Gestalt Therapy – A whistlestop tour

Part 1 (by Andy Stokes)

Please note: This is my own, highly personal interpretation based on my experience and is by no means definitive or in the least exhaustive – Andy Stokes 23/10/12
Note: Gestalt Therapy is different from (though it was influenced by) Gestalt Psychology


Gestalt is a German word defined, amongst other things, as: ”An organised whole’ or ‘completeness, essence, form, totality, and wholeness…’

Fritz Perls

Laura Perls

Gestalt therapy evolved in 40s & 50’s and got popular in the 60’s & 70’s. It was developed by Fritz Perls (an MD and psychoanalyst) and his wife Laura Perls (a psychologist) amongst others. They were German Jews who had left Germany to escape the Nazis and fled to South Africa and then the US.

Gestalt was in part a reaction against the old schools of:

  • psychodynamic therapies – like Freudian psychoanalysis, which was analytical, intellectual and clinical,
  • and behaviourist therapies (that were very much the vogue in the US at that time) – which were about behaviour and functioning, but treated human beings as machines (that could get broken).

Like the rest of the humanistic therapies that were evolving at that time (including Person-Centred therapy), the Gestalt style was very much about exploring feelings and unlocking the potential of human beings. It wasn’t only geared towards ‘fixing’ people with mental health problems – it was was also geared towards uncovering the potential of everyone – enabling self-exploration, development and growth. It also involved building real connection and relationship between therapist & client, which was a radical change from previous approaches where clients were kept at a distance and the therapist stayed reserved & removed. It really fitted in with and influenced the 60s culture of personal growth and the revolution against traditional, more reactionary schools of thought.


Gestalt is a holistic way of thinking, so doesn’t look just at the mind, but the well-being & interconnectedness of the body, soul & spirit as well. It also sees us as not separate from our environment – the relationships we have with others and the world we inhabit. All aspects of these are seen as important, so Gestalt sessions might often involve other activities than ‘just’ talking. A Gestalt therapist may suggest ‘experiments’ and Gestalt can at times be dramatic, playful and active.

The Cycle of Experience – and interruptions (modifications) to it

cycle-of-experienceA fundamental view of Gestalt is that we have a natural cycle that we go through when we interact with things, people, events – the world. We go through this cycle every time a new situation arises – we take all our experiences on board, process them, complete the cycle and then return back to a normal active state again ready for our next interaction with the world.

But what happens in the in the real world, in our everyday lives, is that fairly on on, things start to happen to us where we don’t get to complete that cycle. If something happens that is traumatic or disturbs us in some way we are generally unable to complete the cycle, resolve it and move on – get back to just to being open and ready for the next thing that comes along. Part of our attention gets stuck at some point in the cycle and it doesn’t get resolved. Maybe because we don’t get the space or the attention from those around us, we are unable to figure it out and put it to bed.

This is what Gestalt calls an ‘interruption in the cycle of experience’ (or the ‘cycle of contact’).

What that means in practice, is that we start to be a bit vulnerable around that particular type of event, that particular kind of issue, person or type of person in the future. if something new happens down the line and there is some kind of similarity in some way to that past, unresolved event, it can trigger a whole set of emotional issues for us and make it feel difficult. Painful or difficult emotions and confusion can come back to the surface, and we again look for a way of resolving that and completing the cycle so we can move on. It is a natural human trait to want to resolve & reintegrate ourselves.

So if you like, we leave a little bit of ourself stuck in that time, in that place, in those circumstances. This issue will pop up again and again and again afterwards, unless or until it is resolved. Fritz Perls called this ‘Unfinished Business’…

I’m sure this must seem familiar to you – I’m sure you’re aware of times when you just stop thinking well and get upset or angry or anxious when you bump into someone or something happens that is similar in some way to some past experience. This is what is often referred to as being ‘triggered’.


This leaves us fragmented – bits of ourselves are still stuck somewhere in that cycle, in different times and places in our lives. Gestalt therapy is all about reintegrating these left-behind parts of ourselves. For instance, the me now, with the bit of me that got left behind still trying to figure out why my parents were fighting or the bit of me that got stuck being bullied at school, but never came to terms with it. These are some of the places where, in my life now, I can still have difficulty.

We do this separation of ourselves into bits because, at the time the event happens, when we are struggling, we don’t have the resources to deal with and resolve the feelings – so it’s a way of surviving, of getting by. Unfortunately the difficulties caused by these unresolved issues don’t go away by themselves!

When we get into the counselling room, we now have the time and safety and the support to face these feelings, so there is a chance to explore and re-integrate these aspects of ourselves. It can however be hard to unlearn these lifelong habits – of distancing ourselves by fragmenting into separate bits.

Here are some examples of how I might have fragmented myself at some point in my life which now affect me:

…I might feel I have a peaceful part of myself and a separate angry part that doesn’t feel like me… (This might have been because I was not allowed to show anger as a child, so I disassociated from it)

…Or a part of my body that’s in pain – my foot say – which hurts but that feels in some way remote (If I was smacked and told to shut-up when I cried after hurting myself, so I learnt to distance myself from my body)…

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