Gestalt therapy

Written by Ellen Lees

Ellen Lees

Counselling Directory Content Team

Last updated September 2018 | Next review due March 2020

Gestalt therapy refers to a form of psychotherapy that derives from the gestalt school of thought. Developed in the late 1940s by Fritz Perls, gestalt therapy is guided by the relational theory principle that every individual is a whole (mind, body and soul) and that they are best understood in relation to their current situation as he/she experiences it.

The approach combines this relational theory with present state - focusing strongly on self-awareness and the ‘here and now’ (what is happening from one moment to the next). In gestalt therapy, self-awareness is key to personal growth and developing full potential. The approach recognises that sometimes this self-awareness can become blocked by negative thought patterns and behaviours that can leave people feeling dissatisfied and unhappy.

It is the aim of a gestalt therapist to promote a non-judgemental self-awareness that enables clients to develop a unique perspective on life. By helping an individual to become more aware of how they think, feel and act in the present moment, gestalt therapy provides an insight into ways in which a person can alleviate any current issues and distress they are experiencing in order to aspire to their maximum potential.

There are many different types of therapy - what works for some people, may not be the best option for you. Visit our types of therapy fact-sheet for more information.

Key concepts of gestalt therapy

Gestalt therapy works through the interconnection of key concepts. These offer insight into the processes involved in therapy sessions between the therapist and client(s).

Person-centred awareness - Focusing on the present and imagining it divorced from the future and past is considered essential. The process follows an individual’s experience in a way that does not involve seeking out the unconscious, but staying with what is present and being aware.

Respect - Clients, whether an individual, group or family, are treated with profound respect by a gestalt therapist. Providing a balance of support and challenge is key to helping those taking part to feel comfortable about opening up, and acknowledging areas of resistance.

Emphasis on experience - The gestalt approach focuses on experience in terms of a person’s emotions, perceptions, behaviours, body sensations, ideas and memories. A therapy encourages the client to ‘experience’ in all of these ways, vividly in the here and now.

Creative experiment and discovery - There is a range of experimental methodology used by therapists to test their client’s experience. These involve highly creative and flexible techniques to help them open up and acknowledge hidden feelings.

Social responsibility - The gestalt approach recognises that humans have a social responsibility for the self and for others. It demands respect for all people and acknowledges that everyone is different. Ultimately, it encourages individuals to adopt an egalitarian approach to social life.

Relationship - Relating is considered central to human experience, and gestalt therapy considers individuals as a ‘whole’ when they have a good relationship with themselves and others around them. The interpersonal relationship between the individual and therapist developed and nurtured in sessions is a key guiding process of therapy.

The ability to complete the healing that exists after wounding takes time, courage and commitment. It is likely that the relationship will change, to be relaxed within a relationship allows each individual to grow, become closer and intimate. The session in gestalt couples therapy focuses on the contact in the relationship. Blame and fault are not to the forefront, the ability to move forward and solve difficulties in the relationship is the primary process.

- Counsellor Richard Dennison.

man and woman in library

The benefits of gestalt therapy

Ultimately, gestalt therapy is considered to help individuals gain a better understanding of how their emotional and physical needs are connected. They will learn that being aware of their internal self is key to understanding why they react and behave in certain ways. This journey of self-discovery makes the approach beneficial for individuals who can be guarded when it comes to their emotions, and find it difficult to process why they feel and act the way they do. It can also provide support and a safe space for individuals going through times of personal difficulty.

Gestalt therapy is considered particularly valuable for helping to treat a wide range of psychological issues - especially as it can be applied either as a long-term therapy or as a brief and focused approach. It has been found effective for managing tension, anxiety, addiction, post-traumatic stress, depression and other psychological problems that can prevent people from living life to the full. Overall, people who participate in gestalt therapy are said to feel more self-confident and at peace with themselves once sessions are over.

How does it work?

Gestalt therapy works by teaching clients how to define what is truly being experienced, rather than what is merely an interpretation of the events. Those undertaking gestalt therapy will explore all of their thoughts, feelings, behaviours, beliefs and values to develop awareness of how they present themselves and respond to events in their environment. This gives them the opportunity to identify choices, patterns of behaviour and obstacles that are impacting their health and well-being, and preventing them from reaching their full potential.

The unfolding of this therapeutic process will typically involve a range of expressive techniques and creative experiments developed collaboratively between therapist and client. These will be appropriate for the client and their specific problems.

Below we explain some of the common methods used.

Role play

Role play can help individuals to experience different feelings and emotions, and to better understand how they present and organise themselves.

The ‘open chair’ technique

The open chair technique involves two chairs and role play, and give rise to emotional scenes. The client sits opposite an empty chair and must imagine someone (usually themselves or parts of themselves) sitting in it. Next, they will communicate with this imaginary being - asking questions and engaging with what they represent.

Then they must switch chairs so they are physically sitting in the once-empty chair. The conversation continues, but the client has reversed roles - speaking on behalf of the imagined part of their own problem. This technique aims to enable participants to locate a specific feeling or a side of their personality they had previously disowned or tried to ignore. This helps them to accept polarities and acknowledge that conflicts exist in everyone.


A gestalt therapist will need to engage the client in meaningful and authentic dialogue in order to guide them to a particular way of behaving or thinking. This may move beyond simple discussion to more creative forms of expression such as dancing, singing or laughing.

Discussing dreams

Dreams play an important role in gestalt therapy, as they can help individuals to understand spontaneous aspects of themselves. Fritz Perls frequently asked clients to relive their dreams by playing different objects and people in the dream. During this, they would be asked questions such as, ‘what are you aware of now?’ to sharpen self-awareness.

Attention to body language

Throughout therapy, a gestalt therapist will concentrate on body language, which is considered a subtle indicator of intense emotions. When specific body language is noticed, the therapist may ask the client to exaggerate these movements or behaviours.

This is thought to intensify the emotion attached to the behaviour and highlight an inner meaning. For example, a client may be showing signs of clenched fists or frowning, to which the therapist may ask something such as, ‘what are you saying with this movement?’.

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