Archive for category: Gestalt therapy

What is gestalt therapy? The philosophy, theory and the therapy space by Helen McWilliam

What is Gestalt therapy? Gestalt philosophy, theory and the therapy space

Gestalt therapy began in the 1940s and 50s as a reaction to the diagnostic approach of psychoanalysis which privileged the expertise and insights of the psychoanalyst. Gestalt, in contrast, is considered a form of psychotherapy, focussing on what is immediately present, with insights arising from the relationship between client and therapist. Its philosophical basis is phenomenology. The aim is for the client to sharpen her perceptions of her experiences in their totality (Yontef, & Jacobs, 2000). I examine these and several other key philosophical and theoretical concepts of Gestalt.


Holism contends that humans are inherently self-regulating, that they are growth-oriented. Gestalt therapy rejects the idea of dichotomy of the psyche and the body, instead emphasizing that the body, spirituality, language, thought and behaviour are inseparable; the whole being more than the sum of its parts. People have learnt to separate these parts and live fragmented lives. A main objective of Gestalt therapy is to address this fragmentation with existential dialogue, in an experiential and experimental way and so activate livelier and growth-oriented aspects of the client.

Organismic self-regulation

Organismic self-regulation is central to Gestalt therapy theory. A person’s behaviour is regulated by the process of organismic self-regulation by which they regulate themselves according to needs that arise. The environment continually creates new needs, which causes discomfit, until a person can satisfy their needs and grow. As a person develops and her situation changes, she may not be aware of her needs or believe that she can choose her behaviour and may need help to address her situation to restore balance. (Yontef & Jacobs, 2000; Clarkson & Mackewn, 1977).


The basic principle of phenomenology is that of being in the world here and now. In the therapy room, the therapist’s emphasis is on supporting her client to explore her experience.  The inquiry may move from body sensations and feelings to thoughts, memories, hopes and dreams.  At some point in the therapy session the inquiry moves to meaning making. How something becomes meaningful and how the client understands the meaning of events in the environment they find themselves in at any given moment, is important. Hopes, memories and imaginings are part of the therapy session in the here and now, creating a dynamic process between client and therapist. (Zinker, 1978; Clarkson & Mackewn, 1997).

The therapist and the therapeutic relationship

The therapeutic relationship forms the foundation of effective therapy and is at the heart of the therapeutic process. The relationship between the therapist and the client is a unique and collaborative one. Fundamental to the therapeutic relationship is the way in which the therapist relates to the client. The therapist regards her client with respect and perceives her in all her uniqueness.  (Clarkson & Mackewn, 1997). At times the therapist needs to relate in a practical way, discussing practical agreements, such as payment and when to meet and at times the client may need practical advice.  At other times the therapist needs to enter the world of her client and be with her and support the client with their presence.

Existential Dialogue

Existential Dialogue is an exploration of a person’s experiences and beliefs. The Gestalt therapist explores alternate ways of thinking that value and respect the client’s experiences and what the client comes to believe (Yontef & Jacobs, 2000). The possibility opens up for the client to be authentic and take responsibility as they learn about themselves. With existential dialogue, the therapist shows genuine interest in her client, trusts in the organismic self-regulation of her client and that the client will make choices for action that are right for her, as she assimilates and integrates the work of therapy.


A person cannot be understood apart from their environment. Variables that contribute to shaping a person’s behaviour and experience are present in the current field, and therefore, a person cannot be understood without understanding the field, or context, in which they live. A client’s life story cannot tell the therapist what actually happened in her past, but it can tell the them how the client experiences their history in the here and now. The client’s experience of history is shaped by the client’s current field conditions.


The concept of the paradoxical theory of change is central to Gestalt methodology. Change takes place when a person invests time to be what she is, rather than focussing on how she would like to be (Beisser, 1970). In the therapy room, the therapist supports the client’s awareness of her own situation during the therapeutic process. She encourages the client, rather than trying to be what she is not, or what she should be or would like to be, to become aware of her sensations and feelings, and not necessarily act on them. By giving attention to part of the field that has been out of awareness, there is the possibility for reorganization of the field and the client can choose to change her behaviour.


The experiment is a tool for exploring how the client lives in her world, often opening up new information for the therapist that she never imagined and the possibility for further therapeutic work. Various forms of experiment include awareness experiments, role-playing, chair work, visualisation, metaphor and dream work, the use of creative media including use of objects in the therapy room and movement (Joyce & Sills, 2010).

If you would like to know more about Gestalt therapy visit my frequently asked questions page or please feel free to send a message through the contact page.


Beisser, A. (1970) The paradoxical theory of change.

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

Joyce, P. & Sills, C. (2010). Skills in Gestalt Counselling & Psychotherapy. London: Sage Press.

Yontef, G & Jacobs, L. (2000). Gestalt Therapy, in Current Psychotherapies, by Corsini and Wedding.

Zinker, J. (1978). Creative process in Gestalt therapy. Vintage Books: New York.