Gestalt Therapy For Addiction

Gestalt Therapy For Addiction

Gestalt therapy is an approach that focuses on the present. An individual’s attention is centered around the present, instead, of the future or the past. Any mention of past events or issues is re-experienced and re-enacted in the present.

The goal of Gestalt therapy is for the person to become more self-aware and to learn what negative issues and thoughts are hindering them from having a productive life.


Gestalt therapy was developed by three founders in the 1940s and 1950s: Fritz Perls, Paul Goodman, and Laura Perls. It took a long time to create this therapy because they had to travel around the world, looking at the psychoanalysis, world physics, systems theory, Eastern religions, among other things.

Over the next decades, the Gestalt therapy began spreading globally. It has become quite influential. Gestalt is a word that originates from Germany and it means “shape,” “pattern,” or “whole.” Gestalt therapy focuses on an individual’s entirety. The founders of Gestalt theory believed that a person should be examined fully and not just in parts. The therapy examines how the whole individual is feeling at the present moment, and this is what helps a person resolve their internal issues.

It is believed that a person’s emotions are relieved only if they are discussed in the present day. If, however, a person chooses to keep those emotions to themselves, they may suffer external and internal consequences.

The idea is that you shouldn’t live up to all your expectations, instead, you should get to know yourself and what you want. This will help you become more confident. It will also help with your growth and in achieving your full potential.

Gestalt Therapy and The Mind

The therapy suggests that a person adopts various social roles to satisfy their biological needs. In a healthy setting, the process is fluid whereby the most urgent need emerges in an individual’s consciousness first to be satisfied. A healthy person interacts with the environment to choose the best means of fulfilling each need as it comes. The person lives to understand that there are new ways of attaining the same goals.

In an unhealthy situation, on the other hand, the person becomes stuck in a rigid pattern of responses which they automatically repeat in different situations. Rather than aiming to be all they can be, they become consumed with living up to unachievable ideals. They may even go to the extent of suppressing certain aspects of themselves which they fear could lead to disapproval or rejection from other people.

In normal circumstances, you can establish boundaries between yourself and others. An effective boundary allows you to maintain your independent sense of self even when having beneficial relations with others. In a situation where the boundary becomes too impermeable, you may disconnect yourself from others, and you may even end up missing the distinction between yourself and others.

How Can Gestalt Therapy Bring About Change?

In the Gestalt therapy, the primary driver of change is awareness. When you are helped to become totally conscious of your own experiences, it’s believed that change will occur without any need for persuasion or coercion from the therapist.

As you learn to live more in the present, you’ll find that suppressed emotions and needs gradually surface. In the confines of a safe therapeutic environment, you’ll be able to address and work on your issues. You will also learn to reconnect with the parts you had formerly disowned and accept your whole self.

The Gestalt Therapy Concepts

There are several concepts behind Gestalt therapy and they are:

  • Holism: It’s based on the belief that all the aspects of a person’s life are interconnected in some way. As such, during treatment, all the aspects of an individual are taken into account, and they include physical, psychological, social, and spiritual aspects of a person’s life.
  • Polarities: They are paired and are part of an individual. One pair is in the foreground of your mind while the polar opposite is in the background of the mind.
  • Figure/Ground: This addresses people’s ability to recognize what’s in the foreground of their perceptions, and not the background. The figure concept assists you to understand what you directly perceive and the things you absorb into your subconscious.
  • Blockages or Resistance to Experience: In this concept, it’s believed that barriers are put up to block out or prevent an unpleasant experience; for instance, denying an event ever happened or not remembering it altogether.
  • Contact: The contact concept comprises your experiences defining your boundaries with objects and people; such as your personal history defining your understanding of the world.
  • Unfinished Business: It consists of all the negative effects as a result of unresolved past issues, such as past traumas or falling out with the people in your life.

