Gestalt is the German word for “form”, “shape” or “configuration” and refers to a concept of “wholeness”. Gestalt considers three manifestations: the person, his or her environment or context and the relationship between them. In doing so, forms and configurations emerge. For example, seeing music performed live is a different experience to listening to that music recorded, at home.
What then is Gestalt therapy?
In Gestalt therapy the whole person and the whole person’s experience is considered relevant:
feelings, thoughts, body sensations, intelligence, energy, emotions, imagination, creativity, spirituality, dreams.
The therapist focuses on “here and now” and on what happens moment by moment.
Gestalt’s methodology includes:
An example of “here and now” is that I might say “What are you doing (or aware of) right now, and how are you doing it?” Paying attention to what is happening brings you in touch with awareness. This process is also called Mindfulness. What follows then is a clearer sense of how / who you are.
Forms or shapes of memories may emerge and you may experience that as “getting in the way” of what is current. These shapes may be “unfinished business” from the past that can be completed. As you experience different aspects of yourself, your awareness of yourself increases.
The Gestalt therapist’s methodology is about enhancing awareness, enabling you to be freer in the world and in your relationships.
Example of a session where my client and I explore
C has brought his drawing book. He wants to show me what he has drawn because the drawings have in them what he tells me of himself and his life in sessions, he says. I look at the first drawing he wants me to look at. As I am looking, he tells me about the hands in the drawing. I see two holding hands; I also see that C, in this moment, is holding his own two hands. I ask what his hands are doing. He and I fully explore the meaning of his holding hands and C gets in touch with feelings of being left.
In subsequent sessions C and I continue to explore and make room for C’s strong feelings when a significant person in his life goes away. Together we have made connections between these feelings and often being left as a young child. This helps him to make sense of his feelings and develop insights and new ways of being in current relationships.
As the therapy progresses, C and I also explore what happens in the therapeutic relationship. That helps further with gaining insights and becoming aware of influences such as fears and hopes on present relationships.
An Illustration of Relational Body Psychotherapy
Here I describe therapeutic work through body communication, using an example from my practice, to illustrate the benefits of relational body psychotherapy. I have altered details to protect the client’s identity and confidentiality.
Relevant concepts of empathy, relational knowledge, anger, trust, expression and consolidation are interwoven into the story of this therapy session.
As psychotherapist, to become more aware what is communicated to me via the body and how and what we communicate with the body is vital and central to relationships.
The client, I will call him Tom (not his real name), has been in therapy for approximately one year. Today Tom and I agree to work with what his body and my body are communicating. Tom sits in a chair at an angle and at some distance from me. I check how I feel about the distance between him and me and ask him to do the same. He wants to move and sit opposite me and a bit closer. I agree to this. He and I spend some time checking and moving, until each of us are comfortable within ourselves and in relation to each other with where he and I are sitting. Tom now sits almost opposite me, with some distance between him and me.
He tells me that he is aware that he does not know where this is going and that he trusts that I will draw from my knowledge. He and I sit together in a place of not knowing, knowing, trusting, shyness, for a while.
I notice my head has dropped forwards. I tell Tom that I notice this and that I am going to exaggerate this movement. As I do so, I become aware that my whole body wants to curl up and I do this. I ask Tom how it is for him to see me sitting like this. He says he identifies with this posture. I unfold and invite him to sit in the way I was. He does this easily and says immediately that this is a very familiar posture for him. His head is bent forward and he brushes his long hair across his face.
Now I am sitting with a body who, what looks and feels like, has ‘barricaded’ himself in and this has a powerful effect on me. At first, to me he looks as though I am meant not to notice him. Yet, this posture is very powerful to me.
I ask Tom how he is. He says he feels transported back in time and feels he is about five years old. Then he tells me that he is angry and he is not allowed to be angry by his parents. If he shows his anger he is told he is stroppy. He has been sent to the utility room, alone, for being angry. There, he feel isolated, alone, shut out, rejected and still angry.
Tom is talking to me from behind his long hair in his scrunched up position. I am glad he is able to stay in contact with me despite his barricaded posture. He and I explore further how he feels in this position. ‘No one can get to me now. And I’m still angry’
I ask Tom if there is anything he needs. ‘Yes’, he says, ‘I need to know that I have a right to be angry’. I want to respect Tom and his feelings and say that he is entitled to his anger. I ask if he can imagine himself being angry, what he looks like when he is angry and what he would like to do.
He imagines himself shouting and stamping his feet. I say “would you like to stamp your feet now?” He gently begins to move his feet up and down. I invite him to do it more, and more, and more. He vigorously stamps for a while and then stops. I wonder what is happening. He says his anger has subsided. My invitation to stamp more has ‘diffused’ his anger, Tom says. I ask if he is ready to sit up and look at me. When Tom sits up and brushes his hair from his face, I notice how lively and open he looks. I smile welcomingly to him.
Together, he and I further explore harsh treatments he experienced in childhood, how he came to feel ‘imperfect’, ‘invisible’ and ashamed. I also enquire how he expresses his anger now, as an adult.
Tom says today’s work has been very deep and he feels good about himself.
This work has emerged from paying very close attention to the body, to movements, memories, and feelings, moment by moment.
When I next meet Tom, he tells me the work had a very powerful effect, for hours afterwards. He felt his five year old younger self was sitting next to him in the car, as he drove away from the session. They talked. They went to Tom’s father’s house, his childhood home, where the incidents had taken place. Tom wanted to lay a place for little Tom on the table, for tea. He kept this to himself so as not to disturb his father. Tom was aware he was parenting small Tom, acknowledging him, noticing him, caring for him and kept on doing so for the duration of the visit to his father.
Listening to Tom’s post-session experiences gave me the sense that Tom was reconciling and consolidating parts of himself. I offered these possibilities to him. He agreed something ‘strong’ had happened and that he was in good shape.
Tom has agreed to me publishing this material, knowing that his identity is kept safe and confidential.