Lecture notes on:

Fritz Perls and Gestalt Therapy

And Comparisons With Classical Gestalt Psychology



As a teenager, Fritz Perls was heavily involved in theatre. Later, he was trained as a psychoanalyst and studied with a number of respected analysts of his day. Among the most prominent were Karen Horney, Wilhelm Reich, Otto Fenichel, and Helene Deutsch. During the First World War he was an assistant to the Gestalt physiological psychologist Kurt Goldstein. His wife Laura, who was the co-developer of Gestalt therapy, was also trained in psychoanalysis, and she studied under Kohler and Koffka at the University of Frankfurt, as well as under existential theologians Paul Tillich and Martin Buber. Perls used to hang around the existential coffeehouses and absorbed the secular existential currents of his day as he had earlier hung aroudn theatres. After he repudiated psycholanalysis and moved to New York, he built on his theatre background by studying Moreno's psychodrama, he and Laura developed Gestalt Therapy, In paying attention to the messages of posture and movement they drew from Laura's lifelong experience in modern dance as well as Reich's bodywork, and her acquaintance with Feldenkreis and Alexander techniques of body work. In New York, Gestalt therapy was primarily awareness-focused and involved considerable individual work. (This variation is sometimes called "East Coast" Gestalt.)

Fritz continued to develop the technique, moving west to Big Sur, introduced the innovations of the "hot seat" and the "empty chair," and drew on his experience in theatre and on psychodrama to bring an more active enactive dimension into the work. Instead of merely talking to the therapist, the client is asked to act out two or more sides of himself or herself that are in conflict, or to act out dialogues with one or more other significant people in his or her life. In so doing, the client temporarily identifies with disowned and projected parts of the self and eventually assimilates them in an aware manner. Perls also lived for some months in a Zen monastery in Japan, and it is rumored that at one point he studied with the Russian mystic George Gurdjieff. Certainly there is a strong resemblance between his "awareness continuum" and Gurdjieff's "self-remembering."

So Gestalt Therapy draws from all these influences and traditions:

Despite all these influences, as we will see just below, the Gestalt outlook provides the centering point, the compass, of Gestalt therapy. It brings all these influences together in, fittingly enough, a meaningfully configured, patterned, organized whole.
Doctrinaire Gestalt Psychologists who claim that Gestalt Therapy is not "real Gestalt" are right and wrong. They are right because it draws together many other influences with the old Gestalt psychology. They are wrong because the Gestalt view of reality genuinely is the centering point that holds all the rest of the influences together. Gestalt theory is extended into becoming a dynamic process of personal growth and development, just as Goldstein extended it into the physiological realm and Lewin extended it into the social realm. We may note that were it not for Perls and Gestalt Therapy, instead of being alive, well, and influential today, Gestalt theory would be a chapter in the history books and that would be the end of it.
We can examine a partial list of comparisons between early Gestalt psychology and Gestalt therapy:



Emphasis on pattern, whole, configuration

Person's whole being (speech, posture, action) etc.
manifests his or her way of encountering the world


Successive emergence of one issue/dominant need
after another into foreground (personality gestalten) in a dynamic manner


Same behavior/thought/emotional pattern recurs
in different spatial & temporal contexts

Lewin's Zeigarnik effect / tension systems

Unfinished situations

The perceptual field

The organism / environment field

Perceptual closure

Finishing unfinished situations

Perceptual organization

Contact boundaries

The "aha" experience in learning

The "aha" experience in recognizing personal
defensive mechanisms & existential truths

The whole is different from the sum of its parts

Organized configurations of ways of being in the world

Goldstein's "self-actualization"

