AN ORAL HISTORY OF GESTALT THERAPY
PART ONE: A CONVERSATION WITH LAURA PERLS
(NOTE at Bottom of page, a LINK to 'how to do the process.'
Edward Rosenfeld, Interviewer
This landmark interview with the widow of Fritz Perls, Laura Perls
appeared in the premier issue of The Gestalt Journal.The first
comprehensive exploration of Lauraís role in the development of Gestalt
therapy, it was the first of three interviews that became ďAn Oral History
of Gestalt Therapy.ĒThe interview was conducted by Lauraís friend and
trainee, Edward Rosenfeld. It begins with Rosenfeldís introduction to the
This interview inaugurates what will be a continuing series in The Gestalt
Journal. In each issue we will be presenting conversations with the
founders, originators and developers of Gestalt therapy.
We begin, in this first issue, with a conversation with Dr. Laura Perls,
who, with her husband, Frederick S. (ďFritzí) Perls, began the development
of Gestalt therapy more than thirty years ago. Laura Perls was originally
trained in Gestalt psychology and as a psychoanalyst. She was one of the
founders of the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy.
I first met Laura in 1966. 1 went to her with a question: how can I become
a Gestalt therapist? She answered my question then, and continued to
provide advice and support over the years. In 1975, I joined her
professional training group.
When the planning began for The Gestalt Journal I wanted to find some way
to let Gestalt therapists present, in their own words, a coherent picture
of what Gestalt therapy is, how it developed and how it has grown, and who
has been involved in it. This series of interviews I hope will provide such
The bulk of this first interview is a verbatim transcript of a conversation
I had with Laura Perls on the 23rd of May, 1977.
Edward Rosenfeld: You say there is body work in addition to Gestalt
Laura Perls: This is something that I canít emphasize enough. Body work is
part of Gestalt therapy. Gestalt therapy is a holistic therapy. This means
that it takes the total organism into account, not just the voice, the
verbal, the acting out and whatever.
ER: What do you think happens when somebody tries to ďcombineĒ the
Feldenkrais approach, for example, with Gestalt therapy?
LP: They havenít understood, really, what Gestalt is. For instance, Ilana
Rubenfeld is not combining, she is integrating certain approaches that
shehas studied for a long time. She has worked with the Alexander
techniquefor twenty years and the Feldenkrais work is a kind of extension
of that. I knew the work of Feldenkrais thirty years ago and it was nothing
new to me
because my body approach in Gestalt doesnít come from Wilhelm Reich or
Moshe Feldenkrais or F. M. Alexander or J. L. Moreno or anyone, but it
comes from modern dance which Iíve been doing since I was eight years old.
ER: Do you feel that the approach to the body comes from the individual
LP: Anything that is used comes from the individual therapist. It is what
hopefully he has assimilated and integrated so that it has become a part of
his background, something that he can rely on; and from the ongoing
awareness in the therapeutic situation. Different therapists work with very
different approaches. Isadore From doesnít use much of a body approach. He
came from philosophy originally, so thatís what he moves from or what moves
ER: Do you think it is a mistake when people study Reichian technique or
study the other approaches to the body?
LP: I donít think itís a mistake if they can really, fully assimilate
it.But to just take a workshop here and a workshop there and then say they
combine it, that is just not good enough. Itís not an integration.
ER: Letís talk about assimilation.
LP: This really is how Gestalt started, originally in South Africa. It
started from the concept of resistance which was always understood in
psychoanalysis as an anal feature. Then Fritz Perls wrote a paper for a
psychoanalytical conference held in Czechoslovakia in 1936, titled ďOral
ResistancesĒ. That paper was originally based on some research that I had
done earlier, in Berlin, when my child was born: the methods of feeding and
ER: Were you already a psychologist when you were living in Berlin?
LP: I had a doctorate in psychology and I was trained in psychoanalysis; I
had my analysis behind me already. I still trained at the Berlin Institute
and, later, in Amsterdam. I was first a Gestaltist and then become an
analyst. Fritz was an analyst first and then came to Gestalt and never
quite got into it.
ER: Was the Gestalt psychological approach then basically perceptual? Were
you interested in working experimentally?
LP: It was expanded through the work of Kurt Goldstein into a whole
organismic approach. Fritz had worked with Goldstein and so had I. Fritz
was an assistant of his for a few months and I was his student for a number
of years. I did a lot of experimental work at the Institute for
ER: Letís go back to the research that you were doing that led to Fritzís
paper on oral resistances.
LP: I was mainly interested in the methods of feeding and weaning because
my experiences right from the hospital and what I had read about the
feeding of children were very unsatisfactory to me. The way things are
stuffed into little kids. The feeding is... it leads to introjection. They
are not allowed enough time to chew.
ER: What about infants, breast-feeding and weaning?
LP: Weaning is often done very early or very late; and the foods that
children get first are completely mashed and mealy. Mothers are very
impatient. Children drink the food instead of learning to chew. Chewing
takes time and patience and an awareness of what one is chewing. I pay a
lot of attention to the way people eat. I concentrate on the detailed
activities of doing something: chewing as well as studying, putting on
oneís clothing, having a bath or walking in the street. Minute work.
ER: Do you see a connection between assimilation and patience?
LP: Between assimilation and taking time. Drinking doesnít take any
time.You swallow immediately without any intermediate process. The eating
process is an awaress process.
ER: In essence the beginning of Gestalt therapy comes in terms of eating:
it grew up around the whole concept of how we eat.
LP: How we eat, get hold of something and make it assimilable.
ER: The way in which we focus on it, break it down, deal with the different
LP: The taste of it, the texture of it, the way it goes. When you swallow
the unchewed it lies heavy in your stomach. Either you feel like repeating
it or it passes through in an undigested way.
ER: How did this differ from what were then, the current psychoanalytic
LP: Psychoanalytic theory, I think, identifies assimilation and
ER: Were the psychoanalysts discussing all the resistances, in addition to
the anal ones?
LP: I think Freud said that development takes place through introjections,
but if it remains introjection and goes no further, then it becomes a
block; it becomes identification. Introjection is to a great extent
unawares. And actually what we see with every patient is that they imitate
consciously, and with awareness, what they admire and what they like, but
they introject, unawares, what they canít stomach in any other way.
ER: But yet they feel they need, even if unawares...
LP: They donít even feel that with awareness, they donít really feel it.But
what it does is that it avoids the external conflict and leads to the
identification with the disagreeable features of father or mother or
whoever teaches. It avoids the external conflict but sets up an internal
one which becomes a block.
ER: What I donít understand is what was so radical about Fritzís new theory
of resistances. Iíve been re-reading Ego, Hunger and Aggression, and...
LP: What do you find radical?
ER: Itís not so radical for me because I donít come out of the Freudian
background. in addition to reading Ego, Hunger and Aggression, Iíve been
re-reading "In and Out the Garbage Pail" and trying to get some sense of
how Gestalt therapy developed. What I keep seeing is that the basic
background is Freudian psychoanalysis; in addition to Gestalt psychology,
but psychoanalysis was the pervasive psychological weltanschuanng.
LP: Actually in the beginning, when Ego, Hunger and Aggression was written,
we still called ourselves psychoanalysts, but revisionists.
ER: Right. Ego, Hunger and Aggression was subtitled: ďA Revision of Freudís
Theory and Method.Ē But what I donít understand as being so radical is the
paper: ďOral ResistancesĒ and the material about the assimilation of the
introject and so forth. Was all this so foreign to the Freudian ear of
LP: Yes. It flew in the face of their resistance theory: anal development.
