Holistic gestalt therapy


Victor Daniels
Sonoma State University

Today’s blog is for psychologists, psychotherapists, counselors, and students in those areas—but a few others may be interested.

Why “holistic?” Perhaps you find the title surprising. You might think, “But the Gestalt approach is inherently holistic.”

Yes and no. Max Wertheimer, whose philosophical genius was the midwife for the birth of Gestalt Psychology, articulated a view of human experience and behavior that was more holistic than that of any other psychologist of his time. Kurt Lewin expanded that view into a perspective that provided a holistic grasp of the person in his or her lived environment. Lewin’s concept of the “life space” included both the immediate and extended social and physical environments, and also the vicarious environments that were part of a person’s thinking and feeling as a result of hearing stories, reading, and watching movies and videos. For example, I love Will and Ariel Durant’s monumental work The Story of Civilization because I can open a page and be instantly transported through Durant’s clear, engaging prose into the midst of the Italian Renaissance, or into any other place and time of which the Durants wrote. Thereby a skeletal sense of Renaissance Italy becomes part of my life-space. This embracing holistic view that is inherent in Lewin’s Field Theory is part of the ground of Gestalt Therapy.

Gestalt process work is inherently holistic in the sense of its attitude toward the client. The therapist or counselor takes a phenomenological stance of trying to comprehend the client’s lived world as it is, without interpretation or embroidery, and uses some variation of the phenomenological method of “bracketing” to set personal reactions aside in order to achieve that comprehension. Then the practitioner may (or may not) draw on his or her own bracketed reactions and mention them to the client to see whether this leads the client to fuller awareness and deeper understanding.

Methodologically, a holistic approach implies that the therapist or counselor (a) has a repertoire of approaches and methods; (b) can choose appropriately among them to find what best suits any given client in any given situation; while also (c) remaining true to his or her own preferred, most comfortable, and most skillful ways of working. This is analogous to a doctor who has a variety of medical tools and procedures available, and chooses that which best fits the patient’s needs. (With this analogy, I do not mean to imply that a medical model fits most psychological difficulties. It fits some but not most. I prefer Thomas Szasz’ description of psychological and relational issues as “problems in living.”

Finally, a holistic approach acknowledges the value of a spectrum of valid Gestalt approaches and methods used by others which may or may not be part of a given practitioner’s own repertoire. (“Valid” means a method that fits the criteria of being phenomenological, awareness-based, present-centered, existential, and field-define. And, we might add, competent, skillful, and fully cognizant of the need to provide both sufficient safety and sufficient opportunity for exploration and for adventurous growth.) In this sense, Gestalt work may or may not be holistic. Historically, as in so many psychotherapies, spiritual traditions, and other realms of life, some Gestalt practitioners have disapproved of approaches used by others even when those approaches fully met the criteria described just above. Such biases have sometimes been overt and sometimes subtle. In recent years, for example, in the English-speaking Gestalt world there has been a welcome development, most especially by those trained by Laura Perls and Isadore From, of methods that emphasize the relationship and the dialogue between client and therapist. Some practitioners of this approach have assumed that their “dialogical relational” approach is contemporary, and that the work of other practitioners is outdated. In reality, practitioners trained by Fritz Perls, Jim Simkin, and others at Esalen Institute, Lake Cowichan, and the old San Francisco Gestalt Institute, and second-generation practitioners trained by them, have also evolved and developed their methods and perspectives into new and more effective forms. Fortunately, the disapproval of some Gestalt approaches by practitioners of others has been far milder than, for example, in classical psychoanalysis, where Freud declared that such geniuses as Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, and Wilhelm Reich were no longer psychoanalysts when their creative development of new ideas and practices diverged too far from Freud’s central orthodoxies—in particular from the Libido theory. Nonetheless, there is value in explicitly acknowledging a contemporary attitude of inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness of method and perspective.

Therefore, use of the term ”holistic” in the title explicitly implies a “large tent” definition of Gestalt process that welcomes diverse ways of working and recognizing that we can all learn from the “otherness” of practitioners who have evolved their work in directions different from our own. It allows those who have felt that their working approach has been marginalized by the biases of some colleagues to come in from the shadows. And it highlights the interesting reality that the dominant views about which approaches are central and which are peripheral differs from one country and linguistic region to another. I welcome the large tent that makes space for diverse working processes and welcomes all who legitimately think of themselves as part of the Gestalt community. This includes dialogical-relational approaches, two-chair and sometime even multiple-chair work, dreamwork, use of diverse artistic media, movement and body-oriented work, and Gestalt group process work, to name some but not all of the orientations that can be found within this large tent.

In so saying, I am keenly aware of the danger becoming too diffuse, and of the need to keep a sharp focus. For me personally, the central focus is onprocess work within a working session—that is, within the therapeutic or counseling hour, or within one person’s working session when individual work is done in a group context. Of course that exists within the larger context of concerns that may take weeks or months, and multiple sessions to work through.

A phenomenon that has become more widespread in recent years is the inclusion and integration of methods from Gestalt therapy into other working modalities, such as alchemical hypnotherapy. I find that I am beginning to turn the tables on that process, and integrate perspective and methods from other approaches into my Gestalt work. Most notably these include humanistic and existential approaches, assertiveness training, and Yogic and Buddhist meditative disciplines. Such integration is highly selective, with close attention to maintaining a sharp focus on the client, the moment, and the way of working that is most appropriate now.

Already I hear the objection, “Gestalt therapy is a depth psychology, a process of exploration. How can you include something from a programmatic approach like assertiveness training?” There are two answers. First, good assertiveness training is also exploratory and based on the expansion of awareness as well as being programmatic. The “program” arises out of the exploration and awareness. Second, I find it appropriate only occasionally, and only when “pure” gestalt work has led to clear awareness of maladaptive behavior but the client keeps falling back into the old patterns and fails to behave differently. In this context, “assertiveness” can be a misnomer, for the methodological approach can be used with someone who needs to become more respectful and courteous toward others just as well as with someone who needs to learn to stand his or her ground.

With existential and phenomenological approaches, what I borrow is less often methods than attention to particular phenomena, or classes of phenomena, that have had a tendency to be overlooked in Gestalt therapy. These too are appropriately part of a holistic gestalt perspective, even though some gestalt training institutes do not emphasize them. In the present brief overview, I merely mention this outlook and not to delve into it in depth, which would require extended discussion of the work of such figures as Carl Rogers, Rollo May, Abraham Maslow, Soren Kierkegaard, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, James Bugenthal, Sidney Jourard, and others. That is a project for another day.


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