Gestalt Therapy in Psychological Practice

By Kendra A. Palmer
2011, Vol. 3 No. 11 | pg. 1/2 |



Gestalt therapy is an empowering and germane framework for psychotherapy. It is uplifting for both practitioners and patients. Its objective is to bring about new awareness so that transition and problem-solving is possible. Clients are immediately equipped and responsible for doing real work, inspired and motivated to reach their own solutions. This approach entails moving in creativity from talk to action and experience (Corey, 2009). The theory looks to growth and enhancement as therapy, and reflects an early Gestalt motto: “You don’t have to be sick to get better” (Corey, 2009, p. 225). Because of its many demonstrated benefits, Gestalt therapy should be utilized by more practicing psychologists. It is a science that continues to advance the field of psychology.

“Psychology is a very unsatisfactory science,” Kurt Koffka, a German psychologist, wrote in 1935 (Koffka, 1935, p. 18). On one side, he noted, there are the objective facts; on the other, hypotheses, theories, and “pure products of mind” (Koffka, 1935, p. 1).

In psychology, a theory is a fact-based and tested framework that helps to categorize a phenomenon and predict future behavior. Theories are used to provide models for understanding and interpreting human thoughts, actions, and emotions (Cherry, 2011). Today, copious therapeutic theories exist. Many psychological theories approach the patient as a subject, something to be altered. Numerous psychologists claim they are “Adlerian” or “behaviorist” or “Freudian.” But Gestalt therapists have a different objective. Zinker (1977) contends that Gestalt therapy is “not so much to change [a] sense of being [one]self as to exercise it” (p. 21). A key tenet of Gestalt theory is “increased and enriched awareness,” which “by itself is seen as curative” (Corey, 2009, p. 206). The central idea is that individuals are already striving to improve and “self-actualize,” and that if they are more aware of themselves, they can continue to grow and change.

This text aims to explain the Gestalt approach to psychotherapy. It also argues for Gestalt therapy as an established and sound framework from which more psychologists should work within their practice.  

What is Gestalt Psychology?

The concept of gestalt should be described since it is the basis of this framework. First, the word is pronounced “GESH- tawlt.” It is a German word meaning “form” or “shape” (, 2001). Simply put, gestalt is the idea that a whole is comprised of parts, and all those parts are necessary to achieve the whole. In addition, the effect of the whole form cannot be achieved by simply describing the individual parts it holds (, 2001).

James Pomerantz, a professor at Rice University, concedes that translating this word into scientific terms is difficult and elusive. But he explains gestalts as “patterns or higher order features that emerge when two or more perceptual elements are placed in close spatial or temporal proximity to one another, patterns… that do not arise when only a single element is present” (Pomeranz, 2006, p. 620). Pomerantz (2006) contends that the whole is perceived before its parts and that the human mind uses a “preattentive” process to literally see the forest before the trees (p. 621).

This vital formula fits well within the science of psychology: Gestaltists approach patients as whole products that are the result of various interacting systems, some evident and some not. For example, practitioners could consider aspects like temperament, personality, family history, beliefs, , and cognitive processes of a particular patient and how those systems influence the whole that is seen.

A Note on Field Theory

This therapy is based on the assumption that individuals can only be understood within the context of their continued relationship with the environment, an idea also known as field theory (Corey, 2009). This scientific method rejects compartmentalization and unilinear, historical, cause-effect sequence (Yontef, 1993). The client’s life is regarded as an entire field, and events and relationships are parts of the field that are related to and responsive to each other. The field consists of a foreground and background, and the elements in those parts indicate their importance or noteworthiness in the client’s life.

The notion of the field replaces the concept of discrete, isolated particles (Yontef, 1993). Gerald Corey, Ph.D., (2009) author of Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy, maintains that, to the Gestalt therapist, everything is dynamic, and the field is the entire situation, a place that is constantly changing. Everything affects time and space in some way. Further, what the patient directly sees and feels is considered more reliable for therapy than interpretation (Yontef, 1993). Corey (2009) explains that field theory tracks some aspect of the environmental field as it emerges from the field’s background and becomes the focal point of the individual’s attention or interest.

