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Gestalt Therapy from a Christian Perspective

The following represents Arthur's opinions only and not necessarily those of Christie.

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Gestalt Therapy

In simplified terms, gestalt means that the whole of a thing is greater than the sum of its parts.  Founded originally by Max Wertheimer in 1924, Gestalt Theory asserts irreducible complexity to human existence that is beyond the evidential conclusions of scientific deduction.   Learning, according to Gestalt psychology, is a continuing process where humans gather objective pieces of information, and then “fill in the gaps” to make a whole.  This illumination of a whole from incomplete parts is what Gestaltists call figure-ground.  The “figure” is the concept, and the “ground” is the background the concept exists upon.  Because we frequently perceive our world in incomplete ways, it is an inevitable part of human experience to fill in missing elements from our perceptions with subjectively created information as to formulate a completed concept in our minds.   When a whole concept is put together from incomplete fragments, it is known to be a complete Gestalt.  However, often in human experience, there are not enough pieces in place (incomplete figure) or the background is too prominent (obscured figure) for illumination to occur, and as such, the individual cannot complete the Gestalt.   From this philosophy, Fritz Perls, throughout the mid twentieth century, developed what is today known as Gestalt therapy, which is a process that ultimately attempts to address the problem of incomplete Gestalts that encumber the lives of people. 

            At its heart, Gestalt therapy attempts to guide individuals into a state of growth and maturity through an emphasis on self, its ultimate goal being that each individual reaches states of completed Gestalts in his or her life.  Because at its very nature, a complete Gestalt requires subjective information that “fills in gaps”, it is in this regard, then, that individuals can only reach higher states of self-actualization by embracing self-responsibility, relying less on others, and integrating ones own parts into a greater self whole.   Key to achieving this objective is a critical emphasis on awareness, for without it, none of the goals of therapy could be met.  In fact, it would not be errant to state that the entire process of Gestalt therapy is formulated around concept of awareness; it is the one common element in all of Gestalt’s therapeutic forms.  For it is only through awareness that one can see a complete “figure” rise up against the “ground”.  In this regard, an emphasis is also placed on boundaries, as an individual is in a healthier state when there is a clear awareness of the end of one Gestalt and the beginning of another.

            Techniques of Gestalt therapy stress and occur in the here-and-now.  Historical and future considerations are de-emphasized and clients are directed into being made aware of the present.  Therapists direct their patients to make contact with their environment, their surroundings, and their feelings, simply to touch reality, as it exists right now, in the present.  Any increase in awareness, whether suddenly realizing an existing emotion previously not understood, or simply noticing a soft background noise previously unheard, is considered growth.  Counselors may ask awareness oriented questions, or use any combination of verbal and non-verbal behavior, enactment or self-dialogue (i.e. the “empty chair” method) that is directed towards increasing client awareness of the present.  The utilization of creativity is also a strong technique to this end, as it encourages one to reach a greater self-awareness through the process of integrating one’s own internal uniqueness into objective reality. 

            The relationship between client and counselor in Gestalt therapy is similar to Rogerian theory.  An effective Gestalt therapist must be in tune with the client’s senses and emotions.  This requires a high degree of empathy to exist on the part of the therapist.  Dialogue in a Gestalt session exists for the counselor to understand the feelings and sensations of the client, so that higher levels of awareness can be illuminated in the client.

            While Gestalt therapy has many forms making it a versatile tool, some also consider its broad nature to be its weakness, for it lacks a formalized system of techniques.  Furthermore, Gestalt therapy has come under criticism for its superficiality and over-emphasis on present sensations and lack of analysis that some say are not indicative of depth.   It is also important to note that many proponents of Gestalt psychology view the works of Fritz Perls as being disharmonious with true gestalt theory.  While Gestalt theory states that human personality has irreducible complexity, Gestalt therapy, on the other hand, emphasizes a strong humanistic and existential approach, discarding much of the original philosophy.   

Personal Evaluation

Gestalt psychology to me is one of the strongest pro-Christian theories in secular psychology.  It acknowledges numerous ineffable qualities of human existence.  If a scientist could replicate someone, so that every atom and every particle in the replication was identical to the original, would the clone have the same memories, the same beliefs, and the same mind?   A true secular scientist would emphatically say yes, since the definition of mind is merely the components of the brain, fully explained by natural law. 

