Gestalt therapy as a clinical phenomenology is a modality of disclosure. We seek to bring what is hidden (unaware) into the open (aware). We achieve this by our focused attention on contacting. Things show themselves as themselves as figures emerge from the background in the unending course of experiencing. Contacting is the essence of gestalt therapy, its DNA. Contacting: feet touching the ground; air inhaled and exhaled; flesh touching flesh. Contacting is the simplest grasping of life-itself on the world. Contacting is how we are held by and hold the world, how we are sustained as living creatures, and create the domicile of meaning that surrounds and creates us.
“Contacting the Other in Gestalt Therapy,” Dan Bloom, 2016
Gestalt therapy is an original humanistic approach to psychotherapy. It was developed in the early 1950’s by Fritz and Laura Perls, psychoanalysts from Germany, and Paul Goodman, an American intellectual. Gestalt therapy evolved over the decades. It has also influenced many other clinical approaches. Gestalt therapy has not stood still. The gestalt therapy that is practiced today is not the gestalt therapy of the past.
Initially, gestalt therapy was a response to the predominant authoritarian and hierarchical psychotherapeutic approaches that often sought to conform people to social norms. Gestalt therapy encouraged people to find their own identities. Gestalt therapy still focuses on the creativity of the person who, with the awareness achieved in therapy, becomes more and more able to resolve his or her own difficulties. Therapy is guided by the qualities of a person’s experience and not by the therapist’s judgment of the person by outside standards. This is referred to as the “aesthetic” or sensed “qualities of contacting.” Contacting is the process of experience. The clinical theory of contacting is one of gestalt therapy’s most original concepts. It is the how or shape of experiencing itself in the present.
“Gestalt” is the German word for “shape” or “form.” Gestalt therapy is concerned with the “forms” of experience, its gestalts. The term itself came from Gestalt psychology, one of the sources of gestalt therapy. Gestalt therapy pays attention to the developing process of experience and how it is experienced — how and not why it is sensed, felt, and even thought-through in the present moment. This is the process of gestalt formation. It is also known as the awareness-consciousness continuum and the sequence of contacting. Contacting is the process by which gestalts are formed and change over time. When awareness of the present situation is diminished, unaware feelings may get in the way of “seeing” what is creatively possible. Living may be experienced as filled with unfaceable or unresolvable problems.
Repeating patterns or fixed gestalts lead to diminished awareness and sense of self. A person may feel depressed, isolated, anxious, or trapped in habitual unsatisfying patterns. For example, unaware feelings about previous relationships can lead to repeating the same unsatisfying patterns in a new relationship. Unaware feelings from childhood may get in the way of how a person relates to current family and friends.
The past lingers as clouds obscuring present fulfillment and satisfaction and limiting any sense of opportunities to make changes. But when these feelings become part of aware and conscious experience, fixed gestalts release, blocked emotions are experienced, and a person may view the world in new ways and now be able to choose how to act differently. Impossibilities become possibilities. The suffering or distress that brought a person to therapy is transformed.
Present experience is a whole embodied experience, that is, an experience that integrates mind and body. Of course, even in paying the strictest attention to the present, gestalt therapy never ignores a person’s wider social context — family, friends, co-workers.
While gestalt therapy focuses on current experience, the past is not neglected. Gestalt therapy pays attention to the past insofar as it is part of lived-experience, insofar as it shadows the present and insofar as it is the foundation that supports the present. Personal history is living and embodied. Each moment emerges from the previous ones and moves toward the next. Past and future contribute to each moment in meaningful ways.
Contemporary gestalt therapy is an explicitly phenomenological, existential and hermeneutic approach from a relational perspective. That is, it emphasizes people as emergent of a biological, social, phenomenal or experiential world, which always includes other people. We are human beings making choices and finding meaning in our lives in relation to one another. This contemporary approach stresses the importance of people’s relatedness – and underscores the value of the therapy relationship.
This contemporary model expands gestalt therapy in a phenomenological direction to integrate many of its concepts into gestalt therapy’s clinical practice. Likewise, related psychotherapy modalities such as contemporary psychoanalysis (self, relational and intersubjective systems psychoanalysis), dialogical therapy, existential therapy, and other fields such cognitive neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, and other related disciplines all have a place in the continuing development of contemporary gestalt therapy.
By openly participating in the worldwide dialogue among all modalities and disciplines contemporary gestalt therapy theory and practice continues to develop and change with the world of which we are a part.
Obviously, this brief description is incomplete. There are many other concepts not mentioned here that are part of training with me.
“The world grabs us and we grab the world in the mutual clasp at the contact-boundary. Self functioning.”
“Relational Function of Self: Self functioning on the most human plane”, Dan Bloom, 2015
Self is the functioning of our being-in-the-world, our being-in-the-lifeworld. Gestalt therapy self functions are the color the landscape, are the taste of food, are sensation and pleasure, our knowing the difference between touching from caressing. They are the trove of culture and knowledge without which ego would function, would have no compass, without orientation, and without any sense of past, present and future. The world grabs us and we grab the world in the mutual clasp at the contact-boundary.
“Self functioning,” from “Relational Function of Self,” Dan Bloom, 2015
Gestalt therapy’s was first presented in the 1951 book Gestalt Therapy, Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality written by Fritz Perls, Ralph Hefferline, and Paul Goodman. It is the essential, basic text and for many of us in the gestalt therapy world is the text of reference for the theory and practice of contemporary gestalt therapy even though we have developed its ideas further over the decades. I was taught gestalt therapy by studying with the first generation gestalt therapists, Laura Perls, Isadore From, Richard Kitzler and Patrick Kelley at the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy. I now teach and practice gestalt therapy developed from within that model of reference. What I teach reflects gestalt therapy as it has changed and is changing in the contemporary world.
The essential gestalt therapy model is organized around core concepts – contacting, the theory of self, contact-boundary, creative-adjusting, and the organism/environment field. I have drawn from within it – and emphasized – the aesthetic criterion of contacting by which a person’s creative-adjusting is evaluated within therapy. This is the manner by which gestalt therapy trusts what emerges from the situation rather than imposes some standards of behavior based on diagnostic categories. That is, clinical diagnosis is not imposed by the therapist, but emerges in how the patient and the therapist co-experience what emerges in the therapy. I have also developed further the relational and ethical aspects of gestalt therapy and integrated them into self functioning as intrinsic to our meaning making and being in the world of others. That is, I emphasize the relational and existential aspects of human experiencing. In doing so, I’ve expanded some of the roots of gestalt therapy in the direction of pragmatism and phenomenology and widened its focus to include hermeneutic and existential/dialogical perspectives. By doing this, I’ve kept relevant many of our original ideas by re-forming them into different understandings – and I’ve added new clinical tools to our already effective psychotherapy.