Gestalt therapy

Written by Ellen Lees
Ellen Lees
Counselling Directory Content Team

Last updated 14th February 2024 | Next update due 13th February 2027

Gestalt therapy refers to a form of psychotherapy that derives from the Gestalt school of thought. It aims to help people develop greater self-awareness so that they can more confidently reach their full potential and effectively manage any problems as they come to the surface. 

On this page, we’ll explore gestalt therapy in more detail, including when it might be sought, the techniques used and how it works. 

The history of gestalt therapy 

Gestalt therapy was developed in the late 1940s by Fritz Perls and his then-wife, Laura Perls. Working as psychoanalysts at the time, their new approach looked to create an alternative form of therapy. Rather than viewing psychological problems as being rooted in the unconscious, gestalt therapy took a holistic view of the individual. 

Instead of simply looking at one aspect of a person, such as their mental well-being, the Perls’ believed that people should be thought of as ‘whole beings’ (i.e. in body, mind and emotions). They believed that we should look at ourselves through our own eyes to better understand how we operate as individuals. This type of therapy also differs from other methods in that it focuses on the present, rather than going back to a person’s past. 

Gestalt therapy was born from the German word, “gestalt,” which can be roughly translated to mean “whole” or “complete.” It falls into the ‘humanistic’ category of counselling approaches. This group of therapies, also including person-centred and solution-focused therapy, aims to help people identify and move beyond any blockages so they can reach their full potential. Ultimately, it is about self-exploration and developing a greater sense of self-awareness. The role of the gestalt therapist is to hold a safe space for clients to go on this journey. 

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.


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 gestalt session 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 methodologies 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. Techniques can include role-playing, painting or drawing. 

Social responsibility

The gestalt approach recognises that humans have a social responsibility for the self and for others. Principles are based on respect for all people and acknowledging that everyone is different. Ultimately, it encourages individuals to adopt an egalitarian approach to social life (viewing everybody as equal).


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 that is developed and nurtured in sessions is a key guiding process of therapy.

How does gestalt therapy 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 allows them 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 'empty chair' technique

The empty or ‘open’ chair technique involves two chairs and role play and gives 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 the client switches 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?’.

When might gestalt therapy be used? 

Gestalt therapy is useful for anyone who wants to improve their self-awareness and, specifically, wishes to identify blockages and learn effective techniques to move beyond these bumps in the road. It 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 is commonly used to help those experiencing the following:

“Working with anxiety from this perspective is not just about managing symptoms, but about enhancing your overall situational awareness and your capacity to navigate your life space more effectively.”

- Psychotherapist Simon Stafford-Townsend UKCP Reg. on understanding anxiety through gestalt therapy

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.

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. This therapy teaches us that being aware of our internal selves is key to understanding why we react and behave in certain ways.

Gestalt can be an incredibly empowering therapy that allows people to explore their current emotions free from judgement. Generally, people who participate in gestalt therapy are said to feel more self-confident and at peace with themselves once sessions are over. However, it’s important to recognise that it may not be suitable for everyone, in which case, there are a number of other types of therapy available. To see if gestalt therapy is right for you, connect with a therapist to find out more. 

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