There are a number of professionals who have contributed to the development and progression of Gestalt Therapy. This includes Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffa, Wolfgang Kohler, and the most known individual, Fritz Perls (Seligman, L. & Reichenberg, L.W., 2010). The work of Fritz Perls was influenced by other key figures in the mental health field such as Sigmund Freud, Karney Horney, Wilhelm Reich, and Otto Rank (Seligman, L. & Reichenberg, L.W., 2010). Keep reading to learn 10 Gestalt Therapy Exercises and Activities to do with your clients in therapy.
Gestalt Therapy has commonalities with Person-Centered Therapy and Existential Therapy (Seligman, L. & Reichenberg, L.W., 2010).
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Perls believed that we are all good people who have the capacity to cope with the distress we experience in our lives (Seligman, L. & Reichenberg, L.W., 2010). Having the ability to cope with distress may be something that our clients can make growth in, and doing so can improve their overall quality of life. Through the use of Gestalt Therapy, clients can develop awareness, inner strength, and self-sufficiency (Seligman, L. & Reichenberg, L.W., 2010).
Gestalt Therapists believe that awareness is a catalyst for change (Seligman, L. & Reichenberg, L.W., 2010). Self-actualization can occur when individuals are aware of their unfinished business, strengths, and resources (Seligman, L. & Reichenberg, L.W., 2010). Not only does Gestalt Therapy emphasize intellectual awareness, but awareness within the body is also an important concept (Seligman, L. & Reichenberg, L.W., 2010).
The four components that Gestalt Therapist aim to accomplish with their clients include the following (Seligman, L. & Reichenberg, L.W., 2010):
- Pay attention to their experience so that they can become aware of, and concentrate on the present moment
- Maintain and promote the integrity and interrelationships of social, cultural, historical, physical, emotional, and other factors
- Encourage creativity
Gestalt Therapists aim to develop a working relationship where they work alongside their client while staying in the present moment. By gaining awareness of their own feelings, experiences, and perceptions, Clinicians can be genuine in their interactions with clients.
Mental Health Concerns That Can Benefit from Gestalt Therapy
Gestalt Therapy is ideal for clients who feel as though they are not living their life to the best of their ability. This can include those who are living with anxiety, depression, mood disorders, phobias, and mild dysfunctional personality traits (Seligman, L. & Reichenberg, L.W., 2010).
With its focus on physical awareness, Gestalt Therapy can be a good fit for clients who feel their emotions throughout their bodies, including those living with somatoform disorders (Seligman, L. & Reichenberg, L.W., 2010).
Gestalt Therapy has shown positive results when applied to populations that are living with substance use disorders. More specifically, Gestalt Therapy has led to a high abstinence rate and has improved overall mood and personality characteristics (Seligman, L. & Reichenberg, L.W., 2010).
Additionally, Gestalt Therapy has shown positive results when working with clients who have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, and those living with disabilities (Seligman, L. & Reichenberg, L.W., 2010).
Gestalt Therapy is not appropriate for clients who are living with serious mental health concerns including schizophrenia and paranoia, and those who have impulse control disorders (Seligman, L. & Reichenberg, L.W., 2010). It is important to be mindful of using Gestalt Therapy when working with clients, as some of the techniques and interventions may come off as confrontational and intense to those with a non-Western European communication style (Seligman, L. & Reichenberg, L.W., 2010).
Gestalt Therapy Exercises to do with Clients
There are a variety of Gestalt Therapy exercises that can be used to work toward the four components that Gestalt Therapy works towards. Gestalt Therapy can be applied to both group and individual sessions. Continue reading our list of Gestalt Therapy activities!
- Perhaps the most commonly known Gestalt Therapy activity is the empty chair technique. This technique can be used during individual sessions. Before you begin, you will need to have two chairs, often facing each other, that your client can move to during this exercise. Once you have the chairs arranged, as your client to imagine another person in the other chair. This could be a partner, friend, family member, co-worker, or anyone whom they have unfinished business with. As the Counselor, you will help your client have a conversation with their identified person as they move between the two chairs respectively. Once you have completed this exercise, allow for time to process your client’s experience and any key takeaways they have gained.
