Psychotherapies Without Feeling

by Dr. Arthur Janov

Posted June 2005 on

Chapter 12: Gestalt Therapy: Being Here Now, Keeping Unfinished Business Unfinished

I heard a story about Fritz Perls when Abraham Maslow was giving a presentation about the ten steps to self actualization. I heard Fritz Perls didn't do or say very much about things, that in essence, he was the thing-in-itself that Sartre stated was missing in most. Fritz Perls' response to Maslow and an audience of 500 was to crawl on his belly up the aisle making the sounds of a seal -- confronting Maslow with his actual lack of presence or lack of being there.[1]


Gestalt Therapy is one of the "new wave" non-traditional therapies that sprung up in the "human potential" decade of the Sixties. It was developed by Fritz Perls, a German-born psychoanalyst who broke with Freudian theory in the 1940s to create his own "gestalt" view of man. Not until the ferment of the 1960s, however, did Perls' views gain widespread recognition. But with recognition came controversy, for Perls was his new therapy, and Perls was at best unconventional, more often provocative, and always controversial. To some he was nothing more than an "undisciplined, cantankerous, and lecherous old man" strutting about leading weird encounter groups and advocating complete sexual freedom. To others he was a "bearded, brilliant, unpredictable, rascally old marvel [who] offered the hope of nirvana, of cure, of coming to Lourdes on a stretcher and being able to leave by foot."[2]

On one hand it is difficult to assess Gestalt Therapy apart from Perls as the driving force behind it, while it seems unfair to draw conclusions about the therapy based on the personal eccentricities of its founder. That he had a potent influence on those whom trained with him is fairly clear. The criticism most commonly leveled at Gestalt Therapy is its confrontational approach. Perls' style of therapy centered on provoking and confronting, and his trainees also used provoking and confronting -- often to an undesirable degree. Abe Levitsky, a San Francisco Gestaltist and former student of Fritz's, well summarized the problem: "Scorn was a weapon [Fritz] used, and unfortunately I feel that scorn has been incorporated by many Gestalt therapists and been perpetuated. But that has nothing to do with Gestalt Therapy. It simply had to do with Fritz's irascibility, where his style is imitated instead of his message."[3]  I listened to several of Perl’s audiotapes, and I must say, none of them made any sense. They were the incoherent ramblings of a man too “loose.” He made the confusion between acting out like an ape or any other thing he could imagine, and freedom.

To what degree Perls' irascible, scornful style was passed on to second-generation therapists (Perls died in 1970) is difficult to know. We can, however, evaluate the degree to which his core ideas and techniques have been preserved and elaborated by perusing The Gestalt Journal in the 1980s and by examining the journal's Fall 1993 special issue commemorating the centennial of Fritz Perls' birth.

Perls' message was, in many ways, short and to the point. "Do your own thing," "Be here now," and "Lose your mind and come to your senses," are standard Gestalt commandments. Indeed, Fritz even wrote what he called the Gestalt Prayer, which he frequently used to begin his group therapy sessions: And by the way, after a patient finished with her time in the hot seat, he or she kissed Perls on the forehead; a mark of respect, it was believed.

I do my thing, and you do your thing.

I am not in this world to live up to your expectations

And you are not in this world to live up to mine.

You are you, and I am I,

And if by chance we find each other, it's beautiful.

If not, it can't be helped.[4]

As glib as this "prayer" reads, it does contain the three main principles or values upon which Gestalt Therapy is based:

(1) living in the present;

(2) living and expressing who we "truly" are, and

(3) learning to "own" our projections of faults and virtues onto others.

Perls Theory: The Early Years

Gestalt Psychology was developed in the early part of this century to study how we perceive the world. The German word gestalt was used to describe the relativity of perception and how perception of the whole is more than a sum of its parts. Fritz liked the concept, and so simply borrowed the word in the naming of his therapy. His therapy, however, had no formal connection to Gestalt Psychology as an academic subject.

Perls' concept of gestalt grew out of his eventual opposition to Freud's concept of the primacy of the instincts. Perls had gone into training to become a psychoanalyst a few years after getting his M.D. in Berlin in 1920. Initially, he had been excited by Freud's revolutionary ideas of human sexuality and unconscious motivation. As part of his training, he studied Freudian theory and himself underwent three separate and lengthy analyses. None of the analyses was particularly helpful for Perls personally, yet he persisted through his supervisory training to full certification.

History then intervened to facilitate Perls' break with Freudian thought. Conditions in pre-war Germany pointed to departure as the only safe alternative for the Jewish Perls family. Fritz decided to relocate to South Africa, and by 1935 he had founded the South African Institute of Psychoanalysis as a training center for potential analysts. Ostensibly, Perls was still committed to the Freudian framework, even though a paper he presented at the 1936 International Congresses of Freudians was received coolly by his colleagues. In this paper, Perls boldly suggested a revision of the traditional Freudian view of "oral resistances." Feeling "resentful" about the "rejection" which his heresies provoked, Perls returned to South Africa and embarked upon a "struggle to get out of the quicksand of free associations."[5] Geographical distance freed Fritz to enlarge upon his own ideas, to incorporate new ideas he had exposed himself to (most notably, those of Wilhelm Reich and several existentialist writers), and to cease to be an orthodox Freudian analyst, a "wisdomshitter" who "confused people."[6]

Perls' first book, Ego, Hunger, and Aggression: A Revision of Freud's Theory and Method, was written in 1940 and published in 1942. It represents Perls' declaration of independence from his Freudian background. Later, in explaining his break from orthodoxy, he wrote:

Psychoanalysis turns out to be a closed, unchanged and unchangeable system, full of explanatariness but missing self-evident understanding. Psychoanalysis is an illness that pretends to be a cure. Unsuccessful treatments, from three to over twenty years, far outweigh the scant success.[7]

Perls' colleagues did not take well to the concepts presented in Ego, Hunger, and Aggression. When he showed the book to Maria Bonaparte, a friend of Freud's, she reportedly told him, "If you don't believe in the libido theory any more, you had better hand in your resignation."[8] Indeed, the book ultimately resulted in almost complete professional isolation for Perls, as no traditional psychoanalyst would have any part of it.

What were these supposedly heretical concepts? One of the most heretical concepts replaced Freud's libidinal theory of sexuality with a non-libidinal theory of homeostasis. Whereas Freud had contended that sexual energy was the main motivating factor in the psyche, Perls now contended that we are primarily motivated by an innate, organismic tendency to strive toward balance. Making a more pragmatic point, Perls pointed out that hunger (self-preservation) takes precedence over sex (species preservation), and that therefore eating habits are more fundamental than sexual instincts in shaping the psyche. He went on to discount the validity of the psychoanalytic theory of transference (another bastion of the Freudian framework), and to advocate the importance of personalizing the role of the analyst beyond that of the objective, anonymous, analytical "screen."

Probably most significant for Fritz was the final section of the book, entitled "Concentration Therapy." Here he put forth the concepts that would become the basis of Gestalt Therapy, ideas which he said "brought him some peace of mind" personally. In this section, Perls first presented his here-and-now philosophy, repudiated the need for "historical ruminations," and elucidated his version of the concept of psychological projection.

Perls begins "Concentration Therapy" by hypothesizing that concepts in Freudian theory had proliferated to handle each new contingency of behavior: first there was transference; then there was negative transference; then there was latent negative transference! He proposes to simplify this situation by presenting a "new technique," the aim of which was simply "to regain the feel of ourselves. Perls explains:

Our technique is not an intellectual procedure, though we cannot completely disregard the intellect. It resembles the Yoga technique though its aim is completely different. In Yoga the deadening of the organism for the sake of developing other faculties plays a prominent part, whereas our aim is to waken the organism to a fuller life.[9]

He then goes on to caution patience in the learning of the technique, likening the process to that of learning the alphabet: "Only when you look upon the acquisition of the new technique... with the full awareness of the difficulties looming ahead, shall I be able to assist you in acquiring the alphabet of 'feeling' yourself."[10]

The key to learning this new alphabet was concentration, which could be directed as an exercise to such everyday matters as eating. Eating, in fact, was the sine qua non of his new theory. Perls asserts that the exercises in the chapter entitled "Concentration on Eating" are the "quintessence" of Ego, Hunger, and Aggression, and he directs his readers to "give this chapter preference [over] every other exercise."[11] He then provides a theory of "pre-dental and dental stages" of oral development, which links many adult personality characteristics to styles of eating and chewing:

...Avoid the swallowing of mental and physical morsels which are bound to remain foreign bodies in your system. To understand and assimilate the world you have to make full use of your teeth. Learn to cut right through until the front teeth meet. If you are in the habit of tearing and nibbling, get out of it...If you are afraid to hurt people, to attack them, to say "No" when the situation demands it, you should attend to the following exercise: imagine yourself biting a piece of flesh out of someone's body. Can you imagine biting it clean off or do your teeth only make an impression, as if you were biting on rubber? If, in your imagination, you are able to bite right through, can you experience the proper "feel" of the flesh on your teeth? You might condemn such an exercise as vicious and cruel, but this cruelty is just as much part and parcel of your organism as it is of the animal's in its struggle for life.[12]

In another chapter, "Sense of Actuality," Perls repudiates the validity of past events. According to Perls, a "sense of actuality means nothing else but the appreciation that every occurrence takes place in the 'present.'"[13] Because there is only present reality for Perls, "dealing with behavior out of the here-and-now is a waste of time."[14]

According to the Encyclopedia of Psychology, in its explanation of the major concepts of Gestalt Therapy, Perls' idea of concentration wholly on the present was synonymous with "awareness," or one's being "in touch with thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they occur from moment to moment":

Present, here-and-now experience constitutes the only reality, whereas memories of the past and expectations about the future are considered fantasies. Since awareness can be focused only on one place at a time, the person occupied with either the past or the future is not aware of what is happening in the present. As Erving and Miriam Polster (1973, p. 7) put it, "only the present exists now stray from it distracts from the living quality of reality."[15]

According to Perls, focusing on anything except present actuality is a waste of time because it doesn't exist, a point he "proves" by challenging the orthodox Freudian notion of regression. Perls asserts that adult lapses into helpless or excitable childlike behaviors reflect innate personality weaknesses rather than temporary historical age levels. The adult's "true self" now comes through, shed of its persona defenses, to reveal an "underdevelopment which never ceased to exist":

When the neurotic encounters difficulties in life, he regresses, so Freud maintains, to certain stages in childhood, a regression which can almost be measured in years. What happens, in my opinion, is rarely an historical regression; it is the mere fact that the patient's true self, his "weaknesses," become more clearly visible...The anxious person who generally manages to appear cool, calm, and collected is, in times of stress, more concentrated on his problems than on keeping up appearances. He does not regress to the state of his childhood anxiety. His nucleus, his true self, was never anything else but excitable; his under-development has never ceased to exist. He has fallen back to his true self, perhaps to his constitutional nature, but not to his childhood.[16] [Italics added]

Thus we do not have childhood influences, only weak constitutions. We cannot return to childhood events, only to endogenous flaws.

In a chapter on "Visualization," Perls describes in the early 1940s what would later (in the late 1960s) become a popular therapeutic technique. He begins by pointing out how visualization can be helpful in the acquisition of new skills such as driving a car or learning shorthand -- how mentally visualizing the steps or symbols to be learned can actually accelerate the time it takes to acquire the new learning. He goes on to discuss its even greater value as a therapeutic technique to achieve what he terms "emotional revival." Here Perls makes an important departure from traditional Freudian theory on the free association technique, which he contends actually leads to "free dissociation." Instead of following a dream image to any and all of its tangential points, Perls proposes that one should focus only on the image itself, toward the goal of providing a "detailed description" of it. This type of visualization process, he contends, is far more effective than free association in leading to cathartic release:

[Visualization] provides a shorter and superior way to "emotional revival" than either ordinary conversational talk or the technique of free associations. A man who, for instance, speaks rather disparagingly of his father when asked to visualize him and to concentrate on the details of his appearance, might suddenly burst into tears. He will be surprised by his sudden emotional outburst and amazed that he still has so much feeling left for the old man. The cathartic value of concentrating on the image of a person or event to whom or which one has an emotional relationship is nearly that of hypno- or narco-analysis with the additional benefit that it strengthens the conscious personality.[17]

In this passage, although he contradicts his idea that it's a waste of time to delve into the past, Perls makes two important contributions in his observations that (1) "concentrating" on an image or memory from the past can result in a deeply feeling re-connection to it, and that (2) consciousness of the connection is important therapeutically for the personality. However, the techniques of Gestalt Therapy stop short of enabling the patient to make the authentic "deeply feeling reconnection" to past traumatic experiences which is essential to healing.

In "Body Concentration," we see the groundwork for what would later become Perls' "be the thing" technique, in which the patient would be asked to be each part and person in the dream or life situation. We also see the influence of Wilhelm Reich,[18] whose ahistorical focus and body armor theory of neurosis did much to move Perls in a different, non-Freudian direction. In the chapter entitled "Body Concentration," Reich's influence is clearest in Perls' "theory of somatic concentration." Here Perls proposes that repression occurs through muscular concentration, and that relaxation is the obverse solution: "If we call the contractions of the muscular system 'repressors,' then the remedy for repression obviously appears to be relaxation."[19] While acknowledging that any kind of "deliberate relaxation" is a contradiction in terms, he counsels that "to undo repressions you have to re-establish conscious command of your motoric system." This can be done by sitting down quietly and meticulously observing each cramp, spasm, tension, or contraction in the body; taking full responsibility for the tensed area ("I am tensing my eye muscles," rather than "My eye muscles are tense); taking control of the situation by voluntarily relaxing and tightening the area "by a fraction of an inch"; and then finding out what the contraction is expressing, and expressing it ("I'll be damned if I am going to cry").[20]

Perls rightfully concludes that each expression of what was being repressed frees more energy for present living: "Every picture admitted, every tear shed, puts a bit of energy at the disposal of your conscious personality."[21] Yet he does not really get to the source of the tension -- a source deep in the past generating current bodily tension. As Perls would have it, whatever it is, it is both the individual's fault and responsibility, something that he must combat (read repress) by "taking control of the situation" and identifying what it is expressing, which is really nothing more profound than going only so far as to acknowledge that bodily tension is a form of anxiety.

Working with projection became a major focus for Perls' Gestalt Therapy in the 1960s. In the chapter of Ego, Hunger, and Aggression entitled "The Assimilation of Projections," we see his basic viewpoint well established by the early 1940s. Perls accurately describes the kind of projection that frequently occurs between patient and analyst: the patient believes that the analyst is being judgmental or disapproving in a particular area when he is not. The patient, Perls explains, is projecting his own self-condemnation onto the analyst. The patient then sees the analyst as mirroring the qualities or attitudes he refuses to acknowledge in himself; "he [the patient] reacts to his projection 'as if' the analyst, and not he himself, is disapproving."[22]

Next Perls uses his concept of projection to de-throne the Freudian concept of transference. As discussed earlier, in the orthodox view of transference, the analyst functions as a kind of blank slate onto which the patient transfers significant persons from his own life. In this way it was believed that the analytic relationship automatically re-evoked the original psychological dynamics, making new resolutions and adult insights possible. The patient who began by transferring a harsh, uncaring father image onto the analyst could actually discover that the analyst actually was not harsh and uncaring -- and that, generally speaking, it was incorrect for him to assume that any and all male authority figures would be harsh and uncaring.

Perls takes this cornerstone of Freudian theory and contends that it is fundamentally erroneous. The patient did not transfer childhood images of significant people onto the analyst; he merely projected his own unconscious, unacceptable elements. Thus, in this view, the patient who transferred a harsh, uncaring father onto the analyst was actually projecting his own harsh, uncaring qualities:

We have to concede that he could not simply have transferred the father-image onto the analyst. What he had seen in the analyst was what he imagined his father was. As a child he had projected his own intolerance into the father...The whole complicated process, both aspects -- the cruel father and the cruel analyst -- boil down to the simple fact of projection of the unadmitted cruelty in the patient's own personality.[23]

He concludes that dealing with transference is "a waste of time," and then moves on to describe steps by which to "assimilate" our projections.

Perls' view of projection was such that it became the all-encompassing focal point of Gestalt Therapy. It was the breadbasket catch-all for any life problem and the basis for change and growth.