We also rejected the libido theory,
ER: The message I got from Fritzís recounting of those times was that he
went to the 1936 Czech conference feeling that whatever he had worked out
was a contribution to psychoanalysis and that he would become a greater
LP: He was pretty much rejected there, apart from one or two people. One
was my former analyst who we were friendly with. His name was Karl Landauer
and he was killed by the Nazis, thatís why nobody knows him. He started the
Frankfurt Psychoanalytic Institute with Frieda Fromm-Reichman and Heinrich
Meng. They were my first teachers. Landauer was my analyst and Frieda was
my first teacher in psychoanalysis.
ER: You went through a thorough analysis as part of your training?
LP: Two and one-half years, every day.
ER: And at the same time you were working with the Gestalt psychologists?
You were working with Goldstein?
LP: At the same time. It was very contradictory and I got awfully confused
to the extent that I nearly went to sleep, like Pavlovís double-conditioned
ER: It was too much.
LP: Yes. Somehow it didnít go together. They went against each other to
quite an extent; and it takes a lifetime to integrate.
ER: Were you still working with Landauer when you went to Amsterdam?
LP: No. I had finished my analysis in 1928 or 1929 and I got married in
1930. Landauer was our friend, later, in Amsterdam.
ER: Did you have a practice when you went to South Africa?
LP: In Berlin I had just started my practice; I had a few patients. I was
still under supervision with Otto Fenichel. He was a great writer and
theorist but a lousy teacher! He didnít say anything at all. It was wasted
time and wasted money. He just sat there and listened to my report and
apparently agreed with most of it; and he said nothing.
ER: When you went to South Africa, I know Fritz started a practice...
LP: I started after three months because I didnít speak English.
ER: And Fritz did?
LP: Fritz had been in America already. Inflation you know, 1923-1924,
inflation caused him to leave Germany and he went to America. He thought he
would stay but he didnít like it then. It was just too crude for him at
that point. He come from Berlin which was at that time really the European
center of cultural development: everything, Max Reinhardt, Brecht, Kurt
Weil, the Bauhaus, great writers.
ER: Once you had started to learn some English you started your practice in
South Africa; whose idea was it to set up a psychoanalytic institute? Was
that decided before you went there?
LP: That is really the purpose that we went there for. We were sent out by
the International Association, by Ernest Jones who was the president at
that time. He got us to South Africa, he was the man who had applied for
someone to go there. He was at first very friendly and very helpful. But
then he went to the Lucern conference in 1938, and a stink was made and it
was decided that nobody who was not already in Europe, as a trainer, could
be a trainer or teacher anywhere else. So we had to give up our training
institute in South Africa. But by that point we had such an established
practice there. It was during the war. I worked ten to thirteen hours a
day, six days a week and sometimes on Sunday. I was in my thirties and
early forties and I was very energetic then. Once I came into the kitchen,
by 8 oíclock at night and said to the maid: ďI am completely pooped.Ē She
answered: ďWhat do you do? You sit and talk!Ē By then already, in the late
1930ís, I paid a lot of attention not only to what people said and to
interpretation, but to their breathing and their co-ordination. I started
doing body work and sitting opposite my patients. At that time Fritz was
still addicted to the couch and never quite got rid of it. But I never used
it again. If I wanted someone to lie down I had them lie on the floor
because that was much more even support and we could do certain experiments
with co-ordination and alignment.
ER: What was the reaction of your patients when you sat face to face with
them? Werenít they coming into therapy expecting a typical psychoanalyst?
LP: They didnít know anything.
ER: They didnít? So it was more of a naive group.
LP: Much more. And there were others that were very interested and they
welcomed it. Actually, while I was sitting behind the patient I knitted;
because otherwise I would have had to smoke cigarettes, like Fritz did. I
smoked very little, not even half a pack a day and I gave it up, already,
some fifteen years ago. But Fritz smoked two, three, four packs a day.
ER: I remember: the hand and the cigarette.
LP: I think he could have lived ten years longer if he hadnít smoked.
ER: Thereís a section in Garbage Pail where he says something like: ďWhat I
really should be writing about is my problem with smoking; thatís my real
LP: Itís a problem of settling aggressive energy; muscular energy, thatís
what nicotine does.
ER: It settles the aggressive energy?
LP: It interferes with the muscle tone; it reduces the muscle tone. One
smokes a peace pipe.
ER: When Fritz returned from the rejection of the 1936 Czech conference,
did you then start working more actively together trying to evolve a new
therapy, or was it more gradual?
LP: We continued discussing things. Then Fritz went into the army, from
1942 to 1946 and he had time to write. He come home mostly every week-end
and later at least once or twice a month. He started to put things
together. But we had a friend who helped us a lot with the English. Fritzís
English, in spite of getting started earlier, was pretty atrocious. My
pronunciation was always worse, his was better. The north Germans can speak
English better than the south Germans.
ER: Where in south Germany are you from?
LP: I am from Baden. We speak French better, our pronunciation in French is
ER: So someone helped Fritz with the English...
LP: We had a friend who helped with the writing. He was a writer, an
historian and a very bright guy, a friend of ours.
ER: Do you remember his name?
LP: He was a Dutchman. His name was Hugo Posturnys. The name he was known
under was Jumbo.
ER: What made you leave South Africa?
LP: Several reasons. Partly political. Because Jan Smuts (then Prime
Minister of South Africa, author of ďHolism and Evolution) was retiring and
a young man of about forty-three, a very brilliant guy, a wunderkind, who
was supposed to succeed him, suddenly died of a heart attack and there was
no one who was in the Union party, which was the democratic party, to have
a chance to be elected. We knew what would be coming because the
nationalists had been working all along. They were pretty well organized
and we wanted to leave before the 1948 elections. Fritz left in 1946 and I
left in 1947.
ER: Were there friends here who drew you to New York City?
LP: No. No. Nothing. We had already applied for immigration before we went
to South Africa but the quota for the U.S. was filled and we couldnít get
in. We had an affidavit from Dr. Brill who was the president of the
American Psychoanalytic Association.
ER: And that enabled you to enter this country?
LP: No. Later on we got another affidavit from Karen Horney, whom Fritz
worked with for a short time before she come to America. He worked with her
first and then with Wilhelm Reich.
ER: He mentions her advice in one of his books: ďThe only one who could
help you is Wilhelm Reich.Ē
LP: Yes. Yes!
ER: So it was through Karen Horney that you come to America?
LP: My brother was here already and he guaranteed for us, but he had just
started his own business. My brother started here with ten marks in his
pocket as a Fuller brush man, going from cloor-to-cloor. Now he has made it
ER: Were you already in America when Ego, Hunger and Aggression was
LP: No. It was published first in South Africa, before it was published in
England. Then for a long time it was not published here, not until Fritz
was out at Esalen when it was published by Orbit Graphic Press. Then it was
re-published by Random House,
ER: So it came out first in South Africa and that was while you were still
ER: What were the reactions to those ideas in South Africa?
LP: The people who understood anything about it at all were the people that
we had been working with. They did write-ups in the newspapers that were
very favorable and the book was taken up quite eagerly by Allen & Unwin in
England. But it didnít go well in England and they didnít re-publish later.
ER: Did you train people in South Africa? Did Fritz?
