This is a form of psychological therapy that creates a strong self-awareness. It is based upon the idea that an event not experienced by both logic and emotion is not completely experienced and causes an imbalance which leads to behavioural problems. A simple example is that of a child brought up in an abusive household. The conscious mind may make excuses for why he/she is being beaten, but to do so feelings of hurt and despair must be pushed aside. If this is done successfully then this trait carries over into other emotional experiences and the child will grow up suppressing and unable to express feelings.
The founder of Gestalt therapy was Fritz Perls, a Freudian-trained psychoanalyst who became disenchanted with psychoanalysis. His aim was to enable people to learn from their own experience to acknowledge previously denied or suppressed feelings. Rather than paying attention to why clients behaved in a certain way he was more interested in how they behaved and what that behaviour meant to them. He was more attentive to non-verbal than verbal cues, and insisted that clients take responsibility for their behaviour and feelings. He also wished to help people see the effects of their behaviour on others, and this is why Gestalt therapy takes place in groups, sometimes called encounter groups.
A hallmark of Gestalt therapy is ‘talking to the empty chair’. The client is asked to imagine that a person to whom they wished they had expressed certain feelings is sitting in the chair. They then have an opportunity to express those feelings. They may also be asked to place a part of themselves, for example an emotion or characteristic that they find uncomfortable, in the chair, and have a dialogue with that side of themselves. Other techniques include the highlighting of negative internal ‘messages’, also making clients speak always in the present tense and in the first person, in order to increase self-awareness. Interaction between the members of the group is encouraged, as is the discarding of inhibitions, although the leader of the group also aims to keep the environment safe and unpressured.