What does Gestalt mean?

Gestalt in the context of psychotherapy is hard to define, although you may find many definitions online. Some define is as a “meaningful whole” but ironically, any meaningful whole is never completely whole when it is contextual and ever moving. Trying to capture it is like trying to pin down the air that we breathe. It is true, only for a moment. As they say, “you never step into the same river twice”. In this sense, it is more of a movement, concept, or way of being and our ability to avoid any hard and fast definitions is the first step to understanding ourselves too. Beings are not set in stone, however much we like to do this to ourselves and each other. Rather, we are the ever changing intersection of our DNA, choices, thoughts, actions, feelings, environment, history, anticipated future, situation, etc. The net result of this intersection (i.e how we see ourselves) is recognisable from moment to moment as the changes are often minimal and since we seek to maintain certain characteristics in line with our world view and self awareness. However, an appreciation of the layers that inform and shape us, help us to understand our unique contribution to the meaning we make of any given situation. A gestalt represents the configuration of meaning we make of any situation based on all these factors and occurs instantaneously and often without consideration. Gestalt therapy originated from gestalt psychology and is an attempt to understand this meaning making ability and need. Gestalt therapy has evolved to be a creative, experimental, here-and-now therapy which feels alive, authentic and meaningful. Gestalt is concerned with how we live and suggests that the body is the unconscious, revealed through muscle tension, aches, movements, disease as well as lightness, joy, excitement and all the other emotional expressions of human existence. A gestalt therapist might bring light to these aspects of how you are, generating greater awareness of what forms both the foreground and background of our being and therefore holding a mirror to our complex, paradoxical existence. In this way it aligns very well with it’s more philosophical cousin, “existential therapy”.

Gestalt therapy is not a set of techniques as often portrayed and taught on courses where it forms a subset of the modalities on the syllabus. To learn gestalt, a student needs to immerse themselves in an experiential process involving group work, theory and practice usually over a few years. It becomes ingrained in the individual as a way of being and understanding the world which could last a lifetime. I find that experienced gestalt therapists are often identifiable in a group of therapists, not through what they look like or say but by how they are.

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