A brief history of Gestalt therapy

Gestalt therapy is a psychotherapy practice that originated in Germany in the 1930s. Devised by psychoanalysts Frederick (Fritz) Perls and his wife Laura, the Perls broke away from Freud’s analytic theory, creating their own synthesis of ideas. Accordingly Gestalt therapy incorporates notions from many disciplines. These include body psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, humanistic and existential philosophies, Gestalt psychology, psychodrama and Eastern spiritual practices.

Gestalt therapy develops…

Stone figuresThe Perls fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and settled in South Africa where they set up a psychoanalytic training institute. Here they developed the fundamental principles of Gestalt therapy. After World War II Fritz and Laura moved to New York where they continued to develop their approach, blending concepts from philosophy, politics, interpersonal relations studies and arts media. This culminated in publication in 1951 of the seminal work Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. Written by Fritz Perls in collaboration with visionary social thinker Paul Goodman and psychologist Ralph Hefferline, this radical book also contains many self-therapy experiments designed to help the reader gain an enhanced awareness of self and personality growth through directly experiencing a Gestalt approach.

How Gestalt therapy works

Gestalt therapy fosters personal growth through the development of self-awareness and self-support, enabling creative contact with people and with the environment we live in. Therapist and client work together at forming a trusting relationship, which is central to the healing process. A working alliance is created, within which the client’s unproductive patterns of relating can be understood. The therapist does not seek to change the client but rather to help him/her develop awareness of present experience. Working together they identify creative adjustments that have enabled the client’s survival in an otherwise untenable context.

The therapist encourages exploration of the client’s embodied responses, perceptions, feelings and actions. Within the safe ‘laboratory’ of the therapy room the therapist helps the client experiment with finding more satisfying ways of being, behaving and belonging. Therapy involves a process of both conversing and actively listening, with each person learning something from the other.

At times most people experience obstacles that restrict them from living well and functioning fully. Gestalt therapy seeks to dissolve these blocks enabling the client’s energetic, authentic self to emerge as s/he moves freely through life. Finding our flow can be restorative; it assists us with making choices and helps foster resilience, supporting us in leading more satisfying lives.

Gestalt therapy with children and adolescents


Tumblestones – a projective therapeutic aid

The application of Gestalt therapy principles to therapeutic work with children and adolescents has been pioneered by eminent psychotherapist Dr Violet Oaklander who adapted the method to suit the therapy requirements of a younger clientele. Violet’s sensory, projective arts-based approach places the relationship between therapist and child at the heart of the therapeutic process. Troubled children come into therapy for one or more of the following reasons: problems with self-expression, difficulties with making/sustaining relationships or low self-esteem. Within the medium of a supportive, trusting relationship the therapist helps children express their emotions, needs and wants in safe, healthy ways that bring healing. Violet’s seminal 1998 book, Windows to our Children: A Gestalt Therapy Approach to Children and Adolescents has been translated into 15 languages.

Since Violet’s retirement the Violet Solomon Oaklander Foundation continues to preserve and further her work.

Another key contributor to Gestalt therapy with young persons is Mark McConville, whose groundbreaking 1998 book Adolescence: Psychotherapy and the Emergent Self offers a helpful conceptual model for understanding the stages of teenage development. Together with fellow Cleveland therapist/trainer Marlene Blumenthal’s work with adolescent girls their work locates psychotherapy with young persons within a broader interpersonal field.

Gestalt therapy today

Gestalt therapy remains in the forefront of the integrative psychotherapy movement. It is credited with heralding the shift in emphasis away from the ‘analyst-as-observer-of-the-patient’ towards a focus on the dialogic relationship as co-created between therapist and client.

A growthful, relational therapeutic practice, Gestalt therapy also draws inspiration from other approaches including attachment theory, cognitive psychology, family systems theory and relational psychoanalysis. Practiced and taught across the globe, Gestalt therapy pays regard to matters of identity, gender diversity and difference. To this end Gestalt offers an integrated and respectful practical psychology.