The Origins of Psychotherapy

Art therapy and Gestalt therapy are the two schools within psychotherapy around which there apparently are many misconceptions. I often experience that people are either curious or a little suspicious towards both forms of therapy. It inspires me to talk a bit about them, as curiosity should be rewarded and suspicions are probably best addressed through information.

In my daily work as a workplace counselor/coach and psychotherapist, I use the theory, attitude and approach of these two forms of therapy. In this series of articles, I want to touch on their background, principles, methods and ethics.

Gestalt therapy – history and origin

Fritz Perls who lived from 1893 to 1970 created Gestalt therapy as a theory and method. He was born in Berlin into a Jewish middle-class family. After having studied medicine and specialized in psychiatry, he graduated as a doctor in 1921. He worked as a doctor in Berlin up until 1926, after which he moved to Frankfurt, where he met his wife-to-be Laura Posner (later Lore Perls), who studied at the university there at the time. He later graduated as a Doctor of Psychology and it was in the cooperation between the two spouses that Gestalt therapy was formed, inspired by among others Martin Buber, Karen Horney, Wilhelm Reich and Sigmund Freud.

In 1933, the couple fled to South Africa as Hitler came into power. Here they founded the South African Institute for Psychoanalysis, which they ran together until 1946 when they immigrated to the US. In the US, they founded the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy together with Paul Goodman, but it was not until Fritz Perls had moved the operation to Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California that Gestalt therapy was accepted as its own form of therapy.

Gestalt therapy – the name and its significance

The pioneers of Gestalt therapy were initially not in agreement on the name of the form of therapy they had instigated. Many of them wished that the name had been “Existential Therapy” due to the fact that the overarching philosophy governing the therapy was existential in nature. For various reasons they finally agreed on the name of Gestalt Therapy. The word gestalt here refers to entireties and patterns, which give meaning. A gestalt is other than and more than the sum of the parts forming the whole; the relationships between the parts are also of great importance. The concept of gestalt that was formerly developed within Gestalt psychology concerned perception processes and was later used by Perls and other gestalt therapists to understand and work with other psychological processes than perception.

The essence of the gestalt therapeutic approach is that it is “healthy” to finish various psychological processes, i.e. we feel good when gestalts become closed or completed and we are affected or subjected to various symptoms when they are not. If a process is left open or half-completed, it will form an unfinished gestalt and will thereby create an obstacle to later processes, “binding energy” and hindering the client from reacting adequately in the current process or situation. More simply put: the therapeutic work consists of first identifying and raising the level of consciousness of the unfinished gestalt. Thereafter the client and therapist cooperate in order to step by step finish the process that at some point in the client’s life created the unfinished gestalt. The various steps of the process of creating the gestalt are described in a classic theoretic model, the so-called energy circle.

Apart from his substantial contribution as a working therapist, Frits Perls wrote some of the most important and fundamental works on Gestalt Therapy. This formed part of the reason why Gestalt therapy had such a strong foothold, became widespread and well known even during his lifetime.
Those who learnt how to practice Gestalt therapy from Laura or Fritz Perls are called “first generation gestalt therapists”. Currently, the “third and fourth generation of gestalt therapists” are being educated and are practicing. Even though progress changes us all, our surroundings and conditions; the basic principles of Gestalt therapy work even today, since the therapy fulfills the needs of development and insight held by contemporary man. You can find further descriptions of this in works by for instance psychotherapists and authors Inger Mannerstråle and Hanne Hostrup.

Text and illustrations: Tine Sylvest
Photographs: Bo Mellberg

The author is a certified Psychotherapist, Art Therapist and Workplace Counselor/Coach

Next page : Fritz Perls’ legacy