Gestalt/Experiential Training of Maine

What Happened to Gestalt Therapy?

Ah, that’s a great question. Beautiful Gestalt — so rich, so smart, so powerful, so charismatic. What happened? Where did you go? There’s no one answer to these questions, but this paper by Laura E. Wagner-Moore (2004), offers some ideas.

fritzFrederick Perls’ eccentric, unpredictable genius was both an asset and a liability with respect to the development and acceptance of Gestalt Therapy. His personal style delighted some, but repelled many who might otherwise have been interested in his theory. And the theory itself was never particularly systematic. In practice, it often seemed as though Perls was improvising in his work. (In fact, he was.) Though many gestalt therapists worked quite differently than Perls, none of this made Gestalt Therapy easy to empirically study and validate. And not long after Perls’ death, the field began to change.

Somewhere between the late 70s and the early 80s, CBT had become the go-to theory for psychologists to study, just as managed care companies began asking about the efficacy of the therapies for which they were paying. A theory that didn’t have some kind of peer-reviewed, scientific evidence-base became suspect. This was the case not only of Gestalt, but for basically all non-CBT therapies. Unlike all other psychological treatments up to that point, CBT was born in a lab, and was built ready-made to be studied. Without the support of researchers, many therapy traditions began to lose adherents, and went into decline.

Gestalt never went away, of course. There are gestalt institutes all over the world (though notice all the broken links on that list) and there are a small percentage of clinicians who identify primarily as gestalt therapists. It remains, in fact, a very powerful and effective way to work. Now, I say, “in fact,” but again, you need experimental research to prove that, and gestalt has yet to develop a robust research tradition. (Though the effort is afoot.) Certainly here in the States, in our political, “Therapy Wars” environment, I can’t imagine we’ll ever see a a major revival of pure gestalt therapy without researchers doing their part.

It may be, as some have suggested, that Gestalt Therapy will live on by integrating itself into other, evidence-based therapies (i.e., Emotion-Focused Therapy). Perhaps. But even for clinicians who adopt these more recent integrations, a knowledge of our roots brings depth, clarity, and a seriousness to the study of our craft.

Long live Gestalt!

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