GESTALT THERAPY—study notes
( references for these notes are provided at the end of the article and not within the text)
Many people associate Gestalt therapy with one of the founders, and perhaps the most charismatic of them, Frederick (Fritz) Perls. While he was one of the early seminal writers, there were other influences in both training and the literature and current Gestalt therapy has shown significant expansion since them.
The first manifestation of this new therapy approach appeared as a collaborative work between Goodman, Perls and Hefferleine titled “Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality”. It remains today the classic seminal text in Gestalt therapy and is referred to by many Gestalt therapists simply as “PHG”.
A Unified Field Approach - The Organism/Environment Field
While the scientific paradigm of reductionism had dominated our world view in the 19th and 20th centuries and languaged a reality of separate individuals, this new psychotherapy described the person as a fluid part of an organism/environment field. In simple terms this was a shift from seeing people as rocks and seeing them as rivers, or as in the Buddhist metaphor where the personality is like a rain drop which seems separate but is really just part of the ocean which it will rejoin.
The field is all there is, and like a clear figure which emerges from the ground, the organism is always part of this field and is defined by the field. Hence the definition of self is as follows:
“The self is a system of contacts in the organism/environment field”.
Like a Zen Buddhist koan this little mantra at first makes little sense to the uninitiated in Gestalt therapy. It needs to be unpacked - to define terms “system” and “contact”.
Behaviourism, Phenomenology and Dialogue
Early definitions of Gestalt therapy which try to encapsulate it into a simplified formula are scant. One of the first profoundly simple definitions of Gestalt therapy was given by Perls himself. He states that the two philosophical pillars on which this therapy rest are Phenomenology and Behaviourism (Fagan and Sheppard). In the same book Elaine Kepner writes about Gestalt therapy as Phenomenological Behaviourism.
These early definitions leave out key pillars which later authors such as Yontef and Resnick describe in the 1980's and 1990's as being the defining elements. Bob Resnick defines Gestalt therapy as being based on three (not two) philosophical pillars - Field Theory, Phenomenology and Dialogue.
Some late authors have not emphasised the effect of Behaviorism on Gestalt therapy, and it is interesting how as Gestalt therapy develops a focus on dialogue and field theory, behaviorism slips off the agenda.
Philosophy, Personality Theory, Principles and Practice
The PRACTICE of counselling and psychotherapy are developed from underlying PRINCIPLES which in turn derive from PERSONALTY THEORY which in turn is nourished and developed from a PHILOSOPHY or world view
Hence at a surface level the counsellor or therapist may perform a certain PRACTICE such as asking "What are you aware of now?" and this can be based on a number of underlying PRINCIPLES such as "encourage the flow of awareness from moment to moment" which may be based on a PERSONALITY THEORY which sees human beings as capable of awareness and be able to choose once they are aware and this in turn may stem from a PHILOSOPHY which proposes that awareness and choice give meaning and pattern to a person's life.
It would be foolish to and understand or describe a therapy from a particular practice ( such as an empty chair) if we did not integrate this with the underlying principles, personality theory and philosophy. Secondly, any practice of counselling or therapy approach which is not linked to principles, theory and philosophy becomes lifeless.
The Gestalt Hologram Model (below) has been used as a teaching tool in the Illawarra Gestalt Centre since the early 1990’s. The idea of the Gestalt Hologram was to capture a profoundly simple gestalt of Gestalt therapy. In a hologram each part contains the whole, yet is also a part by itself. This is what underlies the model below. The main aspect of Gestalt therapy which is central to the therapy is Field theory. This then is manifest in the parts of Gestalt therapy which other writers have conceptualised as key pillars—namely Phenomenology, Dialogue/Contact and Experiment.
These elements of Gestalt therapy are displayed pictorially as holographic “spaces” on the two dimensions of the diagram, where each space defines the key Philosophy, the key Principle and the key Practice of that aspect of Gestalt therapy. The important thing to remember in looking at each of these elements is that they also contain all the other elements at the same time. Hence the picture below indicates the separate elements or pillars of Gestalt therapy yet you must also imagine that holographically each “part” also contains the whole, and by being able to look at it as a whole unit you can in essence “see” Gestalt therapy at a glance.
To find out more about each aspect of the hologram,
click on the PHILOSOPHY.