The first step toward "assimilation," Perls writes, is to become aware that projections do exist. Since most of us will resist admitting that we ourselves project, he suggests that we look to our dreams as the "one sphere in which it is not difficult to discover the projections."[24] Through our dreams we can carry out the second step in this process, which is to recognize that the projected dream elements are actually parts of our own personalities: "The person or animal which dominates the nightmare is always an unwanted part of yourself."[25]  Once we recognize projections as part of our own personalities, we must assimilate them in order to end their influence. This requires the difficult task of identification:

It is not easy to admit, when you have frightening dreams, that you find a fiendish delight in frightening other people, or that you are a poisonous snake or man-eater...In general it can be said that whenever you feel jealous, suspicious, unjustly treated, victimized or querulous, you can lay heavy odds that you are projecting, perhaps even that you are a paranoid character."[26]

The Encyclopedia of Psychology explains Gestalt Therapy's approach to assimilating projections through "dream-work" as follows: "By becoming every object and character in the dream (both animate and inanimate), the dreamer can identify with and thereby reown projections, conflicts, and unfinished situations reflected in the dream."[27]

Perls goes on to stress the importance of doing away with the "tendency" to project, and reiterates the need to assimilate our myriad, individual projections. One way to do this is by learning how to express oneself, which can be practiced through the visualization technique mentioned previously. First: "Visualize a person against whom you feel a grudge. Tell him exactly what you think of him. Let yourself go; be as emotional as you can; break his bloody neck; swear at him as you have never sworn before." And second: "....Realize that all the time you have fought your own self only."[28]

In these exercises we see the forerunner of Perls' "let-it-all-hang-out" theme which became the model for encounter and sensitivity groups in the Sixties. We can also see the basically decontextualized nature of this approach. While it may indeed be constructive to identify one's feelings, learn to express them better, and vocalize them aggressively while visualizing the person (such as one's parent) to whom one is not accustomed to revealing such feelings, this may do nothing to actually cure neurosis.

In the final chapter of Ego, Hunger, and Aggression, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," Perls reasserts his conviction that "concentration is the most effective means whereby neurotic and paranoid disturbance can be cured."

The book’s conclusion discusses idealism as the means whereby individuals cut off from their biological selves invent a "meaning of life" in the form of ideals in order to justify existence. These ideals, however, only further stifle intrinsic biological realities and lead to nervous breakdowns and schizoid splits, as depicted by the Jekyll-Hyde character. In trying to become ideal persons, Perls points out, we simultaneously create the opposite: "Without accepting their biological 'reality,' 'idealistic' Dr. Jekyll and 'materialistic' Mr. Hyde will go on existing till mankind has finally destroyed itself."[29]

It is no surprise that Perls scorned idealism and saw it as a generator of destruction if one recalls the time period and circumstances in which he was writing. A Jewish refugee in South Africa (as well as a veteran of World War I), Perls had experienced first-hand the destruction that was possible in the name of idealism. Hitler's ideal of the super race was, after all, the impelling force behind the Nazi movement. But not only Nazis participated in the atrocities of a warring German nation. Millions of "normal" German citizens ultimately contributed directly or indirectly to what became one of the most appalling debacles of human history. Surely this explains why Perls made the concept of projection the centerpiece of his therapy, and why he was so rigid in asserting it to be the only significant psychological mechanism. Having witnessed the seeming ease with which apparently healthy and caring people could be turned against one another, Perls rightly understood that projection was a key part of the process. In order for one group of people to be accepted as superior and another group as inferior, the so-called superior group must "dump" or project all its faults and inferiorities onto the designated inferior group. The inferior group then "carries" the negative projections for the superior group, leaving it in blissful and self-satisfied immunity.

Since Perls disavowed any focus on past causes, it makes sense that he observed only the mechanisms which expressed the present or immediate condition via the person's projections. Studying projections can indeed provide a kind of landscape of the person's present state of being, but dealing only with projections is like pulling out the weeds while leaving their roots. Perls glimpsed this problem when he spoke about the need to deal with the tendency to project in addition to assimilating one's myriad, individual projections.[30] He recognized that this "tendency" needed to be rooted out, but he did not delve into what created the tendency in the first place. Instead, his writings implicitly assume that the tendency to project one's negative qualities is part and parcel of human nature, and that overcoming it requires an act of will and a few dozen visualization exercises.

This is not to devalue Perls' contribution of emphasizing the need to take responsibility for one's negative emotions -- it was indeed a timely message for most of the world. Nor is it to discount the degree to which projection contributes to and sustains neurotic behavior. It is simply to suggest that there are deeper dynamics involved which must be dealt with if the "tendency" to project is to be eradicated.

If the sociocultural setting of the World War II era helps to explain Perls' passion for certain concepts, his personal life setting helps explain his anathema for others -- in particular, the "concepts" of past history, personal vulnerability, and neediness. Perls not only intellectually disavowed the validity of past causes, he would tolerate no mention of this subject from anyone. In his more rational moments on the subject, he contended that a person's past history could only elaborate upon what you could observe here and now in the present. In his less rational moments he would simply react to mention of past causes with anything from irritation to rage.

In fact, the issues of past causes and personal vulnerability represented Perls' unadmitted "Achilles heel." It is relevant at this point to mention some aspects of Perls' own primary relationships. By his own admission, his home life was unhappy. His parents hated each other.[31] His father regularly assaulted his mother. The father apparently had hatred to spare for young Frederick, whom he called "a piece of shit."[32] As a teenager, Fritz found more hatred at school, where the teachers were "unloving" and "cruel."[33] In this environment the youngster apparently developed what Jeffrey Masson describes as "an almost unfathomable lack of warm feeling for...his own family." Masson quotes Perls' single mention in his autobiography of his elder sister. "She was a clinger...She also had severe eye trouble... When I heard of her death in a concentration camp I did not mourn much."[34]

Perls -- who had hardened himself against his own childhood suffering -- was notorious for his intolerance of sensitive or needy men. Many an unsuspecting man got "zapped" in Perls' groups for the mere indiscretion of beginning a sentence with "I want" or "I need." His biographer, psychiatrist Martin Shepard, writes:

Fritz's harshness was invariably in direct proportion to his own neediness, and he was particularly needy at this time [the early 1960s, during his first stint at Esalen]. His attitude and bearing discouraged those who would place him in the role of a nurturing parent or a reassurer. He treated such requests...scornfully or with a logical argument; "What do you need me for?" he might ask. "What do you need your parents for? You've got eyes and ears and energy. What do you want to do?[35]

Shepard then quotes San Francisco Gestaltist, Abe Levitsky, a former student of Perls', who said that his mentor had "'an overemphasis on the issues of autonomy and self-support which, I feel, he was almost obsessive about and reflected his own unresolved problems of dependency.'"[36]

As a father, Perls clearly believed in encouraging "autonomy" in his children. His method was to either ignore or reject them. In his autobiography, he has just one pithy comment about his daughter: "Renate is a phony." Not approving of his daughter's ways, he did not deign to get to know his granddaughter.[37] As for his relationship with his son, the son described years later (in a talk given in 1993) how his father basically stayed out of the task of bringing him up. Stephen Perls, a clinical psychologist, reports feeling "ignored" and "discounted" as a youth. Seldom did the family eat together. His father, he says, "couldn't care less" about him or his interests. Fritz was wholly focused on his own life: his work, colleagues, and friendships. There wasn't time for his children. According to his son, Perls "had a blind spot when it came to interfamily relations. "He did his thing and I did my thing." The younger Perls adds, "I never emerged for him as a figure clearly separate from my sister and mother until I was about 30." Fritz reached out only by inviting his son to watch him "perform" in Gestalt Therapy training centers, Stephen Perls reflects.[38]

Biographer Shepard speculates that because Perls' own neediness as a child had been met with harshness, wanting or needing something from others offended Perls' dignity and triggered a similarly harsh response. Therefore, "Fritz wanted, but wouldn't ask. And so he condemned the wantingness of others."[39] Having had his own childhood needs ignored, Perls carried out a repeat performance on his own children and then on some of his patients, responding to them with various kinds of abuse. Shepard rightly terms this Perls's "neediness paradox," and then in a very non-Gestalt way, explains the paradox in terms of Perls' past life experiences:

Fritz was a man who suffered greatly, in his life, from unrequited love. He had missed the love of his father, had played second or third fiddle for his mother's love, had had few friends as an adolescent, had lost his closest pal in the war, and had always experienced himself as an ugly toad. As he grew older, he learned to live without feeling close to his peers, his wife, or his children. He endured this deprivation by preaching, "I do my thing, you do yours....If we meet it's beautiful. If not it can't be helped."[40] [Italics original]

Shepard even specifically links Perls' aversion for past causes to pain from his own past:

It is possible that Fritz's disinterest in the past was related to his not wanting to rekindle many painful memories of childhood. His constant hunger for affirmation may have stemmed from his early feeding problems at his mother's breast, from his getting less "nourishment" than his eldest sister, and from his father's denigrations of him. "I am sure," [Fritz] wrote, "that most of my showing off is overcompensation...for my unsureness... to hypnotize you into the belief that I am something extra special."[41]

If Perls had published Ego, Hunger and Aggression in the hope of becoming "something extra special," he was sorely disappointed. The only "special" response he received from the professional psychoanalytic community was unanimous disapproval. Intentionally or unintentionally, he effectively accomplished his break from the Freudian fold.

