What is Gestalt Therapy?

Gestalt became part of the humanistic approach to psychotherapy and was groundbreaking in shifting the focus from the therapist as observer to the inclusion of self by the therapist, expressed in a dialogic relationship between therapist and client.

In gestalt therapy, the therapist is focused on how they relate to their client. Does the client respond to the therapist’s energy? Do they even notice the therapist is there? This interesting approach to the dynamic/relationship begins from the very first interaction and is a body focused approach that aims to teach the client the language of their own body. This can begin with having the client identify sensations in their body.

Gestalt is not a solution focused therapy, meaning the therapist is not there to fix or cure people but rather help them absorb the feeling of being with whatever is ailing them. This is especially important for those who have grown up believing that if we could only improve ourselves we could function better in the world, find a place for ourselves and have healthy relationships.

In the words of Gestalt therapist and author Gordon Wheeler we have become “armies of one.” Gestalt therapy restores the forgotten knowing that we have never been separate from our families, our communities, our peers, our enemies, our planet but rather have given up essential parts of ourselves in order to belong.

When, as children, we are faced with experiences that we don’t know how to respond to, we modify ourselves in some way in order to exist and persevere. This is why feeling connected to things, people and the world is so essential.

Life experiences can create fog or block or hinder our natural ability to reach for something or someone or divert it to things, people and coping strategies that are unhealthy or not useful. It all depends on the kind of support we’ve had in our lives (who is in our field) and interactions with mothers and caregivers in early infancy.

We were not taught how to belong without losing our selves, nor were we taught that relating through our differences is our strongest opportunity to expand our sense of self. This ability to keep on growing is why Gestalt therapists have such satisfaction from their work – every client reveals a new aspect of self. The same is true in all our relationships. This is why Gestalt has also been called a way of living.

The Gestalt therapist works in relation to their client to deconstruct the “army of one” syndrome (that they can only depend on themselves) by making the therapy session a live laboratory for exploring new ways of being in the world.

These are some of the principles of Gestalt therapy as taught at The Gestalt Institute of Toronto:

  1. The Gestalt therapist is more interested in meeting the client than in moving the client. For example, if a client presents with anxiety, my intention is not to treat the anxiety. I’m curious about how the client interacts with the feeling in their body that is presenting as anxiety and what is going on for them while they are trying to sit and be present in the room with me. That’s where they are at.
  2. I can’t change the behaviour that a client has (anxiety, depression, etc.) in response to how they are interacting with a feeling (frustration, anger, sadness etc.), only the client can do that. The client might be aware or unaware, but they don’t have the necessary support required or a need is going unmet or there is a block somewhere in being able to feel an emotion and then process it. I work to help someone gain more awareness into what they are feeling and how their body wants to respond and then work with whatever might come from that exploration.
  3. The Gestalt therapist does not work to change behaviors or symptoms that are deemed undesirable. The therapist accepts these as “creative adjustments” in the field for every individual that enabled them to survive in an otherwise impossible context. The gestalt therapist validates and remains curious about how a behaviour deemed undesirable is, or has been necessary for their survival.
  4. The therapist works in the space between self and client – this dynamic of the contact boundary can be felt. This involves the therapist checking in with their own body to notice what it is doing, or not in response to a client sharing.
  5. The gestalt therapist is also trained in Dialog: the intention to listen with the idea of learning something from the other and not listening to respond. This can be an entirely new experience for some, if they have grown up in, or experienced, an invalidating environment.
  6. Gestalt therapy puts us at our experiential vulnerable edge. To meet the unknown is possible in every intimate connection.
  7. The heart of Contemporary Gestalt is the safe and effective use of oneself in which both therapist and client grow through the encounter. The therapist is also encouraged to admit their own mistakes in the presence of their client, recognizing that the client and therapist impact one another and are not the same at the end of the session as they were in the beginning.


A lot of gestalt therapy revolves around the things we don’t say and the way our body language communicates our feelings. Being in a safe environment with a therapist who is trained to recognize this and support you through becoming more self-aware is just one of the many ways gestalt therapy can support the client. This awareness can lead to a growth in confidence, the ability to set boundaries and make decisions and can help support healing from any “creative adjustments” the client deals with in order to manage previous trauma or adverse situations.