Counsellors and psychotherapists recognise that just talking about our difficulties isn't necessarily going to make much difference to them. In therapy, as in life, we learn and change through our experiences, particularly our interactions with others. In addition, being aware of ourselves in our experiences can help us see if there is some part we may now be playing in our own difficulties and flag up opportunities for making adjustments.

Gestalt therapy is founded on a holistic understanding of the complex dynamics of our interpersonal interactions. We are normally aware of only a fraction of what is going on at any one time. We also tend to perceive or respond in ways that are particularly characteristic of our personal style. However there are often, if not always, a wide range of alternative possibilities that we tend to overlook. It is the skill of identifying, and attending to, the most significant strands in any interaction that allows the possibility of more creative and effective outcomes.

A gestalt therapy session is an interaction with someone who has particular skills in recognising, and learning from, those significant aspects of what is happening, as it happens. You and your therapist can then reflect on these interactions in a way that both helps you to learn more about yourself, and opens up creative possibilities for the future. This experiential learning; attending to, and reflecting on, what is happening here and now, is a key aspect of the gestalt way of working.

A therapy session is an opportunity to experience yourself in a different way, so you may learn to become aware of certain aspects of yourself that you may habitually overlook. Although our personal history is clearly relevant, gestalt therapists also attend to whatever is happening from moment to moment during the sessions. This is especially so in regards to our physical impulses and sensations and any experiences of emotion that arise in the session.

Both physical sensations and emotions are signs that our innate, non verbal, systems of sensing and physiological responding are active. Such feelings mean that our interaction is not just talk but has activated something immediate and meaningful in us. Becoming more aware of our feelings, and learning from them, helps us to make sense of difficult experiences and to feel more alive and in the moment.

Sometimes we can experience feelings which don't seem to make sense or relate clearly to our current situation. At such times our feelings may be arising in relation to our past experiences rather than what is happening now. Actively exploring our experience in the presence of another person, particularly if they are staying in close touch with what is going on, can help us to make better sense of our experience in that moment. Once our feelings make more sense to us we then have a lively and reliable source of information about ourselves.

Many people live life without much awareness of how they feel. Whilst someone can be relatively successful in many areas of life without attending to how they feel, they may have a sense of something missing or a disconnection from the world around them. To live without feeling connected to others or the world around us is neither fulfilling nor sustainable. Gestalt therapy can help re-establish a sense of being more alive to the world you inhabit.

Recent research in infant development and neurology is beginning to show just how important human relationships are for psychological and emotional health and well being. Gestalt therapy has, since its beginnings, worked from the understanding that it is what happens in relationship to others that affects us most deeply. Even when we are completely on our own, our psychological and emotional life is shaped by, and is a reflection of, our significant past relationships.

Fritz Perls, and other contributors to gestalt therapy, also realised that it is our relationships, here and now, that act as catalysts for change and development. Talking about the past can bring insight into old patterns of behaviour but doesn't necessarily make any difference to them. Planning or deciding how we want to be usually only takes what we already know from our past and projects a new version of our current understanding into the future. The result is often more of the same. So how can we make real changes to our old patterns of understanding and behaviour?

Gestalt therapy, along with many other therapeutic approaches, recognises that in a challenging situation, like going into therapy, clients show their usual style of relating right from the outset. The therapist will pay attention to their client's assumptions about others, their level of trust with a stranger, what they can allow for themselves and tolerate in others, as well as many other factors. Whilst the concerns that the client talks about are also important, what makes the difference is the way the relationship evolves during the course of the therapeutic process. In therapy, what happens in the room between the client and therapist is what matters.

The process of learning through gestalt therapy helps us to become clearer about our own part in our interactions. We can also begin to recognise when we are playing out the remnants of significant experiences from the past, rather than fully engaging with the possibilities presented by the current situation. This awareness gives us a solid base to interact with others in more direct, effective and satisfying ways.

Gestalt therapy theory outlines a process for working with these difficulties. Each therapist will engage as effectively as they can with each client to co-create whatever experiences are needed, and possible, in that particular relationship. Inevitably, each therapeutic relationship will be a unique product of these ongoing interactions. Gestalt therapy holds no ideas about how we 'should' be, and does not try to define what is healthy or unhealthy. The process can support you to develop an original, creative and sensitive connection to the world you live in, as well as respond more directly, constructively and robustly to your difficulties.

 

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