Perls' Theory and Therapy: The Later Years

In 1946 Perls moved his family from South Africa to New York, and in the next decade established Gestalt Therapy as a formal therapeutic approach. His second book, Gestalt Therapy, was published in 1951, but its impact was "almost nil." Perls then began touring from city to city, starting small encounter groups for both professionals and laymen. Scattered Gestalt Centers sprang up here and there during the 1950s, but Perls and his therapy remained relatively unknown until his affiliation with Esalen in the 1960s.

Esalen, in a sense, put Perls and his therapy "on the map." People now commonly uttered Perlsisms, paying lip service to the importance of "doing your own thing," "being here now," and getting rid of their "topdogs" in the "hot seat." The hot seat, peculiar to Gestalt Therapy, is a sort of therapeutic electric chair in which the patient submits to the therapist's often confrontative direction.

In Ego, Hunger and Aggression, Perls had formulated his concepts in relatively scientific terms. He had written of "differential thinking," of "organismic reorganization," of "senso-motoric resistances," and of "pseudo metabolisms." Now he dropped all pretense of scientific underpinnings and went straight for simplistic catch-phrases, which he believed described the basic "polarities" on which life rested.

A particularly Perlsian concept is the idea of a topdog-underdog personality split. Perls spoke of the topdog instead of the Freudian superego, and then reasoned: "If there is a superego, there must also be an infraego. Again, Freud did half the job. He saw the topdog, the superego, but he left out the underdog which is just as much a personality as the topdog."[42] These basic divisions of the human personality were, according to Perls, "two clowns...that perform the self-torture game on the stage of our fantasy."[43] The topdog is the internalized parent -- the moralistic, perfectionistic, and authoritarian voice characterized by shoulds and oughts. The underdog, on the other hand, is the internalized child -- the part of us that is self-seeking, impulsive, defensive, wheedling, crybaby, and powerless (to use a few of Perls' own adjectives). Not unlike the forces in the Freudian id, Perls' topdog and underdog battle unendingly, for the struggle between them "is never complete."

These two parts of us are developed in the process of faulty childhood maturation in which parents do not provide sufficient frustration for their growing child. Here we have a Gestalt echo of Maslow's desirable school of hard knocks. Insufficient frustration slows down the growth process ("without frustration there is no need, no reason to mobilize your resources, to discover that you might be able to do something on your own"),[44] and the child gets stuck in an impasse. At this point the critical transition takes place in which the child attempts to control the outer environment via role-playing and manipulation, and in the process rigidifies himself into the topdog-underdog roles that will plague him into adulthood:

What we are after is the maturation of the person, removing the blocks that prevent a person from standing on his own feet. We try to help him make the transition from environmental support to self-support. And basically we do it by finding the impasse. The impasse occurs originally when a child cannot get the support from the environment, but cannot yet provide its own support. At that moment of impasse, the child starts to mobilize the environment by playing phony roles, playing stupid, playing helpless, playing weak, flattering, and all the roles that we use in order to manipulate our environment.[45]

What was the solution? Fritz wrote that it was "to get the patient to find out what his own missing potential is [by using] the therapist as a projection screen."[46] The patient would expect of the therapist exactly what he wasn't able to mobilize in himself, and through a new awareness would "re-own" the quality or ability he had expected of the therapist.

Where does this so-called breakthrough leave the topdog-underdog parts? Theoretically they would fade into oblivion as the person became "whole" and "real" through the re-owning of his many projected parts. In reality, however, Perls demonstrated an undeniable preference (and penchant!) for what might be termed a slightly maturated underdog as the ideal adult behavior. This would be the adult who "does his own thing," who acts impulsively, spontaneously, and in accord with his and only his needs. This for Perls was the ideal, and he apparently took great pride in personally modeling the behavior.

An example from Perls' autobiography, in which Perls described how he had gotten fed up with a woman in a group session and literally knocked her down three times, well exemplifies his idiosyncratic conception of mature behavior:

I got her down again and said, gasping: "I've beaten up more than one bitch in my life." Then she got up, threw her arms around me: "Fritz, I love you." Apparently she finally got what, all her life, she was asking for, and there are thousands of women like her in the States. Provoking and tantalizing, bitching, irritating their husbands and never getting their spanking. You don't have to be a Parisian prostitute to need that so as to respect your man.[47]

Shepard points out that among the Gestalt Therapy paradoxes is this one: while the core of the therapy was supposedly based on self-expression and doing your own thing free of the topdog's shoulds, in reality Perls had his own list of strongly valued behavioral guidelines for both men and women:

The major Gestalt paradox centers on its insistence that you tune in to your own inner truth and follow it wherever it leads you... [Yet] Gestalt...contains within it its own set of "shoulds," its own unwritten but ever-present prescriptions. Some detractors, who considered Fritz Perls to be a man with few or no values, have misjudged him. He valued highly such notions as "follow your impulses, not your thoughts, "favor your Underdog, not your Topdog." And he had his own set of shoulds. People should be free and impulsive like him; they shouldn't be uptight or defensive; and they should be willing to go into and explore whatever their craziness consists of.[48]

Shepard further comments that Perls' penchant for using labels and catchy phrases was not necessarily positive. Perls freely used highly descriptive, colloquial expressions ("bitch") to "nail" a person. Shepard concedes that such "name-calling" can have the negative effect of locking the person into the "horrible label" in an unwitting cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Perls' penchant for labeling was easily matched by his penchant for philosophizing -- even as he decried it as "elephant shit."

*"I consider the neurosis to be a symptom of incomplete maturation."

*"Now experiencing will solve all neurotic difficulties."

*"Anxiety is nothing but the gap between the now and the later."

*"Lose your mind and come to your senses."

*"Beware of any helpers. They spoil you and keep you dependent and immature."[49]

In these pseudo-profundities we see Perls' basic lack of understanding of the dialectics of neurosis and anxiety. We also see his evolution from a Freudian "wisdomshitter" to a wisdomshitter in the guise of a self-important and unsympathetic guru, mistaking the effluvia of Pain for "incomplete maturation," converting his own distaste for neediness into a theory that ignores the dialectic and sanctions repression.

Claiming existentialism as the philosophical basis of Gestalt Therapy, Fritz also frequently added Oriental flavorings as additional underpinnings. Taoism, koans, and Zen were favorite referents of his, and he often introduced his here_and_now concept as a kind of mysterious, enigmatic koan:

Now let me tell you of a dilemma which is not easy to understand. It's like a koan -- those Zen questions which seem to be insoluble. The koan is: Nothing exists except the here and now. The now is the present, is the phenomenon, is what you are aware of, is that moment in which you carry your so-called memories and your so-called anticipations with you...The past is no more. The future is not yet... Nothing can possibly exist except the now.[50] [Italics original]

Accordingly, in Gestalt Therapy's scheme of things, whatever happened to you in the past is basically meaningless. If you dwell on it, and use it as a reason to blame others (like your parents) for your problems, it serves as an obstacle to any kind of personal growth. The Encyclopedia of Psychology, in its critique of Gestalt Therapy, framed this issue in terms of Perls' emphasis on "the importance of accepting responsibility for one's own behavior":

Instead of denying, blaming, projecting, and displacing responsibility for one's experience, the individual is encouraged to accept thoughts, feelings, and actions as parts of the self. Attributing responsibility to scapegoats -- parents, childhood traumas, spouse, and the like -- leaves the individual powerless and dependent. Instead of blaming the environment for what we imagine we cannot do for ourselves, we must each of us do our own work, take our own risks, and thereby discover who we are and what we are capable of.[51]

I suppose that there is something to be said for this perspective on personal responsibility.  Who would choose to wallow in the past rather than get on with life?  Another concept of Perls is that of "unfinished business," or "incompleted situations from the past, accompanied by unexpressed feelings never fully experienced or discharged." This old baggage, when carried into present life, interferes with "present-centered awareness and authentic contact with others."[52] On the surface, it is an attractive idea. Who would not choose not to discard these burdens in order to enrich his experiences and relationships? But the problem is that, given the undeniable neurobiological presence of past Pain in the organism's present existence, no matter how strongly we commit ourselves to putting the past behind us in order to pursue "awareness" and growth, these "feelings never fully experienced or discharged" will continue to impact our current affective states and behavior.

