Gestalt Therapy: Experiencing Wholeness

Gestalt therapy can be a powerful way to get to the heart of things, to the truth of our own experience in the present moment. Gestalt has been more helpful to me than any other type of therapy I’ve tried. I love it so much that it’s one of the primary tools I use in my own work as a psychotherapist and counsellor.


What is Gestalt about, and how does it work?

Because Gestalt is so flexible and individual, and each of its many gifted practitioners develops their own approach, I can only answer in terms of how I’ve made Gestalt my own over the years practising in Dublin. Gestalt therapy has a great respect for each person’s power to find what needs to be healed within themselves. As Fritz Perls has argued:

Most other therapies try to adjust the person to society. This was maybe not too bad in previous years... but now with the rapid changes going on, it is getting more and more difficult to adjust to society.... I believe that we are living in an insane society and that you only have the choice either to participate in this collective psychosis or to take risks and become healthy and perhaps also crucified. (Gestalt Therapy Verbatim)

A basic Gestalt belief is that all humans are trying to become balanced, and that therapy can provide a container that facilitates self-regulation.

In order to keep the peace, people sometimes conform to society in ways that aren’t true to themselves. Gestalt would ask: this is really healthy? Maybe being our true selves makes waves, but in a way that helps society move toward greater authenticity for everyone. 

Clearly, this can be difficult for all of us, getting to the truth of what we really want. 

A representative session may begin with the client upset but vague, and keeping themselves at a distance from what they want. By encouraging them to identify and own the things they want, a good session can allow them to take a stand in our own truth of the moment, and to get things unstuck. At times, even, a client’s eyes become brighter, as if part of them had been asleep before.

As the earlier quote from Fritz Perls suggested, a lot of times we do put parts of ourselves to sleep to smooth things over. But then where are we? It isn’t that once you say what you want, you will automatically get it. That’s not what it’s about.

It’s about taking responsibility for what we want, or where we are really at, and getting it out in the open. If it remains buried, we will still go after it, but in ways we aren’t even aware of, or that might be self-destructive.

Through Gestalt, though, something changes, over days, weeks, and months. It’s beautiful and amazing. People start asking for what they want, and stop feeling guilty or resentful for wanting what they want. If they don’t get what they want, if it proves impossible, they can grieve and mourn for that, and move on! Their energy is not locked up in some secret dream, but now freed to move on to other things.

The Value of Experiential Learning

One of the main foci of Gestalt therapy is facilitating clients toward noticing the present moment – what we call ‘the here and now’, and then working with that in the room.

Why is this important? Isn’t therapy about analyzing the past? As one of my teachers, Bob Resnick says, ‘the past has a life in the present.’ In the present moment, by noticing what is happening, entering into it and letting ourselves experience it, we can access much of what makes up how we operate in life. 

As Arnold Beisser says about a client in his article ‘The Paradoxical Theory of Change’: "He is constantly moving between what he 'should be' and what he thinks he 'is', never fully identifying with either". 

The Gestalt therapist asks the person to invest himself fully in his roles, one at a time. Whichever role he begins with, the patient soon shifts to another. The Gestalt therapist asks simply that he be what he is at the moment. 
How do we enter into our own experience? I have a number of methods I may use in sessions to help clients with this, and to motivate their own self-regulation. I might simply ask directly, but some of my favourite methods are more lively, even playful: dream work, role-play, and sand play.
Sometimes clients can be surprised at the deep level we can reach with these methods. I want to stress that all of these methods are used in the context of a trusting relationship, carefully gauging what the client is ready for, as well as monitoring them during the process to be sure we are not going too far. 
My goal is to gently stretch the client’s capacity for deep work, over time. At the same time, anxiety can be present in our work, but anxiety, when held in a safe container such as the therapy session, can be useful. It is energy that builds up towards what Fritz Perls called ‘an explosion’. In therapy this can be an epiphany or release.
Dream Work

In Gestalt theory, all the parts of our dreams represent parts of ourselves. When working with dreams with clients, I will ask them to recount the dream to me whilst speaking in the first person and speak as if it is happening right now. For instance, instead of saying, ‘I dreamed I was back at school; it was the end of the year and I hadn’t studied at all for my exams!’ my client would say, ‘I am at school. It’s the end of the year and I haven’t studied at all for my exams!’ This helps the felt sense of the moment come back to the client. We also work with the other characters in the dream. A client may relate that in his dream, his teacher is reprimanding him. I’ll say, ‘Ok, now, be the teacher and speak from that point of view.’ Client: ‘You are so irresponsible. How could you not do your schoolwork? What a disgrace.’ Here we can hear the voice of his inner critic and the face it takes on. We can take this opportunity to have my client speak back to this part and have a dialogue, much like couples therapy, except in this way we are speaking with all the little voices within ourselves.

In role-play, the client can act out the different voices in a dream, past life experiences, or present interpersonal problems, even by moving around the room and using that physical experience to amplify their process. Role-plays give us the opportunity to tease out our inner thoughts in the safe realm of the therapy room. We are not judging this content; we are noticing ‘what is’ without judgement, simply gaining more information. Another benefit is ‘finishing the Gestalt.’ Gestalt means a ‘whole’, and often we have unfinished Gestalts with others. A classic example is the past confrontation where you never said what you wanted to say, and a little monologue of ‘what I should have said’ has been playing in your mind for years. That’s an unfinished Gestalt. We can have closure and move on by acting these out in therapy. It can be very useful, especially with a family’s ‘unfinished business.’ When we finish a Gestalt, it frees up energy within ourselves.
Sand Play
Sometimes when words are difficult, sand play can be a simple and effective way to be in the present moment and get past the clutter of one’s thoughts into the deeper existential meanings of one’s situation. Both the act of creating and the psychic awakening that sand play promotes can be healing experiences, leading to feelings of freedom, intensity, delight, wonder, centeredness, and ‘getting to the root of things’. A typical sand tray simply includes, well, a tray of sand, and a variety of figures. The client creates their own ‘world’ in the tray and we work with the different voices and characters in this creation. Like the other methods I’ve described, sand play harnesses the power of play, which allows the conscious mind to relax, facilitating material from the subconscious to come forth.
Communication through Play
Sometimes language is limiting. Talking and thinking can get us so far, but there is far more to us than just conscious functions. Play allows us to access information from other levels of ourselves. So much can be said with just an image. The very act of creating the image is therapeutic as well, giving voice to parts of our psyche that we often don’t listen to. This expression can hold keys to new understandings regarding problems and desires in our lives.
While all these methods allow for deep work, I’ve had a lot of fun with my clients. There is release, creativity, depth, and liveliness to Gestalt. I also find it quite sacred. To be with a client during transformative moments is to witness the human spirit courageously coming forward. Life can be so hard; there is often suffering. But when we can channel that suffering, anxiety, and questing into a transformative moment – as Gestalt can do so well – it is amazing. It’s always an honour for me that clients allow me to facilitate and be present for their process of living into the fullness of who they really are.
About the author: 

Marni Rothman, MA Integral Counselling Psychology has trained in San Francisco, and currently runs a private practice as a counsellor and psychotherapist 

at the Dublin Holistic Centre. 
She can be contacted at 01 633 0063, or [email protected]