Best Example of Gestalt Therapy

How many concepts from Gestalt Therapy are now part of your everyday language?

Man Up movie poster

In the hit comedy 'Man Up' Simon Pegg's character 'Jack' has invited his ex-wife - accompanied by the man she had an affair with - to have drinks together. 

Attempting a one-up maneuver Jack wants Nancy (Lake Bell's character) to pretend to be his girlfriend.

Lake Bell's character Nancy in the movie 'Man Up' asks "what are you hoping to achieve?"
Simon Pegg's character Jack replies "I believe they call it closure".

Examples of Gestalt Therapy

One of the first "new age" types of therapy, Gestalt Therapy rejected the subconscious dynamics (eg. Freud) in favour of humanism.  

You'd be surprised how many everyday ideas are actually from Gestalt Therapy.

Here's some examples:

  • If you've ever yearned for 'closure' of a past relationship, you're using a concept from Gestalt Therapy. It's the idea of honoring what was and an acceptance of it being finished. (Our "Jack" is trying to fake it.)
  • And unless you've been living under a rock for the past 50 years, you can't miss hearing about being in the 'here and now'. Yup - from Gestalt Therapy.
  • So you haven't dealt with your relationship with your father eh (or  mother, siblings, partners etc). Yeah, you've got unfinished business.
  • Owning your own stuffYou might hear someone reflect on their history of drinking and how it affected their relationships: "It took a while and a few failed relationships for me to eventually own it, that drinking was the problem - not the relationship." 

Gestalt Therapy emphasizes self responsibility, self-awareness and using "I" statements.

The techniques are based on the notion that the best learning occurs experientially (i.e often the most effective are the interactions between the client and therapist in the here and now. (You'll see that illustrated in the video below.)

It's also famous for introducing role playing and the 'Empty chair technique' currently popularized by Emotion Focused Therapy. (Basically, you "talk" to the imaginary person in the other chair. That person would likely be someone who's a current source of stress for you.)

At its core, Gestalt Therapy works to interrupt the emotional blocks that are interfering with your self awareness. 

Historical background

Gestalt therapy was introduced by Fritz and Laura Perls in the 1940's. Although popular among both the public and therapists in the 60's and 70's, it lost ground thereafter when the cognitive behavioural approaches became popular.

With the hindsight of recent research in the neurosciences, it's evident that the Perls were on the right track. In particular, their emphasis on the power relationship (between client and therapist) and the importance of staying in the present moment therapy was far ahead of their time.

Best example of Gestalt Therapy

Here's the father of Gestalt Therapy, Fritz Perls in action. He's doing a session with a famous client, 'Gloria' who allowed herself to be filmed by experts in different therapeutic fields. Gloria was to say later that of all three approaches she underwent, she felt the Gestalt one would have the greatest potential for personal change.

PS. Don't be put off by the cheesy beginning. Back in the day psychologists worked hard to be taken seriously by the medical profession - you had to take a certain demeanor to be taken seriously - or so they thought. 

5 Key Principles of Gestalt Therapy

  • Self-Awareness
  • The process is important
  • You alone are responsible for your life.
  • The larger purpose of therapy is to encourage personal growth.
  • The therapist "must show" up for the therapy to be successful.

How does being in the present differ than talking about your past?

Well, psychologically speaking, the "past" is anything that isn't happening in the present.

 Let's say you just described how you and your partner are not connecting very well. Your therapist might draw attention to how you are connecting with him or her in the present moment.

That interaction automatically brings you into the present. It's happening in the 'here and now'.

What does it mean to focus on the "process" in therapy?

In the above example, the "story" of how you and your partner are not connecting is less relevant than how you are connecting to your therapist as you talk about the topic.

It's not that the problem with your partner isn't important, it's just that changing how you connect to others isn't going to happen unless you work on the feelings directly. 

The brain learns best through experience and the therapeutic relationship is an optimal learning experience. This is what neuroscience enables us to appreciate.

How does Gestalt Therapy help you to be more responsible?

You won't get away with blaming your problems on others. You're challenged to understand your role in the dynamic that's at play.

In the above example, you might be encouraged to look at your behaviour in your interactions with your partner. The idea is that when you own your part, you are in a better position to see why your partner is responding that way.

What does it mean when your therapist is showing up?

A therapist shows up when he or she invites you, the client, to be honest about what happens in the interactions between the two of you. The therapist is put into a potentially vulnerable position, which involves authentically experiencing you and your pain. 

Using the same example above, your therapist might share his or her experience of being with you

Your therapist might reflect that you felt farther away and more distanced in this conversation than in others you've had. (In other words, the countertransference is openly discussed.)

Owning your stuff

The journey of taking responsibility for our lives is fraught with challenges. This famous poem captures it beautifully.

Autobiography in Five Chapters

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost... I am hopeless.
It isn't my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don't see it.
I fall in again.
I can't believe I'm in the same place.
But it isn't my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in... it's a habit
My eyes are open
I know where I am
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

I walk down another street.

'Autobiography in Five Chapters' was written by Portia Nelson (1920 - 2001) and quoted in “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying”.

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