As for Gestalt Therapy's techniques for resolving one's "unfinished business," they typically require "reenacting (either directly or in fantasy) the original situation and allowing the associated affect to be experienced and expressed." This usually involves hotseat work, with the patient acting out the topdogunderdog aspects of his or her personality. "In this way completion is achieved, preoccupations with the past dissipate, and the individual can redirect attention and energy to new possibilities."[53]

In discussing this "unfinished business" problem, it is important to reiterate Perls' paradoxical position regarding the past -- as something which does not really exist. Not only that; according to Perls, memories of yesterday and the day before are nothing more than lies and deceptions we have conjured up to rationalize our plights. "You all know how much you are lying. You all know how much you are deceiving yourselves, how many of your memories are exaggerations and projections, how many of your memories are patched up and distorted."[54] Here Perls long ago previewed the current controversy regarding "Repressed Memory Syndrome" and the "pseudomemories" of sexual abuse many professionals believe that patients conjure up. That's not all, though. The situation worsens as Perls goes on to deny the reality of trauma itself:

The great error of psychoanalysis is in assuming that the memory is reality. All the so-called traumata, which are supposed to be the root of neurosis, are an invention of the patient to save his self-esteem. None of these traumata has ever been proved to exist. I haven't seen a single case of infantile trauma that wasn't a falsification. They are all lies to be hung onto to justify one's unwillingness to grow.[55] [Italics added]

Perls obviously felt that for himself it was best to harden himself against his own Painful familial past -- to embark upon an autonomous path and not wallow in blame and resentment -- and to blot out the horror which overwhelmed his native country, rather than "waste his time" looking back. But this willful denial of trauma erases neither his reality nor the traumas others experience. I can't help wondering what he would say if confronted by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare statistics that child abuse has reached epidemic proportions in this country; or, more dramatically, how he would explain the brutal physical damage still visible on the faces and bodies of the children at child abuse rehabilitation centers across the country.

Perls' claim that trauma itself is nothing more than a self-serving distortion of memory is absurd.  We can view cases of trauma all too clearly with our own eyes.  But what of his contention that memory is also a distortion? His basis for this claim is the assertion (which he treats as a prima facie statement) that memory is an "abstraction."[56] His reasoning is that since events are lived in the flesh, so to speak, they cannot be accurately re-represented in the flesh via the abstraction of thought. Hence his conclusion that memory and history can never be identical.

Yet the research of Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield, published in 1959, indicated that memory is actually an encoded, neurophysiological event as real as the neurons that mediate it:

Every individual forms a neuronal record of his own stream of consciousness. Since artificial reactivation of the record [by applying an electrode to a specific part of the brain] later in life seems to recreate all those things formerly included within the focus of his attention, one must assume that the reactivated recording [i.e., the memory] and the original neuronal activity [the original event] are identical.[57]

In other words, memory, and the experience that is remembered, appear to be one and the same. Penfield's work also sheds light on the so-called "falsification" of memory that so disturbed Perls. Distortion in memory may be just a matter of the amount of distance in the brain from the site of the literal memory (the "feeling site") to sites that are slightly adjacent and produce a symbol of the memory. Penfield cites a case of brain surgery in which he placed an electrode on one point in the temporal cortex and got, "I feel like robbers are after me."  When he placed it directly on the feeling site it elicited the response, "I remember when my brother held a gun to me." In other words, stimulating the actual feeling site of a particular memory will cause it to be activated as it originally occurred. Stimulating adjacent sites will produce symbols of what actually occurred.

When Perl's states that trauma itself is nothing more than a self-serving distortion, he is way off the mark. Trauma produces distortions so as not to disturb consciousness; otherwise one would be naked before the Pain. But his attitude is essentially misanthropic: everyone is egocentric, he says, (he will need to reown that one), everyone lies and distorts, and there is no real childhood Pain.

Once Perls' view of memory is discredited, where does that leave his here-and-now concept and his there-is-no-past concept? Far richer than Perls' limited formulation is the researched reality of what Penfield termed a "double consciousness":

[The patient] has a double consciousness. He enters the stream of the past, and it is the same as it was in the past, but when he looks at the banks of the stream he is aware of the present as well.[58]

Thus, living in the "present" as preached by Perls cannot occur, for our present moments are infused with the stream of the past, just as we infuse the future with the stream of who we are today.

Projection in Gestalt Therapy

By the time of Perls' work at Esalen, his concept of projection -- first elaborated in Ego, Hunger and Aggression in 1942 -- was extended and solidified into a key position in the therapy. Perls now contended that everything we feel or think about another person, or about any situation in the outer world, was a projection of some part of ourselves. Thus if I said, "I dislike Betty because she gossips too much," it really meant that I was a gossip. Unwilling to recognize and deal with the negative trait in myself, I would readily recognize and condemn it in another.

There is nothing wrong with the substance of this tenet. From time to time we do all project our unwanted qualities onto others. We certainly do seem particularly sensitive to aspects of other people's behavior which mirror what we condemn (consciously or unconsciously) in ourselves. As acknowledged previously, projection is a legitimate psychological defense mechanism as evidenced in paranoia where intolerable feelings are "sent" elsewhere and imputed to others. "'They' want to hurt me." It's not that the person wants to hurt someone else, although it may be so, but that he was hurt terribly in his childhood and the memory now dominates his perceptions of others.

Recall Perls' earlier statement that "the person or animal which dominates the nightmare is always an unwanted part of yourself." [Italics added] The example Perls used in 1942 to illustrate his new and radical position did serve a positive function of proposing a type of dream interpretation more personally relevant than the presiding Freudian one. He cites a dream in which the dreamer is bitten by a poisonous snake and explains: "It might be correct to interpret the snake as an aggressive phallus symbol, but it is more useful to search for the poisonous snake hidden in your own character."[59] Searching for the snake within rather than the phallus without does indeed seem like a healthy step forward -- and as previously noted, it was also a particularly timely viewpoint, given the ongoing historical events.

Unfortunately, however, the passage of time only reinforced Perls' rigid view of the role of projection. The problem comes with Perls' extreme quantification of it to encompass everything -- every dream element, each fantasy or daydream, all reactions to all people, situations, and events. Since there were no legitimate past influences or reliable memories in Perls' formulation, projections could only depict the person's internal and immediate state of being. This view further implies that no external reality exists apart from the machinations of each individual's psyche. I cannot simply dislike gossipy people because I find such behavior a draining and negative waste of time. No, in Perls' view, I would simply be projecting my negative feelings about my own gossipy tendencies -- acknowledged or not acknowledged -- period. Indeed, standards of behavior and qualitative assessments are themselves aspects of projection which fall into Perls' "shouldn'ts." It is the elevation of personal pathology into the realm of theory.

With his work at Esalen in the 1960s, Perls consistently (and predictably) presented the dogma of projection, which unequivocally denied the possibility that dream elements (or reactions to people and events) could also represent or symbolize actual people, events, or traumas encountered in the individual's life. We see this well illustrated in Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, which contains selections from audiotapes of Perls' weekend dreamwork seminars conducted at Esalen between 1966 and 1968. With unvarying precision, Perls methodically, rapidly, and forcefully takes each reaction, feeling, sensation, dream element or fantasy and labels it projection. But what about, for example, the desired parts of ourselves we would like to reach but can't? What about a sexual response that is totally repressed, or laughter that is stuck inside? Perls only leaves room for the undesirable.

The Hot Seat

 Perls' use of his famous "hot seat" was one of his central techniques in the implementation of his therapeutic tenets. He developed this technique for what he called his "circus" -- "demonstrations of Gestalt Therapy in front of a hundred people or more upon a stage that he had rigged."[60] In a typical encounter with Perls, the willing person would walk onto the designated area where Fritz sat with two empty chairs. One of the chairs was the hot seat -- the chair the person wishing to work sat in -- and the other chair was the chair the person moved to when enacting his various roles. Some regarded what transpired between Fritz and his hot-seat candidate to be brilliant, inspired, and innovative. Others regarded it as self-indulgent and insensitive, even cruel. His ex-wife, who is also a Gestalt therapist, viewed the hot seat as "just a way in which he could keep himself from getting involved."[61] His friend and publisher, Arthur Ceppos, believed "the whole secret behind Fritz's hot seat [was to] show people how they made fools of themselves."[62] Indeed, Perls seemed unparalleled in the therapeutic community for his ability to evoke so-called foolish behavior in those seated before him in the hot seat.

