What Is Gestalt Therapy?

A Holistic and Humanistic Approach to Therapy

Gestalt therapy is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on the present moment. The approach is humanistic, holistic, and rooted in experience. In this type of therapy, the focus is on self-awareness, experience, and the present.

Read on to learn more about gestalt therapy, its fundamental principles, techniques, and effectiveness.

A psychologist talks with a patient.

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What Is Gestalt Therapy?

Gestalt therapy was developed in the 1940s by psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and psychotherapist Fritz Perls and his wife, Laura Perls, a psychologist and psychotherapist.

"Gestalt" refers to the form or configuration (the way things are put together) of something whole, meaning that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, every aspect of us is valuable and essential to the fabric of who we are as a whole.

Therapy from a gestalt perspective emphasizes a person's current experience and being in tune with the present moment. Recognizing that challenges exist and impact the here and now is part of the process. Gestalt therapy examines a person's life context and the meaning gleaned from individual experiences.

Human beings are complex. Our experiences of self, our relationships with others, and how we see the world can shape our perspective. Gestalt therapy can help a person maintain contact with the present, accept personal responsibility, and examine their life on a deeper level.

Key Principles

The gestalt perspective looks at each individual as a whole while recognizing different parts of us. Experiences and environment are keys to understanding a person, creating meaning, and self-regulating.

There are a few principles that are integral to gestalt therapy. These include:

  • Perception
  • Context
  • Presence
  • Pain
  • Self-awareness

Our perception can influence our reality. Exploring how we view ourselves, our connections with others, and events and situations can enhance awareness and understanding. However, to truly investigate what's happening, it's essential to look at the context of a person's life and current situation. 

When focusing on the present, we can learn to become in tune with what is happening mentally, emotionally, and physically. Complex thoughts or feelings aren't ignored in gestalt therapy. While the focus isn't on the past, strong emotions are acknowledged and their link to the present is considered.

Self-awareness is at the heart of gestalt therapy. Being self-aware can help us change and grow. For this reason, self-exploration and discovery are an active part of the process. 

Uses

The principles of gestalt therapy may resonate with and support individuals working through various concerns. Some of its uses include:

Gestalt Therapy in Action

Gestalt therapy in action might look like:

  • Exploring how you relate to yourself and others
  • Identifying emotions as they arise
  • Learning how to communicate your experiences clearly
  • Processing situations and events that feel unresolved
  • Utilizing all of your sense to become grounded in the present and dissect experiences

In a session, a therapist may encourage you to tap into the present, share their own observations, or engage you in exercises that help you look deeper.

Techniques

Gestalt therapists use a variety of tools to encourage self-awareness, self-direction, and processing.

Empty Chair Technique

In this technique, you will be seated across from an empty chair and imagine that you are speaking to another person or yourself. You communicate your thoughts, feelings, and emotions to the individual in the other chair. Then you switch chairs and respond from the other seat.

This exercise creates space and opportunity for you to talk to another piece of yourself or a significant person in your life, perhaps someone you may have a conflict with. This tool can be helpful for working through challenging experiences.

Exaggeration Exercise

Expressing yourself isn't always easy. When we can't find our words, we can use our bodies to release emotions. A therapist may ask you to imagine a movement that represents what you're feeling and act that out. This exercise can provide insight and catharsis.

Role Play

While gestalt therapy views a person as a whole, there is value in taking stock of our parts and how they contribute to the whole.

Role-playing exercises can be a beneficial way to tap into different parts of yourself. The empty chair technique is an example of a role play activity.

Locating Emotion

Thoughts and emotions are felt by the body. In addition to naming what you feel, a gestalt therapist may ask you to imagine where and how you feel something in your body. This exercise can help a patient connect to their experience in the present.

Body Language

Body language, including facial expressions, gestures, posture, and eye contact, is full of information. A therapist may make observations of body language as they ask a patient to talk about their experiences.

Benefits

Gestalt therapy has several benefits, including:

  • Cultivating mindfulness
  • Addressing relationship issues
  • Coping with what arises
  • Reducing symptoms of anxiety
  • Improving mood and treating depression
  • Increasing self-esteem and confidence

What to Expect

Gestalt therapists strive to create a collaborative, supportive, and empowering therapeutic relationship with their patients. The patient has autonomy (being able to act on your own values and interests). This encourages self-discovery in an environment that is open, accepting, experiential, and nonjudgmental. 

In gestalt therapy, you can expect:

  • Collaborative therapeutic relationship 
  • Encouragement of self-exploration and self-awareness
  • Emphasis on the here and now
  • Exploration of body language and emotions
  • Guided exercises to deepen introspection (your mental and emotional processes)

When looking for a therapist, you may want to inquire about their training, educational background, and practice with gestalt therapy. Collecting information about a therapist's experience and approach can help you decide if they are the best fit for you. 

Finding Care

To find a therapist, you can seek a referral from your healthcare provider, insurance provider (if you have one), or your employee assistance program at work, if available. You can also look for mental health resources through our National Helpline Database.

Before starting therapy, you may also find it valuable to discuss the cost of sessions. A therapist may offer a sliding fee scale or reduced rates for people who don't have insurance. This can significantly lower the cost of care for the patient.

Effectiveness

Some studies have evaluated gestalt therapy and highlighted the benefits of this approach. 

One review of gestalt therapy studies found it effective at helping Indigenous activists tells their stories and experiences. This resulted in Indigenous women being more active and present in their communities. 

The same review noted another study in which anxious parents of children in elementary school attended a gestalt group. As a result, the parents learned how to develop mindfulness, which helped reduce anxiety symptoms.

With older adults, gestalt therapy can help improve functioning and symptoms of anxiety and depression. Older adults who participated in gestalt therapy also felt empowered to resolve unfinished business and conflicts in their lives.

A study that evaluated women with depression found that gestalt therapy had more of an impact in decreasing depression symptoms than some medications.

Though not as widely studied as other therapeutic approaches, gestalt therapy is gaining attention for its ability to help patients explore their experiences and find healing and growth. 

Summary

Gestalt therapy centers on the present and aids patients in investigating and understanding their lives. Through increasing self-awareness, addressing unfinished business, and being grounded in the present, patients can learn to transform their energy.

Gestalt therapy involves a partnership between the therapist and patient that is built on empathy, trust, and support. Therapists use a variety of techniques to encourage self-discovery.

A Word From Verywell

Gestalt therapy can be a catalyst for change. Through learning how to explore and process your experiences and stay grounded in the present, you can work through concerns like anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem, as well as improve relationships. Finding a therapist who is knowledgeable and trained in gestalt therapy can help facilitate this process. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the goal of gestalt therapy?

    The aim of gestalt therapy is to help patients enhance their sense of self-awareness. Through insight and responsibility, growth can occur. Gestalt therapy provides a safe and experiential environment for empowerment and action to occur. 

  • How long does it take to see results from gestalt therapy?

    Treatment time with gestalt therapy can vary from person to person. Gestalt therapy is less goal-oriented than other approaches. Because this form of therapy emphasizes processing, it can take some time to begin seeing results. 

  • What is the main difference between gestalt therapy and other types of therapy?

    Gestalt therapy focuses more on a person's sense of self-direction and change. There is less emphasis on specific goals and/or behavior change, which is at the core of many other approaches. In gestalt therapy, individuals have space to focus on the present and process their experiences.

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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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