Divya C. Berry


Explaining the 6 Key Concepts of Gestalt Therapy

In this article, we'll explore the 6 key concepts of Gestalt therapy, and how they can be integrated within the therapy room.

The word ‘Gestalt’ means ‘the complete whole’, which is a simplistic, essential way of beginning to understand the Gestalt school of therapy and what it offers. Gestalt Therapy evolved from the Psychodynamic School, but it is fundamentally Humanistic and Person Centered in its approach.

In this article, I’m going to explain the 6 key concepts of gestalt therapy to give a better overview of how gestalt therapy works, and how it might be applied in a therapeutic setting. Let us begin, though, with learning to pronounce it before we understand it better – ‘gesh-talt‘!

An overview of Gestalt

The Gestalt School evolved under the leadership of Fritz Perls, Laura Perls, and Paul Goodman. Their philosophy represented the times they lived in during the 1930s, where there were radical changes in the social, political and philosophical milieus, and the true birthing of psychology as a science and treatment modality.

The origins of the school relied heavily on the philosophers of the time, and of particular relevance are the ideas of Kurt Lewin (1951) on the outcomes of Gestalt therapy being a combination and interaction between the potential of the environment and the needs of the organism (the person for theory and the client for therapy).

Wholeness refers to the whole sum of a person’s experiences – what is figural, what is in the background, and all the experiences therein. Further, the formulation is to understand a person as a whole entity, of the body and the mind, as well as emotion and thoughts, with emphasis on how these are experienced by the person.

Discover whether therapy is right for you

Gestalt Therapy does not polarize and pick one concept or theme as central to the person, based on their storytelling, nor does it probe into parts of the past that do not emerge in the client’s narrative; it works precisely to avoid typecasting a situation and instead explores a spectrum of thoughts and feelings.

In simpler terms, it’s a therapy of working with the grey zones, the staying with the person’s experience rather than swinging to either end; this also means that, as an orientation, Gestalt is not about siding with one aspect of the client, but helping them to explore their own polarity to find for themselves where they want to be.

This exploration is done by empathic dialogue that is without agenda on the part of the therapist, imbued with a curiosity and experimentation that is unique to Gestalt – to really allow the client to come to awareness by exploring all the parts of them without self-judgment or shame.

“The whole is more than the total of its parts, which means that, if we analyze the characteristics of its parts separately, we will not be able to comprehend the characteristics of the whole”

Encyclopaedia Brittanica (2020)

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica (2020), from a perspective of perceptual organization, the whole is more than the sum of its parts; this means it is as all the more important to comprehend the characteristics of the whole in order to understand the sum of its parts, and this cannot be done separately. Analysis alone will fall short, and hence a deep dive into the composition needs to be conducted with each part (of the whole) being understood in relation to its position and function to the whole.

Gestalt Therapy uses its unique modality of dialogue and experimentation to achieve self-awareness. This self-awareness leads to the capacity to integrate and regulate our feelings better; by changing perceptions, it acts as a bridge between the past and the present. The end point of that awareness is not just personal growth, but a full experience of accepting our whole selves.

Critical perspectives of Gestalt

“I do my thing and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations. And you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you, and I am I. If by chance, we find each other, it is beautiful. If not, it can’t be helped.”

Fritz Perls

Gestalt approaches can range from absolute purist to integrative. The former is far more aggressive, and that type of therapeutic intervention may not be for everyone. Working integratively using a Gestalt lens, however, has several benefits, as it allows for more flexibility, or, rather, tuning with the tempo that the client is comfortable with.

The raw experiences that emerge from Gestalt therapy can at times be very intense, and the client must have the supportive conditions in their environment to manage those emotions, as in the early days of therapy they would still be in the process of exploring these newly rooted emotions in themselves.

The greatest strength of Gestalt Therapy is perhaps its fundamental devotion to wholeness, and hence nothing is hidden – this allows for the maximum exploration with the minimum attention given to readiness. The energetic interaction can propel the client to another plane, which longer therapeutic exploration would do in a more ‘cyclical’ manner.

