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Gestalt psychotherapy, also called simply Gestalt therapy, is a holistic or whole-person approach to traditional psychotherapy involving the patient’s emotions, body language, and interactions with his or her environment. Founded in the 1940s by Fritz and Laura Perls, as well as Paul Goodman, gestalt psychotherapy focuses on a patient’s self-awareness and self-perception rather than the therapist’s own explanations for and interpretations of what the patient experiences. With a de-emphasis on what could or should be, gestalt psychotherapy strives to make patients aware of what they are doing and how to make changes in order to accept who they are.
In Freudian psychoanalysis, the patient communicates thoughts, dreams, and fantasies. The analyst then attempts to explain and interpret what the patient is experiencing by making connections to perceived irrational drives and conflicts in the patient’s unconscious mind. In other words, the analyst interprets these experiences and attempts to resolve the resulting problems and symptoms on behalf of the patient.
Gestalt psychotherapy was developed as a reaction to this type of psychoanalysis. In it, the patient is required to take on a more active role in the therapeutic process. Rather than focus on the past or what should be, the emphasis is on the actual present and the patient’s relationships to other people. By fleshing out how the patient relates to those around him or her, the patient can truly come to know him or herself. Thus the direct experience takes precedent over an analyst’s interpretation.
This type of psychotherapy can be especially useful for patients who have difficulty expressing what they feel when confronted with certain experiences or relationships. A technique often associated with gestalt psychotherapy is called the open chair. Using this method, the patient sits before an empty chair and imagines that a person with whom there is unfinished business or unexpressed emotions is sitting in it. The patient then communicates whatever has been unsaid to the empty chair and may even switch chairs, taking on the role and perspective of the imagined person.
While the patient is communicating with the imagined person, the therapist typically pays attention both to context and content. The words being said are as important as the patient’s body language. The therapist can pause the conversation to ask about a physical movement, such as increasing sweating or swallowing, or why a certain word or phrase was used. These questions are meant to make the patient aware of the behaviors and to think about their meanings.
The goal of gestalt psychotherapy is to make the patient aware of how he or she functions in his or her actual environment. By focusing on what the patient is doing in the present, its aim is to help him or her become aware of how to shift behaviors. This self-awareness can empower patients to leave unfinished business behind and to accept and value themselves. In this sense, this type of psychotherapy is humanistic and cognitive.