What is Contemporary Gestalt Therapy?
Contemporary Gestalt Therapy is founded in the same 3 principles of Dialogue, Field Theory, and Phenomenology as it was when the founders Fritz Perls, Hefferline and Goodman developed it. However today it is not so focused on the revision of psychoanalysis as focused on the process element that supports the awareness of current experience from a phenomenological perspective, making contact at the boundary with others/s and difference, and supporting Paradoxical Nature of change. Which is to say not pushing for or attaching to the need for change, but to support the client in gaining awareness of the function of what they are doing and support them to invest more fully in their experience. It is from this place that they will naturally move toward what supports them best, when they are ready.
The first principle at the foundation of gestalt therapy theory and practice is phenomenology. Similar to the others below, we could simply spend our lives learning about phenomenology. For the purposes of sharing how this pertains to gestalt therapy, here is how I think about it. Phenomenology relates to our sensory experience of the world. We make contact with ourselves and the world through our sensory experiences. No one of us could understand fully the phenomenological experience of an other, but in the context of therapy, we make an effort to understand and support the phenomenological experience of the patient, without a need to make it different, compel the other to get us to understand if we don't, and look for ways the other may rigidly insist on or invalidate their own phenomenological experience. When we start with what is experientially true for the patient, we inevitably get to what is most important in their regulation.
The second principle at the foundation of gestalt therapy theory and practice is field theory. This is based, initially on Kurt Lewin's work. Broadly, it's that everything is connected. This is profoundly important. It is more than a nice idea; this is at the root of how we engage in the world, how we have a sense of engaging in the world. Our sense of our selves are in intimate concert with our bodies, others, family, communities, geographies, culture, spirit, gender, race, ethnicity, etc. This extends to our sense of time as well. Past, present and future, all exist in the present moment. So, it is vital to be looking at our engagement with our patients, and our sense of their lives, from what is essentially a systems theory perspective. We are always considering the interdependence of ourselves with patients, our patients with us, our patients and their worlds, etc.
This is really about having what we call a dialogic stance or dialogic attitude; approaching contact with patients (most relationships ideally) with a sense of equity, interdependence, reciprocal impact, curiosity and creative indifference. We disavow the role of “change agent” as therapist and make an effort to approach the therapeutic engagement as equals. This is not to pretend that we, as therapists, do not have training, experience and resources. Nor do we pretend that power dynamics do not exist. Nor do we pretend that privilege and oppression are not present and impacting the therapeutic relationship in the moment. On the contrary, we do what we can to bring our awareness to these forces. However, the point is that we are prioritizing the dialogic stance of equity in the therapeutic relationship in each moment.
Paradoxical Nature of Change
Arnold Beisser is often referenced as the originator of this concept, but it is found in many religious and philosophical texts. It is also a concept we could spend our lives discussing. Briefly stated, this principle presumes not that our intent is to get change to occur in therapy, but rather that change is a constant. Our felt sense or experience of change can make it seem that nothing is changing, when in fact no moment is the same as the last. We can experience a sense of change that we may desire by paradoxically becoming more fully invested in our present position in which we may seem stuck. This is stated here abstractly; it is something that can be integrated better by experience. Of course, patients come to therapy with a desire for things to be different, but as gestalt therapists, we know or hold that the goal of therapy is to become more of who you are, as you are, rather than to become different. It is our longing for circumstances to be different that exacerbates our distress more so than does our actual circumstances. What gets in the way of the work is the work. The obstacle in the way is the way.
We do not engage patients in pre-defined techniques with an investment in what they will do for or to the patient. We may of course have a sense of how an intervention may go, but we are disciplined in maintaining curiosity. A true experiment is simply A + B = Let's see. We might invite a patient to notice their pressured speech and check out if it matches what they are feeling about what they are sharing. We might have them experiment with speaking with more pressure, and then less pressure. None of this is to get something to happen nor to get a particular outcome. If the experiment is that we play with their speech, the outcome may be their protest to us inviting them to do something, and then we attend to that protest.
Gestalt therapy is non-pathologizing. Again, broadly what we tend to refer to as pathology, depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms, as a protest to rigid disconnection or rigid connection. These symptoms are how our organism protest a kind of disconnection within oneself or between self and other. Symptoms of what we refer to as psychopathology, are at least first considered through a lens of the wisdom of the organism.