About Gestalt Therapy – Jan 2016
As I mention on the home page, Gestalt is, to me, the original integrative approach because it incorporates humanistic, existential, cognitive and behavioural, psychodynamic, ‘here and now’, somatic and spiritual perspectives into a wonderfully creative and dynamic whole.
Gestalt Therapy was started after WW2 by Fritz and Laura Perls’ (along with others) as an attempt to revise Freud’s Psychoanalysis, which to them had become too narrowly focused. They wanted to include more of the whole person and were influenced by many ideas of the time, including Smut’s “Holism”, Jung’s understanding of “individuation”, Lewin’s “Field Theory”, together with Goldstein’s integration of Gestalt Psychology. There was Reich’s body orientated approach, Merleau-Ponty’s emphasis on embodiment and Moreno’s “Psychodrama”. There was the philosophy of Friedlander with his “creative indifference” and its roots in Taoism as well as the influence of existentialism with its emphasis on self-responsibility and especially Buber’s more spiritual approach to this around his concept of “I-Thou”.
This was an extraordinarily creative period with an explosion of ideas which the Perls’ along with Goodman and others incorporated into their new approach to psychotherapy. At the heart of this was the understanding that people have a basic goodness and wisdom, that the self has a powerful overall desire for health, for growth and development, as well as finding greater meaning and consciousness. This force in us is constantly working within us in the background, but unfortunately it gets blocked by the consequences of trauma. Trauma causes us to “creatively adjust”, i.e. to split ourselves up and defensively limit ourselves, in order to avoid the hurt, pain, fear, distress, etc. that was unbearable at the time. This often happens in childhood and sets up lifelong habitual ways of being. But what Gestalt understood was that we maintain this repression every moment of our lives and that the path of healing ourselves is through simply attending to our ‘here and now’ experience with greater awareness, increasingly facing and bearing what was unbearable.
Integral to this understanding of the self was how it is made up of our head (intellect / thought), our heart (feelings), and our body (our energy / instincts / our embodiment). Each part relates to and contacts the world in different ways and with different needs. Trauma makes us split the connections between these parts, so that we loose our ability to grow, to develop, to mature. In order to keep avoiding the hurt we have buried we disconnect our head, heart and body from each other so that we do not know what we feel, we ignore our bodies, and our thinking is confused. Gestalt saw clearly that in order to heal we need to re-connect up these aspects of ourselves and in doing so our natural self-healing processes are restored.
Trauma of some sort affects most people, it forces the self to desensitize in order to avoid being overwhelmed. But these “adjustments” limit our relationship to our lives, our ability to get our needs met, our creativity, our ability to become what we could have become. Many times I have witnessed my clients grieve for the lives they have lost due to this insecurity, I know I needed to.
Avoiding the hurt, distress, pain, fear, grief that we have locked away is why we get caught into all our various forms of over re-activity and self-destructiveness, compulsiveness, anxiety and depression. Despite our best efforts, life is always pressing our buttons and causing us to again react in some way. Part of this is about how we get stuck in compensatory habits of identifying with only one part of ourselves, either our thinking dominates, or we are “over emotional”, or our bodies take all our attention. We need the presence and resourcefulness that flows from an integrated self.
Another aspect of our ‘unhappiness’ arises from the conflict between our underlying innate desire for health and development and our partially shut-down system. This conflict is always rumbling on in the background, causing deep unease in our soul. We know things are not right but don’t know what it is or how to deal with it. This is why it can be such a relief to start therapy, to see that there is some meaning to it all, some light at the end of the tunnel.
Our head needs to understand our feelings and become more aware of / conscious of our body. Our feelings need to be felt, and felt in the whole of body, together with their meaning being teased out. Our bodies need to be sensed, tensions felt and understood, relaxation experienced. It is only by the three parts working together that the self becomes more than the sum of its parts, a presence is then possible where self-observation can develop and so a virtuous circle of increasing awareness and healing develop.
We hold our un-reconciled past within us at every moment of our lives and as we slowly face and understand our current feelings we heal our past, we get freer to live more creatively, more naturally and with more aliveness. We can then move towards living increasingly spontaneously in the present moment together with the care, choice-fullness and understanding that comes from greater self-knowledge. As we repair we can slowly open our hearts more fully, our minds are clearer, our bodies healthier, all within the miracle of a more alive embodied consciousness.
So in Gestalt Therapy there are no fixed procedures, it is very open and here and now focused, starting from the premise that we all have the wisdom within us to guide our own healing process, together with the understanding that what we need is more self-awareness and self-knowledge. Therapy is about being supported to observe ourselves in more detail which enables us to see more of how we function and increasingly to understand our motivations. It is also about being invited to accept that only we can take responsibility for ourselves, we have to want to find our freedom and be prepared to look into and face the reality of how we actually are. Choice is an essential aspect of our humanness and of therapy.