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Gestalt therapy is an exploratory treatment method in psychotherapy. It can be helpful in a variety of problem areas and has inspired the development of newer forms of therapy. Here we look at what Gestalt therapy is and how it can help.

What is Gestalt therapy?

Gestalt therapy, created in the 1940s by psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Fritz Pearl and his wife Laura Perls and Paul Goodman, is a psychotherapeutic approach that combines elements from different approaches such as psychoanalysis, existentialism and phenomenology.

It was developed in response to psychoanalysis’ focus on the unconscious and the past, with a new emphasis on the individual’s holistic experience in the present. Gestalt therapy emphasizes the importance of present feelings and experiences, the individual’s freedom, choice and responsibility, and uses dialogue and experimental methods to raise awareness and promote change. It integrates insights from psychology, philosophy and art to create a rich and multifaceted therapeutic approach.

It is an exploratory approach that can be helpful for different conditions and problem areas, and has also inspired later methodological developments in different fields.

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What is gestalt therapy?

Gestalt therapy focuses on the individual’s experience in the present moment and the relationship between therapist and client within their social and environmental setting. This form of therapy stresses the importance of being present in the moment and sees the individual as a whole, including thoughts, feelings and behaviors. By increasing self-awareness and self-understanding, it helps clients explore their experiences and relationships.

Gestalt therapy uses experimental techniques such as role play to promote learning and personal development. The relationship between therapist and client is central, and the therapy places a strong emphasis on personal responsibility and conscious choice. It is effective in treating a variety of psychological problems.

What can Gestalt therapy help with?

Gestalt therapy can be effective for a variety of mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, self-esteem and relationship issues. Its unique focus on the present moment and holistic view of the individual offers a distinctive perspective in psychotherapeutic treatment.Gestalt therapy has also inspired more recent forms of therapy such as schema therapy, taking principles and developing them for more comprehensive treatment.


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Techniques in Gestalt therapy

Gestalt therapy uses a variety of techniques to promote self-awareness, personal growth and improved relationships. Here are some of the most common techniques:

  1. Here and Now: Focus on the client’s current experiences and feelings. The therapist helps the client become aware of what is happening within them and in their environment in the moment.
  2. Awareness experiments: Using experimental exercises to explore the client’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors. This can include role play, imagination work or movement exercises.
  3. Empty chair technique: A technique where the client speaks to an empty chair as if it represents another person, a part of themselves, or an object. This helps to explore relationships and inner conflicts.
  4. Dialogue and communication: Active dialog between the therapist and client to explore feelings and reactions that arise during the session.
  5. Body awareness: Attention to body language, posture and physical sensations to increase awareness of unconscious emotional states.
  6. Confrontation: The therapist may use confrontation (in a supportive way) to challenge the client’s avoidance or defense mechanisms.
  7. Imagination and visualization: Use of visualization and imagination to explore dreams, fantasies and unconscious desires.
  8. Use of ‘I’ messages: Encouraging the use of ‘I’ messages to promote ownership of feelings and experiences, strengthening self-awareness and authenticity.

These techniques are used flexibly and adapted to each client’s unique needs and situation. The goal is to help clients become more aware of their thoughts, feelings and behaviors, and to discover new ways of approaching their life issues and relationships.

How long is a treatment with gestalt therapy?

The length of treatment varies depending on the individual’s needs and goals, with some people experiencing improvement in a few weeks or months and others who may need longer, sometimes several years. The frequency of sessions is adapted to the client’s situation and can be weekly or less frequent. The flexibility of Gestalt therapy means that the length of treatment and strategy can be adjusted to suit the client’s development in therapy, making each treatment plan unique and tailored.


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The influence of Gestalt therapy in psychotherapy

Gestalt therapy has influenced and been integrated into many forms and methods of therapy. It has become part of integrative therapy, where its focus on the present moment and awareness is combined with other psychotherapeutic techniques. In organizational and leadership development, gestalt principles are applied to improve communication and relational dynamics.

Art and creative therapies use gestalt methods to promote personal expression and exploration through art forms. Body-based therapies have embraced Gestalt’s emphasis on bodily experiences for emotional awareness and healing. In relationship therapy, gestalt techniques help improve communication between couples or family members.

Its principles are also used in personal development and coaching to achieve self-awareness and personal goals, and in group therapy and workshops to improve group dynamics and interpersonal patterns. Although the Gestalt therapy approach was developed long ago, it continues to contribute to a broader understanding of human behavior and development in several areas.