LP: We started to train people but then we werenít allowed to anymore
because of the decision, by the psychoanalytic association (which we were
still members of), to restrict training to those who were already trainers
ER: Were you calling it concentration therapy then? ( Meaning intense
LP: Then we were still calling it psychoanalysis. Even when we come to New
York; I found some old stationery where we had both of our names on it as
psychoanalysts. We changed it really with the publication of the book
Gestalt Therapy, in 1950.
ER: You came to America and settled on the upper West Side of New York
LP: Fritz was here already a year before. And he was, for six months, in
Canada before he could get his permanent residence visa. He visited my
brother; they invited him and he stayed with them for three weeks, which
was a disaster. They advised him not to settle in New York because there
was too much competition. They had no idea of our professional potential.
ER: I suppose the fear was that you would be lost in the crowd of all the
analysts in New York.
LP: So he started in New Haven and that was about the worst thing he could
have done. At that time the chair for psychiatry was vacant at Yale and
everybody thought that he was after it. So there was a kind of concerted
front against him.
ER: Did he get involved in academic politics?
LP: He didnít get involved because he...
ER: They cut him out?
LP: You know Fritz either had to be accepted or he was devastated. He was
just at the point of coming back to South Africa when he visited New York
for a few days and spoke to Erich Fromm. Fromm said: ďI donít know why you
donít come here. I guarantee you that in three months youíl I have a
practice.Ē In three weeks he had a practice.
ER: So he had a practice by the time you came over.
LP: He had a practice and was very busy already, I brought the children and
started working immediately because Fritz couldnít accept anyone anymore.We
got patients through the William Alanson White Institute at that time.Fritz
got friendly with Clara Thompson and she sent a lot of people. The White
Institute wanted him as a training analyst, but they wanted him to go back
to medical school and get his medical degree here in the States because his
European degree was not valid here. But Fritz was in his early fifties
already and he didnít want to go to school anymore. At that point, when one
goes to school, one goes as a teacher, not as a student. And it wasnít
really necessary. Then we made contact with Paul Goodman, who had a very
Reichian orientation at that time: he was in a Reichian analysis. And we
made contact with lots of others, people like Dwight McDonald and other
writers and artists.
ER: Who do you remember from that circle? Was Erich Fromm one of the people
you continued to be in contact with?
LP: No. No, we got patients, actually trainees, from the White Institute,
people whose training therapy they couldnít complete. I remember
particularly two with whom I worked who later were accepted as members of
the White Institute. One is someone who died lost year, who headed a school
for schizophrenic children who at that time was a teacher at Kings County
and Elliott Shapiro was his principal. A whole line of people came to us
through Elliott. Elliott gave the first training in Gestalt therapy for
ER: How did Paul Weiss become involved?
LP: That was, I think, through his wife, who was a psychiatrist of Bellevue
and was working with Fritz. He became a patient of Fritzís and then later
worked mostly with me. Then whole chains of people came from Bellevue and
from Kings County, from the Veterans Administration Hospital and from
Columbia. Richard Kitzler came from Columbia; he was the psychologist for
the Columbia psychiatrist who worked with Fritz, too. That was Dr. Montague
who died early.
ER: Where did Isadore From come in? (NOTE: HIS INTERVIEW HERE, BIO DETAILS
of interest, here. )
LP: Isadore come as a patient and I worked with him for a number of years.
ER: Did you have contact with any of the Gestalt psychology people who were
at the New School?
LP: They rejected us completely...
ER: Was this after the publication of Gestalt Therapy or beforehand?
LP: Before we didnít know them and afterwards they rejected us.
ER: Just because you use the word ĎGestaltí?
LP: They felt that ĎGestaltí was their domain and that it was mainly
confined to perceptual psychology, which I had worked with a lot in the
past. My doctorate was in visual perception.
ER: When you come to America and Fritz was already here, were you both
working with the idea that you were developing something new? Was that in
LP: That was in the air because Ego, Hunger, and Aggression had been
published already and some people got interested in it. Then Gestalt
Therapy was published. When we started the New York Institute for Gestalt
Therapy forty people appeared for our first course given in America.
ER: How did that book, Gestalt Therapy, come about?
LP: First there was a manuscript that Fritz had already written, he had
been working on it. I had been working on it, too, but at that point I was
satisfied to leave the glory to him. In Ego, Hunger and Aggression there
are at least two chapters which I wrote completely: the chapters on the
dummy complex and the one on insomnia. He gave me credit in the first
introduction to Ego, Hunger, and Aggression but that credit was removed
when Random House republished it. A friend wrote to Random House requesting
that they re-insert the original introduction in any new edition of Ego,
Hunger, and Aggression but they refused.
ER: That credit is still in the introduction in the Orbit Graphic Press
edition of Ego, Hunger and Aggression. So Fritz had a manuscript, that you
both had been working on, which extended the ideas about introjection,
projection, retroflection and confluence.
LP: Yes. Mainly the existential orientation. Actually when we first started
we wanted to call it ĎExistential therapyí, but then existentialism was so
much identified with Sartre, with the nihilistic approach, that we looked
for another name. I thought that with Gestalt therapy, with the word
ĎGestaltí, we could get into difficulties. But that criticism was rejected
by Fritz and Paul.
ER: Paul Goodman?
ILP: Yes. Paul was originally hired as an editor, but then he contributed
so much, particularly to the second part, which without him would never
have become a coherent theory, that Paul become a co-author.
ER: Was Richard Kitzler responsible for the connection to Ralph Hefferline
ER: How did Hefferline come into the picture? (Click on URL)
LP: He came as a client.
ER: Did he want to do the experiments with the students at Columbia?
LP: He was interested ... and he did the experiments at Columbia and then
became a co-outhor with Fritz and Paul. But he never really become a member
of the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy. He did one or two seperate
lectures by invitation but he did not become a part of the on-going
teaching and training process.
ER: Was the Institute already established when the work started on what was
to become the book, Gestalt Therapy?
LP: No. No, the Institute was started as a result of the publication of
Gestalt Therapy. In 1952 the Institute started and in 1953 the Cleveland
Institute for Gestalt Therapy started. We gave a ten-day intensive course
at the end of 1952 or early 1953, and people from outside the city come and
three people from Cleveland attended. They then started a Gestalt group
there and Fritz and Paul Weiss and I and Paul Goodman went to Cleveland,
more or less regularly. Then Isadore From went there for six or seven
years, once or twice a month for four days at a time and trained everybody,
individually and in group.
ER: Was Arthur Ceppos (of Julian Press, the original publisher of Gestalt
Therapy) a patient?
LP: No, he was not a patient. He come to a group for a while. His then girl
friend was a therapist and she come into group and into therapy.
ER: How did he become interested in the project?
LP: He was always after new things. I donít know how that started. Those
negotiations were between Fritz and Art Ceppos.
ER: Iíve heard that what is now part two, the theoretical part, was
originally supposed to be the first part.
LP: Ceppos counteradvised because at that time the Ďhow-toí books were in
vogue. He felt it would help the sale of the book if we changed it
around.But for anyone who is a serious student of Gestalt therapy, the
second part is really a theoretical and methodological introduction, while
the other part is really experiments and practical work.
ER: Fritz mentions in Garbage Pail that he discussed ideas with Paul Weiss.
LP: Paul Weiss had a brilliant mind and was highly educated and very
critical. Fritz liked to talk to him on occassion, but ongoingly he
wouldnít have been able to cope with him. Fritz never could cope with peers
for a long time. Actually we started drifting apart when I became a peer in
experience and got a growing reputation as a therapist. I stuck it out in
New York. Fritz could never have stayed in New York. There was too much
competition and criticism and Fritz felt devastated by the slightest
criticism. Paul Weiss was very critical.