Organismic self-regulation

Goldstein's "a reflex is an act of the whole

Specific behaviors & mannerisms reveal larger conflicts & issues

Awareness rather than introspection

Development of awareness rather than focus on
intellectual understanding

We select what we are interested in attending to

We select what we attend to and avoid

Meaning of anything changes according to context

Meaning of anything changes according to context

One aspect of Perls' particular genius was that he had an unerring nose for crap, and an ability to take what was correct and valuable in each of the perspectives from which he drew and let the rest fall by the wayside. He didn't spent a lot of time refuting what he found useless, but simply ignored it. Thus it was with psychoanalysis. He kept, developed, and expanded upon Freud's penetrating insights and techniques and ignored the rest. My own experience with the Gestalt process and outlook is that it serves as a centering point that connects with every other psychological approach. It dovetails neatly with Jung's powerful work on imagination, for example. And at the opposite extreme, even though it is a discovery-and-exploration-oriented approach rather than a programmatic approach like behavioral and cognitive-behavioral psychologies, it dovetails with that approach as well because there are clear elements of desensitization and the development and practice of new behavioral patterns.
Perls' approach, like that of Rogers, is an active phenomenology which assists a person in discovering his or her existential reality. It differs in being an enactive, whole-body approach rather than a talking approach.
Like Rogers Person-Centered psychology, it developed primarily as a therapeutic approach rather than primarily as a theory, and the theory grew out of practice. It is radically different from, yet dovetails neatly with, Jung's approach to dream work. It borrows a number of concepts directly from Karen Horney and Wilhelm Reich. And it is centered in the psychological gestalt of a person's present moment. Now here are a few more elements of the process in just a little more detail than in the table above.
The facilitator is always paying attention to the PATTERN, WHOLE, CONFIGURATION of the person's being in which an experience is embedded.
The most dominant need or unfinished situation becomes "FIGURE" and emerges into the foreground out of the rest of the person's experience which becomes the "GROUND," or background. When it declines in importance through some kind of resolution (or even boredom),
something else becomes figure, and so on.
The goal of therapy, counseling, or personal growth is for the person to become fully capable of "ORGANISMIC SELF-REGULATION," that is, responding from his or her own center and needs, (with attention to sensory, intuitive, emotional, and cognitive modes of experience) within the context of the situation.
Developing DIRECT, IMMEDIATE AWARENESS of the total perceptual field and of specific details in it is a central element of the work. The development of immediate awareness, with particular emphasis on sensory awareness, is more characteristic of Gestalt Therapy than of any other psychological approach.
The path to direct awareness involves both TECHNIQUES TO SHARPEN OUR AWARENESS and tools for BECOMING AWARE OF OUR DEFENSES, repressions, and whirling vortexes of thought that stand between us and a direct apprehension of what IS in the here and now. In this, the Gestalt process draws on both phenomenology and zen. And on Reich's seminal insight that when you hit a resistance, rather than trying to barge through it, THE RESISTANCE ITSELF BECOMES THE CENTER OF THE WORK. The person develops the ability to dismantle defenses when she is ready.
UNFINISHED SITUATIONS from the past, and concerns about the future, are worked with in terms of the person's present experience of them. A painful old trauma may be reenacted and mentally relived in the present. Old unfinished situations that we carry around stop us frombeing fully present know because we're responding to them, to some degree, rather than entirely to our present reality.
WHAT and HOW are the focus of attention rather than WHY as in psychoanalysis. When one person asks "Why did you do that?" about another's behavior, it is often a statement concealed as a question. It is often an attack that provokes the other person to defensiveness rather than discovery. Of course the facilitator will wonder why the person does some things, but will usually follow leads that present themselves in the process of paying attention to the what and how.
NO INTERPRETATION is a central rule in the works. Your awareness has far more value to you if it is your own discovery than if I tell you what's going on with you, especially since I may be wrong. (Personally, I find that inevitably as I follow along with someone who is working, I have little hypotheses about where certain patterns and dynamics come from, but I check them out in a non-interpretive way and drop them immediately if they aren't productive. Erving Polster calls this noticing and following the "neon arrows" that the person provides that point to important matters.)