Moral Injunctions of Gestalt Therapy

  • “Live here, be in the present”
  • “Live now, stay with the present”
  • Quit thinking unnecessarily
  • Experience reality, stop imagining
  • Accept who you are in the present
  • Take full responsibility for your thoughts, feelings, and actions
  • Don’t accept “ought,” or “should”, other than your own
  • Don’t limit your awareness, experience the discomfort that comes with it which will eventually bring liberation
  • Express, instead of judging, justifying, explaining, or manipulating

The Principles of Gestalt Therapy

Fritz Perls accepted the humanistic paradigm concept that everyone has an innate desire to go toward growth and balance. There are many principles Gestalt therapy embraces:

  • Phenomenology: This discipline helps individuals understand their experiences in a way they can differentiate what they are feeling and perceiving in a particular situation and how the perceptions are affected by past experiences. Gestalt therapists acknowledge that a person’s experience at the moment is real and meaningful. The therapist helps you understand what you’re feeling in the moment and how to get rid of the false interpretation of experiences or of reacting in a way that’s based on the expectations of others or your perceptions.
  • Existentialism: This principle focuses on people’s relationships with each other and what brings them happiness, sadness, among others, as they directly experience these emotions. Gestalt therapists work under the assumption that a lot of people live through their reality in a somewhat unstated context of typical thinking that hinders their ability to really understand the world as it is. A person may use self-deception to explain events in a way they imagine the world works instead of how it actually is. This self-deception is the base of not being genuine. Gestalt therapists strive to have people experience events and things as they really unfold, become truthful and honest, be responsible for their actions, and become conscious of their biases.
  • Field Theory: Events aren’t classified, rather, they are interpreted as a whole. Gestalt therapists focus on what’s happening in the present and they are interested in how the events unfolding in the immediate timeframe are connected to the influences from a person’s past. The therapists concentrate on describing what’s going on with the individual instead of speculating about it, classifying it, or interpreting it.
  • Therapeutic Relationship: According to Gestalt therapists, the relationship between a patient and therapist is the most important facet of psychotherapy. The therapist uses an existential dialogue with you to understand you better and to help you understand and differentiate yourself. The therapist aims to maintain a dialogue with you instead of formulating goals, dissecting behavior, etc. Gestalt therapists also use acceptance, care, and warmth to help you discover why you act the way you do and how your actions are influenced by specific misperceptions about yourself and others. The emphasis is on you being free, being your authentic self, and at the same time being responsible for your actions.

The therapeutic relationship is the main factor used in Gestalt therapy to help people with the issues that take them to therapy. The dialogue between a client and therapist is critical and there are four main characteristics of the dialogue:

  • Inclusion Experience: The therapist tries to experience the feelings and perceptions of the patient without analyzing, interpreting, or judging. The therapist also seeks to get the patient to do the same.
  • Presence: The therapist communicates with the patient in an authentic way instead of taking on a preconceived role. This promotes the inclusion experience.
  • Committing to The Dialogue: The therapist allows the dialogue to flow instead of manipulating and planning it. This way, the patient and therapist relate to each other in a more authentic way.
  • Living the Dialogue: The dialogue is something that just happens and not something that’s planned or talked about. Gestalt therapy focuses on what occurs in the here and now and the effects it has on a person and what that says about them.

In Gestalt therapy, the dialogue is not just confined to talking, it can take many forms, for instance, a person can be encouraged to dance, move, sing, etc. The idea of all that is to help the patient understand what they’re actually experiencing in the moment rather than interpreting events and happenings based on biased or preconceived notions.

What are Gestalt Therapy Techniques

Gestalt therapy is based on many techniques including:

