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Learn / Finding Freedom Through Gestalt Therapy

Finding Freedom Through Gestalt Therapy

Sarah Shawaker
 March 1st, 2023|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

Key Points

  • Gestalt therapy focuses on the present moment.
  • It encourages you to accept parts of yourself you’ve avoided.
  • By accepting the past, you can move onto a more peaceful future.

You can’t be defined as just one thing. So healing requires looking at all of the things that make you, you. Gestalt therapy shows how all the facets in your life impact you. This approach honors that both you and your environment are always shaping each other. And you can learn how to make this relationship a positive one. 

In rehab, gestalt therapy can empower you to move forward from what’s holding you back.  

What Is Gestalt Therapy?

A “gestalt” is a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.1 According to this approach, if you want to understand something, you have to look at its context. Gestalt therapy helps you realize how different areas of your life impact you. 

This therapy works by bringing you into the present moment to heal.2 It focuses on the here and now. You can still look at past experiences that you want to work through. But by focusing on what you’re feeling right now, you’re better able to understand and regulate your feelings. Gestalt therapy aims to help you make peace with the past, so you can move on to a brighter future.

This healing journey encourages you to reconnect with and accept buried parts of yourself. It also urges you to be accountable for how you live your life. While we can’t always control our circumstances, learning to adapt to the unpredictable can be hugely empowering.

How It Works

The key to Gestalt therapy is trust: trusting your therapist and trusting yourself. Doing so helps you develop the self-awareness to recognize patterns you want to change. 

In session, your therapist focuses on empathizing with you. By giving unconditional acceptance, they’ll provide a safe space for you to heal. They’ll do much more listening than talking. 

Gestalt Therapy Exercises 

Gestalt therapy takes a hands-on approach to healing. This experiential therapy will have you do more than just talking. In a session, you might do exercises like the following, including some that focus on analyzing body movement:

  • “I” statements: Instead of “they were mean to me,” for example, you might say: “I feel that they’re being mean to me.” Using this kind of phrasing helps you take responsibility for your thoughts and emotions instead of blaming them on others. 
  • The empty chair: You’ll face an empty chair, representing someone or something, and have an open conversation with it. Here, you’ll work through your unprocessed experiences—what Gestalt therapy refers to as “unfinished business.” The empty chair method3 releases negative feelings, making life more joyful. 
  • The reversal technique: Your therapist will encourage you to act in ways you normally wouldn’t. If you’re normally passive, for example, you might act assertively. This allows you to overcome self-imposed labels and get in touch with your full self.
  • Top dog vs. underdog: You’ll speak as both the “top dog” and “underdog” of your personality. That is, you’ll speak as your own dominant side versus your submissive side. This exercise reveals internal conflict and empowers you to work toward a middle ground. 
  • Exaggeration: Your therapist will ask you to repeat certain actions, like your leg bouncing or picking your nails, that you do while talking. By doing this action again, you’ll see what emotion it’s tied to. Understanding this mind-body connection is grounding and allows you to develop control of your emotions. 

Is Gestalt Therapy Right for You?

Gestalt therapy treats a variety of mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. And you don’t have to have a diagnosis to benefit from it. Gestalt therapy is also used for low self-esteem4 and relationship problems

Gestalt therapy is process-oriented,5 unlike many other therapies. This means that it follows the flow of the therapy session and does not have specific rules or a timeline. If you need more structure, Gestalt therapy may not be a fit.

Gestalt Therapy for Mental Health

When you’re in the present moment and self-aware, your mental health benefits. If you’re feeling stuck in old ruts, Gestalt therapy may be able to help you break out of them.

Gestalt Therapy for Trauma and PTSD

Your body stores trauma.6 And Gestalt therapy can help you safely explore it. Focusing on how your body is currently moving or feeling can help you process your past. As trauma expert Dr. Bessel van der Kolk explains: 

“If you have a comfortable connection with your inner sensations—if you can trust them to give you accurate information—you will feel in charge of your body, your feelings, and yourself.”7

For PTSD patients, Gestalt therapy revisits past emotions that are tied to traumatic events.8 By fully processing the effects on your mind and body, you can move beyond the hold your past has had on you. 

If you have bodily or sexual trauma, approach Gestalt therapy with caution. Trauma sits differently for everyone, so what may work for others could be triggering for you. Your treatment team can help you decide which modalities are best suited for your goals. 

Gestalt Therapy for Trauma Anxiety

Anxiety often starts from stress about your past or about the unknown future. Gestalt therapy can decrease anxiety9 by helping you focus on the now. It can also increase self-love by showing you that all parts of you are worthy. For many, recovery is a lifelong process, and this therapy can support lasting healing. 

Addiction and Gestalt Therapy

Addiction might begin as self-medication to cope with stress or other mental health concerns. Learning to accept your life in the present through Gestalt therapy could be a powerful tool for setting yourself free. 

Your therapist will look at you as a whole person, instead of just a set of addiction risk factors. Professionals at Monarch Shores explain that the biggest goal in recovery with Gestalt therapy is growth. As you grow to accept your life, you’ll also grow to embrace who you are. And in doing so, you’ll be more motivated to make positive changes. 

The fundamental skills Gestalt therapy teaches are also useful for preventing relapse.10

Healing Your Present–and Your Future

You are a collection of every experience in your life. When you learn to love and accept all of the elements that make up who you are, you become a stronger whole. Radically accepting everything you feel can help you focus on the present moment—and find freedom from the past.

Look for rehabs that offer gestalt therapy and reach out to their admissions staff directly.

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