What Is Gestalt Therapy Theory?

Gestalt therapy is a complete, complex, and highly developed approach to human psychological functioning. Both Gestalt theory and practice are based on several profound areas of thought and study that include field theory, philosophy, psychoanalysis, Eastern thought, and psychology.

The German word gestalt is defined as the unified nature of a pattern of elements. In Gestalt therapy practice, it refers to our tendency to see and act in unified wholes instead of parts. Thus, the mind, body, and spirit act as one—they are not treated as separate functions.

In Gestalt therapy, the whole and the integrity of the whole are crucially important. A core Gestalt concept is that, born whole and full of possibilities, we create adjustments as a way to cope with adversity. Gestalt therapy seeks to resolve these creative adjustments, which have become rigidified, in order to enhance people’s creativity, liveliness, and presence in the world.

It is helpful to conceptualize Gestalt therapy as a wheel with each of the spokes as a concept; it works through the interconnection of these concepts.

  • Present-centered awareness. Gestalt therapy focuses on the present—living in the moment is more central than dwelling in the past or imagining a future divorced from the present. Described by noted Gestalt practitioner and scholar Isadore From as the “therapy of the obvious,” the process starts from the surface and follows a person’s experience: not seeking out the unconscious, but staying with what is present and aware. Awareness is seen as curative and growth-producing.
  • Profound respect. Gestalt therapy approaches the client—whether an individual, couple, family, or institution—in a deeply respectful manner. This greatly influences the therapist’s attitude toward resistance and change. Gestalt therapy recognizes there is always some element of health in how a client seeks to stay the same (or even continues to engage in behaviors that carry risk), and the process of growth can be accelerated by respecting resistance. Therapy becomes a balance between support and challenge.
  • Emphasis on experience. A person’s experience is more than ideas and memories; it also includes emotions, perceptions, behaviors, and body sensations. Therapy aims to support experiencing in all of these ways—vividly and in the present.
  • Creative experiment and discovery. Gestalt therapy’s experimental methodology requires that therapists constantly test their hunches against the client’s experience and modify these ideas accordingly. The therapist is disciplined to be highly creative and flexible while concentrating on the client’s process. The collaborative efforts of the client and therapist often bring about a fascinating process of discovery.
  • Social responsibility. Gestalt therapy acknowledges responsibility for both self and  others, and its principles extend into the broader social realm. In demanding respect for everyone and a high regard for the differences among them, it supports a humanistic, egalitarian approach to social life and encourages people to live these principles in the community at large.
  • Relationship. Relating is central to human experience and survival, and relationality is the central healing mechanism in Gestalt therapy. One is fully alive when in congruence with oneself and achieving healthy relationships with others. Presence, dialogue, and visibility of the therapist characterize the therapeutic relationship in Gestalt therapy.