Gestalt Theory: Definition and Description

Table of Content


            Gestalt therapy is defined as a process which comprises a comprehensive, streamlined, process-oriented, dialogical, phenomenological, and existential approach to human change while focusing on the aspects of centrality of contact, awareness, personal responsiveness and responsibility. Uniqueness of the individual is accorded due primacy and the person is never reduced to parts and structural entities but viewed as an integrated whole with innate potential of growth and mature self-expression. The most crucial factor in Gestalt Theory is the interplay between inherent characteristics, acquired characteristics, external factors like environment influences, interaction of the individual and the environment, and adaptability[1].

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        A practitioner of Gestalt Therapy addresses the individual as a unique and functional identity who endeavors to achieve optimum levels of  inherent potential, realization and  integration within and as part if its group/environment field. This culminates in to the productive growth and mature self-expression for the individual. It must be emphasized that Gestalt therapy’s theory is primarily a theory of growth and education focusing on health aspects and not on pathology[2]. The theory of Gestalt therapy is derived out of three major sources: psychoanalysis, phenomenological & existential writings and Gestalt psychology. While psychoanalysis is concerned with inner life, the existential writings are concerned with personal experiences in everyday life.  Gestalt psychology is the most significant source of Gestalt Therapy on account of its concentration on interaction and process, experimental observations and its insistence that a psychology about humans should include human experience.

The Theory of Gestalt Therapy

Thesis              The thrust of this research paper will be to trace the evolution of the Theory of Gestalt Therapy, the premises of Gestalt Theory, the contributing philosophies, basic principles and the limitations.

Introduction                The emergence of Gestalt Therapy as a major source of psychology is credited to the clinical work done by two German psycho­therapists, Frederick Salomon Perls, M.D., and Lore Perls, Ph.D.  F.S. Perls, a psychiatrist had initially worked with Kurt Goldstein, (a prominent psychologist) in his inquiries into the effects of brain injuries on veterans of the First World War, which was followed by a brief stint with Karen Homey and Wilhelm Reich in the 1920s. Laura Perls studied with the existential philosopher Martin Heidegger and her most important teacher was the Gestalt psychologist Max Wertheimer.  F. S. and Laura Perls immigrated to the United States where they settled in New York City, in a community whose inhabitants comprised a cross section of well versed intellectuals drawn from diverse backgrounds like philosophy, psychology, medicine, and education. Extended periods of interaction with members of this group led to the emergence on the scene of the first generation of trained Gestalt therapists, a comprehensive formulation of the theory, methodology, and practice for this new approach, and a book describing it. The book entitled ‘Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality’ first published in 1951 retains its position as the most prominent book pertaining to the theory and practice of Gestalt therapy. It is primarily a synthesis of many existing elements and concepts interrelated into a meaningful, new whole. This book is remarkable for the effect it had on the theory of Gestalt Therapy because it articulated for the first time a clear and concise interpretation and definition of the theory of Gestalt Therapy. This was achieved by combining the different bodies of knowledge and disciplines, and was particularly influenced by existential philosophy, phenomenology, holism, humanism, Gestalt psychology, bio-energetic, orthodox and interpersonal psychoanalysis, and Eastern philosophies[3].

Premises of the Theory           Gestalt Theory is based on two key premises. The first premise postulates that the appropriate emphasis of psychology should be on the experiential present., the perspective of Gestalt theory is on the existing; the present of existential life. The second premise states that since humans are inextricably linked to their surroundings/environment, a true study of the self would involve analyzing how the individual exists in relation to other things. These twin aspects of emphasis on the now and present on the one hand and the study of the individual with respect to his relation to the environment form the foundation on which the edifice of Gestalt Therapy is defined. Its procedures, methods and implementation link this outlook to the practice of Gestalt therapy. It gives rise to a method of psychology which encompasses a rich and unique view of everyday life to include the trials and tribulations of everyday life, as also the high points of life giving credence to the potential and creative heights that the individual is capable of.

Contributing Philosophies of Gestalt Theory            The theory of Gestalt Therapy is borne out of a combination of three sources (as stated earlier, in the abstract), which comprise the fields of psychoanalysis, humanism, holism, phenomenology and Gestalt psychology. They are briefly discussed in the succeeding paras.

Existential philosophy            It is a philosophy which focuses on existence as individual existence. It was begun by Kirkegaard[4] and later refined and further developed by Marcel and Marleau-Ponty. The other aspects with which it attaches considerable importance are the issues like the existential interpretation of the meaning of freedom, destiny, and the existence of God[5]. Other significant contributors to the development of this theory are Sartre and Heidegger who elaborated on the importance of responsibility, freedom, and the importance of the self as the primary subject of focus.

Phenomenology          This is an outshoot of existentialism, and it advocates a study of the consciousness in its subjective meaningful structure and function. The focus is on studying consciousness. Phenomenology takes the intuitive experience of phenomena (what presents itself to us in phenomenological reflexion) as its starting point and tries to extract from it the essential features of experiences and the essence of what we experience. Edmund Husserl, the founder and principal exponent of phenomenology, whose ideas were embodied in the concepts of awareness and the here-and-now, had a particularly powerful impact on Perls.

