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What is Gestalt Therapy? - Definition and Overview

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  • 0:01 The Whole
  • 1:04 View of Human Nature
  • 1:50 The Counseling Process
  • 4:38 Strengths and Limitations
  • 5:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lisa Roundy

Lisa has taught at all levels from kindergarten to college and has a master's degree in human relations.

Learn the way counseling is viewed when considering Fritz Perls' idea of Gestalt. Explore the meaning of Gestalt and its impact on the therapeutic process as you watch this lesson.

The Whole

When you look at the picture below, what do you see? Most likely, your answer is a tree. You see it as a whole rather than a separate trunk, branches, and leaves.

What do you see?
Tree gestalt

What about the following picture? Do you see a loaf of bread or flour, yeast, salt, and water? You see a loaf of bread, because you're looking at the whole picture and determining its meaning.

Do you see a loaf of bread?
Bread gestalt

Fritz Perls saw the importance of viewing a person as a whole as well. According to Perls, this meant understanding a person in the context of their current environment and their relationship with it. This also meant that therapy must focus on the here and now rather than a person's past or future.

Borrowing from the German word Gestalt, meaning 'organized whole,' Perls developed a new form of therapy that he called Gestalt therapy. Gestalt therapy focuses on what is occurring in the present and is based on understanding a person within their current environment.

View of Human Nature

Gestalt theory is founded on a positive view of human nature. Perls believed that developing an awareness of one's feelings, reactions, and thoughts in a present situation could resolve personal issues. In other words, people have the ability to solve their own problems. They can regulate their actions when they are aware of what is happening.

Gestalt theory believes that in order to change, we must accept who we are. In contrast, the more a person works to become something different, the greater the chance that they will remain the same. This is the paradoxical theory of change; we change when we become aware of what we are as opposed to trying to become what we are not.

The Counseling Process

The Gestalt counselor has the role of helping the client identify with who they really are. This is done by facilitating a client's ability to focus on their present feelings. The counseling process does not aim for analysis or introspection, but rather creates opportunities to bring unresolved emotions into the present so they can be dealt with.

Perls described five layers of the counseling process. These benchmarks would follow in succession as the client progresses. This is sometimes called 'peeling the onion.'

  • First is the phony layer. At this point, the client pretends to be something that they are not.
  • Next is the phobic layer. The client now shows a fear of revealing their real identity and denies its existence.
  • Third is the impasse layer. At this point, the client will appear stuck and unable to meet their counseling goals.
  • Then comes the implosive layer. When this occurs, the client develops awareness of the ways they are holding back and becomes vulnerable.
  • Finally, the client reaches the explosive layer. This is when the client becomes whole and reacts in an authentic way with intense expression of their feelings. Emotions that need to be dealt with are experienced in a safe environment where they can be guided to a resolution.

Let's look at an example of this process with Brenda. Brenda enters counseling pretending that she has a fulfilling relationship with her husband, even though she's unhappy. As counseling begins, Brenda starts to experience negative feelings of resentment toward her husband that she isn't ready to express. She doesn't want these feelings to exist, so she enters a state of denial.

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