- The Top Dog- Under Dog, exercise is a commonly used Gestalt Therapy activity that can increase awareness of different aspects of our client’s personality. Top Dog refers to the part of our client that is dominant and assertive, whereas the Under Dog refers to the parts of us that may be a bit passive. With this exercise, your client will have a conversation between these two aspects of themselves to increase their awareness of the polarities they are balancing. Allow for time to process your client’s experience, thoughts, and emotions after this activity.
- An awareness Gestalt Therapy activity that you can utilize in either a group or individual session would be exploring a recent dream that your client has had. Encourage your client to identify different parts of their dream, and make a note of what they believe each part would say about itself if it had a voice. Once your client has shared their thoughts and observations, spend time exploring anything that they are taking away from the exercise, or that they have learned about themselves from this exercise.
- The Cant Substitution Worksheet is an example of an activity that a Gestalt Therapist could use in a group or individual session. With this activity, you will ask your client to identify something they feel that they cannot do. After repeating this statement, you will then ask them to replace “I can’t” with “I won’t” and explore any changes that this has for your client. You will then ask them to repeat the same phrase with “I won’t”, and explore any implications this has on the amount of responsibility that your client is owning for this concern. Allow for time to process anything they have learned about themselves and their reactions to the exercise.
- If you are looking for a Gestalt Therapy exercise that can be incorporated into a group session, encourage your clients to pick a possession or object that they feel they can identify with. This can be in how the object is viewed by others, its importance, and the way it makes others feel. Once you have provided your clients with an appropriate amount of time, have your group share the item that they identify and why. Allow for time to process anything that the group members have recognized or learned about themselves during this exercise.
- Using the My Movement Worksheet offered by TherapyByPro can be used to help your clients gain awareness of their body and its movements. As an example, this activity begins by asking your client to turn their head and notice any new sensations they experience within their body. In addition to gaining awareness of their physical being, clients will practice being in the here and now.
- With respect to the goal of gaining awareness, a helpful Gestalt Therapy Activity would be to explore your client’s way of being in the moment and the messages that they believe these behaviors send. Examples of behaviors that can be explored include their use of language, their body language, their use of eye contact, and their natural body movements. Once your client has gained some awareness, spend time exploring differences that can be observed within their body language and their words, and if these differences are related to any internal splits that they are navigating.
- TherapyByPro offers a Now I Feel Worksheet which can be used to help clients explore the level of responsibility that they feel for their emotions. With this worksheet, your client will be asked to complete the following statement aloud: I feel _____, and I am responsible for that. The next step is exploring how that statement makes them feel. Since we can feel more than one emotion at a time, clients can use this sheet to respect each emotion they are feeling in the present moment.
- Another commonly used approach by Gestalt Therapists is the exaggeration technique. With this technique, clients are asked to repeat and exaggerate a physical movement that they unconsciously engage in to try and gain awareness of any emotional connections the movement may have. As an example, someone who is adjusting or bouncing their leg may feel anxious at that moment and be unaware of their experience at the moment. The repeated engagement and the exaggeration of the movement can help clients tap into what they are feeling emotionally at that time. Allow for time to process your client’s thoughts and emotions after engaging in this exercise.
- The I Give You The Power worksheet available at TherapyByPro can be used to help clients gain insight into how they give others the power of impacting their emotions. With this therapeutic exercise, your client will identify someone who has made them feel bad. You will then ask your client to imagine that that individual is sitting across them and tell them how they feel. Once your client has verbalized their thoughts and emotions, have them say “I give you the power to make me feel this way” more than once. You will then go into processing your client’s experience and exploring how this statement impacted them.
Final Thoughts On Choosing Exercises for Gestalt Therapy
Thank you for reading this resource on 10 Gestalt Therapy Exercises and Activities to do with your clients in therapy. Gestalt Therapy Exercises can be an effective tool in group and individual sessions, which is an attractive trait of this therapeutic approach. Gestalt Therapy can be used by Clinicians who view themselves as their client’s partner and are passionate about helping their clients develop a deeper understanding of themselves. After all, Fritz Perls believed that with guidance and support, we all have the ability to cope with the challenges we experience in life.
If you are interested in learning more about Gestalt Therapy and helpful interventions, training and continued education courses can provide you with the knowledge and tools needed to integrate Gestalt Therapy into your clinical work.
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- Seligman, L., & Reichenberg, L.W. (2010). Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy: Systems, Strategies, and Skills (3rd ed., pp. 191-218). Pearson Education, Inc.