Holism            Holism is the idea that all the properties of a given system (biological, chemical, social, economic, mental, linguistic, etc.) cannot be determined or explained by the sum of its component parts alone. Instead, the system as a whole determines in an important way how the parts behave. Jan Smuts considered the organism to be a self-regulating entity with metabolism and assimilation being fundamental functions of all organic wholes[6]. A holistic approach to the human organism embraces and affirms complexity, inclusion, diversity, and resists inexorably any form of reductionism[7].

Humanism      It is explicitly concerned with the human dimension of psychology and the human context for the development of psychological theory. These matters are often summarized as a multifaceted approach to human experience and behavior, focuses on an individual’s self-actualization and uniqueness, with choice and integration ensuing. The overlap of existentialism and humanism is rich in potential for greater understanding of the human experience and for greater effectiveness in the effort to enrich that experience[8].

Gestalt psychology     is a theory of mind and brain that proposes that the operational principle of the brain is holistic,parallel, and analog, with self-organizing tendencies; or, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Wertheimer, Koffka, Koehler, the representatives of Gestalt psychology, demonstrated that an individual organizes his/her perceptions into meaningful sets.

Organismic Theory    Goldstein’s stressed the organismic integrity of individual behavior and its drive to self-actualization. In this theory, combined with Gestalt Psychology, Perls found the ideas for his homeostasis, top-dog and under-dog, contact and withdrawal, and figure-ground formation.

Field Theory   Lewin’s was extremely significant and became one of the fundamental pillars upon which Gestalt therapy theory rests. The field concept believes that all organisms exist only in environmental contexts with reciprocal influences on each other. As a corollary, no individual can be understood independently of his/her surrounding field.

Dialogue         Buber’s philosophy of dialogue, dialogic element in the form of the I-Thou relationship, was innovative for integrating the “between”. In the full meaning of this philosophy, the I-Thou relation, or dialogue, can be understood as a special form of the contacting process[9] .

Freud’s psychoanalysis          Although Perls criticized Freud’s psychoanalysis and its variations, its influence on Gestalt therapy is undeniable. Drawing from his psychoanalytic training, Perls used Freud’s developmental sequence as ground for much of his clinical work. He replaced the sexual instinct with the hunger instinct and frequently drew analogies with mental metabolism. The roughly 50-year-old Gestalt therapy has evolved and changed, built upon and reacted to the root contribution made by Fritz Perls, his wife Laura Perls, and Paul Goodman.

Basic Principles of Gestalt Therapy Theory  Gestalt therapy theory holds a non-materialistic and anti-reductionist position that disavows dualistic and linear thinking. Like all psychotherapies, Gestalt therapy is an approach to human change. Change, however, is not directly aimed at but viewed as an inescapable product of contact and awareness, considered together with their interruptions and/or various degrees of absence.

Contact           Every organism is capable of effective and fulfilling contact with others in their environment and pursues ways of having contact with others so that the organism can survive and grow to maturity. All contact is creative and dynamic and, as such, each experience unfolds as a creative adjustment of the organism in the environment[10].The four stages of contact were originally described by Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman, 1951, as fore-contact, contacting, final-contact, and post-contact. This original theory was extended by the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland into the Cycle of Experience (COE) which reflects the following seven stages: sensation, awareness, mobilization of energy, action, contact, resolution, closure, and withdrawal. A newly proposed model [11] referred to as the Self-Function Analysis of Contact includes six functions of the self: interested excitement; decision-making; choosing; past assimilation of experience, beliefs, attitudes, and ways of thinking; learned patterns (habitual) of response; and styles of contact (and withdrawal).

Interruptions of contact          Since every contact takes place at the contact boundary, where the organism and the environment meet, every interruption or distortion of contact was/is also called a contact boundary disturbance (Perls et al.), or an interruption of self-regulations[12].

Confluence      the condition of no-contact.

Introjection     the individual experiences something as him/herself when in fact it belongs to the environment (false identification).

Projection       the individual experiences something in the environment when in fact it belongs to him/her (false alienation).

Retroflection   the individual holds back a response intended for the environment and substitutes it with a response for him/herself.

            Confluence, introjection, projection, and retroflection are often in the service of health and are only detrimental to healthy functioning without awareness .

Organismic self-regulation.    It  is a process in which the organism strives for the maintenance of an equilibrium that is continually disturbed by its needs and regained through their gratification and elimination. If functioning properly, it leads to integrating parts with each other and into a whole that encompasses the parts.

The paradoxical theory of change     It is one of the fundamental organizing principles in Gestalt therapy, with far-reaching implications. Only by being what and who one is can one become something or someone else. Effort, self-control, or avoidance focused exclusively on the future will not bring about change.

Phenomenology          Phenomenology in its broadest sense is a philosophical doctrine that advocates the scientific study of immediate experience as the basis (subject matter) of psychology.

Awareness      Awareness is characterized by contact, sensing, excitement, and Gestalt formation it is a subjective experience, a being in touch with one’s own existence inclusive of all senses at a given moment.

