt Therapy Techniques

Gestalt therapy techniques are highly effective and may range and vary in use depending on the specific client and their needs. 

One common technique is the empty chair technique. In this exercise, a client is asked to imagine that an individual with whom they are experiencing a psychological conflict (real or imagined) is sitting across from them. They are asked to engage in a conversation with that person, to tell them everything they want and exactly how they feel. This is extremely grounding and allows the client to honor their emotions and experience them in real-time. 

Another technique that is popular in Gestalt is the exaggeration technique. This asks the client to exaggerate a thought, feeling, or behavior in an over-dramatic fashion. This allows the client to feel the feeling intensely and in real-time, engaging in healthy processing and self-expression. 

Gestalt Therapy Techniques Used for Anxiety

Gestalt therapy is a great orientation to use for clients experiencing anxiety. Specifically, emotional exaggeration can help clients release energy, literally and metaphorically, as they act out their experiences. 

Gestalt therapists can also help clients focus on the concept of wholeness and awareness, not on the fears or worries of their anxiety. These positive focuses are critical to long-term health and can help clients root themselves in reality. 

Finally, role play is used in Gestalt therapy, and can be a great way for clients to externally process and act out their anxieties. Using roleplay to externalize emotions can have significant benefits for anxiety reduction. 

If you are having trouble dealing with your past or feel that you could use help processing and understanding your emotions, consider speaking to a mental health professional. Your therapist will act as a coach and reinforcer, gently guiding you back to the present moment without judgment.

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  • Editorial writer
  • Clinical reviewer
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Alexandra “Alex” Cromer is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) who has 4 years of experience partnering with adults, families, adolescents, and couples seeking help with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and trauma-related disorders.

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Evan Csir is a Licensed Professional Counselor with over 9 years of experience. He is passionate about working with people, especially autistic individuals and is experienced in helping clients with depression, anxiety, and ADHD issues.

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Hannah DeWittMental Health Writer

Hannah is a Junior Copywriter at Thriveworks. She received her bachelor’s degree in English: Creative Writing with a minor in Spanish from Seattle Pacific University. Previously, Hannah has worked in copywriting positions in the car insurance and trucking sectors doing blog-style and journalistic writing and editing.

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  • Roubal, J., Hytych, R., Čevelíček, M., & Řiháček, T. (2021). Personal therapeutic approach in Gestalt therapists working with clients suffering from medically unexplained psychosomatic symptoms. Research in Psychotherapy, 24(3).

We update our content on a regular basis to ensure it reflects the most up-to-date, relevant, and valuable information. When we make a significant change, we summarize the updates and list the date on which they occurred. Read our editorial policy to learn more.

  • Originally published on November 19, 2017

    Author: Taylor Bennett

  • Updated on July 2, 2024

    Authors: Hannah DeWitt; Alexandra Cromer, LPC

    Reviewer: Evan Csir, LPC

    Changes: Updated by a Thriveworks clinician in collaboration with our editorial team, adding information about what Gestalt therapy is, how it works, Gestalt therapy techniques, the goals of Gestalt therapy, whether Gestalt therapy would be a good fit, and the benefits of Gestalt therapy; article was clinically reviewed to double confirm accuracy and enhance value.


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