ANXIETY is conceived of as leaving the present, not being in the here and now, "the gap between the now and the later. Will I get applause, or will I get tomatoes?" Fritz also described holding the breath as a central component in anxiety.
EATING AND DIGESTING are treated as metaphors for what we do with every dimension of experience. Do I bite into something, chew it up thoroughly, spit out what I don't like, and assimilate what I find nourishing and healthy, or do I "swallow whole" what others have told me to whether I like it or not? (The latter is the mechanism of introjection.)
DREAMWORK. In Fritz' view, every dream is an existential message about some important aspect of our existence. Gestalt therapy works with a dream by asking the dreamer to identify with each aspect of the dream, BE it, describe oneself as this element of it and act it out, in order to connect with and re-own disowned parts of our own experience and personal power.
FRUSTRATION is an element of the Gestalt process. Claudio Naranjo speaks of "SUPPRESSIVE TECHNIQUES" that the facilitator uses to thwart the client's inauthenticbeing and avoidances. The flip side of this is "EXPRESSIVE TECHNIQUES" that are used to help the person contact and develop unused or underused sensitivities and capacities. These techniques are not something fixed, to be used in a particular way time after time, but rather constantly changing and evolving "experiments" that the facilitator intuitively adapts to a given client at a given moment in a given situation. Although I believe that Gestalt Therapy offers a more powerful collection of technique than any other psychological approach, it's important to note that both Fritz and Laura were adamant in emphasizing that the facilitator's underlying attitude is more important than any specific technique used.
Gestalt work draws on Karen Horney's identification of our "shoulds" or inauthentic introjects as a central aspect of personal growth, so that we can go on to discover our own ways of being in the world that are true to ourselves to take their place.
The defensive manouvers / neurotic emphasis about which Perls wrote most extensively were PROJECTION (especially projecting my disowned power onto others); INTROJECTION (uncritically "swallowing whole" ways of acting, thinking, and feeling that you tell me to; RETROFLECTION (doing to myself what I want to do to you, but fear the consequences. For instance, I want to strangle you so I choke myself. I want to give you a box of chocolates but I'm afraid you'll spurn me so I eat them myself. CONFLUENCE is a fuzzy lack of contact in which there is not a clear distinction between where I leave off and you begin. This may involve projection--that is, I intrude my conceptions of you into your space and don't leave you room to be yourself; or it may involve Introjection--I don't establish my own boundary but allow your definition of me to obtrude far into my space. (Erv & Miriam Polster have dealt wonderfully with the subject of contact boundaries in Gestalt Therapy Integrated.
Perls spoke of LAYERS OF NEUROSIS. On the surface is the "cliché layer" (How are you? Fine.) Below that is the "roles and games layer" in which we pretend to be what we want others to think we are. Below that is the "phobic avoidance layer," or "anti-existence layer," or "impasse layer" where a person retreats into nonawareness. There the games are gone but I'm not in contact with who I truly am. Next comes the "implosive layer," where there may be a feeling of very tight, suppressed affect, where a feeling of tightness and tenseness pervades the room. I call working at this layer "dental gestalt." Below that is the "explosive layer," in which the person explodes into anger or grief or orgasm or Zorba-like joy and aliveness. One relatively seldom sees an explosion into orgasm in the Gestalt group, but explosions into tears and anger are common. Often this is into the opposite of the person's characteristic modality. Someone who always cries contacts and expresses the underlying resentment and anger; or someone who always gets angry contacts long-suppressed grief. Perls spoke of these layers as "peeling the onion."
To get a real feeling for the Gestalt approach, watch a video of the process in action or read Fritz' autobiography "in and out of the garbage pail." The goal is not to "be happy," but to live fully. To be real. To experience ourselves, others, and our world as we truly are and be in a passionate connection with our inner selves and our lives. In their basic outlook, Perls and Jung had a lot in common. Jung's conceptions were transmitted to Perls through Otto Rank.
That's all for this summary.
Victor Daniels, 10/04/00. (Reformatted 4/12/05)