What is a Gestalt Therapist?
Sarah Mello, 2017 GTIP grad and current GTIP Adjunct Faculty, eloquently and straightforwardly talks about Gestalt therapy and defines for new clients what it is and isn’t:
“Gestalt therapy has been around since the early 1950s and one of its roots, Gestalt psychology, has been around 50 years before then. Gestalt therapy is experiential, relational, and holistic. Western medicine’s tendency to split mind and body may have something to do with the greater popularity of other therapeutic modalities that focus more on thought and reason with less attention to breath and body.”
Below are some important elements of Gestalt Therapy Theory that outline how you and your therapist might work together and an overview of Gestalt therapy practice.
- How People Change — Gestalt therapy employs a paradoxical theory of change. Simply put, we believe that before a person can change, they need to fully understand what currently is. In sessions, your therapist might direct you to focus more on what you currently feel and believe, perhaps even ask you to exaggerate an idea in session, before looking forward to what you would like to change in the future. All behaviors and habits were developed to serve a purpose; understanding what purpose they once served is the first step in deciding whether they are still necessary or efficient.
- Present Focused — While it can be helpful to know how current behavior patterns were formed, Gestalt therapists may not spend a lot of time trying to analyze or make sense of the past. Anxious people focus a great deal on the future. Depressed people often focus on what has already occurred. The present moment, however, is the only place we have any actual power to make changes. Being aware of what you are experiencing moment to moment can be a powerful tool for change.
- Relational and Experiential — Some approaches to therapy position the therapist as the “expert” and you as the less competent or powerful “patient.” In Gestalt therapy, we seek to co-create an approach to your healing based on the relationship we create together. Questions your therapist might ask, such as, “What is it like to be telling me this right now?” help both of you pay attention to the impact you have on one another and what patterns might be playing out in therapy that mirror relationship patterns in your daily life.
- Importance of Breath — Breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, calming the “fight or flight” response that is triggered by anxiety. Your therapist may help you learn to breathe in ways that allow you to feel grounded, more aware of yourself, and more able to make choices informed by what you need in the moment.
- Body Awareness — The body stores memories of past experiences, sometimes without us even being aware of it. Patterns of movement or the way we hold our bodies or gesture when we speak can sometimes inform us about our behavior. People who have a difficult time expressing emotions can sometimes access feelings through describing physical sensations. Many of us have difficult relationships with our body, whether we have experienced physical trauma or experience dysmorphia. This disconnection from our physical selves can sometimes lead us to feel less certain of ourselves and less trusting of our own instincts. You and your therapist can carefully and thoughtfully find ways for you to become more integrated with your physical self and unlock the wisdom your body may be holding. In session, this might look like experimenting with poses, exaggerating body movements, or simply focusing attention on sensations.
- Experiments — All of therapy, maybe even all of life, is just an experiment. There is no “right” way to be in a session. Each time you and your therapist meet is a chance to try something new and explore new ways of understanding, and every choice is optional. Your therapist may offer “experiments” in your session: “If you’re interested, we might try standing up and see if it feels different,” or “I wonder if you’d like to try speaking as if that person were here with us right now.” These opportunities should be created together at your own pace and never without your consent. How freeing it can be to see all of our choices as nothing more than an experiment, without attachment to “doing it right!”