The hot-seat technique was an offshoot of an earlier technique called "psychodrama." Here individuals would play different roles so that they could get a feel of what it was like to be someone else, and also to play different roles with the goal of changing. Acting aggressive instead of passive would be one way. Their notion and that of Perls was that playacting helped change a person, gave her broader perspective and enabled her to see herself objectively. But of course, actors play roles all of the time and do not change at all.

Playacting is fun, sometimes it can hurt, but it is essentially a game with the ringleader running the circus. The focus is on the leader who is usually idolized, and who, in any case, is the last word. There is no basic trust of the patient and his feelings. There is no real sense of the tragedy of neurosis, how terribly unhappy the patient is. It is all a game, taking roles and being busted by the chief.

 I took a seminar with Perls (and with Rogers, as well), and I was struck by the theories that psychologists construct that seem to evolve straight out of their personalities. As students, we mimicked Perls running the group, chain smoking, and saying, "Be an ashtray." "Be a couch." It was all whim and caprice. But it had to do with liberating feelings to some extent, which was something new in his epoch. Of course, after a group session where a woman was in the hot-seat, as I mentioned, there was the obligatory kiss on Perls' forehead or cheek. The master received his homage. It was more a show than therapy; an interesting show, because he was a showman, but serious scientific therapy was out of the question.

In its own way, Gestalt Therapy as practiced by Fritz Perls and those who carried on his work employs a form of hypnosis on its patients. The therapist is the central figure, the command center. The patient takes his cues about reality from this external figure rather than from the truths of his own experience contained in his own mind. He submits in the same childlike fashion of the hypnotic subject to the suggestions and authority of the therapist so that the subsequent experience is largely determined and defined for him. His reality is circumscribed by the larger presence of the therapist (in a sense by the larger, more powerful need of the therapist). If Perls' verbatim accounts are anything to go by, the Gestalt therapist tells you what to feel and what to do; when to do it and how to do it -- right down to selecting the words and images in which the patient is to express himself. How is this different from the hypnotist who tells you that you are sleepy when you are not, or the cult leader who manipulates his followers' need to be taken care of to suit his own need for control and power? In the case of Perls' therapy, the control and power are deceptively hidden behind a professed disinterest in either.

   Hypnosis functions through its ability to make use of the split in consciousness which is the essence of neurosis.  Gestalt Therapy does the same thing though not in precisely the same way. Perls acknowledges conflicts, polarities, divisions within the self, yet he conducts his therapy through games which he instigates and which not only illustrate the split but enhance it as well.  It is part of the hypnotic process to convince the subject that something is happening which is not happening. 

The goal of therapy in Gestalt is to develop people's awareness about what's really happening to them, what they really want, what they're really striving for, wherever the organism is looking, wherever its attention is drawn. The goal of therapy is to make this possible by somehow them back possession of themselves, possession over their own motives, finding out what is unconscious to them, what they're doing unbeknownst to themselves...take people who are conditioned and automatic and put them in some kind of aegis over themselves.[63]

In Gestalt Therapy, the patient is kept unconscious by being made aware; a disconnection that is sustained by his being given the illusion that he has become more conscious; that he is "in touch with thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they occur from moment to moment"; that he has lost his mind and come to his senses; that his "present, here-and-now experience constitutes the only reality." Just as in hypnosis, consciousness is restricted to provide a distraction against Pain and a barrier against the presence of the past. Consciousness is narrowed down to the present offshoots of repressed Pain in the form of projections in the here-and-now. The chief difference between hypnosis and Gestalt therapy is that hypnosis excludes awareness to avoid the unification of consciousness, whereas Gestalt excludes the unconscious to achieve the same end.

Gestalt Therapy After Perls: A Scramble for Definition

To what degree were Perls' original concepts preserved?  To what degree did Perls' personality permeate the Gestalt inheritance?  Did Gestalt therapy develop and turn in new directions?

An overview of The Gestalt Journal in the 1980s provides answers to these questions.

In summary, Perls' main concepts remained the cornerstone of the therapy.  Meanwhile, new dimensions and spin-offs were added. The forcefulness of Perls' personality remained a source of emulation for some and of conflict and re-evaluation for others.

An article entitled "The Future of Gestalt Therapy" serves as an introductory sampling of post-Perls trends, viewpoints, and problems.[64]   The symposium this article covers seemed to represent a retrospective and an end to the Perlsian phase of Gestalt Therapy, and partially functioned as a forum to decide where to go next.  Although four speakers discussed different topics, a common area of concern emerged in each presentation:  whether or not Gestalt Therapy would survive, and how to best facilitate that survival.  It was acknowledged that the movement was going through a kind of identity crisis.  The speakers expressed concern as to whether therapy would be able to integrate new approaches while maintaining "its integrity and coherence."  They questioned with the therapy's relevance in the changing times, reflecting that the "narcissistic indulgence" of the 'Sixties self-development era had been replaced by larger ecological and environmental concerns which demanded a more planet-oriented rather than self-oriented focus. They affirmed that Gestalt Therapy could remain applicable because "a moral vision concerning the unity of human life with nature is the truth that Gestalt Therapy embodies."[65]

The need for definition, in terms that would accommodate Gestalt Therapy's survival, was clear throughout this symposium. One speaker aptly stated: "If we continue to ignore defining who we are in our center and what our boundaries are, I would predict a future in which we are replaced by an endless number of new techniques and in which our name is used as an excuse for poor therapy, poor training, and poor discipline."[66] [Italics added]            Another journal article about depression illustrates the traditional Perlsian flank of the therapy.  Neurosis was predictably defined in terms of Perls' "topdog-underdog" personality split.  In this split "the individual fails to resolve or be fully aware of the conflict between two diametrically opposite components of his personality."  These components are attitudes and beliefs which are acquired ("introjected") in early childhood and constitute "unfinished business."  Depression, in the Gestalt view, means that the person is not fully aware of his topdog- underdog conflict and therefore flipflops back and forth between the two polar opposites.  Neither the topdog nor the underdog side is fully expressed.  Therefore, "the neurotic individual continues to be the displaced target of his own aggression."  Resolution occurs by working through the unfinished business -- which for latter-day Gestaltists meant the same thing it meant for Perls:  acting out the topdog and underdog as one's own qualities at the complete exclusion of past, real-life experiences.[67]

One therapist, concerned about the degree of structuring used in Gestalt Therapy, expressed the conflict and re-evaluation which took place in the years after Perls' death.  The author noted that Perls' "truly experimental approach...was (later) adapted and routinized to produce instant insights and cures."  The author was concerned with the negative consequences of this routinized structuring ("technique and coercion had ultimately overtaken inventiveness and creativity"), and explained that Perls probably avoided such problems by simply "selecting out" (i.e., eliminating) people who would not benefit from his "high structure-high frustration form of therapy."[68]

A counter-reaction to this seemingly indelible stamp of the Perls personality can be seen in an offshoot of Gestalt Therapy, known as "transpersonal Gestalt."  This departure partly drew on Perls' penchant for the mystical, and partly represented a reaction against the modus operandi of Perlsian aggression.[69]  Transpersonal Gestalt contends that Perls' cornerstone principle of the here-andnow is the link to such transpersonal concepts as the "flow of Tao" and the Jungian "collective unconscious."  The shift away from the Perls legacy, however, can be found in new emphasis on the gentler side of life.  In transpersonal Gestalt, the traditional technique of "creative frustration" is replaced by "an atmosphere of mutual trust and caring; gentleness replaces attack;" and the "screw you" attitude so often associated with the Gestalt commandment, "I do my thing and you do your thing" is superseded by the new formulation:

I am I      and     I am you

You are you     and     You are me[70]

Transpersonal Gestalt takes traditional Gestalt to a new level.  The value of this new level, however, is as dubious as it is ethereal.  Where traditional Gestalt deals with the personal, this new Gestalt focuses on the "cosmic."  In traditional Gestalt, each aspect of a dream is viewed as a quality of the dreamer.  In transpersonal Gestalt, however, each person is viewed as an aspect or quality of the Cosmos:

The transpersonal approach conceives of each of us as a manifestation of the energy of the universe.  It is as if God, the dreamer, had created all of us as manifestations of Himself and had "identified" with each of us to such an extent that he forgot who he really was. When we remember who we really are, we discover that we each are God.[71]

How useful this type of cosmic conjecture is to a person simply trying to understand the forces driving his own life is questionable at best.  The author's closing remarks suggest a kind of disturbing evangelical tangent:

Each person can do his own Gestalt work through meditation, through developing the "witness" part of his consciousness, and through letting divine trust and faith in the universe provide the secure environment.[72]

Clearly Transpersonal Gestalt has little or nothing to do with psychotherapy.  A certain inexorable balance is evident in the far sides of Gestalt.  As unabashedly, even insultingly down-to-earth as Perls was, the transpersonal flank is ethereal, mystical, disembodied -- and ultimately insubstantial.

