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What is Gestalt Therapy?

For more than two hundred years, the ever-evolving field of psychotherapeutic treatment has focused heavily on conflict resolution. Many patients have been observed to remain attached to unresolved past conflicts, often past the point where direct resolution is possible. Fritz Perls, an early 20th century psychiatrist, developed gestalt therapy as an alternative to the forms of psychoanalysis which were in common use at that time. This therapeutic treatment uses a complicated philosophical concept, called a "gestalt," which at its simplest level may be defined as being any "whole object" perceived of as somehow greater than the sum of its parts.

History of Gestalts in Psychology

The medical discipline that would eventually become the much-diversified field of modern psychology first incorporated the concept of gestalts in the late 1800s. German psychiatrists used the idea as a model for predicting patient behaviors, in response to what were then seen as false perceptions: people, objects, or even ideas lent unwarranted significance due to the patient's own trauma. The gestalt was seen as a hypothesized object of negative connotation within a patient's mind, which replaced actual, physical focal points for ongoing conflict. A patient with a life-long feud with a parent might, after that parent died, assemble memories and perceptions into an image of said individual, for example. This image would be the continuing focus of the same sense of angst and conflict.

The Development of Gestalt Therapy

Along with his wife, Laura, and fellow professional Paul Goodman, Fritz applied humanistic principles to the existing recognition of gestalts in psychology (as they were recognized at the time). By the late 1940s, Fritz and his fellow professionals had developed a method of therapeutic treatment that used gestalts in a positive sense. It relied upon what were, at the time, new advancements in the understanding of how cognition and memory function, in order to create positive replacement gestalts for patients to focus on. In some sense, the principle is similar to the development of social coping skills, as ways for people who grew up with poorly developed social skills to function in society.

How Does the Gestalt Method Work?

The methodology focuses on the here-and-now, using tools such as role-play and analysis to unravel the parts that go into forming gestalts, including long-suppressed feelings and motivations that may not previously have been consciously recognized by a patient. The goal of the process is to gain a new sense of self through increased self-awareness, and a more accurate perception of one's own thoughts and feelings. The overall point is not that the past doesn't matter; this form of therapy recognizes the contributions of the past to who a person is in the present. Instead, the patient is assisted in developing coping mechanisms to avoid constantly replaying past conflicts in their head, and to focus on how the present moment builds toward a healthier future.

Gestalt therapy has proven extremely effective in conflict resolution, by assisting patients in coming to terms with long-suppressed emotions associated with past events. It has also demonstrated significant effectiveness in helping patients to cope with a range of emotional disorders, many of which were recognized much more recently than the development of the gestalt method itself.

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