Gestalt therapy was founded in the socio-cultural context of humanistic psychotherapies. It was Friederich Perls, a German Jewish psychoanalist, whose intuition gave rise to this form of therapy : together with his wife, Laura Polsner, he had emigrated in the Forties, because of his race, first to South Africa and subsequently to the United States, where his insight was further developed by a group of American intellectuals with a deep knowledge of psychoanalysis. Of these the most outstanding were Paul Goodman, Isadore From, Paul Weisz, Lotte Weisz, Elliot Shapiro, Alison Montague and Sylvester Eastman. The birth of Gestalt therapy can be placed with the publication of the book "Gestalt Therapy. Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality" by F. Perls, R. Hefferline and P. Goodman, in 1951.
It expressed the creative synthesis of various philosophical, psychological and cultural tendencies of the post-war period (Gestalt psychology, of course Psychoanalysis, Wilhelm Reich’s, Karen Horney’s, and Otto Rank’s theories, Holism, Existentialism and Phenomenology, and finally Oriental philosophies, especially Zen), in a perspective on human nature which is still unique and fascinating.
Friedrich Perls had been Kurt Goldstein’s laboratory assistant in Germany, and was thus intimately involved in the enthusiastic studies of the perception of Gestalt psychology. His dissatisfaction with the Freudian theory of the Ego led him to realize that introjection completes its fundamental evolutionary task much earlier than Freud had theorized. For Perls, teeth development (the dental phase) is the physiological proof of all this. If the newborn child’s sucking its mother’s milk creates or sustains the human capacity - at a physiological as well as a psychological level - to introject, teeth development must likewise create (or maintain) a physiological or psychological capacity on the part of the child, namely the capacity to deconstruct both food and reality, to attack them in order to be able to assimilate them, if they are nourishing, or reject them if they are harmful or non-nourishing. Perls saw aggressiveness itself in the positive terms of the survival and of physical and existential growth of the organism : the drive to self-fulfillment is thus spontaneously attained. Goldstein’s positive perspective of the impulse to self-fulfillment was a fundamental influence on Perls’s thinking, which was offered as a way of overcoming the dualism present in Freudian metapsychology between the individual’s impulses and the need for social organization. Indeed, since the individual is the subject who deconstructs and reconstructs, this means that s/he has a real possibility of living fully in her/his own world.
Every experience comes about at the contact boundary between a human animal organism and her/his environment. It is precisely what happens at this boundary that is open to observation and to a possible therapeutic intervention. The contact boundary is the place where the Self unfolds - the Self being that function of the human organism which expresses its ability to make contact with its environment and to withdraw from it. The process of contact between the human organism and its environment, explained in Gestalt therapy on the basis of the dynamic concept of function - instead of instances - allows the individual to orient her/himself in the world, and to act on it for the self-preserving purpose of assimilating what is new - what is different from the self - and growing. Thus the contact boundary is the place where creativity (which expresses the uniqueness of the individual) can be combined with adjustment (which expresses reciprocity necessary to social living). There is not a unique model of health in Gestalt therapy, since every individual will create his/her own adjustment coping with the novelty offered by the other.
On the clinical level, certain substantial differences of psychotherapeutic practice follow from Perls’s ideas : we may think, for instance, of the positive redefinition of the patient’s aggression, of the value given to the capacity to concentrate (which Perls substituted for free association) as recovery of spontaneity of the organism, and of the brilliant replacement of the cause-and-effect concept with the concept of function.
Gestalt therapy holistic perspective brings us to think to the relationship between the individual and the social group no longer as separate entities but as parts of a single unity in reciprocal interaction, so that the tension which there may be between them is not to be regarded as the expression of an indissoluble conflict but as the necessary movement within a field which tends towards integration and growth.
Finally, the perspective of the contact boundary makes us possible to understand human behavior in terms of intentionality for contact : every experience finds its meaning in the relationship and in the time within which it is inserted. This restores concreteness to the exigencies of the individual and of social living : every conflict is to be faced in the here and now of the situation, because it is only in the details of a context that we can find real solutions. Gestalt therapy entrusts the regulation of need to the relationship itself, because it is in full recognition of the self and the other that the needs of the interacting partners find healthy expression and creative resolution.
This is a brief and partial description of Gestalt therapy’s birth and main principles. The history and development of this approach has been so creative that any description can just tell one perspective, neglecting others.
Margherita Spagnuolo Lobb
President, European Association for Gestalt Therapy (EAGT)
(manuscript provided by Margherita Spangnuolo Lobb for Studies in Gestalt Therapy)