What is Gestalt Counseling? You may want to know something more about the gestalt approach to counseling before deciding to see a gestalt counselor. Or you may Just be interested in different approaches to counseling. On this page I have attempted to set out some of the basic ideas of the gestalt approach. Some of the ideas are complex and open to different interpretations, so this can be little more than an introduction. I have also included links to other sites and articles, as well as some suggested reading.
The Gestalt Concept of Self We all talk about ourselves in the first person – ‘l did this’, ‘my book’, ‘l felt happy’ etc. But what do we mean when we use the words ‘l’ or ‘me’, what is this thing we call self? In gestalt theory we view individuals as existing ‘in relation’ – in relation to other people, in relation to animals, in relation to our environment etc. Our ‘self’ is created by interaction with our environment, without interaction we have no sense of self. As a small baby we initially have no concept of our selves as separate from ‘other’.
We gradually learn to develop a sense of self through interacting with those around us, in particular with our prime career – usually our mother. From our mother we learn hat we exist as a separate individual. We learn that the things we do can affect those around us – we smile and they smile, we cry and we are fed or comforted. Where the mother is ‘good enough’ the baby learns to develop a healthy sense of self, which stands them in good stead as they grow into adulthood. Where the mother is not good enough’, for whatever reason, the baby fails to develop a healthy sense of self and this can cause problems in later life.
Gestalt theory is very much about relationship. We cannot actually exist Just as a separate ‘self’ in physical form. We are constantly interacting with our environment – e breath in air, we take in food and water. Our mood is affected by the weather, by a smell, a sound. From the earliest days in the womb our development is shaped by our interaction with our environments – the nutrients in our mother’s blood, drugs or toxins that pass through the placenta, stress hormones that effect how our body develops to handle stress etc.
Then from birth we learn behaviors from interacting with those around us – we learn that it is safe or not safe to be us, we learn that crying will bring comfort or bring pain, we learn that anger is acceptable, or not acceptable. From all these inputs we construct our sense of self. Our sense of self, whilst shaped in childhood can be altered in later life. We may have developed a negative sense of self due to a difficult childhood, but exposure to a positive environment, where we see a different vision of ourselves mirrored back to us can help us to change the way we feel about who we are.
This may happen naturally as we mix with different people, or it can happen in the therapy room, as we spend time with a therapist who can provide us with the positive mirror that was missing in our childhood. Experience true acceptance from another we can come to accept ourselves. Gestalt therapy is experiential, it aims to allow a safe space to truly experience who we are and thus come to know ourselves more fully. The Paradoxical Theory of Change This complicated-sounding idea forms the key of gestalt therapy. Basically the idea is that the more we come to know and accept ourselves as we are, the easier it is for us to change.
There may be something about ourselves which we don’t like, such as our temper, we may have struggled to change to no effect. According to gestalt theory if e learn to understand ourselves, to understand what makes us angry, why we react the way we do and to accept that this behavior is understandable and even logical given our past experiences, then change becomes possible. Without understanding and acceptance we are effectively fighting ourselves and it is perhaps not surprising that we have little success and much frustration. For this reason the aim of gestalt counseling is to help the client gain self awareness.
Self awareness is also the aim of many spiritual paths and there are some similarities between Buddhism and gestalt theory. In the therapy room the counselor will help the client to gain awareness through asking questions and making appropriate challenges. As individuals we can help to develop our self awareness through self questioning (note this does not mean self criticism) and through meditation. Meditation is a helpful technique for many of those suffering from emotional and psychological problems, as well as those looking for personal and spiritual development.
The Here and Now Gestalt therapy focuses on what is going on in the here and now, I. E. In the therapy room, rather than what may have happened in the past. We are not influenced by the past as such, but by our memory of the past, by the behaviors that we learnt in the past. All the information that a client needs to develop self awareness is available in the here and now. A gestalt therapist will look at what is actually there – the client’s body language, tone of voice, what is not being said as well as what is being said etc. , rather than what they think should be there.
This is often referred to as the Phenomenological approach. The therapist will try to put their own prejudices to one side and experience the world through the client’s eyes. A gestalt therapist may note with interest that a client is frowning, but they will not assume that the client is sad, they will rather wait for the client to offer their own interpretation of the meaning of the frown. Silence may mean boredom, embarrassment, sadness, thoughtfulness, the gestalt therapist will not interpret, but will encourage the client to explore what silence meaner for them.
