Gestalt-Humanistic Therapy: The What and How of Experience


This is not intended to be a comprehensive be-all description of what you might anticipate in working with a person who approaches the counseling process from a relationally-oriented model of gestalt and humanistic theory.  Nor is it a formulaic description of what you might expect if we get the chance to work together.  Therapy, at its best, is characterized by the existence of a special type of relationship that offers a felt sense of trust and warmth that can promote client disclosure, risk-taking, openness to challenge, feedback, and the conditions necessary for meaningful, enduring growth.  I appreciate that there are many helpful counseling approaches that can bring about client change and reduce symptoms associated with problems of living.  More importantly though, I have learned over years of professional practice that the chance meeting between the person of the client(s) and the availability and presence of the person of the therapist offers the most helpful space for discussion as it relates to what accounts for the reasons therapy does or does not work.  As a gestalt trained psychotherapist, I draw from several schools of theory that privilege the therapeutic relationship as the primary mechanism for successful treatment outcomes, including feminism, existential, experiential and mindfulness.  I'm interested in working with people in close proximity to their feelings, thoughts, dreams, wants, needs, and concerns and giving attention to the whole person, including spiritual, emotional, physical, intellectual, and interpersonal.  This can encompass everything from the client's past and future with particular emphasis on how a person is functioning in the present moment.  We look for hidden or denied resources that exist in the self and work to develop assets and strengths that can emerge more fully in a person's day to day life. 

From a gestalt-humanistic orientation, you will notice a deeply, personal experience of working through concerns with the supportive presence of a helper that believes in your ability to live an authentic life and to creatively manage problems or impasses with added grace and clarity.  I recognize the importance of working on myself in my own personal journey and the need for on-going growth and professional development so that I can offer myself as a meaningful human resource to join with you in your life journey.  We focus on connection, person to person, rather than relating to a diagnostic description of what or who you are - you are much more than your symptoms.  The process emphasizes the significance of identifying and releasing unexpressed feelings, experiencing new levels of awareness about oneself and the relationship he/she/zie chooses with their world, making contact with new possibilities, experimenting with new data that can support shifts in thinking, feeling, behaving and relatedness and together, making room for resolving unfinished business and a change in unhealthy life themes.  

The gestalt approach emphasizes developing a "here and now" orientation that is experienced, not just talked about.  Clients are helped to "stay in the flow" of their present experience and to engage in practice activities or creative experiments to provide opportunities to learn more about the self and self-in-relation to others.  As a gestalt practitioner, I work to develop interventions based on the "cycle of experience" that focuses on therapeutic awareness of clients' contextual issues (i.e., the present field), including interpersonal connections, emotional involvement (or lack thereof) and the gestalt notion of resistances (desensitization, confluence, introjection, projection, retroflection, deflection and egoism).  By attending to these elements of the client's experience, the therapist can support the client in gaining insight and awareness into how they have learned to "creatively adjust" to life situations and to move toward richer meaning, responsibility, choice, and healthy, authentic relationships, etc. 

An additional component of a humanistic approach is the notion of the "I-Thou" relationship, a concept introduced by Martin Buber.  By being present and communicating authentically, the counseling relationship has its greatest potential to influence client change through the deep valuing of who one actually is.  The client's experience of being joined with and being fully seen in the eyes of a caring person has in itself healing power.  "The paradox, that healing through meeting exposes what is possibly unhealed in the self, is only one of many paradoxes in therapy" (Jacobs, 1989).  Qualities such as presence, genuineness, respecting client resistance to change, unreserved communication, warmth, honesty and inclusion are essential aspects of the I-Thou relationship.  

An anecdotal list of what gestalt therapy is:

  • a contactful, dialogical, existential, creative, phenomenological, relational clinical practice
  • a gestalt therapist is an "agent of change" - not a "change agent"
  • a positive approach to living - "You don't have to be sick to get better"
  • an approach that recognizes client autonomy and forces that keep people the same, in spite of the desire to change
  • a flexible and culturally-response approach that can be applied in a number of different client settings, including individual, couples, group, organizations and families
  • every moment in gestalt therapy is both a deeply relational event and a technical event
  • supports individuals in becoming more integrated, realized and authentic beings and assists in the process of living fully functioning, more adjusted lives
  • deeply respects the cultural landscape and interior dimensions of a person's background, lived experiences, perceptive world and interpersonal histories
  • holds the belief that people are "seen into existence" through an authentic relationship and have the best chance at health when honest attention is given to all aspects of a person's being

A brief notation of what gestalt therapy is not:

  • not a manualized, one-size-fits-all approach
  • insight and change are not the result of the interpretations of an outside person (i.e., the counselor)
  • limited to problem-solving or solely working on life's maladies
  • narrowly limited in its focus; it includes working with clients' behaviors, physical presence, affect, thoughts, dreams and relational processes
  • a doctor-patient relationship

In short, I believe in the potential for a special type of counseling relationship, when it contains certain qualities (including in the person of the therapist), to provide the necessary and sufficient conditions for personal growth and the meaningful resolution of problems through creative and empowering means.