What is Gestalt Therapy?
Gestalt therapy is a type of therapy used to deepen our awareness of ourselves and our feelings in a less intellectual manner than the more traditional forms of therapy. “Gestalt” means the whole; it implies wholeness. In any experience or interaction there are feelings in the foreground and in the background.
The idea in Gestalt therapy is that all of us have had to repress or supress aspects of ourselves because they were not accepted or supported. It is these aspects of ourselves or our feelings that end up in the background and can become unfinished business.
Gestalt therapy can help shed light on unfinished business by helping us to focus our awareness on our feelings (or lack of feelings) moment to moment. Once we recognize our unfinished business,( i.e. uncomfortable feelings, stuck patterns of behavior, or ways in which we perceive ourselves and others that are based on our experiences as opposed to reality), we are better equipped to understand ourselves and to choose whether we want to make changes or not.
One method utilized in Gestalt therapy is the empty-chair technique. This is a simple tool in self-exploration and is clearly explained in an excerpt taken from the Internet.
When you go see a Gestalt therapist, the office will usually have an extra chair–an empty chair. This chair serves an important function. The therapist may ask you to imagine holding a conversation with someone or something imagined to be in the empty chair. Thus, the “empty chair technique” stimulates your thinking, highlighting your emotions and attitudes. For example, the therapist may say, “Imagine your father in this chair (about 3 feet away), see him vividly, and, now, talk to him about how you felt when he was unfaithful to your mother”.
There are innumerable other people, objects (your car or wedding ring), parts of your personality (critical parent, natural child, introversion, obsession with work), any or your emotions, symptoms,(headaches, fatigue), any aspect of a dream, a stereotype (blacks, macho males, independent women). and so on that you can imagine in an empty chair. The key is a long, detailed, emotional interaction–a conversation. You should shift back and forth between chairs as you also speak for the person-trait-object in the other chair. This “conversation” clarifies your feelings and reactions to the other person and may increase your understanding of the other person.
If you imagine any thing in the other chair that gives you difficulty, e.g. a person upsetting you, a hated assignment, a goal that is hard to reach, a disliked boss or authority, a temptation to do something wrong, keep in mind that this person or desire is really a part of you right now–it is your fantasy, your thoughts. You may disown it, even dislike it, and think of it as foreign to you, like a “mean old man”, “the messed up system”, “Bill, the self-centered jerk”, ” a desire to run away”, “the boring stupid book I have to read”, etc., but obviously the things said and felt by you in both chairs are parts of you here and now. Your images, memories, emotions, judgments, expectations about the other person or thing are yours! You have created this image that upsets you (although it is probably based on some external reality). And this conflict exists inside you; it’s of your own making; it’s yours to deal with.
As long as you believe, however, that the trouble lies with someone or something else–your family, the stupid school, society, “men”/”women”, not having enough money, your awful job–you will do very little to change. You just complain and feel frustrated. Someone else is seen as responsible for solving your problem. As Fritz Perls would say, “That’s crap! Assume responsibility for your own difficulties, own them, explore them–all sides, feel them to the fullest, then make choices and find your way out of your own messes”.
The Gestaltists (Stevens, 1973) point out that we are usually identified with only one side of an internal conflict. If we can get in touch with both sides–own both views–the difficulty can be resolved without force, the solution just unfolds naturally. Some examples may help: As mentioned before, in self-improvement what you want to be often conflicts with what you are. Forcing yourself to improve involves becoming preoccupied with changing and /or with failing. You are unable to fully experience and accept what you are here and now. If, instead, you were able to experience all of your feeling and conflicting wants, then reasonable choices will supposedly be made to meet your needs without “force’. “willpower”. or “determination”. I doubt that awareness always results in effortless resolution for conflicts and growth, as Gestalts therapists claim, but certainly it is more helpful to be aware than ignorant.
Another common conflict frequently emerges if you imagine yourself in the empty chair and try to describe yourself. Try it– Notice if your description became critical. Gestaltists refer to a part of our personality called our “top dog” and another called our “under dog”. The top dog is critical, demanding, controlling, pushing for change; the under dog feels whipped, pushed around, weak, resentful, tense and undermines top dog by playing helpless,” I can’t do that. Can you help me?” It is important to know both parts well. You are responsible for both. Their differences can be worked out; both are trying to help you.
Few Gestalt methods have been evaluated but a small recent study suggested that the empty chair technique is effective (Paivio & Greenberg, 1995). We need hundreds of more studies of specific self-help or therapeutic methods.
“It always comes back to the same necessity: go deep enough and there is a bedrock of truth, however hard.”
— May Sarton