Criticism of Gestalt therapy

Gestalt therapy has faced criticism, mainly for the lack of extensive empirical research supporting its effectiveness, which is in contrast to more research-based therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy. The subjective nature of therapy can lead to a lack of structure and objectivity. The active role of the therapist has been questioned for potential imbalance in the therapist-client relationship, which can reduce client autonomy.

The intensity of the method and focus on emotional explorations can be overwhelming for some clients. In addition, Gestalt therapy approaches have sometimes been criticized for a lack of cultural sensitivity and a limited focus on the client’s past and future considerations. Despite this, Gestalt therapy continues to be popular for its ability to promote self-awareness and personal growth.


12 common questions and answers about gestalt therapy

What is Gestalt therapy?

Gestalt therapy is an experiential approach that emphasizes the importance of current feelings and experiences, individual freedom, choice and responsibility, and uses dialogue and experimental methods to raise awareness and promote change.

How does a Gestalt therapy treatment work?

By increasing self-awareness and self-understanding, it helps clients explore their experiences and relationships in the present moment.

What can be treated with Gestalt therapy?

There are many issues that can be treated but often it is an exploration of relational issues but it can also be in other areas.

How long does a treatment with Gestalt therapy take?

Treatment time depends but can range from a few months to several years.

What methods and techniques are used in Gestalt therapy?

Gestalt therapy uses experimental techniques such as role play to promote learning and personal development. The relationship between therapist and client is central, and the therapy places a strong emphasis on personal responsibility and conscious choice.

What is the basis of Gestalt therapy?

Gestalt therapy was developed in the 1940s and combines elements from different approaches such as psychoanalysis, existentialism and phenomenology.

Can Gestalt therapy be provided online?

It is possible to receive treatment digitally via video but it may be better to meet in person.

Are there any disadvantages to Gestalt therapy?

Gestalt therapy can be an effective treatment method for exploring various issues and relationships but there may be more effective treatment for specific issues that are more grounded in research.

What is schema therapy?

Schema therapy is a newer method of treatment inspired by Gestalt therapy.

How does psychoanalysis differ from Gestalt therapy?

Gestalt therapy was developed in response to psychoanalysis’ focus on the unconscious and the past, with a new emphasis on the individual’s holistic experience in the present.

What is a gestalt therapist?

A Gestalt therapist is a professional who has undergone further training in the method, usually lasting 4 years.

Where can I turn if I need help?

At Lavendla, we have experienced psychologists and therapists who can help you feel better. If you have thoughts of self-harm or suicide, contact 112 or the nearest emergency room.

What does gestalt therapy treatment involve?

Gestalt therapy is an interactive and experiential process where the therapist and client work together to increase the client’s awareness and understanding of themselves and their relationships. Here is an overview of how such a treatment usually works:

  1. Creating a safe environment: The therapist begins by creating a safe and supportive environment where the client feels comfortable exploring their feelings and experiences.
  2. Focusing on present experiences: Gestalt therapy concentrates on the ‘here and now’, meaning that attention is paid to what the client is experiencing in the moment, both emotionally and physically.
  3. Self-awareness and self-exploration: The client is encouraged to become aware of their thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and behaviors. The therapist helps the client to understand how these affect wellbeing and relationships.
  4. Dialogue and experimental learning: The therapist uses dialogue and various experimental techniques, such as role play, imagination and movement exercises, to help the client explore different aspects of themselves and their relationships.
  5. Processing unfinished business: Treatment often includes an exploration of unfinished relationships or unexpressed feelings from the past that are affecting the client’s current life.
  6. Accountability and choice: Clients are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions and recognize their own influence over their life circumstances, promoting a sense of control over their lives.
  7. Evaluation and reflection: Sessions include time for reflection and evaluation of what the client has learned and experienced, and how this can be applied in their daily life.
  8. Closure and follow-up: At the end of the treatment, the therapist and client can evaluate progress together and discuss possible future steps or further support.

Each Gestalt therapy session is unique and tailored to the client’s specific needs and goals. The therapist’s role is to support and guide the client through this process in a way that promotes healing and personal growth.

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Written by Ellen Lindgren

Licensed psychologist

Ellen is a licensed psychologist and has experience mainly in clinical psychology where she has worked with various conditions such as stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, crises and trauma in primary care and psychiatry. She has also worked with research while studying in the US and with affective disorders and insomnia at Karolinska Institutet, Sweden.