Sunday, August 14, 2011

What is Gestalt therapy? A practice of developing awareness

Some thoughts about what Gestalt therapy is.

“The primary aim of Gestalt counselling and therapy is the development of awareness through a sustained enquiry into clients’ subjective experience.” (Mackewn, 1997, p.34) 

“It is this ongoing experience of awareness that can be enormously healing in counselling.” (Joyce & Sills, 2001, p.28) 

What is awareness?

“Awareness is the spontaneous sensing of what arises in you, of what you are doing, feeling, planning; introspection, in contrast, is a deliberate turning of attention to these activities in an evaluating, correcting, controling, interfering way.” (Perls, Hefferline & Goodman, 1951, p.323)

The invitation in Gestalt therapy is to develop awareness, without judgment of what is. To explore your process, paying attention to both internal and external worlds.

Judging ourselves for what we find within is counter-productive. Because it leads to keeping parts of ourselves dark, out of our own awareness, sometimes potentially harmful because we act on them without responsibility.

Awareness is sometimes thought of as having 3 zones. An inner zone, including all bodily sensation and emotion. Desensitising to this produces a sense of deadness or absence within.

An outer zone, which is our awareness of contact with the outside world. Through the 5 senses plus our ways of reaching out to touch the world through speech and movement.

A middle zone, where we think, make sense of things, remember the past and anticipate the future.

When I was 17 and buried in my school work I very much lived in the middle zone – especially in thinking. I experienced both a lack of richness of life lived and a reduced sense of my own aliveness – I felt very much like a head walking around without a body, in a world that seemed detached.

Joyce & Sills describe awareness as the conscious experiencing of being present in the here and now. This is where we find our aliveness, the richness of living fully. Brighter colours, stronger tastes.

“The young child often seems to inhabit a world of boundless awareness and enthusiasm and has an aliveness and spontaneity that is often lost in adulthood.” (Joyce & Sills, 2001, p.27)

Compare the rather joyless behaviour of some adults with the aliveness of children. A possible goal in Gestalt therapy is to recover this lost aliveness. How would you recognise it in yourself?

Gestalt therapy: 
Raising the client’s awareness of his own process. 
Listening with awareness to the client’s story.

Developing a client’s awareness is a key part of restoring their aliveness, their vitality, their joy in living. This is key in a therapy which seeks to restore the normal, healthy self-regulation of the human being.
“It is this ongoing experience of awareness that can be enormously healing in counselling.” (Joyce & Sills, 2001, p.28)

The focussed awareness that a therapist employs in paying attention to a client’s story can be profoundly healing for the client. Especially so if they have had a history of being isolated, ignored, or judged. Having my therapist treat my story, and the subjective meaning I gave to it, as important instead of deflecting or denying my truth, was a profoundly strengthening experience.

Making meaning

Awareness "is a meaning-making function which creates fresh Gestalten." (Clarkson, 1989, p.32)

It is in awareness that we make sense of the world and ourselves,  organising our experience into meaningful patterns, gestalts. As healthy adults we move round the cycle of awareness, allowing new needs to become figural, then mobilising to meet them, satisfy ourselves and withdraw to wait for the next need. This healthy flow around the cycle of awareness is what Gestalt therapists seek to restore.
We carry private stories and beliefs about ourselves throughout our lives. These may be carried out of awareness, perhaps because they were never articulated, just implied in the way people acted around us.
By doing awareness practice – exploring what is present in the here and now from a position of curiosity and non-judgment - we discover clues to what is going on for ourselves out of awareness, and bring this into awareness where it can be explored, owned, integrated. In this way we can surface old, unhelpful beliefs about ourselves and challenge them.  

Awareness is at the heart of the phenomenological method through which we pay attention to all that the client (and ourselves as therapist) are in the here and now – a person’s phenomenology. For example, how I am avoiding eye contact or hanging my head.

Gestalt sees this investigation of the here and now as a rich area for therapeutic work, healing and change. If we know what we are doing and what else is possible, we have choices.

“…Gestalt’s primary aim is the development of awareness as a means of increasing people’s choice and flexibility.” (Mackewn, 1997, p. 36)

Gestalt’s assumption is that we are naturally capable of healthy self-regulation. A healthy person regulates themselves through paying attention to what enters awareness and responding.
The growing edge is located at the frontier of awareness. It is there that we learn new insights about ourselves and the world and integrate them.
By increasing our awareness of our thinking, feeling and sensing, and also how we impact on others, we increase the area in which we can make choices. When these things are out of awareness it’s as though they’re in our blind spot, and our scope for choice is reduced.
Awareness is key to Gestalt therapy because  “it is the dynamic behind the paradoxical principle of change.” (Joyce & Sills, 2001, p. 40)
This principle states that people do not usually change through striving to be different – but change when the cease striving and simply explore themselves as they are, raising their awareness of themselves and accepting or embracing what they find.
When we cease struggling against ourselves we free up energy to know and learn. And having integrated what we have learnt, our behaviour changes. We are able to make different choices.

Experimenting with new ways to be you

In the service of helping the client to explore parts of themselves and different ways of being, a therapist may suggest experiments. Awareness is key for the client to learn and integrate. For example, in recounting a recurring nightmare of being attacked by a werewolf I was invited to put myself in the place of the wolf and see how that felt. It was amazing to have this unfamiliar feeling of power, in place of the helplessness I associated with the nightmare. My posture and voice changed dramatically and I became much more alive, loud and vital – it freed up a lot of energy. What might it be like to access that energy in my life?

The therapist’s own awareness is a vital tool.

“The most important of the therapist’s tools is herself – her responses to the client and her own awareness in the here and now.” (Joyce & Sills, 2001, p. 33) 

The Gestalt therapist uses her own awareness to know the client and to bring up things for comment, as well as to model awareness to the client and invite them to explore their own awareness.

Awareness is both goal (healthy process) and method for Gestalt practitioners (notice your process and own it.) 

Raising awareness allows clients to see new choices.


Clarkson, P. Gestalt Counselling in Action, London: Sage
Joyce, P. & Sills, C. Skills in Gestalt Counselling & Psychotherapy, London: Sage
Mackewn, J. Developing Gestalt Counselling, London: Sage
Perls, F.S., Hefferline, R., & Goodman, P. Gestalt Therapy, Gouldsboro: The Gestalt Journal Press Inc.

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