ER: Were you both, you and Fritz, interested in existential philosophy
LP: Oh, certainly. it was part of my academic education. I worked for many
years with Paul Tillich. As a student I read Kierkegaard and Heidegger;
also the phenomenologists: Husserl and Scheler.
ER: What happened once Gestalt Therapy was published? Was it well received?
LP: It had a mixed reception. Actually Arthur Ceppos said at that time that
the book would go very slowly in the beginning and in ten years would
become a classic and he was right.
ER: Then what happened in the development of Gestalt therapy? Did you stay
here in New York with the Ďpeersí? With Paul Weiss, Paul Goodman and
LP: Actually, that was my first therapy group: It was Paul Weiss, Paul
Goodman, Elliott Shapiro and two artists. It was the first group I ever
worked with. I was scared at first. I had never taught before and I had
never worked with groups. I was a private person always. I have been going
much more public, since then, but still a lot of time for and by myself.
ER: Do you think that Gestalt therapy has changed much since those days in
the early 1950ís?
LP: The change is with everybody who practices it. Gestalt therapy has
penetrated into all kinds of other set-ups. It has certainly become part of
the program at professional schools everywhere. On the West coast it is
probably the dominant therapy. Here, on the East coast, it is probably on a
par with behaviorism, which is the other approach that is in the forefront.
ER: Has anything happened to Gestalt therapy in terms of theory, the
methodological background, since that very exciting period a quarter of a
LP: Gestalt therapy was conceived as a comprehensive, organismic
approach.But later on, particularly in the West, but in the East, too, it
become identified mostly with what Fritz did at the time. It become very
well-known in the last five years of his life when he was predominantly
using his hot-seat method. That method is fine for demonstration workshops,
but you canít carry on a whole therapy that way; yet people do. I think
they are limiting themselves and doing a lot of harm.
ER: What do you think made Fritz say that individual therapy was obsolete?
LP: Because it was obsolete for him. He couldnít be bothered anymore. But
donít forget that the people that he worked with in his last years were
only professional people, most of whom had their own therapies already and
were already active in the profession. You can work differently with those
groups than you can work with a patient group, particularly with very sick
Until three years ago I worked with a lot of patients, not just
training.But now I do only training. Itís getting too much. Iíve done
individual therapy and group therapy for forty years plus and thatís
enough. Thereís not enough coming back from the work with the patients for
ER: Is training more fulfilling?
LP: Itís more interesting with different people and with very accomplished
people. I work a lot in Europe and that is different than working with
ER: Youíve been on sabatical for the past year. What have you been doing?
LP: Very little that can be talked about. I did a lot of things for
myself.A lot of reading, lots of music.
ER: What have you been reading thatís been interesting? Whatís been turning
LP: Iíve been re-reading Nietzsche; and Iíve been reading whole books
again, as opposed to just dipping in and reading magazines, professional
and otherwise. Iíve read in the last fifteen years mainly literary
magazines, like The New York Review of Books. But now Iím reading the
literature and a lot of new poetry. Iíve been going through things that
Iíve written ovr the years, published and unpublished, mostly unpublished,
and trying to make something of it. But itís more in my head, still, than
it is on paper.
ER: Would you like to produce a book out of all these materials?
LP: Thatís what Iím asked to do. If I produce anything it will be two
books: one a collection of articles, published ones and unpublished ones,
and I may write one or two more that I am interested in at the moment. Iím
mostly asked for a kind of autobiography, but I canít write a
straight-forward autobiography, just the facts, it bores me.
ER: Do you have another approach?
LP: Iíve had an approach for many years already. I started in the 1940ís
writing stories; they were mostly taken off from relevant experiences in my
youth and life.
ER: Are you writing more stories or going back to the ones youíve already
LP: Iím going through them again and, of course, they have to be connected
in some way so that it will end up being a blend of truth and fiction. A
myth is always truer than the facts: itís an integration of experiences.
ER: How do you see Gestalt therapy today?
LP: Oh, it is in many ways blossoming. In many ways I have a lot of
reservations because whatís been done with it is the same thing that has
been done with psychoanalysis and other approaches which have become more
well known and popular. It has become simplif ied and falsified and
distorted and misrepresented. A lot of the work that Iím doing now,
wherever I give a workshop or work with people in Gestalt, is really to
emphasize that and confront them with what I think is important.
ER: For instance...
LP: Important is the ongoing Gestalt formation. And to take the patient, or
whoever you are working with, where they are not imposing on them certain
methods; that is an encounter therapy. Gestalt therapy, in the true sense,
is not an encounter therapy.
ER: But it is moment to moment.
LP: It is moment to moment and acknowledges whatever comes up from the past
as a memory which you are having now and therefore must have some
significance now. Then we can interpolate between the past and what is now.
ER: But doesnít encounter, from its roots in T-groups onward, lean very
heavily on Gestalt and some of the other existential psychotherapies in
terms of the present tense orientation. ...And yet youíre saying...
LP: Yes, but to a very great extent they have a very fixed method of
confronting which I think is a mistake and if itís applied in Gestalt then
itís not really Gestalt.
ER: But there is a methodology in Gestalt therapy. Isnít there an informing
background that as a Gestalt therapist Iím always using?
LP: As a Gestalt therapist: Gestalt therapy is existential, experiential
and experimental. But what techniques you use to implement that and to
apply it, that depends to the greatest extent on your background, on your
experiences professionally, in life, your skills and whatever. The Gestalt
therapist uses himself and herself with whatever they have got and whatever
seems to apply, at the time, to the actual situation: a patient, a group, a
ER: Iíve been in training with you and with Isadore From and the things
that have come up for me, what I call the informing background of the
therapeutic work I do, are methodological and theoretical concerns: like
the contact boundary, the how of contact.
LP: Experience is on the boundary. Within the boundaries there is to a
great extent unawareness and confluence. If you go too quickly beyond the
boundary you may feel unsupported, actually, thatís what I work with: a
concept and experience of contact and support. Certain supports are
necessary and essential. Other supports are, well, desirable and possibly
usable. The lack of essential support always results in anxiety. That is
actually what anxiety is.
ER: A lack of essential supports...
LP: Trying to make contact for which the essential support is locking. You
see, usually anxiety is interpreted as lack of oxygen. But that is a
secondary thing already. Itís just one of the supports that may be missing;
or that even is actually mobilized when an essential support is missing; in
order to withdraw and play possum. An infant, for instance, feels anxious
when it is not held secure. You may feel great anxiety when you are hungry
and your body isnít functioning properly.
ER: What about concepts like confluence, projection, introjection and
retroflection; for example, when I see a client biting his lip. These are
the concepts that I see missing in encounter-oriented or demonstration
style Gestalt therapy.
LP: They do not go into the details of when and how a person is unable to I
ive on the boundary. Without a clear boundary experience the person is open
to introjection and projection.
ER: So the projection and introjection grow out of a lack of what you are
calling the essential supports. Through the development of anxiety we then
try to gobble up something whole or screen it away from us, project it on
to someone or something else.
LP: Well, introjection always occurs when you are confronted too quickly
with something that you canít cope with and assimilate. Either you reject
it and withdraw from it or you introject it. What happens mostly in schools
is a lot of stuff is presented in a way in which it is expected to be
repeated on the exam. People swallow it whole and spew it out on the exam
and are rid of it forever after. Iíve never seen people who after having
learned so much and stayed in school for so many years know so very little
as here in this country; itís ghastly.