Gestalt Versus More Traditional Theories

How does this concept in psychology differ from other theories in psychological practice, such as behaviorism? Yontef (1993) claims:

“In behavior modification, the patient's behavior is directly changed by the therapist's manipulation of environmental stimuli. In psychoanalytic theory, behavior is caused by unconscious motivation which becomes manifest in the transference relationship. By analyzing the transference the repression is lifted, the unconscious becomes conscious. In Gestalt therapy the patient learns to fully use his internal and external senses so he can be self-responsible and self-supportive” (p. 5).

Behaviorism merely seeks to alter a surface behavior and doesn’t consider the thoughts or motivations behind an action. Gestalt psychology deems an action as only part of the whole—that certain factors were necessary in order to produce the visible result. Gestalt therapy aims to help patients gain awareness of certain behaviors in order to change them and their outlook on life, whereas behaviorism focuses on observable behavior and changing that alone (Corey, 2009).

History and Influences

Christian von Ehrenfels published his book On Gestalt Qualities in 1890 and used the term gestalt to describe a theory of perception within the field of psychology (Woldt and Toman, 2005). In 1912, Max Wertheimer discussed his concepts of perceptual grouping and perception of movement consistent with the established gestalt tradition (Woldt and Toman, 2005). Woldt and Toman (2005) note that, together with Wertheimer, psychology professors like Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka made their contributions to the discipline in the 1920s through their research and publications.

Academics Fritz Perls and his wife Laura made a significant impact on Gestalt therapy starting in the 1940s (Wikipedia, 2011). The Perls’ seminal work, co-authored by Paul Goodman and Ralph Hefferline and published in 1951, was called Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality (Wikipedia, 2011). 1952 saw the founding of the first Gestalt Institute: Fritz and Laura ran it out of their Manhattan apartment (Wikipedia, 2011).

In the 50s and 60s, personal growth and human potential were emphasized within this framework (Wikipedia, 2011).

Existential phenomenology, Gestalt psychology, experiments, and other concepts have contributed to the of Gestalt therapy. It rose from its early stages in the 1940s to flourishing popularity during the 1960s and early 1970s (Wikipedia, 2011). Later on, the cognitive r and developments in behaviorism overshadowed Gestalt practices in psychology.

Traditionally, Gestalt therapists have spurned the demand for research to demonstrate the benefits of Gestaltism, and they have discounted the need to develop Gestalt theory and practice (Wikipedia, 2011). However, many practitioners have renewed their interest in the implications for the application of Gestalt therapy.

Concepts Unique to Gestalt Therapy

What other characteristics and techniques achieve the gestalt of Gestalt therapy? Though not all ideas will be mentioned, the more significant concepts unique to Gestalt therapy will be discussed.

The Now

The Gestalt approach holds that dwelling on the past and fantasizing about the future can be ways to avoid the present, and that there is power in facing the present (Corey, 2009). In order to help the patient become more aware of the present moment, Gestalt therapists ask “what” and “how” questions (Corey, 2009). For example, these questions are typical of a Gestalt therapy session: “What are you doing with your feet now?” or “Are you aware of your smile?” (Dolliver, 1991).


Gestalt therapy has roots in existential philosophy, which attempts to address the condition of being human. Existential therapy is applied to help people resolve dilemmas of contemporary life, to confront common feelings such as isolation, meaninglessness, confusion, uncertainty, or embarrassment (Corey, 2009).

Existential practice attempts to reconcile the limits and tragic elements of human existence with the possibilities and opportunities of human life (Corey, 2009). Gestalt therapy, because it is existential in nature, is based on an understanding of what it means to be human (Corey, 2009).

Humans, then, are seen as self-aware beings, able to make choices. Patients have freedom, but they are also assigned responsibility for actions and thoughts. They are challenged to take responsibility for how they choose to be now in the current moment (Corey, 2009). Exploration of the subject’s specific reality is valued, while diagnosis and prognosis are mostly ignored (Corey, 2009).

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