The Cycle of Experience Gestalt theory explains most human behavior in terms of the Cycle of Experience. When we are at peace with ourselves, with no desires, we are said to be in the fertile did. After some time a sensation may emerge, such as hunger; this sensation comes into our awareness, maybe we notice our stomach rumbling. We then mobiles ourselves to take action – releasing we fancy that last piece of cake and deciding to go and get it. We then take action – going to the kitchen, getting the cake and eating it.
Whilst we are eating and enjoying the cake we are said to be in contact. We then begin to digest our food. Finally we go through a period of withdrawal, as we lose interest in the food and return to the resting position of the fertile void. This cycle an be applied to almost anything in our lives – wanting to go out, feeling bored, falling in love, reading a book etc. A healthy individual will have many cycles operating at the same time which they will move through at different speeds, each time reaching contact and then moving on to withdrawal.
However, often the cycle will be interrupted and we will not be able to complete a healthy cycle. Many of us have learnt behaviors as children which were crucial to our survival at the time, but which are unhelpful as adults. These behaviors will usually interfere with the cycle of experience and stop us from getting our needs met. The cycle may be interrupted at any of the stages. When someone is distressed they may fail to experience a sensation. They may become so alienated from their body or, from their emotions that they cannot get in touch with a sensation on any level.
Someone with an eating disorder may be completely out of touch with their natural appetite, starving themselves or eating uncontrollably. A counselor may work on bodily sensations with a client who is distressed to help them to get back in contact with themselves. Someone else may have learnt to deflect, to stop the sensation from coming into their unconscious awareness. Common examples are changing the subject, laughing, avoiding eye contact. Here a counselor may help the client to become aware of the strategies they are using to avoid dealing with their feelings.
Others may be in touch with their feelings, but be unable to mobiles themselves to take action. This may be as a result of ‘Interjects’ – that is ideas and values that a person has taken on board, often from parent’s, without challenge. This can often happen in early childhood, when we tend to believe that everything our parent’s tell us is true. So we come to live on a deep level that we are lazy or no good, that the world is a dangerous place, that anger is unacceptable etc.
These deep rooted beliefs can lead to us failing to act on our sensations. Never risking going for that promotion, never speaking out when we feel angry, never signing up for that college course. Gaining an awareness of our interjects can help us to understand how we stop ourselves from making contact and satisfying our needs. When someone holds back from taking action they are said to be retroflection. This holding back of our energy can lead to the energy being turned in on ourselves, which can in turn lead to illness, depression or even self harm.
Of course sometimes it is appropriate to hold back from acting, if our impulse is to hit someone or do something dangerous. However, we still need to release the energy in some way, perhaps through talking about it, or expressing it in art. If we fail to do so we may end up hitting ourselves, or punishing ourselves in some other way. Retroflection may be as simple as hugging ourselves when what we really want is to be hugged by someone else. In our fast paced Western society many of us rush through the second half of the yes of experience.
We move straight from contact to the next contact without taking time to enjoy and digest the experience. We can become addicted to the thrill of needs. The result is a life full of meaningless experiences, none of which really give us what we need. Someone who was abused as a child may well have developed various interruptions (or modifications) to contact as a way of surviving. Destinations may be the most appropriate way to deal with abuse in the moment. Retroflection may be the only way to cope with the anger felt towards an adult abuser.
It is important to see these static as valuable defenses that an individual developed in order to survive. Now in adulthood they may no longer be helpful, the abuser is no longer present and it may be safe to learn to connect with our feelings again and to let go of some of our anger.. The Dialog Relationship. The dialog relationship is seen as vital to gestalt counseling. This is basically the idea that the counselor and client interact meaningfully as two human beings, co- creating an experience. The aim is to create an I-Thou relationship, rather than an I-let relationship.
For example if we are rushing to catch our train on a crowded platform our relationship with those around us is likely to be that of I-let. However, if someone in front of us drops their umbrella and we stop to pick it up, we give it to them, our eyes meet and we smile. At this point we have made real human contact. Our relationship has shifted to that of I-Thou. It is when we make true deep contact in the therapy room that the client is able to truly grow from the experience.. Experiment Gestalt theory is fundamentally about learning through experience and therefore experiment is seen as a helpful tool.
Experiment can mean the exploration of dreams, ring out new behaviors both in and outside the therapy room, imagining someone you know is sitting in the therapy room and talking to them, thinking about things from a new perspective, working with art, working with stones and other materials etc. Experiment is only limited by the imagination of the therapist and client. However, it is important that experiments are introduced only when they will be helpful and when the client is ready for them. There is no point in doing an experiment for experiment’s sake, it should flow naturally form the material that the client is bringing.