What is gestalt theory, and how can it influence therapy? In this lesson, we’ll look at gestalt theory, the types of resistance to contact that can cause psychological issues, and how gestalt theorists treat patients.
Imagine that you are making a stew. You put in some carrots and potatoes. Maybe you add in a little squash.
Next comes beans or maybe some meat. And, of course, you add in herbs and spices.Any one of those ingredients is good by itself, but when put together, they make a stew that is both comprised of the ingredients and that transcends the ingredients. Carrots no longer just taste like carrots – they are part of a larger whole.
That’s kind of what the gestalt theory of psychology is like: it looks at the whole person as a complex mixture of traits, experiences, longings, and emotions. It says that a person is both the sum of his or her parts and also much more than those parts.Think back to the stew: if you take it apart, none of the ingredients can be said to be ‘stew-like.’ But together, the flavors mingle, and the stew is made. That’s like people. We are not our experiences. We are not our feelings.
We are not our thoughts or our personality traits or any other part of us in isolation. We are a unique blend of all of those things.Let’s look closer at gestalt theory and how it is used in therapy.
Resistance to Contact
One major part of gestalt theory is that people must be able to interact with the world around them while still maintaining their individuality. This is called contact.Of course, it’s never quite that simple.
People develop defenses to keep them from being able to experience life fully and to keep them from being able to experience contact in healthy ways. This resistance to contact comes in five general forms.1. Introjection occurs when someone passively experiences the world. These people don’t know what they want and are like leaves being blown around in the wind.
2. Projection is when someone is in denial about an aspect of herself and projects it upon others. These people often complain about aspects of others that are present in their own personality.
For example, someone might dislike someone else for never admitting when they are wrong, when the person complaining also does that.3. Confluence involves blurring the lines between self and the world.
In this case, the person is interacting with the world but not maintaining his or her individuality. This often manifests itself in people who really need to be liked and are willing to say or do anything to gain approval.4. Retroflection occurs when someone does to himself what he wants to do to someone else. For example, a person may harm himself because he’s angry at someone else and doesn’t want to harm them. Or, someone may bite her lip instead of saying something biting to someone else.5.
Deflection is when someone turns away and doesn’t let people in. Sometimes this manifests itself in someone who is very polite but distant. They won’t let anyone get close enough to see what they are really like, instead maintaining distance from everyone.
So gestalt theory says that a person is more than just the sum of his or her parts, and that psychological problems come from some type of resistance to contact with the world. But what can we do about it? How do gestalt therapists actually help people?There are several things that set gestalt therapy apart from other forms of counseling. For one thing, the patient is expected to do much more work than in some other types of therapy.
Remember that gestalt therapists see problems as springing from issues with contact with the world. So the patient is expected to learn how to have healthy contact with the environment.How does this happen? A central theme in gestalt therapy is the focus of living in the here and now. By focusing on the present moment, patients can learn to have contact with the world as it is happening in this moment instead of what happened in the past or what might happen in the future.For example, imagine that you are a gestalt therapist, and Camille comes to see you. She’s in a new relationship and is having problems letting her new boyfriend in.
She tries really hard to be the perfect girlfriend and is afraid to express any negative emotions or be less than perfect at any time. She is falling victim to deflection.When you talk to Camille, you discover that her last boyfriend left her for someone who was prettier, nicer, and more soft-spoken than Camille. She believes that it’s her fault that her ex left and is scared that her current boyfriend will also leave if she lets him get too close.Camille is so focused on the hurt from the past and the fear of the future that she doesn’t have any space left in her mind for the present.
As her therapist, you ask her to focus on the here and now. If she can stop thinking about her ex-boyfriend and worrying that her current boyfriend will leave her, she can open up and stop deflecting. As a result, she’ll be happier and healthier, and her relationship will probably be stronger, too.
Gestalt theory looks at people as more than the sum of their parts.
Gestalt theorists believe that psychological issues come from unhealthy contact with the world, either through introjection, projection, confluence, retroflection, or deflection. Treatment focuses on getting the patient to be in the present moment instead of lingering over past hurt and future fears.
After finishing this lesson, you should be able to:
- Define Gestalt theory and counseling
- Identify the five types of resistance to contact
- Recognize an example of how Gestalt therapy might work