Gestalt therapy encourages people to make positive change by focusing on their experience in the present moment. Developed in the late 1940s by psychotherapist Fritz Perls, Gestalt therapy took a detour from traditional therapies like Freud’s psychoanalytic approach, which delved more deeply into an individual’s past experiences.

What Is Gestalt Therapy?

Gestalt therapy is considered a humanistic therapy. Humanistic therapies center on self-acceptance and self-awareness. The client-therapist relationship plays an important role. Instead of a hierarchical model, the counselor serves more as a guide and partner in positive change, letting the counseling session naturally flow in the direction of whatever the client is experiencing in that moment. Central themes include:

Whole-person healing – In Gestalt therapy, the physical self plays just as an important role as thoughts and emotions. In a Gestalt approach, the therapist and client pay close attention to all the different parts that make up a person’s experience, including the sensations that are tied to feelings.

Attention to the present – A core component of Gestalt therapy is working with what arises in the moment and letting that guide therapeutic work. The theory is that “unfinished business” of the past impacting the present will have an opportunity to resolve itself through this process. Sessions may or may not look directly at situations in the past, but it’s not a main focus.

The importance of how – Instead of analyzing why a behavior or difficult emotion is occurring, Gestalt therapy focuses on how the behavior or emotion is affecting the client’s life and how to manage the experience in the here and now.

Inner experience – Gestalt therapy encourages the client to let their inner experience speak. Clients are often asked to notice physical sensations that arise when discussing a situation or people in their lives.

Personal responsibility – Clients learn to accept responsibility for their feelings and behaviors with compassion for themselves.

A safe space – The therapist provides an accepting, non-judgmental environment for the client to share openly and honestly.

Direct experience – Clients are encouraged to really “feel” their emotions instead of just talking about them. This helps connect the physical and emotional aspects of the self.

Reflection – The therapist serves as a “resonance chamber,” reflecting back the client’s emotions to them in order for the client to more deeply understand their experience and to feel more compassion for themselves.

Authenticity – The therapist sets a tone of respectful, genuine and authentic interaction. Both the client and therapist work to bring honest, open communication to individual or group counseling sessions.

Gestalt Therapy Techniques

Gestalt therapy techniques vary by therapist and what a client needs to address, but some examples of common Gestalt therapy exercises include:

Connecting with surroundings – Clients focus on their senses to help them land in the present moment. They pay attention to how they’re experiencing their surroundings through listening, seeing, smelling and hearing.

Empty chair exercise – Perhaps the most widely known of Gestalt therapy exercises, the empty chair technique helps clients resolve internal conflict through role playing. The client faces an empty chair and imagines something, someone or a part of themselves they’re struggling with. Guided by the Gestalt therapist, they have a conversation with the person, object or concept. They then reverse roles, playing the part of the entity previously in the empty chair. This helps clients gain new perspectives, empathy for themselves and others, and insight into where they’re holding painful emotions.

Dream work – Instead of analyzing dreams, clients may “relive” them through re-enactment or role-playing. They may be asked to pay attention to what certain aspects of dreams bring up for them physically and emotionally. Fritz Perls, the creator of Gestalt therapy said, “Instead of analyzing and further cutting up the dream, we want to bring it back to life.”

Exaggeration – Clients pay close attention to how a difficult emotion is presenting physically. For example, perhaps they’re wringing their hands when speaking about a challenging person or situation. The therapist guides them through staying with that nonverbal behavior, greatly emphasizing it over and over again to see what thoughts and feelings arise.

Sitting with emotions – Gestalt therapy encourages clients to be present with uncomfortable emotions to gain new insights into them and lessen the hold they have on them. Clients may be asked to sit with a difficult feeling, exploring what it looks like, feels like and where they hold it in their body through a variety of creative exercises.

Using language – Clients are asked to notice their speech patterns and how they might be detaching from their experiences. For example, are they using “you” or “it” instead of “I?” They may be asked to repeat their dialogue, substituting “I” where appropriate to encourage ownership of their feelings and thoughts. Another example of using language is asking clients to turn weaker statements into stronger, direct statements. For example, omitting qualifiers like “maybe,” “I guess” and “perhaps.” They may also turn phrases like, “I can’t” into “I won’t” or “I should” into “I want to.”

Benefits of Gestalt Therapy

Though research into humanistic approaches like Gestalt therapy is still in its infancy, a 2002 meta-analysis of existing studies found that humanistic therapies are as effective as approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy. It also found that positive changes are lasting, even after therapy is discontinued.

Some benefits of client-driven, humanistic therapies like Gestalt therapy include:

  • Greater sense of self-efficacy
  • Feeling better able to manage and tolerate difficult emotions and situations
  • Decreased depression and anxiety symptoms
  • Greater sense of overall well-being by placing attention on physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of the self
  • Increased self-awareness and self-acceptance
  • Improved relationships with others
  • Better communication and coping skills