It is definitely "New Age."

Without the central driving force of Perls' personality from which it derived its identity, Gestalt Therapy seemed at a loss to know where or how to acquire definition.  Perls' descendants grasped for principles with which to paste together the elements of a theory and therapy that had come apart without its main pillar. Perls failed to leave his followers a theory in accordance with biology and psychology upon which they could develop an effective therapy.  Instead, he left them with broad sentiment, vague ideology, and dubious techniques.  Thus, practitioners tried to cover all ground by gathering in elements from mysticism, religion, philosophy, and psychology.  Because this mingling of method, technique, and ideology was not founded in the realities of the organism, so-called Gestalt Therapy found itself more than ever in bits. Ironically, the one thing that Gestalt Therapy lacked was a gestalt.

Gestalt Therapy Today

By 1993, Fritz Perls had been dead for nearly a quarter century. His theories and therapy lived on. In The Gestalt Journal's Fall '93 issue celebrating the centennial of Perls' birth, Norman Friedman, director of the Gestalt Therapy Center in Queens, reviews the genesis of the topdog-underdog dichotomy, explains the rationale for the use of the "hot seat" in topdog-underdog role playing, and provides examples of therapist/patient interplay a la Perls.

Friedman describes how the topdog-underdog split within a single personality stems from childhood. Specifically, this neurotic personality comes into being at an early age, when the child's parents require that the child "conform to their own unmet needs rather than meeting those of the child." They want a quiet child, an obedient child, a child who makes the family look good -- while the child wants and needs other things from them, such as "an appropriate amount of acknowledgment, validation, comfort, and support." Parents and child compete to get their needs met, and the dependent child loses out, forming defenses -- ignoring his own needs, being agreeable, submissive, etc. -- in order to survive. "Out of this compromise," writes Friedman, "a polarity is formed, an intrapsychic reflection of the actual situation: the voice of the parents becomes internalized as the Topdog, while that of the child's self becomes that of the Underdog." Later in life, the conflict between the two causes anxiety and other problems. I suppose it would be heresy to state that there is no topdog-underdog in our brains. If my mother died in a car accident when I was five it is not a matter of top dog or underdog, it is a matter of great pain and how that has affected my life.

According to Friedman, the "hot seat" technique used in Gestalt "symbolizes the commitment a person makes to deal with anxiety when coming up to work with the therapist." Like Perls' version, in "chairwork," the patient sits in the hot seat with an "empty chair" placed a few feet away. What ensues is a "dialogue," aimed at bringing "both sides of the conflict" into "awareness." The patient conjures up, or acts out, both roles; the empty chair is where the topdog "projection" -- perhaps mother or father -- goes.

The first stage of chairwork is for "the polarity to come into awareness and the patient to take responsibility for both sides," for the patient to "take back" and "own" the projection. The therapist's role in all of this is not to explain, interpret, or soothe, but to "serve as an objective enabler," to "provide a model of openness and authenticity" in order to "bring the conflict out as much as possible so that it may be brought to a head."

Friedman creates the following hypothetical dialogue:

P (a college coed): My English professor gave me only a B on my paper yesterday. I don't think he likes me.

T (therapist): Would you tell that to him?

P: "Why are you so down on me? Don't I do all the homework?"

T: Now switch over and be him.

P: "Sure, you do all the work. But you're just a drone, no imagination."

T: Can you hear yourself? Whom do you sound like?

P: You know, I think he looks a little like my father to me! He never liked anything I ever did.

The next stage of chairwork, writes Friedman, is to "encourage both the two sides to confront one another and to intensify the conflict. In other words, it aims to produce the "reenactment" of "unfinished business" which, according to Perls' theory, is essential to experiencing and assimilating unacknowledged feelings. Friedman's dialogue continues as follows:

P: My father never liked anything I did.

T: What does that feel like?

P: It feels like shit. I feel like shit.

T: Could you tell him that now?

P: "Dad, you're always criticizing me, always making me feel like I can't do anything right."

T: (Pauses to see if she's with what she's seeing, then suggests): Switch over.

P: (As dad): "Well, you know, honey, it's only because I love you so much that I want to see you shine."

T: Switch back.

P: "That's bullshit! If you love me so much, why are you always showing me my mistakes?"

(As dad): "Well, someone has got to do it. How else will you learn to shape up?"

T: What do you feel as dad?

P: That she is a piece of shit.

T: Could you tell that to her some more? Do it openly.

The therapist then requests that the patient (as her dad) tell her what he needs from her (validation) and that she tell him what she needs from him (that he tell her he loves her). Friedman says that here authentic feelings are being experienced and expressed, but the two have come to an impasse: neither can give the other what is asked for. "The 'father' fears exposing his vulnerability and inadequacy, while the 'daughter' can't take all the responsibility for comforting him when she feels vulnerable and inadequate herself." At this juncture the therapist must resist trying to help the patient resolve this impasse. Because "being in the impasse" is the "fundamental turning point from neurosis to health," "the therapist must have had enough personal therapy to have experienced this place personally and so be able to be supportive of the patient's need to face it rather than 'fix' it."

Thus, by being an attentive and compassionate listener, acknowledging the difficulty, and so on, the therapist facilitates the patient's dropping her defenses and "imploding," or feeling fully what Friedman calls "nothingness," "isolation," "underlying abandonment anxiety," and "terror of annihilation."

As this mock session unfolds, the therapist tells the patient that he's helping her "stay with feeling stuck." The patient responds sarcastically, and the therapist suggests that she complain about him. They then agree that what she really needs is not to confront him but to really feel stuck. She ostensibly begins to feel it; it's hard for her to breathe, she feels afraid, and finally she says, "God, I feel so alone!" She then describes how she's experiencing "floating...falling." She asks the therapist what to do. He tells her to let herself cry. Friedman describes what is occurring:

She is now beginning to make contact with the terrible grief she had to repress, as the price for being able to survive at all, in order to accommodate herself to her parents' neglect of her emotional needs when she was very young. We are now confronting the basic tragedy of human existence.

P: (Her face becomes contorted, her breathing seems to stop for a moment, she puts her hands up over her face, her chest and shoulders begin to shake, and she begins to sob. This is rather more convulsive than crying or weeping. She pulls herself up short): Holy shit! What's going on here?

T: (Very present but unobtrusive.) Despair. Just let it happen.

P: (She lets herself go into the sobbing. This lasts for a number of minutes, then stops, then begins again.)

T: Whom are you mourning for?

P: Myself. All these wasted years. Damn! (She becomes enraged.) (As daughter): "I hate you, you fucking wimp! Go to hell, just go to hell!"

(Gradually, she begins to feel relief. Her breathing becomes slow, deep, regular. She looks around, blinking her eyes, unselfconscious that they've been tearing and her nose sniffling. She smiles.

Soon thereafter the patient declares that she feels good, and that everything seems "more colorful...sharper." Friedman points out that Gestalt Therapy is distinctive in the way it both uncovers feelings and ensures "that they are seeking their proper object." He goes on to pose the question as to whether this kind of "breakthrough" will last, or whether it is more in the nature of a "dramatic performance." Required, he writes, will be further work in subsequent sessions, "in order to reinstate a good-enough father in the place left vacant by the real-father introject. Self-nurture, in other words, will take the form of replacing the missing Supportive Self to In-Need-of-Support Self -- an internalizing-assimilating-integrating process."[73]

Here, as in many other non-dialectic therapies, awareness becomes the goal. That is well and good but the goal must be consciousness, not just cerebral or intellectual awareness. There is the notion that ideas in the form of awareness and insights can make change. Our research indicates that there is no profound change until the profound Pain stored in the limbic system and below rises to consciousness. That doesn't mean a few tears here and there. It means pain relived over and over hours at a time for months and years. Much of this technique was borrowed from Moreno”s psychodrama, popular in the forties and fifties, where patients acted out different roles.


Gestalt Therapy began as one man's personal reaction to the overly mental focus of classical Freudian analysis. Perls’ approach never seemed to lose its impulsively reactional qualities, which may help to explain why it did not develop into a coherent, systematic theory and therapy. It moved along fueled more by its emotional rebellion against psychoanalysis than it did from any profound insight into the nature of human suffering. Perls seemed to grasp some of the picture of neurosis and the necessity for expressing feeling, but the expression never really happened. It was controlled by him; what to feel, how much and when. It generated no testable hypotheses, which is the mark of a scientific therapy.