Gestalt Therapy sessions are, simply put, more raw – whether the client has come to therapy with a specific agenda of alleviating anxiety through Gestalt, exploring mood issues, or working through a personality generated dilemma, the therapy will involve an exploration and confrontation of their whole selves and, quite simply, they will not know or be prepared for what may emerge.

This is the end point of the creative process, which is how every therapy session is undertaken; having faith in the organism’s inherent capacity for growth and finding their own wholeness. In this, Gestalt Therapy firmly helps the client move from the hope for interdependency and social support to one of agency and self-support.

The Key Concepts of Gestalt Therapy

Gestalt Therapy is firmly rooted in the individual’s experience being ‘live’, and part of an ongoing experience of becoming; the theory of the cycle of experience and awareness elucidates this clearly in the arrival of a new stimulus that brings excitement to the organism (the person), and this is the start of the process of the germination of a new idea which the individual follows through till either completion, or exits this ‘cycle’ midway, hence creating frustration and disappointment.

Gestalt is concerned with problem solving and creative decision-making. According to Perls (1969), individuals should dialogue with the two opposing parts of themselves, and in the exploration of this polarity, integration can emerge, and this then leads to clarity.

The end point of the awareness generated by this clarity is the call for action for actual changes made by the person in their life. Change is not sought from others but made by and for the self.

Further reading: unlocking your inner potential

The creative freedom that the therapist/counselor may experience as part of the therapy process contributes greatly to the experience they are able to bring to the client (Zinkler, 1977). The therapeutic relationship itself forms the bedrock for processing difficult and conflicted parts of the self, and unfinished business and unprocessed emotions, all while maintaining synchrony between the mental and physical.

The central themes of Gestalt therapy that have emerged from theory and influence its practice are summarized as follows:

1. The therapuetic relationship

“As a therapist, I am a companion. I try to help people tune into their own wisdom”

Virginia Satir

The Dialogical Relationship is key to Gestalt; this is the relationship of dialogue between the counselor and the client. How the therapist and client perceive their relationship in the therapy room is vitally important to the Gestalt process. (Yontef, 1983).

In fact, there are references for the absolute need for the therapist/counselor to be totally engaged in a Gestalt ‘way of life’, and that only contact and interaction with such a practitioner can bring the client close to the real experience of what a Gestalt Therapy session can bring.

The therapist may allude to understanding the feelings of the client with empathic referencing and mirroring that goes beyond the objective experience, but may subjectively share their own – without giving any specifics or breaching a code of contact. The words may reflect simply, “I know that feeling. I have felt it before. I understand because I have been there before.”

The honest transparency and humane experience of the ‘Gestalist’, and what develops from the interaction between them and the client, paves the way for true insight development and awareness. Once the client has this awareness, they are more independent and autonomous, as well as more coherently whole in their experience of how they want to use it to change the things they want in their life.

The outstanding feature for a Gestalt practitioner is to develop active curiosity, a spirit of inquiry, and full engagement; these qualities are fundamentally different from having any sort of agenda or desire to take the therapeutic process in a direction. Indeed, the practitioner is an “artistic participant” in the creative process of therapy (Corey, 2009).

2. Holism and the integrated self

Holism (Perls, 1969; Wilber, 1996) refers to the oneness of the body and soul.

Gestalt Therapy is rooted in holistically understanding the individual; firstly, at the level of unification of the mind, of thought, of emotion, and of action, and secondly, of that of the individual and the environment. Gestalt is a humanistic psychology that does not follow any reductionism in terms of isolating the individual’s experiences from their environment, or of the duality of body and mind.

“The whole is more than the sum of its parts”


Holism refers to the whole being more than the sum of its parts. Individuals will tend to disown or disavow parts of themselves that do not fit in with the comfortable or likeable image, and this leads to projecting the same onto others. A Gestalt Therapy session is without dualism or polarity, so the focus remains with bringing all the parts of the individual into their experience in the session – further, for them to experience a holistic self by integrating different aspects of the self.

