A 3 minute module on awareness:
1. An existential approach
- Grounded in the here and now.
- Emphasizes that each person is responsible for his or her own destiny.
- Respects the client as the best expert on themselves.
2. A phenomenological approach
- Focuses on the client’s perception of reality.
- Aims to increase awareness both of self and of interconnectedness with others.
- Works with the ‘what is’; change results from being more fully oneself.
3. A dialogical approach
- The therapist is an active participant in the process.
- Gestalt is known as ‘therapy without resistance’. The clients pace, priorities and creative adjustments are respected.
- The therapist is willing to not have the answers, to sit with the client in the ‘creative void’, allowing something new and surprising to emerge.
4. A wholistic approach
- The wider field is taken into account; past present and future, the individual, family and culture.
- There is a focus on integration – reowning all parts of self.
5. A practical approach
- The emphasis is on experiential learning rather than interpretation or cognitive insights: how rather than why
- Creative experiments are used to embody abstract, generalised ideas.
- Past memories and future projections are brought into the present so they can be worked with directly.
Gestalt: the bigger story
The Origins of Gestalt
Gestalt Therapy was originated by Fritz and Laura Perls and further developed in the USA in the 1940’s in conjunction with Paul Goodman and other members of the ‘New York Group’.
A wide range of influences contribute to both theory and practice, blending Eastern and Western thought with current philosophical and psychodynamic theories. The Gestalt approach has its roots in psychoanalysis, existentialism, gestalt psychology, phenomenology, some of the theories of Wilhelm Reich, psychodrama, and Zen Buddhism. In a remarkable synthesis borrowing from these and other approaches, Fritz and Laura Perls created a new ‘whole’ called Gestalt Therapy.
Gestalt today is becoming more popular than ever. In Australia there are numerous training centres, which are linking together into a cohesive network. Current technologies such as internet and video conferencing are being utilised and there is an increasing exchange of ideas and expertise between Gestalt trainers. There is an ongoing effort to use the well-proven base of Gestalt in leading edge applications, relevant to both our current society and the one we want to create.
The Gestalt Therapist
Neither flashy techniques nor clever interventions are seen as essential abilities for the Gestalt therapist. Rather, authentic relating, presence, clear self awareness, and unfettered observation constitute the underpinnings of Gestalt practice. The therapist is as a midwife, assisting a process which has its own natural rhythm of unfolding, and which primarily requires an ability to be finely tuned to the needs of the moment.
Gestalt is an anarchist process in the sense that it does not conform to preset rules and expectations. Thus there is scope for a great deal of creativity and individuality, and encouragement for each therapist to find their own unique style.
The essence of the work
Picture a jigsaw with only one piece missing: we have an inherent desire to fit that piece, and an innate sense of satisfaction when the picture is complete. This drive to completion, wholeness, or Gestalt, is what propels us to deal with unfinished issues in our lives and to experience a nagging sense of discomfort until that is done.
Gestalt therapy uses awareness to identify these incomplete parts. Then to assist a person towards the realisation of wholeness, new forms of behaviour are experimented with, feelings felt and released, and thinking patterns brought to consciousness and updated. This is done in the focus of the present moment, allowing liveliness and freshness to enter old and stale experiences.
An important part of the work involves unifying the ‘splits’ within that literally ‘tear us apart’; sinner/saint, coward/bully, miser/spendthrift. Rather than projecting one side of these onto others, we can integrate them in ourselves, thus becoming more whole and capable of balanced living. Taking responsibility for the disowned parts of our self can be very challenging, but it is ultimately a very freeing and empowering experience.
Maturity is seen as being able to distinguish the nourishing from the toxic influences in our environment, and to act accordingly. This allows us to cope with the new, the unexpected, the dangerous and sometimes damaging events which come our way. Often however, our family setting has taught us dysfunctional coping responses. Gestalt work identifies our particular way of distorting or avoiding contact, and then assists us to restore clear boundaries and thereby establish healthy contact with self and other. The process allows each person to re-establish trust in their inherent wisdom, knowing when to come close to another and when to let go, person by person and moment by moment.
Gestalt provides scope for a great deal of creativity and individuality in each therapist, and seeks to strike a balance between frustration of old patterns and supporting the development of new options. Assisting the client towards self support is seen as an underlying theme of each person’s growth towards maturity.
Things as they are
Whatever is, is; a statement so obvious that it seems redundant. But Gestalt has been described as the ‘philosophy of the obvious’. This is a fundamental departure from the analytical approach in which a therapist uses interpretation in order to help a person who is stuck.
This is because firstly, it is not assumed in Gestalt that the therapist has a privileged access to what is ‘reality’. The task of the therapist is seen as learning about the client’s subjective view of the world, honouring and respecting that experience, and exploring how they come to construct life in that way. This appreciation of the face validity of the other’s perspective does not mean agreement, and the richness of contact comes about between the meeting of two ways of seeing; there is space for both views. As a result Gestalt therapy is both very powerful and direct, while at the same time being very respectful of the client’s safety limits and their knowledge of what is right for them.
Secondly, if in fact part of our dysfunction involves blinding ourselves to what is happening, then restoration of wholeness must involve recognition and acceptance of a person as they are. The paradoxical theory of change suggests that when we can help someone become as they actually are now, opportunities and processes of change begin to emerge; but as long as we strain toward a given goal, without giving the reality of the present its due, little if anything will change. So in Gestalt we work on discovering, amplifying, experimenting with, and evaluating in a rich variety of ways, what is true of the individual person here and now.
Inherent in this process is the basic acceptance of you in your reality, and of me in mine. A core problem people bring to therapy is that they do not feel okay with who they are, believing they should be different. Thinner, stronger, more charming, more blunt, more liberated, more considerate...fill in the blank. If the therapist has their own agenda of how a person should be, this can add to the weight of accumulated shoulds.
So as a therapist in the Gestalt approach, I am free to be myself, warts and all. And I offer you the freedom of breathing space, knowing that you are accepted in your being. My challenge as therapist is to allow and take responsibility for my own experience, whilst not burdening you even with subtle expectations. George Sweet suggests therapists remind themselves, ‘I have no desire to change this person in any way’.
This allows for a quality of relationship which is often a facet of Gestalt groups; the recognition of self and other to a depth which is usually associated with (though not always achieved in) intimate relationships. This spontaneous experience is always profoundly moving, can be funny, sad, or angry, and is often highly creative. The experience of living more fully within the safe setting of the group is both a valid moment per se, and a practice for daily life. For the goal is to touch more and more a heightened state of awareness that could be called ‘being in Gestalt’.