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The Origins of Gestalt
Gestalt Therapy was originated by Fritz and Laura Perls and further developed in the USA in the 1940’s in conjunction with Paul Goodman and other members of the ‘New York Group’.
A wide range of influences contribute to both theory and practice, blending Eastern and Western thought with current philosophical and psychodynamic theories. The Gestalt approach has its roots in psychoanalysis, existentialism, gestalt psychology, phenomenology, some of the theories of Wilhelm Reich, psychodrama, and Zen Buddhism. In a remarkable synthesis borrowing from these and other approaches, Fritz and Laura Perls created a new ‘whole’ called Gestalt Therapy.
Gestalt today is becoming more popular than ever. In Australia there are numerous training centres, which are linking together into a cohesive network. Current technologies such as internet and video conferencing are being utilised and there is an increasing exchange of ideas and expertise between Gestalt trainers. There is an ongoing effort to use the well-proven base of Gestalt in leading edge applications, relevant to both our current society and the one we want to create.
The Gestalt Therapist
Neither flashy techniques nor clever interventions are seen as essential abilities for the Gestalt therapist. Rather, authentic relating, presence, clear self awareness, and unfettered observation constitute the underpinnings of Gestalt practice. The therapist is as a midwife, assisting a process which has its own natural rhythm of unfolding, and which primarily requires an ability to be finely tuned to the needs of the moment.
Gestalt is an anarchist process in the sense that it does not conform to preset rules and expectations. Thus there is scope for a great deal of creativity and individuality, and encouragement for each therapist to find their own unique style.
Drive to wholeness
Picture a jigsaw with only one piece missing: we have an inherent desire to fit that piece, and an innate sense of satisfaction when the picture is complete. This drive to completion, wholeness, or Gestalt, is what propels us to deal with unfinished issues in our lives and to experience a nagging sense of discomfort until that is done.
Gestalt therapy uses awareness to identify these incomplete parts. Then to assist a person towards the realisation of wholeness, new forms of behaviour are experimented with, feelings felt and released, and thinking patterns brought to consciousness and updated. This is done in the focus of the present moment, allowing liveliness and freshness to enter old and stale experiences.
An important part of the work involves unifying the ‘splits’ within that literally ‘tear us apart’; sinner/saint, coward/bully, miser/spendthrift. Rather than projecting one side of these onto others, we can integrate them in ourselves, thus becoming more whole and capable of balanced living. Taking responsibility for the disowned parts of our self can be very challenging, but it is ultimately a very freeing and empowering experience.
Maturity is seen as being able to distinguish the nourishing from the toxic influences in our environment, and to act accordingly. This allows us to cope with the new, the unexpected, the dangerous and sometimes damaging events which come our way. Often however, our family setting has taught us dysfunctional coping responses. Gestalt work identifies our particular way of distorting or avoiding contact, and then assists us to restore clear boundaries and thereby establish healthy contact with self and other. The process allows each person to re-establish trust in their inherent wisdom, knowing when to come close to another and when to let go, person by person and moment by moment.
Gestalt provides scope for a great deal of creativity and individuality in each therapist, and seeks to strike a balance between frustration of old patterns and supporting the development of new options. Assisting the client towards self support is seen as one underlying element of each person’s growth towards maturity. The other element is the ability to take in support and nourishment in relationship, and to be able to accept that in the present, even if it was missing in the past.
1. An existential approach
2. A phenomenological approach
3. A dialogical approach
4. A wholistic approach
5. A practical approach
Things as they are
Whatever is, is; a statement so obvious that it seems redundant. But Gestalt has been described as the ‘philosophy of the obvious’. This is a fundamental departure from the analytical approach in which a therapist uses interpretation in order to help a person who is stuck.
This is because firstly, it is not assumed in Gestalt that the therapist has a privileged access to what is ‘reality’. The task of the therapist is seen as learning about the client’s subjective view of the world, honouring and respecting that experience, and exploring how they come to construct life in that way. This appreciation of the face validity of the other’s perspective does not mean agreement, and the richness of contact comes about between the meeting of two ways of seeing; there is space for both views. As a result Gestalt therapy is both very powerful and direct, while at the same time being very respectful of the client’s safety limits and their knowledge of what is right for them.
