Gestalt Therapy

What is Gestalt Therapy?

Gestalt Therapy is a therapeutic modality that focuses on helping you understand your experiences in the present as a way to gain a deeper awareness of yourself.

While other therapies might include discussion of past thoughts, feelings, or situations, Gestalt Therapy encourages you to re-create those past experiences in the present, with the goal of increasing insight into yourself and your behavioral, relational, and/or thought patterns.

For example, you might role play with your therapist to recreate a childhood conflict with a sibling; during the interaction, you would take note of your thoughts and feelings while your therapist notices your body language and other relational factors. Supported by those insights, you can work on increasing your self-confidence, processing difficult emotions, and improving your relationships with others.

The word “gestalt” comes from the German for “pattern” or “form,” which refers to this modality’s emphasis on examining the complete shape of human experience in all its complexity.

Because of its emphasis on imagination and re-creation, Gestalt Therapy can be a very creative process and is sometimes used in conjunction with art, music, or drama therapy. It can be used as a standalone therapy, or it may be integrated with other forms of treatment.

What happens in a typical Gestalt Therapy session

Most Gestalt Therapy sessions will include a mix of activities and discussion, as well as attention to how your insights and self-perception have changed or developed over the course of multiple sessions.

Specific activities you might work through with your therapist include:

  • Role-playing: You might act out an interaction from your own perspective or that of another person in your life.
  • Visualization: Your therapist might ask you to imagine a certain situation as if it were happening in the moment.
  • Chairwork: You imagine that someone from your life (or another version of yourself) is sitting in an empty chair and carry on a conversation as if that person were present.

Effectiveness of Gestalt therapy

Compared to research on more standardized treatment methods, relatively little research has been conducted on the effectiveness of Gestalt Therapy.

That said, an analysis of seven studies on Gestalt Therapy found that it seemed to lead to positive mental health outcomes for several different groups of individuals. [1]

Another study also found that Gestalt Therapy was associated with an increased sense of self-efficacy among the individuals who participated in it. [2]

How does Gestalt Therapy work?

Gestalt Therapy is based on the idea of the “here and now” and its value in helping you understand and cope with both past and present struggles. By focusing on the present moment, Gestalt Therapy can provide a way to identify patterns of thoughts, feelings, actions, or physiological sensations that you may not have been aware of previously.

By noticing and accepting these immediate realities, you can work toward gaining self-awareness and new perspectives on real-life situations. Some describe Gestalt Therapy as a process of learning to perceive the truth of what’s happening in the present, rather than getting caught up in the stories you tell yourself about what’s happening.

Like many therapies, Gestalt Therapy relies on a dialogue with an empathetic, supportive therapist. It is often described as person-centered or humanistic, which in this case means that it assumes you have the capacity to be the expert on your own experience and that you can create positive change based on your own self-awareness.

Your therapist will make observations, ask questions, and guide your activities during sessions, but they will generally not make judgements or tell you how you should interpret the patterns you uncover during Gestalt Therapy.

Structure of Gestalt Therapy sessions

Gestalt Therapy is more a philosophical and theoretical orientation than a specific set of practices, so sessions can vary widely depending on your therapist’s approach and the issues you’re looking to work on.

That said, activities in Gestalt Therapy sessions are generally experiential; that is, you’re often focusing more on what’s happening (for example, feeling tense as you imagine a remembered conflict with your mother) than the content of the discussion (for example, the reasons you used to have conflicts with your mother).

After spending some time in early sessions establishing rapport with your therapist and developing a shared understanding of what the course of treatment will be, most Gestalt Therapy sessions will include one or more activities to help you gain a deeper understanding of the present moment.

These activities might include attention to events from your past or ideas about your future, but if they do, they will examine those factors as if they were happening in the here and now.

That is, your therapist might ask you to recreate an event from your past and then ask you questions such as: “How you feel about what is happening right now? What are some of the physical sensations you notice?” In this way, Gestalt Therapy can resemble mindfulness therapy.

What Gestalt Therapy can help with

Gestalt Therapy can be used in treatments for a wide range of mental health conditions. It is most commonly used for depression, anxiety, and self-esteem issues, but it is also sometimes used to address the psychological components of physical ailments such as chronic pain. Because of its focus on self-awareness, Gestalt Therapy may be a helpful support for anyone looking to learn more about themselves and learn new techniques for making positive change.

What to look for in a practitioner for Gestalt Therapy

Gestalt Therapy can be provided by a wide range of practitioners, including social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists. There is no specific credential that all Gestalt Therapy therapists have, but you’ll want to make sure that your therapist has an up-to-date license, as well as experience or advanced training in using Gestalt Therapy. You might ask potential therapists how long they’ve been practicing Gestalt Therapy, what kind of training they’ve received in this modality, and what kinds of activities they typically include in their sessions.

New to therapy? Learn about how to find a therapist here.