Christians understand, however, that there exists an immaterial component to human existence beyond the scope of observable science.  Gestalt theory affirms this vital concept.   Consider the abortion argument.  Why is an unborn child more valuable than simply a mass of salt water, carbon, and nitrogen?  While Gestalt may not recognize God as the ultimate source of value, it at least does acknowledge there are macro truths in a world that cannot be explained merely through microanalysis, a lesser light of general revelation.

            While I agree with Gestalt theory, the form of therapy as proposed by Fritz, sadly, is another story.  I agree completely that people often do not see the “big picture” (have an incomplete Gestalt).  I also agree that a crucial goal in counselling is to lead a client into a path that illuminates this picture.  However, the idea that this illumination can only come through self-introspection and an extreme focus on awareness of the here and now is dangerous and limiting, respectively. 

            The danger of self-introspection as a means to complete a Gestalt is that, even though a Gestalt may be completed for the individual, it may still be false. Fritz Pearls does not address this notion of a false Gestalt.  While I agree that, it is human nature to ‘fill in the gaps’ when pieces are missing, it does not necessitate that the final picture will be true.  How much damage has been done to marriages and families simply because things are assumed about someone else that simply aren’t true.  In fact, the more that we subjectively “fill in the gaps” to complete a missing picture, the more dangerous it becomes that the final picture may be false.  I can call the moon red all I want.  I can become “aware” of its redness; I can get in touch with my inner self and “discover” how red it is.  However, in the end, even though I may be sincere in my subjective awareness, I am still wrong in my conclusion.   If I see my wife behaving in a strange way, I can formulate all the Gestalts I want.  I may even reach a complete Gestalt about her behavior simply through my own self-introspection and awareness of her actions.  Nevertheless, until I communicate to her, until I gather from her additional information, I have no confidence that my complete Gestalt is a true Gestalt.  The self-alone is not a complete sourcing for truth, but instead a capable source for deception.

            A final flaw in Gestalt Therapy that I see is its emphatic prominence of the present, and its disregard of past or future events.  It seems to me that Fritz simply could not see that this teaching violates the very principles of Gestalt theory.  Consider this simple example.  Let’s say that one morning, while walking through a park, you saw a hundred red-painted stakes in a perfectly straight line rising from the grass, east to west.  The next day, the same hundred stakes were in another straight line, this time from north to south and at right angles from the line the previous day.  The next day, the line of stakes goes from east to west again, only this time beginning on the north side of the field.  You are not surprised when, on the fourth day, that line of stakes completes a perfect square.    Gestalt theory fully explains this.  Gestalt therapy, however, cannot. Fritz failed in his attempt to translate into therapy what I believe is a very Christian-friendly theory. Fritz would ignore the past and simply focus on the present...a line of stakes. Yet in reality, the true gestalt was a square, not a line. In gestalt theory (not therapy), the notion of time as an essential dimension to completing concepts is accounted for. 

Wolfgang Kohler cited an example of a lighted sign of several dots that that blink off and on in such a fashion that it appears to be a single light moving from one side of the sign to the other.  In this case, the human observer uses the element of time in order to complete the Gestalt.  In Gestalt therapy, since the emphasis is only on the present, each time you walked through the park, the most you would come away with would be a “line of stakes”.  Fritz’s Gestalt therapy would not be sufficient enough to guide you to the more accurate Gestalt of “a square of stakes”.  So while I admire and agree with many of the principles in Gestal theory, Fritz, however, falls drastically short of applying them properly in therapy. Fritz took a great theory, and dismantled it in his attempt to convert it to a form of therapy, so that the final result as crafted by Fritz is not a faithful reflection of the source. Fritz's therapy violates the very theory it was derived from.

I believe a Christian therapist has a vast wellspring of excellent principles to draw from when it comes to Gestalt theory. But drawing from Fritz, however, is another proposition. Due to its emphasis on self and the present, I believe that Fritz’s therapeutic processes are not an accurate reflection of true Gestalt philosophy, but are a mish-mash of weakly applied Gestalt principles, humanistic, and existential philosophy not compatible with much of Christian truths.  I believe that there still exists an empty realm where an innovate therapist can someday create a new (and more accurate) Gestalt Therapy that does not itself violate Gestalt Theory as Fritz did.