Gestalt Therapy's strengths lie in its general intent and in the directions in which it pointed -- namely, to the broadening of conscious experience. Perls recognized the flaws in Freud's model, as other erstwhile Freudian disciples had done before him. He also recognized (1) the need for therapy to come out of its proverbial "head" and (2) that feeling rather than thinking was crucial to restoring health. His appreciation of the non-verbal aspects of experience and the need to express oneself in more than just words opened doors of possibility in consciousness that had been closed for a long time.

Yet, even as Gestalt Therapy began in the right direction, it took several steps backwards for each one forward. Although Perls often grasped what was wrong in broad terms, both with psychoanalysis and with individuals, he didn't really know how to put things right.

Gestalt Therapy's most enduring aspect, Perls himself, contributes to its limitations. Erving and Miriam Polster, long-time Gestalt therapists, authors of Gestalt Therapy Integrated, founders and co-directors of the Gestalt Training Center in San Diego, admit that among the "unfortunate legacies" of Perls' work was his "simplistic application of an insistence on immediacy," which encouraged "glib imitation" by unprepared disciples who only superficially understand Perls theories, incomplete though they may be.[74]

Perls called for total experience. Yet paradoxically, he did so while fencing off the past as forbidden territory, denouncing repression as invalid and memory as distorted. He wished to reject mental ruminations and awaken the person to life through feeling, yet he concentrated on awareness and understanding. He insisted on people living as they truly were, yet he constructed a therapy whose main features involved enacted feelings and role playing --roles which he scripted. He disavowed the unconscious while proclaiming that dreams, which arise in an unconscious state, are compilations of all that we are. Transference was denied, yet by his therapeutic staging and self-presentation as seer, Perls inevitably made himself into a symbolic figure and therefore, a focus of transferred feelings. To dismiss the phenomenon of transference was to suppress aspects of the total therapeutic experience, as was his sweeping claim that trauma was a fallacy. This latter position was ironically similar to that of the rejected Freud, who constructed his theory of wish fulfillment on the conclusion that patients fantasized rather than remembered childhood seduction trauma. Another similarity to the Freudian model he originally rejected is his notion of intrinsic flaws and innate weaknesses.

In later years, as exemplified by Friedman, some Gestalt therapists have admitted past trauma into therapy far more than Perls did, yet they still do not take it far enough, allowing "reenactment" to weakly substitute for full reliving of Painful experience, seeking awareness rather than full consciousness. A Perlsian incongruity continues to ensure that therapy will not lead to genuine, integrative, and liberating feeling. The theoretical realization that "unfinished business," or whatever you want to call it, underlies neurosis is coupled with therapeutic techniques which do not achieve what they claim to do: assimilate, or "finish" past business in order to free the individual to "be here now."

Its loose weave of humanistic sentiments and intense therapeutic activity give Gestalt Therapy the appearance of a therapy of feelings which in the end creates the very sort of pretense which it so earnestly sought to undermine. It falters mainly on the contradiction that it tried to bring depth to human experience while dealing, at Perls' insistence, with the "utmost surface."  Deep down, Gestalt Therapy -- in the shadow of its showman founder, who slithered and barked like a seal in response to Abraham Maslow -- is very shallow.

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[1]_Len Bergantino, "Recollections of a Young Whippersnapper." The Gestalt Journal, XVI(2), Fall 1993, pp. 91-93.

[2]Martin Shepard, Fritz (New York: E.P. Dutton), 1975.

[3]Fritz, op. cit., p. 218.

[4]Quoted in Fritz, op. cit., p. 3.

[5]See Frederick Perls, "A Life Chronology," written in 1968 but published in The Gestalt Journal, XVI(2), Fall '93, pp. 5-9.

[6]Ibid., p. 6.

[7]Ibid., p. 8.

[8]Ibid., p. 8.

[9]Fritz Perls, Ego, Hunger and Aggression (New York: Vintage Books), 1947, p. 186.

[10]Ibid., p. 186.

[11]Ibid, p. 192.

[12]Ego, Hunger and Aggression, op. cit., p. 195.

[13]Ibid., p 206.

[14]Ibid., p. 5.

[15]Raymond J. Corsin, Ed., Encyclopedia of Psychology, Vol. 2. (New York: John Wiley & Sons), 1984, pp. 60-61.

[16]Ego, Hunger and Aggression, op. cit., p. 209.

[17]Ego, Hunger, and Aggression, op. cit., p. 205.

[18]See Chapter 14 for a critique of Reich.

[19]Ego, Hunger and Aggression, p. 229.

[20]Ego, Hunger and Aggression, op. cit., p. 235.

[21]Ibid., p. 235.

[22]Ibid, p. 203.

[23]Ego, Hunger and Aggression, op. cit., p. 239.

[24]Ego, Hunger, and Aggression, op. cit., p. 240.

[25]Ibid, p. 240.

[26]Ego, Hunger, and Aggression, op. cit., pp. 241-242.

[27]Encyclopedia of Psychology, op. cit., p. 61.

[28]Ego, Hunger, and Aggression, op. cit., p. 254.

[29]Ego, Hunger, and Aggression, op. cit., p. 272.

[30]Ego, Hunger, and Aggression, op. cit., p. 15.

[31]Frederick Perls, "A Life Chronology," op. cit., p. 5.

[32]See Jeffrey Masson, Against Therapy. (New York: Athenaeum, 1988), pp. 212-213.

[33]"A Life Chronology," op. cit., p. 5.

[34]Masson, Against Therapy, op. cit., pp. 212-213.

[35]Fritz, op. cit., pp. 119-120.

[36]Ibid., p. 120.

[37]Masson, Against Therapy, op. cit., p. 212.

[38]Stephen Perls, "Frederick Perls: A Son's Reflections." The Gestalt Journal XVI(2), Fall '93, pp. 11-22.

[39]Ibid, p. 121.

[40]Fritz, op. cit., p. 87.

[41]Ibid, p. 23.

[42]Fritz Perls, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim (Lafayette, Calif.: Real People Press), 1969, p.17.

[43]Ibid., p. 17.

[44]Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, op. cit., p. 32.

[45]Ibid, p. 36.

[46]Ibid., p. 36.

[47]Masson, Against Therapy, op. cit., p. 213.

[48]Fritz, op. cit., p. 217.

[49]Quoted by Bruce Bryant, in "In & Out of the Gestalt Pail." The Gestalt Journal XVI(2), Fall '93, pp. 45-86.

[50]Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, op. cit., p. 41.

[51]Encyclopedia of Psychology, op. cit., p. 60.

[52]Ibid., p. 60.

[53]Ibid., p. 60.

[54]Ibid, p. 42.

[55]Ibid., pp. 42-43.

[56]Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, op. cit., p. 42.

[57]W. Penfield and L. Roberts, Speech and Brain Mechanisms (Princeton, New Jersey: University Press), 1959, p. 54.

[58]Penfield, op. cit., p. 45.

[59]Ego, Hunger and Aggression, op. cit., p. 240.

[60]Fritz, op. cit., p. 165.

[61]Ibid., p. 73.

[62]Ibid., p. 214.

[63]Ernest Becker, "Growing Up Rugged: Fritz Perls and Gestalt Therapy." The Gestalt Journal, XVI(2), Fall '93, pp. 27-44.

[64]By Laura Perls, Miriam Polster, Gary Yontef and Joseph Zinker, in The Gestalt Journal, 19???, 4(1), pp. ???

[65]Ibid., p. 6.

[66]Ibid., p. 9.

[67]Gary Tyson & Lillian Range, "Depression: A Comparison Between Gestalt and Other Views." The Gestalt Journal, 4, 1981, 57-64.

[68]Joseph Melnick, "The Use of Therapist-Imposed Structure Gestalt Therapy." Gestalt Journal, 19??, 3(2), pp. 4-20.

[69]Ed Elkin, "Towards a Theory of Transpersonal Gestalt," Gestalt Journal, 19??, 2(1), pp. 79-82.

[70]Ibid., p. 80.


[72]Ibid., p. 82.

[73]Norman Friedman, "Fritz Perls's 'Layers' and the Empty Chair: A Reconsideration." The Gestalt Journal, XVI(2), Fall '93, pp. 95-118.

[74]Erving and Miriam Polster, "Frederick Perls: Legacy and Invitation." The Gestalt Journal, XVI(2), Fall '93, pp. 23-25.