Main Aspects and Principles of Gestalt Therapy

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( Before reading this section please see, What is a Gestalt, and Figure and Ground. )


We, human beings, perceive everything around us as structured meaningful wholes. We do not form perceptions of this world based on its constituent parts. Instead, after observing the whole we subsequently break it down into small parts in our attempt to understand them.

What the blind men were doing, in the story above, was attempting to study the parts of the elephant by coloring the parts, with their own interpretations. As a result, we had the warped and skewed interpretations of the elephant. Once the big picture became clear, the parts automatically became clear.

Another example can be that of water. Water is composed of oxygen and hydrogen. But when we look at water we do not see the individual elements. We see the whole, the gestalt. And if we look at only the parts, (H2O) they do not reveal the entity they would go on to form – water. This example clearly brings out the meaning of the quote by Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka’s, “The whole is other than the sum of its parts.” In the Figure and Ground write-up above, we saw that a gestalt comprises of the figure and the ground. Gestalt Therapy recognizes the figure (foreground) and the ground (background) as a complete whole. For, if they are separated from each other, each individual part loses its meaning, and destroys the wholeness.
In the water example given above, if the two elements (hydrogen and oxygen) that make up water are separated from each other, what we are left with is two elements only.No water. Similarly, day is meaningless without night, just as sound is meaningless without silence. The Yin is always incomplete without the Yang.They derive their meaning from each other.
Gestaltists believe that a person and his world form one complete whole, a total situation. They should not be considered as separate entities. Therefore in Gestalt Therapy the total situation is studied, instead of picking out just one element from the whole for study.
The essence of Gestalt therapy lies in understanding of the formation of the gestalt, and the completion of the gestalt in each person’s experience.
That brings us to some main aspects of Gestalt Therapy:


How a person colours what he sees and experiences is very important in Gestalt Therapy.

This is much more important than what was, or is being experienced. What meaning does a person give to his experience? Does the perception include complete awareness of the full picture? If not, how is the awareness of the total experience/situation blocked? Much like the the skewed perception and incomplete awareness of the five blind men with regard to the elephant. The way a person perceives the world is coloured by his memories, experiences, assumptions, beliefs, expectations, fears, feelings, emotions, and so on. Nobody perceives the world objectively like a camera lens.

At the end of the day it is our awareness, which is the cornerstone of a Gestalt process, and perceptions that define how we function in this world, understand it, and influence it as much as the external world in turn affects and influences our mind and perceptions.
Different persons will have different perceptions of the same experience. No two persons will look at the same experience in the same way. Therefore, their realities too will differ.

A beautiful example can be given here of the poem called Three Stings, by Shel Silverstein:

George got stung by a bee and said,
“I wouldn’t have got stung if I’d stayed in bed.”
Fred got stung and we heard him roar,
“What am I being punished for?”
Lew got stung and we heard him say,
“I learned something about bees today.”

Gestalt therapy or the gestalt concept thus takes into account the complete construction of a person’s perception.
The goal of Gestalt Therapy is increasing awareness, not just self-awareness, but also awareness of the environment and a person’s relationship and contact with others outside of his personal boundary. This leads us to the next aspects.


Every moment we come in contact with our surroundings and environment. According to Gestaltists what is healthy is that a client has good contact, not only with the environment and other people, but with all aspects of himself which includes, his past experiences, feelings, emotions, needs, expectations, behavioural patterns and more. As for his contact with the environment and people, it should be such that his individuality does not get lost in the contact. Neither should he impinge on the other’s boundary when he is contacting.

Boundary is an important concept in Gestalt therapy. And Contact is the way through which we experience our Boundaries. Clues to problematic gestalts lie in those areas of our lives where we have stopped contacts, or have more than normal contacts bordering on interference.

For example, in conflicting situations do we engage in dialogue to mete out differences, or is the habitual response fighting or withdrawing? Contact is actually a very creative process. All healthy contact creates something new. Everything in this world, all gestalts/figures, are born out of contact. Healthy contact will always energize a person’s behaviour and deepen his awareness further, enabling him to understand himself and his environment.

This is one of the primary aims of Gestalt Therapy. Encouraging healthy contact.

When the boundaries become blurred or unclear due to too much contact, or when the boundary becomes impermeable due to less/no contact, then there is disturbance. The person loses connectedness with himself and the nature around, or the ground. That is where growth stops. For a figure cannot exist without a ground.
And that is where the unfinished gestalts lurk, commonly called unfinished businesses of the past. These unfinished businesses seek closure and thus keep interfering with our present. They are often reflections of our childhood, our unmet needs and unfulfilled wishes. They keep rearing their heads to seek completion in the now. For, it is the natural human tendency to complete incomplete designs. This is the reason why in Gestalt Therapy we have the concept of closure by first being fully present in the here and now. Which takes us to the next important aspect in Gestalt Therapy.


Present moment awareness is the answer to all unfinished businesses from the past according to Gestalt Therapy. This is in sharp contrast to other therapeutic approaches which look at the past for answers.

One cannot physically time travel back to the past to change situations, or fulfill unmet needs. But, by being fully aware of each moment in the present we can identify our needs. The present moment holds a lot of choices for us which are not visible if we live in the past, or if we keep anxiously thinking about the future and keep projecting ourselves there. The choices in the present moment then gets lost. And so do opportunities.
It is by being present in the moment that we build up awareness of ourselves, our needs met and unmet, our patterns of behaviour and, identify our potential to change.
By being in the present moment fully we can accept all our our incomplete parts. Solutions become visible as to how to complete them, or a state of centeredness and calmness emerges which allows us to gently release the incomplete past and thereby achieve closure. A state of acceptance and peace prevails, for the unfinished gestalt is now finished. It is now complete.
The present moment always brings wholeness with it, only if we allow ourselves to be fully in it. Everything in the here and now is perfect and complete the way it is.
More importantly it is the present moment which is the harbinger of change.


Albert Beisser, M.D., of the Gestalt Therapy Institute of Los Angeles, in 1970, came up with this very interesting concept of change which became one of the hallmarks in Gestalt Therapy – The Paradox of Change.

To quote Bessier change takes place in one when there is, “ full acceptance of what is, rather than striving to be different.”
He goes on to say, “Change does not take place through a coercive attempt by the individual or by another person to change him, but it does take place if one takes the time and effort to be what he is—to be fully invested in his current positions.”
It is only when we embrace and accept who we are, how we are, and where we are right now that change becomes possible.

Problem begins when a person tries to be someone they are not. Ironically, that is when a person remains stuck. He remains the same. Change cannot be forced.
The moment we are fully present with ourselves where we are, change begins. The present moment then proceeds to strip us of all that we are not.
Our armours and masks fall off. When this tearing apart of the pseudo-self begins, it can get terrifying for some in the beginning. To some others though, it might come as a welcome relief, for they were already so burdened and weary under the weight of all those masks.
The moment the real self emerges from under those masks the Gestalt therapy nears fruition.

This is the stage where the butterfly emerges from the cocoon. This is when the true self of a person emerges and he readily takes ownership of his experiences and stops looking for support on the outside. He gets ready for his next journey, the next change. He is ready to go with the flow when needed, or is ready to swim against the flow when needed. He is now whole and perfect just the way he is.


Please see What is a Gestalt, and Figure and Ground.

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