Gestalt Psychology and Theory

[wpseo_breadcrumb] Gestalt Psychology provides the framework for my approach to counseling. Most of my preferred techniques and philosophies lend themselves very well to Gestalt. In fact, many of the counseling techniques I use have their roots in Gestalt Therapy. I like Gestalt most of all because it is an ideal way to focus on the location of change – neural networks.

What is Gestalt Psychology?


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Gestalt Psychology vs Gestalt Therapy

What’s the difference between Gestalt Psychology and Gestalt Therapy? Gestalt Psychology suggests a person gets stuck in fixed patterns and beliefs about themselves that get in the way. Gestalt Therapy aims to uncover these patterns… or neural networks… and how they are holding the person back. Serenity Cafe Academy ImageWhile I frequently do Gestalt “Therapy”, I do not claim to be a Gestalt Therapist because I choose not to limit myself to that one approach. Gestalt Therapy is a way-of-life to the true Gestalt Therapist. I’ve learned that everyone who comes into counseling of their own accord has basically the same problem — they are in PAIN. Most of them want the same thing…comfort and RELIEF. But they don’t always want to know what’s bothering them. If awareness is the goal…then a Gestalt Psychology approach is the best choice. I find the principles and practice of Gestalt Psychology to be very congruent to my map of the world. Here are some of the basic principles of Gestalt Psychology that I find attractive:

  • Awareness – Awareness is the primary goal of Gestalt Psychology. It is believed that awareness leads to insight and insight results in change or adjustments. There are three Zones of Awareness according to Gestalt Psychology…the Outer Zone, Middle Zone, and the Inner Zone. We can get stuck in any one of these zones. It’s best to be able to move choicefully from one zone to another in order to develop self-awareness. Click on the link below to view and save a copy of the Awareness Zones Diagram.
    Download Awareness Zones PDF
    The Awareness Continuum, moving from one zone to another noticing what’s in your awareness at any moment, is used in Gestalt Psychology as a way that makes subconscious material available to the conscious mind so that adjustments may be considered and/or choicefully made.
  • Contact – There is a contact boundary that exists in each person that limits how fully they experience themselves, other people, and their world in general. A full and rich experience in each of these areas is necessary to fully experience life without feeling restricted or stuck.
  • Modifications to Contact – Often during childhood and sometimes later, something interrupts normal developmental processes and the person gets stuck in fixed patterns and beliefs about themselves, others or the world in general. This limits their ability to make and experience contact. As a result, children learn ways to modify contact to deceive themselves or manipulate others and their environment. (See Modifications to Contact Below)
  • Human Resourcefulness – Gestalt Psychology presupposes that everyone has all the necessary internal abilities and resources to overcome limitations in how they experience contact. Awareness is the key.
  • Authenticity – Being aware and having genuine contact with self and others requires authentic presence. One must honestly share their thoughts and feelings in order to make and experience contact (connection) with self and others.
  • Here-and-Now Focus – The focus is on what is happening “Now”… Gestalt Psychology points out that the present moment is a continuous transition from past to future and the Now is fleeting. Training our conscious awareness to focus on what is happening “right now” is the best way to fully experience contact.”What am I experiencing now…what am I thinking about and how does it make me feel…what do I want right now and what is stopping me from getting that… how does this relate to the context I’m in… and what is it doing for me?” Perhaps “right now” I am thinking of something or someone in my past or a future event over which I am worried. If so, that would be the topic of conversation between the therapist and the client but only in an effort to become aware of how that past or future event is affecting the “Now” of experience.
  • Response-Ability – We all have the ability to respond although we may not be aware of that fact. Instead, for example, the totality of our experiences in life may have led to numerous modifications to contact (see below) which in turn lead to the development of a victim, rescuer, or persecutor mentality. There are two frequent sayings in Gestalt Psychology, “What is, is.” and “One thing leads to another”.
  • Polarities – Two opposing views, behaviors, forces, or “parts of self” are not “either-or” but part of the same whole – a continuum of choices (see section below).

Gestalt Psychology – Modifications to Contact:

One of the central tenets of Gestalt Psychology is that healthy functioning involves good contact with self and others. Good contact needs to be appropriate to the situation and relational. We modify contact all the time. The important issue is to be able to modify contact fluidly and “choicefully” so that we can employ the full range of contact options along a continuum, continually updating our contact styles for each new situation. The problems arise when we get stuck at one end of a polarity continuum or the other. This is usually because of a “should, must, or ought” rule picked up somewhere in life. According to Fritz Perls, the Father of Gestalt Therapy, there is only one “should” that matters – context. He writes… “There is only one thing that should control: the situation. if you understand the situation you are in and let the situation you are in control your actions, then you learn to cope with life” (F. Perls, 1976, p. 33)- [emphasis mine]. In NLP there is a saying that every behavior is useful in a certain context. The more choicefully we can move up and down any continuum… according to the situation…the richer our experience of self, others, and the world will be. Below are a few of the polarity continuum’s we use to modify contact.

  • Retroflection is holding back an impulse (e.g. speech, expressing feelings, and/or behavior)… The person’s energetic flow is interrupted. Outcomes:
    • The impulse may die away naturally
    • The energy can be turned inward causing bodily tensions, somatic illnesses, depression or even self-harm
  • Impulsiveness involves unrestrained expression of impulses… e.g. speech, expressing feelings, and/or behavior… in a way that is dangerous to self or others, such as self-harm or other uncontrolled or violent outbursts

  • Deflection is ignoring or turning away either an internal or external emotional trigger in order to prevent full recognition or awareness of associated material…e.g., painful memories. Characterized in Gestalt Psychology either by blocking the trigger itself or by turning oneself away and going off on a tangent. Persons often deflect from their feelings and impulses by endless talking…by laughing instead of taking themselves seriously…or by always focusing on the needs of the other. Other examples of deflection include:
    • Changing the subject repeatedly when a particular issue is raised
    • Appearing not to hear or see something
    • Misunderstanding or redefining what has been said or done
  • Overly-Receptive people are bombarded by a myriad of stimuli…receiving too much input, in contrast to the deflector, this person has a tendency to pay too much attention to those stimuli. He or she finds it difficult to ignore them or to selectively choose what is relevant that any one time leaving them “flooded” with thoughts and feelings. Emotional regulation problems are often a result.