ER: Do you think as an intellectual viewpoint, as a way of looking at the
world and looking at what goes on in the world of ideas, that Gestalt is a
valid, descriptive metaphor: an analogue for what happens.
LP: Gestalt is an aesthetic concept. Mainly Gestalt is an aesthetic
concept, but Kohler used it in connection with field theory which
originally is an idea from physics, a physical theory. Kohler was, I think,
originally a physicist.
ER: Yes. He studied field theory with Max Planck before he did the Gestalt
psychology work with Max Wertheimer and Kurt Koffka.
LP: That Greek word for awareness, aisthanomai, ĎI am awareí, the root for
aesthetics, that word is a medium form between active and passive.
ER: In the mystical sense, like the space between breathing in and
breathing out. The awareness.
LP: Goldstein, in The Organism, and much earlier, maintains that sensing is
an active process; itís not just receiving the impression.
ER: Isnít that the whole point of Gestalt formation?
LP: Exactly, certainly...
ER: We do make choices, whether awares or unawares. We make a choice in
ER: ... of what is dominant for us.
LP: What becomes figure is what is of greatest interest for the organism at
the time. And then, of course, always, how the figure relates to its
background. Because that is what gives it meaning. If it doesnít relate
then we say itís meaningless, itís senseless, itís bizarre. But sometimes
itís the lack of background in the therapist that causes that, when he
calls something bizarre or meaningless that is very meaningful to the
patient. It is clesireable that the therapist have more awareness and
experience than the patient and more knowledge. If you have a very well
educated, erudite patient and you know nothing, or almost nothing, beyond
your professional stuff, you canít cope.
ER: Have you had experiences like that?
LP: Very little. Iíve learned from my patients. But I have a very wide
background, compared with many of the people here I have probably a wider
and deeper educational background than most of them.
ER: The dance and the music...
LP: An all-around education. I went to a humanistic gymnasium; I had nine
years of Latin and six of Greek. I can still read Greek.
ER: We donít do that anymore; we donít have the depth.
LP: Everything starts too late and when you want it, then you donít get it
anymore. You get it shoved in very quickly and then you donít understand
ER: So an essential part of being a good therapist is your own
self-development; your own extension out into the world.
LP: Thatís why we ask at least a decent therapy and group experience from
our own therapists, It was always asked for in psychoanalysis that you have
your own analysis and have worked through your main hang-ups. At least know
where they are and be able to cope with them. But, beyond their
professional background, I see in a lot of therapists that they know
nothing, really. They know nothing of history, they know nothing of
philosophy. It is what we call the humanities, let alone the classics which
are partly coinciding with the humanities. We read Aristotle already in
Greek in high school so when we graduated from the gymnasium we already had
what would amount to a B.A. in classics here in America.
EIR: What that reminds me of is the Aristotelian orientation of the second
part, Paul Goodmanís part of the book, Gestalt Therapy. Why is that part of
the book so difficult?
LP: Is it? ... It isnít written for uneducated people. Itís written for
professional people. It is not written for everybody.
ER: Iím asking the question as a Ďdevilís advocateí because Iíve now been
through it several times in Isadoreís theory group and I have a totally
different perspective on it than when I first tried to read it, some twelve
LP: You donít get it by just reading through it quickly.
LP: You canít take it; you canít introject it; itís quite indigestible.
ER: Was it specifically designed that way?
LP: No. It was just Paulís way of writing.
ER: Most people find it so difficult that it puts them off and they feel
that thereís nothing there or itís too complicated.
LP: They just havenít got the teeth, and itís unfortunate. Itís not written
for high school kids and most people donít get much beyond their general
education. They get immediately into some type of specialty thing which
remains very narrow. I think particularly as a psychologist or a therapist
you have to have a wider background. Psychotherapy is as much an art as it
is a science. The intuition and immediacy of the artist are as necessary
for the good therapist as a scientific education.
ER: What would you like to see happen in Gestalt therapy?
LP: I couldnít even say what I would like to have happen. Itís anticipating
and itís pure fantasy. What I would like to happen really is that people
get better training in Gestalt therapy then most of them are getting
now.They think itís something that one can pick up in a weekís workshop or
a few weekends or something like that; and you canít. To become aware of
your own process, let alone in others, and to in some way facilitate that:
it takes time. Again itís biting and chewing it through. People mostly now
swallow what they find intriguing in it and then they put it around and
start training other people, not really knowing themselves what Gestalt
really is, and what the word even means.
ER: Are you unhappy that the name stuck?
LP: No, because itís a very comprehensive thing. I wrote my approach to
Gestalt in my chapter in Edward Smithís book, The Growing Edge of Gestalt
Therapy. These are mainly the concepts that are important to
me.Intrajection and projection, they are really subject to the boundary
concept in Gestalt therapy.
ER: Do you have more to say? Iím feeling complete about this interview at
LP: There is not much I want to say... What I would like to do is work that
out more systematically...
ER: The contact and support functions?
LP: And how other concepts, which are already current in Gestalt fit into
it. The contact/support concept is a Gestalt concept. Contact is always in
the foreground and can fully become Gestalt and part of the ongoing Gestalt
formation only when the support is ongoingly available.
ER: Arenít we back to where we started with resistance? Arenít the
resistances what interrupt the contact?
LP: Resistances are what interrupt the contact and I would rather call it
blocks. Resistances are fixed Gestalten. A block is a fixed Gestalt; an
obsession is a fixed Gestalt. It becomes a block in the ongoing
development. There is always a repitition in obsession of something that
the patient doesnít get beyond.
ER: In that sense: is character bad? I think of character as fixed elements
of personal style.
LIP: If you read Character Analysis by Wilhelm Reich you know the character
is a fixed formation and that it stands in place of the ongoing awareness,
and, in that sense, blocks it. As a character you simply exclude certain
awarenesses and certain confusions: you bypass certain experiences.
ER: True, but isnít part of that fixed formation a personal style that
serves as a support for our way of being-in-the-world?
LP: But style is also something that changes, it is also subject to
change.Style is really the expression of the self-development as it has
happened up to that point. Hopefully the self is continually developing.
The self is the integrating and integrated instance of the person while the
ego is the boundary function, the temporary contact function.
ER: So when youíre working with someone youíre looking for the personís
ability to free up some of the blocks-to take a risk.
LP: First to become aware of how they block, because itís still an
acitivity, even if it has become automatic. Therapy is to cle-automatize
ER: First itís the awareness.
LP: Yes. First comes the awareness and then the de-automatizing and
bringing it more into the foreground, exaggerating it, and out of that
develops experimentation in different directions. These are the things I am
working with in any workshop anywhere. My trainees are pretty much aware of
the essentials. If we canít facilitate and donít facilitate the ongoing
Gestalt formation, but take Gestalt therapy as a fixed method or fixed
compulation of techniques, then weíre dead. Itís not Gestalt.
ER: Which goes back to what you were saying about the individual therapist
bringing whatever he or she has...
LP: And every patient bringing what he or she has ... and finding what will
be possible to do with that in the actual therapeutic situation. Of course,
that goes further: any re)evant communication is, or can be, therapeutic in
any situation. It makes a relevant change, relevant to the ongoing
development which is not necessarily getting better or getting more or
getting worse, but changing. Life is change. Once you stop changing youíre
ER: Iím writing a book about economics and there is a line in the book:
ďThings werenít better; things arenít better now and things will not be
better in the future. Things just are.Ē
LP: Things are and they may become different. Of course at any particular
moment we may be interested in particular changes which we want to make at
that point. Then again we have to see: how is that possible; what is
ER: In the present situation?
