Gestalt Therapy

Theory of Personality

Our end-goals are based on our biological needs.  The social roles we play provide us with the practical means of achieving our end-goals.  The process of continually completing our end-goals forms our Gestalts.  Healthy personalities consist of an open life that focuses on satisfying our organismic needs, and completing our end-goals.  A typical healthy existence will consist of individuals who take responsibility for their own actions and emotions, accepting that their social roles are a means of achieving end-goals, and not becoming a pseudosocial existence bent on fulfilling our social roles instead.

We do not exist to judge society, nor does society exist to judge us.  Instead, we should focus on a life that starts anew every second, and like the old saying goes, live your life like there’s no tomorrow.  Unfortunately, we can become stuck in immature personalities when we experience an impasse: in our childhood our parents withdrew their support before we gained inner support.  Or perhaps, we learn to have catastrophic expectations when our parents impose consequences to independently thinking.  Both impasses and catastrophic expectations teach us one socially important lesson – being different can be dangerous to our social roles.

Frustration is important in the development of a child into a mature adult.  Through frustration with our parents and our decisions, we learn to take responsibility and motivated to rely on our resources to achieve our end-goals.  Finding the balance of giving your child just enough frustration so that they’ll see it as a challenge is important for his/her development in self responsibility.  Giving too much or too little frustration allows the child to develop manipulation as a fundamental aspect to their personality.  Through crying and blaming others, a child will continue to develop and hone his/her imperfect personality, a critical roadblock to a healthy maturation process.

Theory of Psychopathology

A pathological person is stuck in a growth disorder (alternative word to neurosis).  Perls (Founder of Gestalt Therapy) believed there were 5 stages of psychopathology: the phony; the phobic; the impasse; the implosive; and the explosive.

The phony layer consists of the roles that we play, such as the leader who is in actuality shy, or the coworker who believes she is a big shot; instead of actualizing our true selves, we try to actualize a concept and try to be something else because we don’t like what we are.  This defensive mechanism provides us with a phony character to play, allowing us to shield ourselves from the rejection of showing our true selves.  Phony existence polarizes one of our polarities, if we choose to be saintly and unconditionally complimentary, we are trying to hide our criticism and individuality.  Perl called these polar opposites Top Dog and Under Dog.  Top Dog represents our consciousness that drives our overt actions and therefore insists on being right.  Underneath, the Under Dog acts as passive resistance by being lazy, procrastinating, and acting inept.

The phobic layer is our fear of rejection and/or pain that is consequence of being dissatisfied with our true selves.  It contains all our catastrophic expectations from childhood, helping us to avoid what is hurting on the inside.

Impasse represents the most critical layer of psychopathology.  Most people are stuck at impasse for fear of moving to a new point where the familiar environmental and social support are absent.  It is inherently easier to remain at an impasse, where resources can be manipulated to comfort the client.

Many of those who come to psychotherapy attempt to explain their existence as an implosive layer: the deadness of our lives.  The daily habitual existence (popularly called as the cubicle life) may be safe, but it provides no energy to our lives, thus we are theoretically dead.  To change our lives we must be able to accept our death, and move on to be rebirth.

By literally “exploding” our energy that was being used to defend the phony, phobic, impasse, and implosive layers, we experience the explosive layer of our growth disorder.  In order to experience rebirth, we must be able to explode with orgasm, anger, grief, and joy.  This explosion marks our departure from the impasse, moving on towards a bright future filled with the joy of a new existence, as well as the responsibility that goes with it.

Theory of Therapeutic Process

Consciousness Raising

The client is expected to stay in the here and now.  A variety of exercises are employed to explore the client’s neuroses.  Top/Under Dog exercise has the client sitting in one chair acting as the Top Dog by shouting “shoulds” and alternating to the Under Dog chair and shouting excuses.  Clients may be asked to own the projection of their feelings as they become aware of them through their own actions while role playing.  Frustrating the client’s defense against negative emotions and denial of responsibilities is a core priority in the therapists work.  Often, clients will attempt to coerce the therapist into playing the role as “helper”, making the therapist responsible for the clients improvement.  Client’s are told and expected to take responsibility for changing themselves in therapy.

Since Gestalt therapists are focused on the here and now, no definitive process of techniques are employed, as each technique is used at the therapists discretion.  Empty chair technique instructs the client to imagine the person at which their feelings are directed at is sitting in an empty chair and told to express what they’ve been holding back from saying in real life.  Classical exercises also include “I take responsibility”, role reversals, rehearsals, and many other awareness exercises.  A gestalt therapist is not there to interpret or reflect a client’s feelings, but to attune the client to other nonverbal expressions the client’s may not be aware of during their emotional exploration.


The process at which client’s express their inner experiences is known as corrective emotional experiencing.  In group therapy, the client in the hot seat during corrective emotional experiencing provides dramatic relief to the entire group, often providing an example of the possibilities of letting loose, and even sometimes initiating an observer’s own corrective emotional experience.  In the hot seat, client’s are expected to forge their own therapeutic sessions with the therapist as a director.  The director is focused on process diagnosis – markers that stand out as current struggles or hardships that the client is dealing with.  By refocusing the the client on the markers, a client is forced to face his/her issues.  In tandem with the here and now aspect of therapy, client’s are often urged to use “I” language to promote responsibility in one’s emotions and feelings.

ie. Client: “The depression hits me everyday, when I wake up, when I sleep.” -> “I wake up feeling depressed; I am depressed.”

Therapeutic Relationship

Like Rogerian (Person-Centered Therapy), Perls believed that the therapist must be congruent and mature with the clients.  While accurate empathy is highly prized in Gestalt therapy, unconditional positive regard is not accepted.  Client’s are expected to act like mature and responsible humans, therefore Gestalt therapists are encouraged instead to provide safe emergency.  The relationship can almost be likened to a best friend; you are able to tell your best friend your problems and flaws as well as your insecurities, knowing that he/she will not criticize you harshly about your problems, but provide the advice you need, even if it is often painful and realistic.  Perls views the authentic relationship as the most important therapeutic attribute to have in Gestalt therapy.  Techniques described above are only useful when a therapist and the client engage in authentic contact.


Gestalt therapy is somewhat informal.  Group therapy is highly prized, with the client’s paying an entrance fee to a workshop and actively encouraged to put themselves on the hot seat.  Length of Gestalt treatment vary, since clients are responsible for when they enter or exist therapy.  In a recent study (Beutler et al., 2005) examining the efficacy of Gestalt group therapy, psychologists have concluded that while overall effectiveness between several types of psychotherapy systems were equal, Gestalt therapy has been shown to be more effective for internalizing, low-resistant, and overly socialized clients.


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