  • Desensitization – Similar to deflection, this is another way of avoiding contact with an emotional trigger. However, while deflection prevents the stimulus from reaching our thoughts… Desensitization concerns a more profound form of shutting down at the emotional level. Clues to the differences between deflection and desensitization:
    • Other people find themselves feeling sleepy and heavy in the presence of the desensitized person
    • They may feel irritated, frustrated, or agitated in the presence of a deflector.
  • Sensitivity – Much like the over-receiver, the overly sensitive person can suffer from an overload of sensory stimuli that he or she is unable to ignore. This can appear as hypochondria or, at a more ordinary level, an inability to evaluate the meaning or significance of a sensation. In addition to an overload of sensory data, over-sensitivity can show up in a thinking or emotional sense as well. For example, hypersensitivity to real or perceived criticism, or a belief that one must be perfect or is nothing at all.

A person who fears that closeness to another person will involve some threat of loss, rejection, hurt, or abandonment, may solve the problem by either enmeshing with the other (clinging/pursuing) or disengaging (withdrawing/distancing).

  • Confluence – The feelings and wishes of a significant other easily overwhelm the confluent person, who responds as if they were his own feelings and desires. Often becomes extremely anxious when separation occurs or is threatened. Enmeshment occurs when a person can’t tell “…where I end and you begin” due to an inability to distinguish the interpersonal boundary.
  • Withdrawal – The person whose habitual contact style is Withdrawal does not often seek therapy. However, sometimes he will come saying he sees other people having a better time than he and he thinks that he has something missing. He might use a metaphor about himself, such as feeling like an alien or been trapped in a bottle or being behind an invisible wall.

  • Egotism – In Gestalt Psychology, Egotism is characterized by an excessive preoccupation with one’s own thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and effect on others. The preoccupation can be positive, admiring and self-congratulatory or critical and be undermining – either way, it is an avoidance of real relational contact. It’s as if this person gets trapped in their own thoughts. The task here is to encourage the person to move away from their self-monitoring and self-reflection into more immediate contact with others and their environment.
  • Spontaneity – In contrast to egotism, unrestrained Spontaneity is an absence of necessary reflection and self-monitoring. Excessive spontaneity can be seen in impulse disorders, mania, and antisocial behavior. Also in direct contrast to egotism, it’s as if this person is unable to even access their thinking and gets trapped in their feelings and impulses. Persons with ADHD are said to be “addicted to the moment” for this very reason.

  • Projection – While the term Projection has other definitions, here it refers to disowned or alienated parts of the self. When a person struggles with accepting a quality or aspect of his personality that is incompatible with his or her self-concept, he or she may effectively project it out of their awareness on to another person as in the following example:“A hard-working person told of a time when he returned home after a particularly taxing day. He met his wife at the door and said to her, “you look really tired”, to which his wife perceptively replied, “you should lie down for a couple of hours”. When he woke up, his wife said to him “do I look more rested now?”
  • Ownership – Ownership has always been a cornerstone of Gestalt Psychology. It’s the concept of accepting responsibility for all aspects of oneself. However, taken too far, it involves the person accepting or owning everything including what is not his/her responsibility or taking on what is not his/hers. At the extreme, it manifests itself as self-blame or excessive guilt. This is common in cases of sexual abuse or sudden bereavement.

  • Introjection – A Gestalt Psychology term for the process whereby an opinion, attitude, or instruction is unquestionably taken-in from the environment as if it were true… in TA it is referred to as an injunction. Introjection is something kids under seven years old do automatically with everything their parents tell them or demonstrate for them. Examples:
    • Positive Introjects/Injunctions – forceful instructions given to small children, which are absorbed often without understanding, i.e., “don’t play near the river” or “come home before dark”.
    • Negative Introjects/Injunctions – “Never depend on others” or “You will never amount to anything”. Intensity (an accompanied slap to the face by a parent) or repetition (hearing it over and over again) strengthens the power of introjects and injunctions.

    The person who is under the influence of an introject feels a strong pressure to conform and feels uncomfortable if s/he tries to go against it. Sometimes, if s/he pays attention to her/his thoughts, the person can actually hear the instruction and, if asked, can actually say who “gave” it to him.

  • Rejection – It’s clearly healthy to reject an attitude, opinion, or belief that does not fit with the person’s values and integrity. However, sometimes a person may manifest Rejection as a habitual style. Examples:
    • May appear to disagree with or “spit out” every suggestion offered or s/he may reject anything in a particular area or related to a particular issue.
    • Sometimes, a person rejects not only the opinions of others but anything he is given, including love and attention.
    • Rejection can come across as mistrust, rebellion, or excessive self-reliance.

    In the struggle to identify what is “me” and what is “not me”, a person may find it easier to define what is “not me” in terms of what he dislikes or disagrees with… rather than identify what is “me” especially if they are not in contact with their own wants and needs. Other times, a rejecting attitude stems from a profound fear of being controlled or criticized. In this case, you’ll notice the person’s tendency to avoid answering questions or following suggestions.

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