Who Can Benefit From Gestalt Therapy?

Guest blog by Hanna Dolgin

Many methods of psychotherapy exist, with diverse theoretical understandings of the human personality and of what constitutes "mental health." For many people, the term "therapy" carries with it an association of illness and impairment, since it is used in the medical context (as in chemotherapy and physical therapy). Therefore, they think seeking psychotherapy is an admittal of being 'sick' or 'unbalanced' in some way.

Complex theories aside, Gestalt therapy is, in fact, a method of cultivating awareness of one's self in the moment. This awareness allows a person to become conscious of their internal process of thoughts, emotions, perceptions and sensations, which go largely unnoticed in the course of daily life. This internal process has a determining effect on our choices and on the outcomes of those choices, which make up our life. 

Many times, people act without realizing what makes them feel compelled to do so. For example, Julie may have had a dissatisfying conversation with her friend Jane, finding her to be distracted and unsympathetic, and then gone to the fridge to look for something to eat, even though she had just finished eating.

If Julie were aware of her emotions and physical sensations, she might find out that she is feeling the emotion of sadness, but is actually experiencing a feeling of fullness in her stomach. This awareness would help Julie make a more appropriate choice for her organism, such as seeking a way to release her sadness, for instance by expressing it to a supportive person. If no supportive person were available, Julie could internally understand and accept her own sadness. She might then choose to soothe herself by taking a hot bath, or she might choose to release energy by engaging in a physical activity, such as running or dancing. There is no one 'correct' way to handle a situation. When a person is aware of what she feels and needs, she will find what's best for her under the circumstances. 

Let's say that Julie's mother says: "Go see a movie, you'll feel better!" and Julie obediently goes to a movie. She may feel better after seeing a comedy, or may decide that her problem is insignificant after seeing a movie about a war or natural disaster. Another possibility is that she may find herself unable to get into the movie. If she is aware of her experience, she may realize that this movie isn't what she needs, and decide to leave before the end of the movie, and do something else.

Julie's state of mind will most likely have an effect on the way she interacts with the people she comes into contact with. If she is still feeling sad and disappointed but is unaware of what caused it, she may withdraw from others, feel lethargic or something of the sort. This, in turn, may cause her boyfriend to wonder why she isn't her usual lively self, and he may think it is due to the fact that he forgot to buy her flowers, or that perhaps she's losing interest in him. (As you see, things can get unnecessarily complicated.) 

When we are aware of our internal workings, we can communicate more effectively, first of all with ourselves. Julie can communicate consciously to herself: "I feel very disappointed and sad that Jane was so unsympathetic when I was telling her how my boss put me down in front of my co-workers at the meeting. I will tell her, at an appropriate time, how I feel. "

Julie may tell her boyfriend "I'm not in such a good mood tonight." When he asks why, she'll have an opportunity to tell him and hopefully get his support. This will also save him from trying to guess why, and from attributing her lack of enthusiasm to some imagined shortcoming of his own.

The above is a short and relatively simple example of how awareness, or the lack thereof, can play out in daily life. However, when people are unaware, they usually accumulate "heaps" of interactions that affect their lives and the lives of those they come into contact with, creating a tangled web of actions and reactions.

As a result, they may feel out of control, as though "things just keep happening to them". They may not know why they are having difficulty in their relationships, why they can't seem to control their eating habits, why they are having trouble sleeping at night, etc. This is because, as a result of their lack of awareness, they are missing crucial information regarding their motives for acting as they do, and their contributions to the situations they find themselves in.

If one is unaware, how does one go about gaining awareness? The way we learn is through practice. In a Gestalt therapy session, the therapist serves as an awareness coach, and gently assists the client by asking questions or setting up experiments that direct their attention to their experience in the moment. Through the therapist's training and experience, they have become more sensitive to their own internal process and can help their client regain access to her or his own. Gestalt therapy can be an invaluable tool in gaining the ability to monitor ourselves "in real time," thus having more internal clarity about our motives and desires. This allows us to make choices that are more in line with our deeper needs, and are more likely to bring about their fulfillment. Gradually, we can transition from feeling 'acted upon' by life's circumstances, to feeling that we have greater power to create our own reality and be active participants in the great dance of life.