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Gestalt Therapy

(7) We experience satisfaction;

(8) We withdraw, and our energy now goes inwards, fully digesting the experience. We are now ready for a new cycle to begin.

The point made by gestalt therapy is that something can go wrong with each of these stages.

(1) Some people can never reach the point of rest.

(2) Some people are not aware of their needs.

(3) Some people cannot mobilize their energy.

(4) Some people cannot make a choice between alternatives.

(5) Some people cannot fully experience anything.

(6) Some people cannot discriminate between what is good for them and what is not.

(7) Some people cannot experience satisfaction.

(8) Some people cannot withdraw. So each of these points on the cycle suggests a possible problem area, and by understanding the cycle we can understand better exactly what the problem is

The Gestalt understanding of human beings is based upon a number of principles:


People have the potential to be aware of their emotions, thoughts, sensations and perceptions. In order to make changes in ourselves and our lives, we need to develop a freedom to choose new ways of feeling, thinking and doing. Such change can only be brought about by our awareness of our current (and perhaps habitual) ways of being. This awareness in itself can bring about spontaneous change. For instance, a person directing his awareness to a tension in his body can sometimes produce a sudden realisation of a previously repressed feeling, which can then be expressed.


A person is a whole: body, emotions, thoughts, sensations and perceptions. They all function interrelatedly to create this whole. A graphic example of this is that of the hospital patient who may be “the kidney case in bed three” but is actually Mary Jones young, scared, brown-eyed, witty; mother of two   and much more besides.


People are proactive rather than reactive. They determine their own responses to the world. Self-awareness offers choices. As we become aware that it is we ourselves who are feeling, thinking and behaving, we take responsibility for choosing how we are, rather than believing "That's just the way I am. I can't do anything about it."

Satisfaction of Needs

People have innate needs and a natural capacity and drive to meet them. These needs may be physical or they may be social. For instance, the need for companionship seems to be universal and most people manage to find enough friends to satisfy that need.

Human Value

People are intrinsically neither good nor bad. We are what we are at any moment. The implication for the Gestalt counsellor is that we move away from judgement towards confirming the client's self-discovery and self-realisation.

The Here and Now

Here' means at the present place and “now” means at the present time. Sometimes it is said of people that they “live in the past” or they “dream away their lives”. How we spend our time is important. People can experience the past through remembering in the here and now, and imagine the future through anticipating in the here and now. We can only be in the present. H.L. Mencken, in The Little Zen Companion (1994) said, “We are here and it is now. Further than that, all human knowledge is moonshine.”


People are part of their environment and cannot be understood separate from that environment. Experience always involves our contact with and relationship to our surroundings. Authentic relationships with others are the vehicle for self-actualisation. This does not mean that we should define ourselves in relation to others but that we find ourselves through that relationship. Clearly, the counselling relationship can provide just such an opportunity.

Figure and Ground

Out of our contact with the environment we vary our focus of perception. Some things will stand out while others remain in the background. As an example, consider a hungry man. As he stands in the kitchen, the ground of his visual experience is the whole of the kitchen. Of all the things in the kitchen, it is the items, which mean “sandwich” that become figure.


People have a natural tendency to complete experiences, be they events, feelings, thoughts or actions. An unfinished experience or Gestalt will preoccupy us and prevent us from living fully in the present. If you have ever had the experience of wishing that you had said something to someone who has died, you will know how the “unfinished business” can haunt you.


Self-regulation is the natural tendency of humans to maintain a state of equilibrium. This includes sweating when we are hot to keep our temperature steady, breathing faster when we are hurrying to provide enough oxygen so that the muscles can continue to function, drinking when we are thirsty, and so on. Hunter Beaumont (1993) prefers the term “self-organisation” as it extends the idea of an organismic tendency to include the functions of thinking, meaning making and organising ourselves and our world. Thus self-regulation/organisation would include “letting off steam” when we are angry, smiling when we are happy, withdrawing when we feel over stimulated and seeking stimulation when we are bored.

