Gestalt Theory and Approaches to Counseling

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  • 0:05 Gestalt Theory
  • 1:21 Resistance to Contact
  • 3:20 Gestalt Therapy
  • 5:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

What is gestalt theory, and how can it influence therapy? In this lesson, we'll look at gestalt theory, the types of resistance to contact that can cause psychological issues, and how gestalt theorists treat patients.

Gestalt Theory

Imagine that you are making a stew. You put in some carrots and potatoes. Maybe you add in a little squash. Next comes beans or maybe some meat. And, of course, you add in herbs and spices.

Any one of those ingredients is good by itself, but when put together, they make a stew that is both comprised of the ingredients and that transcends the ingredients. Carrots no longer just taste like carrots - they are part of a larger whole.

That's kind of what the gestalt theory of psychology is like: it looks at the whole person as a complex mixture of traits, experiences, longings, and emotions. It says that a person is both the sum of his or her parts and also much more than those parts.

Think back to the stew: if you take it apart, none of the ingredients can be said to be 'stew-like.' But together, the flavors mingle, and the stew is made. That's like people. We are not our experiences. We are not our feelings. We are not our thoughts or our personality traits or any other part of us in isolation. We are a unique blend of all of those things.

Let's look closer at gestalt theory and how it is used in therapy.

Resistance to Contact

One major part of gestalt theory is that people must be able to interact with the world around them while still maintaining their individuality. This is called contact.

Of course, it's never quite that simple. People develop defenses to keep them from being able to experience life fully and to keep them from being able to experience contact in healthy ways. This resistance to contact comes in five general forms.

1. Introjection occurs when someone passively experiences the world. These people don't know what they want and are like leaves being blown around in the wind.

2. Projection is when someone is in denial about an aspect of herself and projects it upon others. These people often complain about aspects of others that are present in their own personality. For example, someone might dislike someone else for never admitting when they are wrong, when the person complaining also does that.

3. Confluence involves blurring the lines between self and the world. In this case, the person is interacting with the world but not maintaining his or her individuality. This often manifests itself in people who really need to be liked and are willing to say or do anything to gain approval.

4. Retroflection occurs when someone does to himself what he wants to do to someone else. For example, a person may harm himself because he's angry at someone else and doesn't want to harm them. Or, someone may bite her lip instead of saying something biting to someone else.

5. Deflection is when someone turns away and doesn't let people in. Sometimes this manifests itself in someone who is very polite but distant. They won't let anyone get close enough to see what they are really like, instead maintaining distance from everyone.

Gestalt Therapy

So gestalt theory says that a person is more than just the sum of his or her parts, and that psychological problems come from some type of resistance to contact with the world. But what can we do about it? How do gestalt therapists actually help people?

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