LP: We can only deal with what is available in the present situation and
what is possible to do with what is available.
ER: One other thing occurs to me: When Freud died a lot of people felt
there was a kind of scurrying around for who was going to get the ring on
the merry-go-round: who would be the new head of psychoanalysis. Recently I
read a quote from the book Growth Psychology, in the chapter on Gestalt
therapy, that went something like this: ďSince Fritz Perls has died, there
seems to be no one who has come to take the mantle, to be the leader of
Gestalt therapy.Ē Do you think a leader is necessary? Do you think we...
LP: I think we need many good people. I think just the leader also becomes
ER: In terms of people imitating a leaderís style and taking that style as
the whole thing?
LP: Thatís right. Fritzís style was imitated just in the last few years
when he had narrowed it down to something he fell back on, that he had most
available from earlier on. Fritz was in theater long before he did anything
else. He wanted to be a theater director.
ER: A lot of hot seat work is like directing.
LP: But he also did it informed by fifty years of professional experience,
which wasnít only theater. He could spot immediately people whom he could
work with and people whom he knew he couldnít work with or it would be
dangerous. But people who just imitate him, they are not that insightful
and they often do harm; sometimes there are psychotic breaks. There are the
great miracles that either die away again and not much remains of them or
the so-called quick breakthrough makes for a real break.
ER: In Garbage Pail and Gestalt Therapy Verbatim Fritz is constantly
denouncing the instant cure. I read into that that he was having second
thoughts about what he brought about at Esalen and how dangerous it seemed
to him; what he calls the joy-boys and the miracle people.
LP: That example is quite right. I feel suspicious about all the instant
things: instant contact, instant intimacy, instant sex, instant something
or other, instant joy. Joy is a byproduct. Happiness is a byproduct of good
functioning. But suffering is also a part of creative living and working;
itís not only a curse. I have written some thirty years ago, over thirty
years ago, a long article on the reinterpretation of suffering, from
biblical times on.
ER: Will I that be part of one of your new books?
LP: Yes, I think so.
ER: Good. There is a section in Paul Goodmanís novel, The Empire City, that
Erving and Mirium Polster quote at the start of their book, Gestalt Therapy
Integrated, where the protagonist is experiencing giving up the necessity
of being totally happy:
ďSoon he was softly breathing the no-geography of being at a loss. He
tasted the elixir of being at a loss, when anything that occurs must
necessarily be a surprise. He could no longer make any sense of his own
essential things (that had never made him happy); he could feel them
fleeing away from him; yet he did not snatch at them in despair. Instead he
touched his body and looked around and felt, ĎHere I am and now,íand did
not become panicky.Ē He has the courage to go on to the next moment.
LP: You can go on from there.
ER: And know that there will be suffering, that there will be pleasure, but
that Iím present, in the moment.
LP: Also, there is a certain satisfaction and maybe even momentary
happiness in having lived through and overcome certain suffering during the
process of development. Coping. But thatís temporary and the pursuit of
happiness, per se, even if itís written in the constitution, itís a very
illegitimate pursuit, itís incidental.
The Historical Roots of Gestalt Therapy Theory
The theory of Gestalt therapy is itself a new Gestalt, though it does not
contain many new thoughts. What its founders, Fritz and Laura Perls and
Paul Goodman, did was to weave a new synthesis out of existing concepts.
The background of this new Gestalt is composed of concepts and elements
from different bodies of knowledge and disciplines.
I would like to give you an idea of the cultural and historical situation
that is the Zeitgeist (the spirit of the time) that prevailed during the
lifetimes of the founders of Gestalt therapy.
What kind of theories and traditions did Fritz and Laura come into contact
with? Where did they find ideas that were in line with their own, what
other ideas did they reject in their search for answers to the fundamental
questions that are either implicitly or explicitly contained in every
theory of psychotherapy?
What is a human being? How does he or she function? Why do we exist? Is
there a reason to exist? How should we behave toward each other? How does
psychological illness develop?
Firstly the background: the wider field, an overview of the Zeitgeist. In
the second part, I will present the various contacts Fritz and Laura Perls
had with specific persons and their ideas or theoretical models.
The beginning of the 20th century was characterized by an explosive
development of science and technology. The era of automation and
cybernetics had begun. The rise of nuclear and quantum physics led to
radical revolutionary change. Biology, chemistry and medicine also began to
make rapid progress. Revolutionary elements emerged in political
thinking.Socialism, Marxism and also anarchism grew into sizeable
In a similar manner to the changes in science, a search also began in arts
and literature for new forms of expression. Expressionism at this time
represented a reaction to the old, outdated bourgeois norms and the naive
belief in progress. The catastrophes brought about by the First World War,
the destruction of humanity, were only too evident and too
recent.Expressionists (for example painters/artists Van Gogh,
Toulouse-Lautrec, Munch and Otto Dix, who incidentally painted a portrait
of Fritz Perls) were trying to create a new vision of the human being, one
determined by social responsibility and compassion for others. Creative art
was seen as evolving out of immediate inner experiencing and emotional
dynamics. The basic themes of expressionism were feeling, intuition,
subjectivity, fantasyóthemes that live on in Gestalt therapy.
In philosophy, a counter movement with a tendency toward materialism
followed the German Idealism of the 19th century. Revolutionary ideas were
developed by Marx. The phenomena of self-alienation and self-realization
were discussed. The human being was no longer seen as an abstract being but
within his/her concrete societal environment Marx saw the individual above
all as a working being, a part of the work environment or workforce.
The 20th century also saw the emergence of new trends in the humanities and
philosophy. Not only did the individual natural sciences have a strong
influence; the arts and literature also made distinctive impact on
philosophy. There was a characteristic mutual influencing between the
different disciplines, sometimes manifesting within one and the same
person, i.e., philosopher and writer (Sartre and Ortega Y Gasset),
philosopher and mathematician (Bertrand Russel and Alfred N.
Whitehead).Another example is the revolution brought about by Freudís
discovery of the unconscious, and his empirical proof of what Schopenhauer
and Nietzsche had already grasped intuitively. Language became a topic of
central importance within philosophy, known as the ďlinguistic turnĒ
(Wittgenstein). The philosophers of life, the Lebensphilosoplie, the most
influential of whom was the Frenchman Henri Bergson, saw reality as a
becoming. For them, there is in fact only becoming, acting and action (ťlan
vital). The ground for the most well known existentialist philosophy was
prepared by Franz Brentano. Edmund Husserl, a student of Brentano, founded
phenomenology, thus also becoming an influential philosopher of the times.
His aim was to get to grips with the consciousness that contains and
comprises the entire horizon of the world and the meaning of all known
objects. Existential philosophy, which began with Kirkegaard and was
further developed by Gabriel Marcel and Merleau-Ponty, focuses on existence
as ďindividual human existence,Ē and issues related to the meaning ofí
human existence, freedom, destiny and the existence of God.
