From Band Aids to Foundational Change: The Power of Gestalt Therapy

By Stacy Ingraham, MSEd., LPCC-S

I am often asked why I decided to invest in learning and practicing Gestalt therapy, after utilizing other popular counseling techniques for several years as a clinician. My quick answer – I didn’t want to put “band aids” on my client’s symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other struggles anymore. Instead, I wanted be an agent of real, lasting change by helping clients get to the root of what’s keeping them stuck. This is Gestalt therapy. Now after two years of postgraduate training workshops, hours of individual consultation, observation of Gestalt therapy sessions, pages of reading, and working through my own stuff with Gestalt therapists, I’m starting to get it (while also realizing I have a long way to go) and am leaving most of my old counseling habits behind. Here are a few things I’ve learned:

  1. Gestalt therapy really works. While I’ve experienced the power of Gestalt therapy personally, I have seen real, foundational change in clients. For example, a couple who repeatedly blamed each other for their marital problems now owns their part, does not blame (most of the time), and has a more intimate connection than ever before because they have learned to protect the closeness in their relationship (an important concept we reinforce in Gestalt couples therapy). Admittedly, I do utilize other counseling techniques when appropriate or out of habit, yet my foundation is the Gestalt approach, and it really works.
  2. Learning Gestalt therapy is hard work. Integrating the concepts of Gestalt therapy is sometimes like speaking a foreign language (i.e. encountering a client’s behavior, working an introject, pointing out defenses such as retroflection, teaching awareness, building steel rods). And learning Gestalt therapy requires on-going self-reflection and change (i.e. heightening my own awareness, strengthening my own steel rods, being vulnerable, letting go of perfectionism). To be a skilled Gestalt therapist, I need to surrender to the Gestalt way of living.
  3. The Gestalt approach can be used in a variety of professions. The Gestalt approach is utilized by conductors of orchestras, athletic coaches, organizational consultants, dentists, law enforcement officers, educators, and many more. Gestalt child therapists utilize play therapy techniques such as sand tray, clay work, therapeutic games, music, and drawing. Gestalt therapy is also effective when doing family and couples/marriage counseling, and of course, group therapy. Basically, any professional who cares about being a transformational leader, building successful relationships, and contributing in a real way to their organization will benefit from learning the Gestalt approach.
  4. Gestalt therapy is effective when practiced alone and combined with other theories. This idea is debatable, depending on who you talk with in the mental health world. In my experience, mindfulness based approaches, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy, and Motivational Interviewing combined with a Gestalt theoretical foundation can be incredibly beneficial for clients based upon their presenting issues (trauma, addiction, anxiety, etc.).

There are many professional training and certification programs we have to choose from (and I’ve explored many). Deciding which ones best align with our values, goals, budget, schedule, and personality is key. Learning Gestalt therapy has been life changing for my clients and me. And while the struggle to learn and live Gestalt is real, it helps to remember that “all change is incremental.” Thank you, Norman Shub.