Dialogue         The dialogical principle is based on the I-Thou philosophic anthropology of Martin Buber[13].

The concept of the self                        The self in GT is not a reified unit but a process, constantly changing according to needs and environmental stimuli. It is defined as “the system of contact at any moment”[14].

Ego functions              Ego functions enable the individual to identify: What is needed, desired, ‘felt’, wanted, sensed physically, inclusive of an accurate sensory perception of the environment (Id-function). Id and personality functions refer to processes of identification carried out with the ego functions.

Limitations of Gestalt Theory             Gestalt therapy is lacking a distinct, clearly defined and fully elaborated theory of human development. In the absence of this understanding, psychological sufferings that are developmental in origin are void of consistent theoretical explanations within a Gestalt theoretical framework. Knowledge of conditions that are necessary for healthy development could be expanded to how human development accounts for contact change over the entire life of the human organism. Not having those constructs available leaves the therapist theoretically unsupported of what is most effective in the therapeutic process with clients who are afflicted by certain kinds of developmental damage and/or deficiencies[15]. There have been modest attempts undertaken by Gestalt therapists to change this, and they point towards promising future additions[16].

Conclusion      Gestalt therapy is a well-developed and well-grounded theory with a myriad of tenets, principles, concepts, and methods, even though Gestalt therapy is often misrepresented in college textbooks and lumped together with psychodrama and other emotive and expressive therapies.Gestalt therapy undoubtedly has the capacity to contribute to and vitalize effectively the field of psychotherapy and fits excellently into the contemporary realm of clinical psychology. With the power of creatively adjusting to psychology’s changing paradigm, Gestalt therapy has the basic prerequisites to be included in mainstream psychology.


Buber, I and Thou. New York: Scribner’s Sons(1970)

Bugental., Challenges of Humanistic Psychology McGraw-Hill(1967)

Clarkson & Mackewn., Fritz Perls London: Sage (1993).

Crocker, A well-lived life: Essays in Gestalt therapy. Cleveland, OH: Gestalt Institute of            Cleveland Press (1999).

Goodman, Gestalt therapy: Excitement and growth in the human personality. In F. Perls, R.      Hefferline, & P. Goodman (Eds.). Highland, NY: The Gestalt Journal Press,           (1951/1994),pp 230.

Jacobs, L. Dialogue in Gestalt theory and therapy. The Gestalt Journal, (1989).  12(1), 25-67.

Latner, J. The Gestalt therapy book. New York: The Gestalt Journal. (1986).

Lobb, S., & Salonia, G. What is the future in Gestalt therapy? Studies in Gestalt Therapy,            (1993).            2 (26-34).

Perls, al, Gestalt therapy: Excitement and growth in the human personality(1951/1994)..      Highland, NY: The Gestalt Journal Press.

Polster,E, & Polster,M. Gestalt Therapy Integrated. New York: Brunner/ Mazel(1973).

Smuts, J. C.,  Holism and evolution. Highland, New York: Gestalt Journal Press(1926/1996).

Wheeler,  Gestalt developmental model. British Gestalt Journal, (1998)7(2), 115-125.

Wulf, R. The historical roots of Gestalt therapy. The Gestalt Journal (1998). 21(1), pp.81-92.

Yontef, G. M. Awareness, dialogue, and process: Essays on Gestalt therapy. Highland, NY:     The Gestalt Journal Press. (1993).

[1] Yontef, M. Awareness, dialogue, and process: Essays on Gestalt therapy. Highland, NY: The Gestalt Journal Press. (1993).
[2] Latner, J. The Gestalt therapy book. New York: The Gestalt Journal. (1986).
[3] Clarkson & Mackewn., Fritz Perls. London: Sage (1993).
[4]  Reinhardt F.K., The Existentialist Revolt: The Main Themes and Phases of Existentialism: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche F. Ungar Pub. Co(1960) pp 122.
[5] Wulf, R. The historical roots of Gestalt therapy. The Gestalt Journal (1998). 21(1), pp.81-92.
[6] Smuts Jan., Holism and Evolution Viking Press(1961)
[7] Ibid
[8] Bugental., Challenges of Humanistic Psychology McGraw-Hill(1967)
[9] Jacobs, L. Dialogue in Gestalt theory and therapy. The Gestalt Journal,  (1989). 12(1), 25-67.
[10] Perls, et al Gestalt therapy: Excitement and growth in the human personality. Highland, NY: The Gestalt Journal Press, (1951/1994).
[11] Crocker, A well-lived life: Essays in Gestalt therapy. Cleveland, OH: Gestalt Institute of Cleveland Press,(1999).
[12] Polster, E., & Polster, M. Gestalt Therapy Integrated. New York: Brunner/ Mazel. (1973).
[13] Buber,  M. I and Thou. New York: Scribner’s Sons(1970)..
[14] Perls et al
[15] Lobb & Salonia, What is the future in Gestalt therapy? Studies in Gestalt Therapy, (1993). 2 (26-34).
[16] Wheeler, G. A Gestalt developmental model. British Gestalt Journal(1998)., 7(2), 115-125.

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