The existential philosophers focus on the individual and are in their
methodology more or less phenomenologists. Their main concern is the
immediate grasp of being (what is), to meet human beings in their
respective situation, where they are connected to the world and other human
beings. Existence is ďpotentially beingĒ (Sein-kŲnnen), being constantly
confronted with choices, constantly having to make decisions. Existence is
free and realizes itself only in the doing. Thus the basic human experience
is anxiety (M. Heidegger), existence (Dasein) is finite, it is Sein zum
Tode (we live to die). The essential meaning of living arises with the
encounter of death. Death challenges us to live our own lives in freedom
The second part of my overview is concerned with the contacts Fritz and
Laura Perls and Paul Goodman had with others, and their concepts or ideas
that significantly influenced the main writings of Gestalt therapy.
Berlin during the roaring ďGolden TwentiesĒ in the Weimarer Republic was
exciting and turbulent. This was a time in which the Leitmotiv was a
creative and social utopia. Fritz Perls worked as an actor and met Max
Reinhard at the ďDeutsches Theater.Ē He described Max Reinhard in his
autobiography as ďthe first genius he ever met.Ē His emphasis on nonverbal
communication influenced Perls strongly. At the same time Moreno, the
founder of Psychodrama, was staging expressionistic experiments in the
theater. Perls, who later met Moreno in 1947 in the USA, adopted essential
elements of his approach such as roleplay and the ďempty chairĒ technique,
that Moreno himself had taken from drama and modified for use as
therapeutic techniques. The expressionist impulses of this time are still
discernible in both Psychodrama and Gestalt therapy. The theories of both
these schools of therapy refer to notions such as spontaneity, creativity,
and intuition as they were developed by the Lebensphilosophen, especially
Henry Bergson. For Bergson, life was an ongoing creative process carried by
the ťlan vital (vital impulse).
In Berlin, Fritz Perls had frequented left-wing intellectual circles and
also moved in Bauhaus circles. There he met the expressionist philosopher
Salomon Friedlander, whose central philosophical motive gave Perls
orientation in these times of confusion. Perls emphasized that Freudís
Psychoanalysis and Friedlanderís philosophy with the concept of ďcreative
indifferenceĒ were his main spiritual sources. The point of creative
indifference or void or point of balance is a point from which the
differentiation into opposites takes place, since all existing things are
determined by polarities. The basic assumption is that the split that man
creates in the world through his consciousness, which he experiences as
inevitable and painful, i.e., the separation between me and the world,
between subject and object, is merely an illusion. This can only be
abolished by understanding the world from a zero point, the no-thing of the
world, the absolute, the creator, the origin. The zero point is the
condition of the possibility of difference. In modern terms: I make the
difference that makes the difference. The world is an action of the I (ďThe
miller only hears his mill when it stands stillĒ or ďwe only sense what
contrasts in some wayĒ). Perls regarded Friedlanderís philosophy as the
western equivalent to the teachings of Lao-tse. In Gestalt psychology and
in Goldsteinís organismic theory Perls found a terminology that corresponds
to Friedlanderís basic theses: the concept of homoeostasis, top dog and
under dog, contact and withdrawal, figure and ground.
Fritz and Laura Perls had undergone psychoanalytic training first in Berlin
and later in Frankfurt and Vienna. Fritz started with Karen Horney and then
went on to Wilhelm Reich, while Frieda Fromm-Reichmann was one of Lauraís
Despite the criticism of Freudís and the later revision of psychoanalysis,
we see their influence in the theory of Gestalt therapy. Recently, there
has been an interest in similarities and especially their practical
application more than the differences at the metaphysical level. In spite
of the fact that Freud failed to acknowledge Perlsí work, Perls himself
considered Freudís discoveries extremely valuable.
From Karen Horney and Wilhelm Reich, Perls adopted a less detached and more
active therapeutic stance as well as their environment-oriented view of the
genesis of neurosis. Perls shared with Karen Horney the mutual roots of the
Bohemian Berlin area as well a passion for the theater and a holistic view
in therapy that led them both to work with the patient as a whole person
and to the study of Zen-Buddhism With Reich, Perls later experiences a
breath and body oriented approach and differentiated method of working on
resistance. Attention is given to the stylistic components of communication
(mime, gesture, body language) as the elucidator of the patientís
resistances. The focus on ďhowĒ rather than ďwhyĒ in the therapeutic
process is also a Reichian emphasis. Many similarities can also be found in
their socio-political leanings.
Among the psychoanalysts who had a STRONG influence on Gestalt therapy,
Otto Rank deserves special mention. Otto Rank was an early student of
Freudís. He began a new line in psychoanalysis with his work ďThe Trauma of
Birth.Ē In this book he questioned the Oedipus theory and presents the
trauma of birth to be the paradigm of the psychological process of
individuation. Rankís therapy is centered on the will and the ego-functions
as an autonomous organizing force inside the individual. He demands
re-experiencing and repeating instead of remembering, which inevitably
implies an active role of the therapist. For Rank, therapy is the
reestablishment of meaning in the ďhere and now.Ē Here we find many
elements that were later included in Gestalt therapy.
Fritz and Laura met in Frankfurt, where she was studying psychology and
philosophy and had close contacts with Gestalt psychologists. Here Fritz
Perls also became acquainted with the basic discoveries of Gestalt
psychology, which he later integrated into Gestalt therapy.
The term ďGestaltĒ was originally coined by the Viennese Graf Christian von
Ehrenfels. For him, a Gestalt was a psychical whole formed by the
structuring of the perceptual field. For scientific thinking, the
revolutionary potential lay in the statement, that it is not the analysis
of the underlying elements that makes it possible to gain knowledge.Further
and finer analysis or dissection into elements not only fails to bring
about an increase in knowledge but even makes it impossible. Rather, our
consciousness forms the units of wholes, Gestalten.
Ehrenfelsí statement that we perceive wholes and that the whole is
different from the sum of its parts was worked on and further
differentiated by the Berlin school of Gestalt psychology into the Gestalt
dictum: ďthe whole precedes the parts, and Gestalt formation is a primary
characteristic of organismic functioning and also of the individual
movement toward closure/satisfaction to return to a state of equilibrium.Ē
The leading figures were Wertheimer, Koffka, and Kohler. The important
question, as to whether it is the subjectís own interests or another
subjective impulse (urge), or a criterion in the environment that organizes
specific forms out of the field, was not answered until Kurt Lewin
formulated this concept. Lewin took the Gestalt model out of the laboratory
and transferred it to the complex realm ofí everyday situations. His thesis
was that the need organizes the perception ofí the field and the acting in
the field. He considered human activity as interactive and at least partly
a reaction to the perceived conditions of the field. He emphasized the
dynamic interrelatedness of the elements in a field. More aspects of
Lewinís work and his assistant Bluma Zeigarnik should later be of
importance for Gestalt therapy is the concept of unfinished business. Bluma
Zeigarnik found out that unfinished actions or situations are better
memorized than finished ones on the background of the inner psychic tension
system (known as the Zeigarnik effect). Gestalt therapy was later thus
named after Gestalt psychology to draw attention to indicating the
significant links between both.
While Fritz Perls was in Frankfurt, he worked with Goldstein, who was
conducting research on brain damaged soldiers. Besides working as a medical
doctor, Goldstein gave lectures on philosophical topics, reading Heidegger
and Schemer with his students, one of whom was Laura Perls.
Goldstein applied the academic studies of the Gestalt psychologists to
living human beings and considered the human being as a whole organism. He
expanded Gestalt psychology as a study of perception, to Gestalt psychology
as a study of the whole person. Working with his patients he used the
phenomenological method and a holistic perspective. His assumptions are
known as the organismic theory which had a profound influence on Perls, who
also adopted Goldsteinís understanding of anxiety as an existential fact.
