Gestalt Therapy

gestalt therapy

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In Gestalt Therapy. Dr. Gordon Wheeler discusses and demonstrates the underlying theory of this therapeutic approach: The growth occurs through new awareness brought to bear on old habits of self-organization and through supported experiments in new ways of organizing meaning-making and behavior.

In Dr. Wheeler's demonstration of Gestalt therapy, the client attempts to gain a model for understanding how she views the meaning of her experiences, or more accurately, how she constructs the meaning of her experiences through the lens of her specific viewpoint.

The client is in the midst of a dramatic life event: She has recently met her biological father and is trying to find a way to fit him into her life, despite the resistance of her mother and adoptive father. Dr. Wheeler works with the client to uncover old habits and organization of experiences and feelings she brings to each moment, and in so doing, helps her make meaning of her problems.


The Gestalt system of therapy is based on a model for understanding how we as human beings put our experiences together. This view is founded on the idea that our experience—or our understanding of our experience—is not given to us as a complete whole. Instead, each individual constructs his or her understanding of life as he or she lives it, piece by piece. In this sense, Gestalt therapy's viewpoint is similar to constructivist therapy. Through this process of constructing experience, people develop a deep-rooted pattern of how they "make contact" with the world. The primary goal of the Gestalt therapist is to understand how a client makes contact with the world.

The Gestalt approach is very present-time oriented. Throughout therapy, a Gestalt therapist always checks in with the client to see how he or she feels here and now. The therapist discerns a client's self-organization by constantly checking how what the client is discussing makes the client feel, both emotionally and physically, as in where those emotions are found in the body. As the therapist attunes him or herself to how the client is feeling, the client begins to feel safe with the therapist, and a relationship forms between them. The relationship allows the client to open up further and deepen the therapy process.

After a therapist–client relationship forms, the therapist can begin the deconstruction phase of therapy, in which the therapist seeks to help the client work through any problems by understanding how the client has organized him or herself. Deconstruction begins by understanding and analyzing this self-organization, and presenting these observations back to the client.

Although Gestalt therapists have traditionally used dramatic techniques such as the empty chair dialogue to deconstruct a client's problems, Dr. Wheeler's own approach involves the therapist using his or her own thoughts, feelings, and observations as avenues for understanding the client. In this way, the therapist's here-and-now experience of the therapy is as important as the client's, and it may help the therapy process by provoking dialogue and jogging insights in the client.

About the Therapist

Gordon Wheeler, PhD, is president and CEO of the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. He is a licensed psychologist with a long experience in clinical practice, teaching, and extensive organizational consultation to nonprofits, with

a concentration on mission development and strategic planning.

The author of numerous books and over 100 articles in the field, he is noted for his work of integrating the Gestalt tradition with relational psychology, with a special focus on cultural issues, child and lifelong development and education, individualism, gender issues, and the dynamics of intimacy and shame. He has also written about values and political psychology, including multicultural issues and post Holocaust studies. His writings have been translated into a dozen foreign languages.

He teaches and trains clinicians around the world and also serves as editor and director of GestaltPress (a logo of Erlbaum/Analytic Press). Dr. Wheeler and his wife Nancy Lunney-Wheeler have eight children and one grandchild and own homes in Big Sur and Santa Cruz, California.

Suggested Readings

  • Lee, R. & Wheeler, G. (1996). The voice of shame: Silence and connection in psychotherapy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Wheeler, G. (1991). Gestalt reconsidered: A new approach to contact and resistance. New York: Gardner Press.
  • Wheeler, G. (2000). Beyond individualism: Toward a new understanding of self, relationship, and experience. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.
  • Wheeler, G. & McConville, M. (2003). The heart of development: Gestalt approaches to working with children, adolescents, and their worlds: Vol. 1. Childhood. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.

APA Videos

  • Adlerian Therapy
Jon Carlson
  • Brief Dynamic Therapy Stanley B. Messer
  • Client-Centered Therapy Nathaniel J. Raskin
  • Client-Directed Outcome-Focused Psychotherapy Scott D. Miller
  • Cognitive–Affective Behavior Therapy Marvin R. Goldfried
  • Cognitive–Behavior Therapy Jacqueline B. Persons
  • Constructivist Therapy Robert A Neimeyer
  • Effective Psychoanalytic Therapy of Schizophrenia and Other Severe Disorders Lillian Comas-Diaz
  • Feminist Therapy Laura S. Brown
  • Individual Therapy From a Family Systems Perspective Florence W. Kaslow
  • Multimodal Therapy Arnold A. Lazarus
  • Prescriptive Eclectic Therapy John C. Norcross
  • Process Experiential Psychotherapy: An Emotion-Focused Approach Leslie S. Greenberg
  • Short-Term Dynamic Therapy Donald K. Friedheim
  • Working With Dreams

    Phyllis R. Koch-Sheras

  • APA Books

    • Culturally Responsive Cognitive–Behavioral Therapy: Assessment, Practice, and Supervision
    Edited by Pamela A. Hays and Gayle Y. Iwamasa
  • Dream Work in Therapy: Facilitating Exploration, Insight, and Action Edited by Clara E. Hill
  • Emotion-Focused Therapy: Coaching Clients to Work Through Their Feelings Leslie S. Greenberg
  • Healing Plots: The Narrative Basis of Psychotherapy Edited by Amia Lieblich, Dan P. McAdams, and Ruthellen Josselson
  • Identity and Story: Creating Self in Narrative Edited by Dan P. McAdams, Ruthellen Josselson, and Amia Lieblich
  • Imagery in Psychotherapy

    Jerome L. Singer

  • Companion Products

    This book provides an introduction to the theory, historical evolution, research, and practice of Gestalt therapy, an approach that inspires an active, present-focused, relational stance on the part of the therapist.

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