Fritz Perls, the originator of gestalt therapy, said that the maturation and meaningful experience of an individual is determined by the degree to which one is able to move away from environmental support and towards internal self-support. One could achieve this, he said, by focusing on the now and how of our experience and de-emphasising the why. Asking 'why' we are the way we are is to intellectualise, rationalise, justify and ultimately detract from the authentic experience of ourselves in this moment.
By exploring the how-ness of our experience we gain greater insight into how we are thinking, feeling and being. Gestalt therapy is therefore a mindfulness-oriented or 'phenomenological' approach focusing on the process of our experience rather than the content. In other words, it places great importance on the nuances of what is occurring in the now, and also great importance on factors that are subconscious or organic in the individual, including body language and mannerisms, as indicators of what might be hindering or blocking growth, freedom and awareness in the individual.
Awareness is the ultimate goal of gestalt therapy. Not to change, re-direct or alter what may be happening with us in the now, but to become aware of how we are in order that we may make more meaningful, choiceful and responsible choices and actions. This is an extremely liberating and nourishing way of being in the world; to simply become aware and accept what is happening for us in the now, through an exploration or discovery of ourselves and the people we form relationships with in our lives.
Relationships are therefore extremely important in gestalt therapy. The philosopher Martin Buber, a major contributor to the direction and application of gestalt therapy, referred to this as the I/Thou Relationship. The way in which the I (self) makes contact with Thou (other) determines whether a relationship is meaningful, nourishing and supportive, or toxic, draining, and detrimental to our emotional well-being.
A nourishing I/Thou relationship is one in which contact (connection) and withdrawal (disconnection) ebbs and flows in a meaningful and respectful way to the self and other.
The process of gestalt therapy then brings awareness to the four ways in which we often interrupt genuine contact, or create resistance. We do this through:
1. Introjection: the tendency to uncritically accept others' beliefs without assimilating them to make them fit our personality. They are beliefs or ideas we have swallowed whole that very often do not serve our needs any longer.
2. Projection: The reverse of introjection. This occurs when we disown certain aspects of ourselves by assigning them to the environment or to others. We have trouble distinguishing from the inside world and the outside world. The attributes of our personality that are inconsistent with our self-image are projected onto others, so we avoid taking responsibility for our own feelings and are then powerless to initiate change.
3. Retroflection: doing to ourselves what we would like to do to others, or doing to ourselves what we would like others to do to us. For example, we injure ourselves because we have directed aggression inwards that we have become fearful of directing toward others.
4. Deflection: the process of distraction so that it is difficult to maintain a sustained sense of genuine contact. For example, an overuse of humour, abstract generalisations, and asking questions when given statements.
5. Confluence: refers to the blurring of the self and environment. For people who are oriented toward blending in, there is no differentiation between internal experience and outer reality. Confluence in relationships involves an absence of conflicts, or a belief that all parties experience the same thoughts and feelings. Very often 'people pleasers' display confluence in order to be liked, avoid conflict and to feel accepted.
The aim of gestalt therapy is to create awareness around the ways in which we disrupt healthy contact, rather than to try to change or re-orient our way of being. The gestalt axiom is often referred to as the 'paradoxical theory of change': Change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not (Fagan & Shepherd, 1970). This means that we can only change when we become more fully who we already are. Then, the change is not forced but occurs naturally and organically because blocked energy has been freed within the individual.
The role of gestalt therapy is to bring awareness (without judgement) to the ways in which we live our lives. Not to change, but to become aware. Through awareness we learn to become more fully who we already are, to let go of the role of change agent, and to make more choiceful and responsible decisions; to live mindfully, and to be more present in our contact and connection with others so that we liberate ourselves from ways of being which are limited, or which block our potential for growth, excitement and joy.