Gestalt is a humanistic approach, which means it appreciates people’s ability to regulate themselves, improve their own lives, and fulfil their own potentials, given the right conditions. It sees people as social, relational beings, inherently intertwined with others, needing others for a sense of belonging and knowing who we are. Babies need human love and social connection to survive and thrive, not just physical needs like food and shelter. Likewise, throughout our lives we need relationships with others for wellness and sanity. We have no choice but to live in interdependence with others, which means we constantly need to find our balance between the polarities of dependency and autonomy. How much can we give and receive?
Here and now
Gestalt is process-oriented. What does that mean? The “process” is what is happening right now in the room, the flow of exchange between us, the sensations, the pauses, the tone of voice, the emotion, the expression… Gestaltists often ask questions that bring awareness to what is happening in the here and now. This serves many purposes. Noticing what is happening in the present brings vividness, aliveness and contact. It is very real to be in the here and now together and notice different levels of experience that is going on. It also enables us to pay attention to things that are normally out of awareness, to expand the range of our awareness. It can also enable underlying responses and emotions to be surfaced that we ordinarily might skip over.
Body, head, heart
Another way in which Gestalt is holistic is that it places importance on our bodies, our physical experience and sensations, as well as our thoughts, emotions, desires. Sometimes our thoughts are not clear or we don’t know what we’re feeling or what we want, but our bodies know instinctively and carry it all. When you are in a difficult situation, do you notice your chest and shoulders tense up as if you are bracing against something? In a fearful situation, before you even have time to figure out what you are scared of, your heart beats faster, your muscles tense up, you hold your breath. We live in a world that prioritises thinking over feeling or sensing what is happening in our bodies. Most of us have been trained to ignore or override our bodily experience. Physical and mental illness is often the result. Gestalt finds ways for us to listen to our bodies, reconnect with a fuller version of ourselves, and realign body, head and heart.
Gestalt is an integrative therapy. It prioritises the relational aspects of healing and support, whilst drawing on a range of background theories, knowledge and techniques. Gestalt looks different with each therapist practicing it for each client who walks into the therapy room. The therapy is responsive to the client’s needs and presentation, and emerges in the moment like a creative dance. Gestalt was famed for its use of psychodramatic techniques like ‘Chair work’, and this sort of play can be helpful at times if a client feels like experimenting, but this often doesn’t feature at all in the course of therapy or counselling.
Gestalt is a holistic approach, which means it takes all the different parts of you into account and helps you to become more whole. What do I mean by ‘different parts’? Human beings are complicated. We often have conflicting thoughts, feelings or ideas. For example I might be really excited about moving to a new country, and at the same time feel terrified at the thought of leaving the security of my current home. I might feel I need a particular person in my life but another part of me wants to leave them. We might try to get away from the upset or tension the conflict brings us by trying to push out one or the other part. This probably increases the tension because we cannot get rid of it! Gestalt therapy helps to explore and give voice to different parts of ourselves. Ironically, exploring and naming the conflict often brings relief and clarity. All parts are brought out in the open and resolution often comes about. Therapy provides a space for our different parts to hear each other out, bringing a sense of harmony and integration.
Support and challenge
Gestalt prioritises the balance between support and challenge, seeing them both as two sides of the same coin. In some moments of therapy, safety, warmth and support are needed more than anything. At other times, particularly in long-term therapy, a bit of challenge or contrast is needed. You probably want to feel your therapist or counsellor is in the room with you! If all they do is nod and smile, you may end up with stagnancy. Gestalt would argue that this is not real support. What kind of challenge do I mean? By challenge I don’t mean pushing or provoking. Challenge in Gestalt looks like authenticity and aliveness of meeting. It means not pussy footing around, but making use, at times, of a level of honesty that we may not be used to. In my experience, challenge in the context of a safe relationship, where you trust that your therapist cares for you and has your best interests at heart, feels manageable and even exciting, even when it is not easy.