The concept of the whole was also taken up by Jan Smuts in Holism and
Evolution. His book was read enthusiastically by Goldsteinís
assistants.Smuts considers the organism to be a self-regulating entity:
ďthe holistic organism contains its past and much of its future in its
presentĒ (cited in Petzold). Furthermore: ďas metabolism and assimilation
are fundamental functions of all organic wholes.Ē Here we find the basic
premise on which Gestalt Therapy rests: holism. This is quoted almost word
for word in Perls first book Ego, Hunger and Aggression. Gestalt therapy
then became a philosophy of life based on this holistic epistemology.
While in Frankfurt, Laura Perls (nee Lore Posner) developed a strong
interest in the existential philosophers. She became personally acquainted
with Martin Buber and Paul Tillich, greatly enjoying their lectures. The
basic messages and concepts of existential philosophy and their
phenomenological method became the philosophical foundation of Gestalt
The phenomenological method derives from Edmund Husserl. His view was that
philosophy should not study the universe scientifically but should consider
the human being itself from the inside, the consciousness itself and its
structure, how it is that objects are experienced and present themselves to
the consciousness. He also pointed out that consciousness is always
consciousness of something, that is, it is always directed to the real
world in an attempt to interpret it meaningfully. The significant thesis
introduced by Husserl was that consciousness is prejudged, in other words,
it is ďintentional.Ē We experience something ďin some way.Ē Husserl tried
to grasp the intra-psychic, the performance ofí the consciousness,
purely.By the phenomenological reduction he tried to reduce the
intra-psychic to the purely subjective, to subjectivity, and set aside
(epochť) the objective, i.e., that what appears to me is only the
phenomenon, pure consciousness, pure experience. Husserl found the key to
free the subjectivity by this method. When one loses oneís illusion about
oneself, one finds oneself responsible for what one has assumed to be
ďobjective.Ē There is no object without subject, no world without a self,
no being without a self.
This method was applied to different fields, especially to
psychotherapy.Basic premise of the existential philosophers on existence is
his ďbeing in the worldĒ (In-der-Welt-Sein) and always being with others
Martin Heidegger was also an existential philosopher, who developed the
idea that a person is a possibility or a potential. He is thrown into the
world, is free to choose among all possibilities from moment to
moment.Through these choices one constructs oneself. The potential of
freedom confronts us with anxiety. This is already an essential assumption
ofí Kierkegaardís. He described it as the greatest existential problem,
experienced as ambivalent anxiety. In determining our actions and
acknowledging this we are authentic beings. Freedom of thought and belief
leads to subjective responsibility.
In line with this understanding and the theory of Gabriel Marcel the self
defines itself through contact with others. This concept is close to Martin
Buberís understanding of the I-Thou relationship. For Buber, being is also
fundamentally twofold: there is no I without a ďThouĒ or ďIt.Ē
Buber no longer views being as derived from the self, but as a ďbetween.Ē
The fundamental fact of human existence is the human being with the human
being, i.e., a person is always in relation to some-thing, or some-body. In
Buberís anthropology, communication is what makes human beings, human
beings. Genuine dialogue begins when the I enters into the presence of the
The central concept of Gestalt therapy is the self as a system of
contacts.Here the self in the middle mode, both active and passive, is
consistent with Buberís understanding. Buber and later Perls emphasized
autonomy, freedom, address and response (Anrede und Antwort) constituting
the genuine dialogue. Whereas Buber considered the principle of ďI and
ThouĒ as an end in itself, Perls sometimes viewed it as a means to an end.
The patient-therapist relation as it is seen in Gestalt therapy draws
heavily upon Buberís understanding, thus making a shift from transference,
to contact and dialogue. Gabriel Marcel and Merleau Ponty place similar
emphasis on the inter-human relationship as inter-subjectivity, as a
horizontal relation with the co-subjective (Mitsubjekt). There are many
parallels and similarities between the ideas of Buber and Marcel.
Finally, I would like to draw attention to the influence of Paul
Goodman.Goodman had a broad education in many different fields. He took a
stand on many social and political issues of his time. Fritz and Laura
Perls were familiar with Goodmanís work before they actually met him and
hired him as coauthor for their basic text on Gestalt therapy. His ideas
were similar to those of Gustav Landauer, who was a close friend ofí
Buberís. Landauer was also actively involved in revolutionary politics
(MŁnchner Ršterepublik).Like Goodman he saw anarchy as a state without
rule. The idea of communal, self-organizing power sharing later appeared in
Fritz Perlsí Kibbutz idea.Goodman was also in search of a non-Marxist
alternative for consumer capitalism. His most important maxim was the
unfolding of the personal idiosyncrasy, personal responsibility, mutual
support and, if necessary, the refusal of obedience. He, like Perls, was a
follower of the Freudian psychoanalysis and also one of the early critics
of Freudís work. He contributed an important part ofí the theory of Gestalt
Almost all ďforefathers and foremothersĒ of the Gestalt concept had studied
Eastern philosophy or mysticism, especially Taoism and Zen-Buddhism. The
awareness concept has drawn upon various aspects of Eastern thinking.
<---- GO TO THE "HOW TO DO GESTALT" WEBPAGE
Blankertz, Stefan. Paul Goodman, Gestaltist. Gestalttherapie 1/93, S.6.
Brown, Judith. Buber & Gestalt. The Gestalt Journal, Vol III, No.2, p.47.
Clarkson, Petruska & Mackewn, Jennifer. Fritz Perls. Sage Publications
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Philosophisches Lesebuch. Philosophie Fischer Band 3,
Gorton, David. Der historische Hintergrund der Gestaltiherapie.
Jaquenoud, Rene & Rauber, Alexander. Intersubjektivitdt und
Beziehungserjahrung als Grundlage der therapeurischen Arbeit in tier
Gestalttherapie.Junfermann Verlag, 1981.
McCall, Raymond. Phenomenological Psychology. The University of Wisconsin
Ottersbach, Gunter. Max Reinhardt oder: Woher kommt das Dramatische in der
Gestalttherapie? Gestalttherapie, 2/92,S.5
Perls, R. Hefferline, R. F.: Goodman, P. Gestalt Therapy: Excitement
andGrowth in the Human Personality. Souvenir Press Ltd. 1990.
Petzold, Hilarion. Die Gestalttherapie Von Fritz Perls, Lore Perls und Paul
Integrative Therapie 1-2/84, S.5-72.
Portele, Heik. Martin Buber far Gestaittherapeaten. Gestalttherapie, 1/94.
Portele, Heik. Anarchistische Grundlagen der Gestalttherapie.
Gestalttherapie, 2/93, S.22.
Ritter, Joachim & Grunder Karlfried. Historisches WŲrterbuch der
Wissenschaftliche. Buchgesell-schaft. Darmstadt 1989.
Smith, Edward. The Roots of Gestalt Therapy In: The Growing Edge of
Wheeler, Gordon. Kontakt und Widerstand. Edition Humanistische Psychologie
Rosemarie Wulf is a Gestalt therapist who lives in Berlin, Germany. She
trained widely with different institutes and is certified by IGG Berlin and
GTILA, USA. Rosemarie works freelance for Universities and in service
training for teachers, as well as in private practice in Berlin.This
article appears on The Gestalt Therapy Page with her kind permission.
This article originally appeared in the November, 1996, issue of Gestalt
Dialogue: Newsletter for the Integrative Gestalt Centre, 275 Fifield
Terrace, Christchurch 8002, Aotearoa, New Zealand. E-mail: