Gestalt theoretical psychotherapy

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Gestalt theoretical psychotherapy is a method of psychotherapy based strictly on Gestalt psychology. Its origins go back to the 1920s when Gestalt psychology founder Max Wertheimer, Kurt Lewin and their colleagues and students started to apply the holistic and systems theoretical Gestalt psychology concepts in the field of psychopathology and clinical psychology[1] Many developments in psychotherapy in the following decades drew from these early beginnings, like e.g. group psychoanalysis (S. Foulkes), Gestalt therapy (Laura Perls, Fritz Perls, Goodman, and others), or Katathym-imaginative Psychotherapy (Hanscarl Leuner). In Europe Gestalt theoretical psychotherapy in its own right has been initiated and formulated on this basis by the German Gestalt psychologist and psychotherapist Hans-Jürgen P. Walter and his colleagues in Germany and Austria. Walter, a student of Gestalt psychologist Friedrich Hoeth, was influenced to form the core of his theoretical concept on the basis of the work of Gestalt theorists Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler, Kurt Koffka, Kurt Lewin, and Wolfgang Metzger. Walter's first publication on Gestalt theoretical psychotherapy came out in 1977 Gestalttheorie und Psychotherapie (Gestalt Theory and Psychotherapy), which is now on its third edition (1994). The majority of the extensive literature on Gestalt theoretical psychotherapy which has been published in the decades since then is in the German language. However, in 2021, the international multidisciplinary journal "Gestalt Theory" published an issue focusing on Gestalt Theoretical Psychotherapy, offering a series of articles in English on the essentials of this method.[2]

Gestalt Theoretical Psychotherapy in this form has gained popularity predominately in German speaking countries.[3] It is officially approved by the Austrian government as a scientific psychotherapy method under the Austrian Psychotherapy Act.

One of the most striking characteristics of Gestalt Theoretical Psychotherapy is the key role of the epistemological grounding position of Gestalt theory (critical realism) and its applicability to the fundamental, theoretical, and practical problems in psychotherapy[4] In Gestalt Theoretical Psychotherapy this is closely bound up with the basic methodological approach (holistic, phenomenological, experimental) of Gestalt theory, its system theoretical approach, and its specific psychophysical and psychological approach.

Gerhard Stemberger's Diagnostics in Gestalt Theoretical Psychotherapy, provides insight into the concept and process of Gestalt theoretical psychotherapy. The Gestalt theoretical psychotherapy therapeutic process is a relationship between two individuals in which both the therapist and client develop an egalitarian attitude. An egalitarian attitude is the concept that everyone is equal. The diagnostic process and the therapeutic process are inseparable to Gestalt theoretical psychotherapists. The therapist is responsible for supporting the client in discovering their specific and individual feelings and problems. Gestalt theoretical psychotherapists believe that an individual cannot be forced into doing things that are against the individual's nature; therefore it is crucial for the therapist to adapt diagnostic exploration to the individual's capabilities. The therapeutic process requires no strict or set schedule, and the speed of the process varies for each individual. “Force-field analysis”, a concept from Kurt Lewin, is a phenomenological procedure in which the therapist and client look for opportunities to explore specific attributes of the client's life space, their driving forces, and barriers. This can occur in therapy through dialogue, allowing the client to experience their feelings through speaking. The anthropological model in Gestalt theoretical psychotherapy is the belief that the therapist should not only focus on ‘inner components’ of the client, but also focus on the interaction between the client and their environment that effect their experience and behavior.[5]

Gestalt theoretical psychotherapy is related to but different from Fritz Perls' Gestalt therapy in its theoretical foundation. Mary Henle has pointed out the differences between Gestalt theory in its original sense and the Perls'ian understanding of Gestalt.[6] With her analysis however, she restricts herself explicitly to only three of Perls' books from 1969 and 1972, leaving out Perls' earlier work, and Gestalt therapy in general as a psychotherapy method.[7] It must also be mentioned that Gestalt theoretical psychotherapy adopts techniques from Gestalt therapy as well as from other psychotherapy methods as Walter points out.[8] This corresponds to the conviction in Gestalt theoretical psychotherapy that techniques and working methods from other therapy methods can be integrated into Gestalt theoretical psychotherapy as long as they are compatible with the Gestalt psychological approach and are interpreted and handled according to the basic Gestalt psychological concepts.[9]


  1. ^ cf. Michael Wertheimer, K. Crochetière, N. Vicker, J. Parker & D.B. King: Gestalt Theory and Psychopathology, Gestalt Theory 23 (2/2001), 144-154; Michael Wertheimer & V. Sarris: Max Wertheimer's Research on Aphasia and Brain Disorders, Gestalt Theory 23 (4/2001), 267-277; Joseph de Rivera: Field Theory As Human-Science: Contributions of Lewin's Berlin Group, Gardner Press (June 1976).
  2. ^ See Gestalt Theory, 43(1) and "External Links" below.
  3. ^ "Gestalt Theoretical Psychotherapy". Gestalt Theory. Retrieved 9 July 2015.
  4. ^ cf. Katharina Sternek, Critical Realism: The Epistemic Position of Gestalt Theoretical Psychotherapy, Gestalt Theory, 43(1), 13-28.
  5. ^ Stemberger, Gerhard (2008). "Diagnostics in Gestalt Theoretical Psychotherapy". Psychotherapeutic Diagnostics - Guidelines for the New Standard: 97–108. Retrieved 27 February 2015.
  6. ^ e.g. Mary Henle (1975): Gestalt Psychology and Gestalt Therapy, 15.08.2012.
  7. ^ See Barlow criticizing Henle: Allen R. Barlow: Gestalt Therapy and Gestalt Psychology. Gestalt – Antecedent Influence or Historical Accident, in: The Gestalt Journal, Volume IV, Number 2, Fall, 1981.
  8. ^ Hans-Jürgen Walter: Gestalttheorie und Psychotherapie, Darmstadt 1977, p. 170ff.
  9. ^ Cf. Gerhard Stemberger, 2018, 2019: Therapeutische Beziehung und therapeutische Praxis in der Gestalttheoretischen Psychotherapie (Therapeutic relationship and therapeutic practice in Gestalt Theoretical Psychotherapy): Praxeologie Teil 1; Praxeologie Teil 2; Praxeologie Teil 3.

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