Secondly, if in fact part of our dysfunction involves blinding ourselves to what is happening, then restoration of wholeness must involve recognition and acceptance of a person as they are. The paradoxical theory of change suggests that when we can help someone become as they actually are now, opportunities and processes of change begin to emerge; but as long as we strain toward a given goal, without giving the reality of the present its due, little if anything will change. So in Gestalt we work on discovering, amplifying, experimenting with, and evaluating in a rich variety of ways, what is true of the individual person here and now.
Inherent in this process is the basic acceptance of you in your reality, and of me in mine. A core problem people bring to therapy is that they do not feel okay with who they are, believing they should be different. Thinner, stronger, more charming, more blunt, more liberated, more considerate...fill in the blank. If the therapist has their own agenda of how a person should be, this can add to the weight of accumulated shoulds.
So as a therapist in the Gestalt approach, I am free to be myself, warts and all. And I offer you the freedom of breathing space, knowing that you are accepted in your being. My challenge as therapist is to allow and take responsibility for my own experience, whilst not burdening you even with subtle expectations. George Sweet suggests therapists remind themselves, ‘I have no desire to change this person in any way’.
This allows for a quality of relationship which is often a facet of Gestalt groups; the recognition of self and other to a depth which is usually associated with (though not always achieved in) intimate relationships. This spontaneous experience is always profoundly moving, can be funny, sad, or angry, and is often highly creative. The experience of living more fully within the safe setting of the group is both a valid moment per se, and a practice for daily life. For the goal is to touch more and more a heightened state of awareness that could be called ‘being in Gestalt’.
ROHAN ~ Medical Doctor and Consultant
Steve is a truly gifted teacher and therapist who is clearly practising his calling. He brings wisdom, genuine caring and compassion to our sessions and he has helped me finally navigate a path towards a healthier and more skilful way to approach anxiety, stress and behaviours that were damaging to my relationships and my work. I have seen psychologists before and been left with little. This is the first time that I have seen genuine changes to my mental well-being that has improved the quality of my relationships, work and life.
NATALIE ~ Acupuncturist, R.N
I first met Steve through a presentation he did on Family Constellations. This was a very powerful and releasing experience. I since contacted him for personal work and professional supervision. I have benefitted greatly from continued sessions, I feel aware of the roles I play in my life, and have stopped blaming others for the decisions I have made. I feel in control of the direction my life takes now. This, amongst a myriad of other revelations, has given me greater freedom and a sustained sense of happiness.
PAUL ~ Drug & Alcohol counsellor
Four years training with Steve Gunther was life changing. I learnt so much about myself and how I am in the world, how am I with clients and how to deal with and engage any person in any situation.
I gained the skills to practice Gestalt Psychotherapy and the confidence to do it in my own style. I have gone on to expand my Gestalt training into Community Development and helping effect societal change.
Steve has a hands on assured teaching style which is just as effective as his brilliant personal counselling work - powerful and profound, yet guided by the clients and the students.
JENNY ~ Therapist
I have know Steve for 18 years, experiencing him as Gestalt teacher and therapist. I have grown to have a great deal of respect for him and have always valued all that he strives for. He is a person of great integrity, intelligence, wisdom, energy, sincerity and care.
Added to this has always been a commitment to his own personal and professional growth, demonstrating itself in humility, confidence and determination. I have always felt that he has had my best interests at heart, which resulted in me being gently guided towards taking risks, in healing my past and leaping into my future.
The 'work' that I have done with Steve over the years has helped shape my life and the person I am today, which is greatly fullfilled and happy.
SHIRLEY ~ Psychotherapist
Having been a client of Steve's, I confidently recommend his services to any client who is seeking therapy. I found him to be contactful, empathic, intuitive. fully understanding of and tuned in to the issues I presented. I felt very safe in his care and professional expertise, and I experienced personal growth, increased self awareness and complete satisfaction through the consultations I had with him.
BRYANT ~ Natural therapist and Homeopath
Gestalt Therapy with Steve Gunther gave me two focal insights in particular. One was how my energy moved between my ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’ self, and the other how my physical body carried the demand I placed on myself as expectation.
One session I clearly remember was Steve helping me elicit an image of a ball and chain around my left leg (which was chronically arthritic). As I processed those feelings and felt images, I saw shifts including release of tension, emotionally and energetically, over the period. I am very grateful to Steve for his devotion and his art, and for his very astute processing skills. Good memories.