History of Gestalt

A Brief History

Gestalt Therapy became an acknowledged therapeutic practice in the early 1950s and has been evolving ever since.

The therapy has roots in many disciplines, including psychoanalysis, humanistic and existential philosophies, Eastern spiritual practice and Gestalt psychology. Frederick and Laura Perls worked together to connect these disciplines with new knowledge about human growth and interaction. Frederick (Fritz) Perls initially trained as a psychiatrist in Germany. In the 1920s, he worked with brain-injured war veterans as assistant to the famous humanistic psychologist Kurt Goldstein. He later trained with Karen Horney, Otto Rank, and Wilhelm Reich. Concurrently, Laura Perls studied with Martin Buber and Paul Tillich and with Gestalt psychologist Max Wertheimer; she became a psychoanalyst when living in New York.

Gestalt Therapy Develops as a White Eurocentric Theory

The Perlses fled Nazi Germany in 1933. After living in Amsterdam, they moved to South Africa, where they established a psychoanalytic training institute and began to develop the core ideas of Gestalt Therapy. At the end of World War II, they moved to New York. One year later, Fritz published his first book, Ego, Hunger and Aggression, which challenged and expanded upon traditional psychoanalytic thought.

The Perlses lived among extraordinary intellectuals, artists and teachers in New York, continuing their immersion in diverse and sophisticated thinking. It was out of this stimulating atmosphere that the theory of Gestalt Therapy was shaped and then put forth in 1951 in the seminal work Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. The book’s authorship is attributed to Perls, social thinker Paul Goodman and Columbia University psychologist Ralph Hefferline. Laura Perls, an important contributor, was not given credit.

It is of note that after leaving Nazi Germany and living in South Africa, the Perlses came to New York and made no response to the racism they found everywhere in America, not even in New York City where they lived and began training. There is little representation from the BIPOC community in early Gestalt literature and training programs. 

Early Trainings

Soon after, the Perlses established the first Gestalt Therapy institute in their New York apartment, training such luminaries as Isadore From, Richard Kitzler and James Simkin.

Training also began in Cleveland with a number of interested therapists, including Erving and Miriam Polster. By the mid-1950s, excitement was growing about the new theory and students of Gestalt Therapy Theory began to establish new institutes around the country. Representation from the BIPOC community was almost nonexistent at these institutes, many of which were located in geographical areas with cultural and racial diversity.

In 1960, Fritz Perls moved to California and later held the first West Coast Gestalt Therapy training at the Esalen Institute. The approach, with its emphasis on directness and experiential method, became a central part of the human potential movement. In the 1980s, many Gestaltists began to focus on the intellectual depth and long-term usefulness of the theory. This movement dovetailed with the psychotherapy community’s interest in finding more inclusive models of practice.

Growth and Expansion

Gestalt Therapy Theory, with its broad-based intellectual framework, can naturally accommodate many diverse techniques while still remaining true to its philosophical and theoretical foundations. While not actually referenced, those trained in Gestalt Therapy Theories can easily see similarities of thought and practice when learning about Mindfulness and Interpersonal Neurobiology. Gestalt Therapy Theory is in the forefront of the new integrative models of psychotherapy both nationally and internationally. Many American cities have a Gestalt Therapy institute, and true to its international origins, there are now more than 100 Gestalt Therapy institutes around the world.

Unfortunately, for decades, the White Gestalt community was not invested in examining reasons why they remained predominantly White. Finally, in January 2018, the Association for the Advancement of Gestalt Therapy (AAGT) posted an online group to discuss the experience of POC members. Two people attended the first meeting. The group persisted, and White and POC members joined in. By August, at the conference in Toronto, with a total of 15-20 POC in attendance, a community meeting was held to attempt the difficult conversation. The time for the community meeting ended, and the conversation was taken into Lynne Jacob’s previously scheduled workshop. It did not go well. Several microaggressions were so injurious that the POC attendees did not want to continue meeting with the White attendees. They have continued separately, and a White-identified interest group was formed.

The study and practice of the therapy is also supported by several member associations, including the AAGT, the Gestalt International Study Center (GISC), the International Gestalt Therapy Association (IGTA), and associations in Europe, Scandinavia, and Australia. Three publications, The International Gestalt Journal, Gestalt Review, and The British Gestalt Journal are dedicated to advancing scholarly work in Gestalt theory. All need to increase their interest in and responsiveness to the experiences of BIPOC who are part of our culture and include their experiences and voices in our theories.

Many Gestalt Therapists today are interested in how our own theories regarding oppression, power and responsibility can be applied to remedy the harmful patterns that create disconnection. We at GTIP are curious to experiment with expanding what these theories offer and see the possibilities for profound and far reaching change for the 21st century.