  • Expressing Empathy: Therapists use this technique to help relate to their patients and foster a therapeutic relationship.
  • Being Confrontational: In this technique, the therapist tells the patient that they are inconsistent or incongruent regarding certain issues.
  • Being Directive: A therapist will be able to be more directive in addressing the patient’s issues as the two, patient and therapist, become more comfortable with each other.
  • Focus on Non-Verbal Behaviors: It’s based on the assumption that an individual’s body language is important in understanding certain issues that are still unresolved.
  • Avoiding Intellectualization: This is a situation where the therapist avoids using questions that would lead to “no” or “yes” answers from the patient.
  • Experimentation: In this technique, the therapist creates new and sometimes unconventional ways of helping the patient deepen their understanding of themselves.
  • The “Now” Language: This concept focuses on the current situation. Patients are encouraged to use present tenses rather than future or past tense when expressing themselves.
  • I-It Language: Patients are encouraged to change how they communicate. For you to strengthen your voice, you’ll be asked to use “I” instead of “it.” For instance, saying “I feel confused,” instead of “it feels confusing.”
  • I-Thou Communication: It entails role-playing conversations with the person causing a certain issue or physically talking to that person.
  • I Take Responsibility for That: Patients are taught how to take responsibility for something that’s their fault as opposed to shifting blame. For instance, changing “I hate this weight,” to “I hate my weight, I’m responsible for that.”
  • Not Gossiping: Patients are taught how to address their problems head on instead of sharing the issues with others.
  • Empty Chair Technique: It entails addressing people who can’t be physically addressed, for example, a deceased person or an estranged spouse. Role-playing is used to resolve issues.
  • Making Statements from Questions: In this technique, the patients analyze the questions they ask as part of the statements about their being.
  • Projection: This technique involves patients changing the purpose of their statements to reflect inwards instead of outwards.
  • Exaggeration Technique: Here, the therapist asks the patient to put emphasis on a specific phrase or word in repetitive statements so that they become desensitized to the fact that they’re repeating it.
  • Internal Dialogue: The patient is encouraged to have a dialogue between the opposing poles of his/her personality, for instance, the aggressive-self versus the passive-self
  • Dream Work: The therapist analyzes the patient’s dream and interprets them as part the person being expressed unknowingly.

Strengths in Gestalt Therapy Treatment

  • This treatment has proven to be highly effective and beneficial in an overall capacity
  • The therapy is effective with people with different types of personality disorders
  • Gestalt therapy is useful in reducing anxiety and depression levels
  • The experience of this therapy has shown to be as effective as Behavioral therapy and Cognitive therapy
  • Gestalt therapy has proven effective in group settings

How Gestalt Therapy Could Help with Addiction Treatment and Recovery

Substance use disorder affects not only the life of the addict but also everyone in the family. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that family members face various complications and challenges when a loved one is abusing alcohol or drugs. Finding the best treatment is important and allows the addicted person to focus on their treatment and recovery. Gestalt therapy for addiction treatment and recovery is proving to be a highly viable option.

This therapy embraces the holistic approach to addiction recovery, in that, it allows you to make positive changes in your life by understanding what factors contributed to the addiction.

What is Gestalt Therapy for Addiction Treatment Focused On?

The California State University at Northridge defines Gestalt therapy as the process of treating a person as a whole as opposed to targeting specific risk factors or events. Gestalt therapy acknowledges that various factors contribute to drug and alcohol abuse and one treatment plan cannot work for everyone.

Because substance use disorder is caused by genetic and environmental factors, a treatment plan has to address the multiple concerns simultaneously.

What Are the Factors That Contribute to Addiction to Drugs and Alcohol?

  • Physical injuries
  • Traumatic experiences
  • Peer pressure
  • Mental health disorders
  • Experimentation or curiosity, especially among young people
  • A history of substance use disorder
  • Poor health, especially when it causes an individual physical discomfort
  • Self-medication for particular symptoms, thought processes, or concerns

Substance use disorder arises from several factors and an effective treatment plan recognizes that individuals have different needs. Gestalt therapy encourages you to experience your current situation so that you’re able to address it appropriately.

The therapy acknowledges that recognizing the underlying causes of substance use disorder and addiction gives an individual the opportunity to make positive changes, says the California State University at Northridge.

What is Gestalt Therapy Role in Recovery

The University of Central Florida explains that the aim of Gestalt therapy in addiction recovery is mainly growth, as well as maturation, of the person as a whole individual. This therapy seeks to assist you through the process of accountability for your behaviors and actions so that the substance use disorder risk decreases over time.

The Gestalt treatment program actively aims to establish the underlying cause of substance use disorder and addiction and then address those issues.

This therapy changes your thought process and perspective by getting rid of the negative wording from your situation. The University of Central Florida says that a therapist helps an addicted individual avoid using terms that imply that they don’t have the power or ability to recover. For instance, replacing the word “cannot” with “will not” so that you believe in your personal ability to avoid abusing alcohol or drugs.

Giving Hope & Gaining Health

Gestalt therapy provides hope by making you understand that you can make positive changes in your life and the ability to recover. The therapy allows you to improve your well-being and health while addressing emotional challenges, trauma, or mental health disorders that contributed to the addiction.

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Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance use disorder, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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