To gain an understanding of Gestalt as either a coaching or a therapeutic methodology, it’s useful to understand some of its fundamental concepts and the context from which Gestalt developed as a technique and a form of psychotherapy. It’s useful to not only review the roots of Gestalt, but also where it is headed in the 21st century.
What Does the Word Gestalt Mean?
Gestalt is a German word loosely translated to mean “wholeness.” Fritz Perls, the psychoanalyst who coined the term Gestalt therapy, understood that we could not be truly whole if we did not know the different parts of self and their synergy in our personality. Wholeness of self in the present moment is the keystone to Gestalt. But Gestalt is more than a form of psychotherapy. Gestalt is a way of life in which we focus on the experience of “now,” referred to as the present moment.
Gestalt Holds We Have the Capacity for Wholeness
The therapist or coach-client relationship or the personal relationship with self are only possible when we know ourselves in the here and now. Awareness of being in the moment is essential in our relationships to our environment and with all beings. It is a humanistic, existential approach that is founded on the belief that we are born with natural resources within.
When we are born healthy in body and mind, we have the capacity to be in genuine and authentic contact with our environment and other beings. We are inherently capable of inventing and leading a satisfying and creative life.
Gestalt Works in the Here and Now
Ideally, in the process of growing up in our family of origin, two primary needs—nurturing and protection—are met by our parents. While we are growing up and developing, something may interrupt the healthy, natural processes of growth, and we develop beliefs about ourselves and about life that do not serve us.
And these beliefs often get in our way or fail to prove useful later in life. Patterns are created that cause us to feel reactive instead of fully alive and responsive.
Most therapeutic approaches look to the past. Gestalt workZ looks to the present and the many parts of self within. One is seen with the totality of their life experience. Rather than being labeled sick or wrong, they are seen as having developed defenses and strategies to manage their experience.
Gestaltists work with the past only by bringing it to the forefront of now to clear away unfinished business and offer a clear, present understanding. Being fully present to our own life and the manner in which we move through it is at the center of Gestalt. It is a way that brings forth the here and now.
Contact: A Key Concept in Gestalt
The focus in Gestalt is placed on being in contact. Contact is a state in which we are fully aware of our own existence, our body, and our emotions. We are fully aware in the present moment of the breath entering and exiting our lungs, the pain in our lower back, or the breeze on our face.
In our environment, this may mean that we have heightened awareness of the temperature around us, the movement of the air, the light or darkness, the sounds of birds or office equipment, the taste in our mouth, the smell or scents surrounding us, and so on.
Consciously, a full and present inventory of awareness is taken by dancing back and forth in present awareness of the environment and of our body. In our body, we begin by shifting our awareness to our lungs, filling them fully and expanding, followed by exhaling, finding the beat of our heart, feeling each vertebra as it supports our body, and feeling our feet upon the floor. This is done purposefully to engage in a conscious state of contact.
Exchanging Contact and Awareness With Others
As we expand our awareness, to include our present environment and our physical body, we are then able to exchange that awareness with another being because both people are in a state of contact at the same time. When this other being is also mindful of the moment they are experiencing in their body, soul, and mind as they connect to us, we achieve contact.
It is contact in the present moment with self, and then it flows back and forth with another while both remain in the here and now. It is being fully aware of the totality of that moment’s exchange. We look fully into another’s eyes or notice the pace of their breathing and then our own. We feel the energy between the palms of our hands as we touch or the sunlight hitting our faces as we sit across from one another.
Contact is the defining place of being in the present used to bring awareness and foster true change. Attention or notice is also given to the ways in which we may seek to interrupt or avoid contact. This becomes a significant factor when a person is working on knowing themselves and their parts.
Paying attention to the ways in which we seek to avoid or interrupt contact is an important approach in working with Gestalt for self-healing.
The Roots of Gestalt
While this approach may not seem avant-garde now, it was a big departure from the theories and methods of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. In the early 1900s, analytical theory was the mode of the day, and it still influences many types of therapy. It holds the belief that if a person talks about the occurrences, traumas, and experiences of their life, they will come to a deeper understanding of themselves. In this approach, discussing and examining one’s life in detail is thought to lead to an intellectual understanding that will benefit the client in changing their thoughts and, therefore, their behaviors.
A few years later, a departure from this viewpoint came onto the mental health scene. A person-centered approach, which looked at the wholeness of a person and their feelings, was viewed as being as important as exploring a person’s thoughts.
This was the Humanistic Movement led by Carl Jung, Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, and Virginia Satir. In the 1960s, the Human Potential Movement was strong, and Gestalt theory burst onto the scene, finding its home in Humanistic psychology.
It was fueled by the work of two psychoanalysts, Fritz and Lara Perls, who developed the theoretical basis of Gestalt. At that time, the idea that it was important to “know thyself” was popular, and Gestalt institutes were opening in the boom to provide training for therapists, healers, and seekers of all types to explore this methodology.
When Fritz Perls first started speaking about his work and offering large public events to talk about it, he discovered that people in large groups could and would bare their souls to one another using this method. About the same time, Be Here Now was a popular book from the famed guru Baba Ram Dass, who helped energize the era of self-exploration. Ram Dass’s work dovetailed with the dawning of other modalities, such as Reichian therapy, Rolfing, Bioenergetics, and hypnosis, and these were often melded with consciousness programs, meditation, acupuncture, and other alternative therapies.
The 1970s continued to bring emerging and new approaches, and like Gestalt, they all continued to flourish in the Humanistic Movement. Many leaders of the movement were working to bring forth methods that did not label, diagnose, or seek intellectual understanding of self. Instead, they supported a client in fully experiencing themselves, holding that each client had inherent wisdom, allowing that it might be outside of their present awareness.
In the 1980s, short-term cognitive therapy and behavioral change or modification methods moved onto the scene. These were based in the analytical camp and were very far afield from the Humanistic camp.
Financially motivated, the insurance companies jumped on these new modalities. Therapists trained in the new methods to survive in their financially-driven, insurance-dependent practices. As time and number of sessions won out over efficacy, the Humanistic models fell out of favor with insurance companies.
A few of the basic Gestalt techniques slowly made their way into more mainstream practices. They were thought of as ways or “tools” to enhance the talk therapy practitioner’s work. But they lacked the depth of understanding and the real essence of Gestalt. The concepts were misunderstood and often lacking a theoretical and practical basis. True Gestalt training became hard to find for those who sought to embody it.
There was a resurgence of interest in Gestalt in the early 2000s, and the theories that make up Gestalt therapy have been expanded to non-therapeutic applications such as organizational behavior and development in business, court mediation, and the field of coaching. It continues to be hailed as an effective human potential model and not a medical model.
With the dawning of the new millennium, there began a renaissance of Gestalt institutes and practitioners who wanted to get back to the purity of the work itself. Clients saw recovery and health in people they knew who had found the original Gestalt route, and they were willing to pay directly for it due to its efficacy.
Today, Gestalt is done in one-on-one sessions, group sessions, and weekend immersion formats, as well as with couples, families, children, and teens. The Gestalt approach has been integral to my work as a therapist, but its influence has been more far-reaching than that. It has been integral to my life and in the larger body of my work
The alchemy I have brought to coaching through my Gestalt perspective has allowed me to develop a model and modality that is truly effective for personal growth, healing deep trauma, and increasing healthy relationships with the self and others. And the impact of Gestalt on my personal life has been profound.
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