At the heart of Gestalt counselling, is the therapeutic relationship and a method of exploring and increasing awareness in the dialogue. Within the context of this relationship the therapist may invite the clients to expand their limitations in a variety of ways that are uniquely Gestalt.

Gestalt Counselling

 The practice of Gestalt has grown from a synthesis of many approaches and philosophies. To summarise, these include traditional psychoanalysis, Gestalt psychology; phenomenology, existentialism, interpersonal psychoanalysis, Reichian bodywork, holism, field-theory, Zen Buddhism, psychodrama and the theatre. As we have said, Gestalt theory itself is an example of a Gestalt. Each element stands on its own, yet is part of the integrated theory and practice of Gestalt. This interesting approach to therapy was introduced by Fritz Perls. It was his workshops which first really put the Esalen Institute on the map. The Esalen Institute was the world's first growth centre, and people came to it from all over the world.

What Perls did was to make everything very immediate. He was always emphasising the here and now. People would start telling him about their lives or their problems and he would stop them, saying, "Do you hear the quality of your voice? Can you hear the fear in it?", or, "What is your right foot doing? What would it say to you, if it could talk?" This threw people out of their familiar story, their familiar mood, their favourite ways of engaging with other people, and forced them to attend to what was going on with them in the present.

With Perls, awareness was the key to everything. He would say that better than trying to change something, the thing to do was simply to be aware of it, fully aware, deeply aware, and with that awareness the thing could change of itself, if that's what was needed.

He would not allow people in his workshops to talk about other people not in the room. He dismissed that as gossip and avoidance. You would have to talk to the other person, as if they were here and now in the room. What this does is to raise the emotional intensity of whatever you are saying considerably: many people now recognise the importance of this.

He insisted that people took responsibility for all their actions. If someone had a pain in the neck, he would get the person to say "I am giving myself a pain in the neck" and then go on to get the person to say how, exactly how, they were giving themselves that pain. So most of his later work was one-to-one therapy conducted within a group.

Sometimes in this way he would discover a split in the person, one part gives the pain, the other part receives it. This conflict might take a number of forms. Quite often it takes the form of a top dog trying to dominate an underdog; the top dog manipulating with threats, the underdog manipulating with whining and avoidance. Working through this sort of conflict and achieving some more useful integration can be extremely valuable and therapeutic.

This is all based on an existential philosophy which says that life is a series of choices. We are responsible for all the choices we made, and we experience the results of our choices. I often feel that many people talk about existential therapy, but Perls is the only one who actually shows us how to do it.

During the course of gestalt therapy, whether in a group workshop or in one-to-one work, the client may experience catharsis, followed by an amazing feeling of getting in touch with his or her real self, the self as opposed to the self-image. This may give us what Perls calls the "mini-Satori" - a peak experience which is essentially mystical in nature. Perls died in 1970 but he was one of the most influential leaders in the whole field.

Since he died gestalt therapy has continued to develop, particularly in the area of one-to-one work not carried out in groups. Some of the younger people are now quite critical of Perls, regarding him as too intrusive and too concerned with immediate results. They are now adopting a more long-term perspective which is much less concerned with catharsis and more concerned with the whole contact cycle.

The contact cycle is an idea which has long been a part of the gestalt approach, but has been pushed into a much more important position recently. The idea is that all experience of anything we want or need goes through a sequence of stages:

(1) We are at rest, and our field of consciousness is undifferentiated;

(2) A need or want emerges (which could be physical, psychological or spiritual). We may or may not have to clarify exactly what this need is before proceeding. Once the need is clear, this arouses us and points us towards the sources of possible need satisfaction;

(3) Our energy has now been mobilized, and we scan the field for possible sources of satisfaction. Depending on the need, this might be a brief process or might require the making of enquiries of various kinds;

(4) We choose one, under whatever constraints may be operating, and move towards it to get it;

(5) We make contact with the object of choice, and experience it;

(6) We judge it to be suitable or unsuitable, and either continue with it or go back to (3) for further scanning;

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