Perls, Hefferline & Goodman (1951) in their seminal work, describe the ‘self’ as a system of contact and hence a developing process; the Self is “contact at the boundary between the organism and environment”. This allows separation; hence the holistic view allows the therapist to approach the client as such.

3. Gestalt techniques and processes

“All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make, the better.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The therapeutic processes involved in the Gestalt approach are unique techniques that belong to the process of dialogue and experimentation. The questions in a session will often be oriented towards asking the client how they are feeling ‘now’, in the moment and, as an extension, where they may feel something in body.

The dialogue is a two-way interaction between the client and the therapist, and this relationship is of special relevance to the quality of the dialogue; the focus is on this dialogue to be impactful and lead to what is known as ‘contact’.

The creative freedom that the therapist has during this process is vital, as they would typically access a range of resources that include verbal and non-verbal methods. To elucidate, these are:

  • sensory awareness
  • breath-work
  • using parts of the body
  • expressions
  • exercises that may require the client to close their eyes, move, dance, and get up from their chair

The totality of the therapeutic contact leads to a unification of body and mind, of sensory experiencing and being able to connect with one’s unique expanse of feelings. Witchel (1973) refers to the role of the ‘now’, and how conversations about the past can be encouraged in present time. For example, the empty chair technique helps to articulate emotions that are difficult to express to the actual figures in that individual’s life, but the dramatic reinterpretation actively in the therapy room allows for some movement in the domain of internal conflict.

4. Phenomenology and the ‘here and now’

Phenomenology, as defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first person’s point of view; it is hence entirely personal and refers to the here and now of the person’s experience, as they see it.

“Be here now”

Ram Dass

According to Yontef & Jacobs (2005), phenomenology presumes that reality is shaped by a person in relation to being both, the observer and the observed; further, that this experience can be interpreted.

The goal of the phenomenological exploration in Gestalt Therapy is awareness or insight. This pure insight, how it is achieved, what is the process of it is, and how removed it is from academic interpretation is a key tenet of successful Gestalt phenomenological exploration.

5. Theory of change

“When I accept myself just as I am, then I can change”

Carl Rogers

Paradoxical Theory of Change, by Arnold Beisser (Fagan & Shepard, 1970), states that ‘change occurs when one becomes what they are, not when they try to become what they are not.’

The idea behind this is in sync with the Perls’s Change Theory. The therapist in Gestalt Therapy is not a change agent, and their role is only to explore and encourage the client to authentically remain who and what they are; it is not to try to hard, or coerce, or influence the change that may even seem ‘better’ for the client.

This is rooted in the essential purpose for which many people come to therapy; to bridge the disconnect between divergent parts of the self. When an individual is shuttling between what they should be and what they think, the ‘intra-psychic war’ will not let them be at ease. Gestalt Therapy’s approach to change allows the client to be who they are without trying to change, and the belief is that in doing so, they become the change they want to be from within.

How to get started with Gestalt therapy

The fundamental concept of Gestalt Therapy is that individuals do possess within themselves all the resources and elements for their growth, and to break free from patterns that make them unhappy and conflicted; further, that this growth can be sustained in relationships and environments that allow for the individual to be authentic. There is therefore the capacity for freedom and possibility in this approach.

My personal approach focuses on helping client’s raise their own awareness and build a personalized tool box for themselves with insight and authenticity so that they can refer to it as and when their need arises. Please see my gestalt therapy services page for more information, and to book a session.

Divya C Berry

Divya C Berry

I am an MBPsS and MBACP accredited counsellor and psychologist. I hold degrees from LSE, University of London and City University London in Social Psychology and Health Psychology at the MA level.

I have five years of clinical practice at Vidyasagar Institute of Mental Health & Neurosciences in New Delhi, and have recently completed three years of training at the Gestalt Centre in London. I am currently based in London and am available for online consultations.