Gestalt Theory of Personality

Ecological Interdependence: The Organism/Environment Field

The existence of the person is accompanied with differentiating self from other or with connecting self and other. The boundary has the two functions. To establish good contact with the world of the other person, it is required to try to reach out and discover own boundaries. Successful self-regulation embraces contact in which the person understands the novelty of the environment that is possibly nourishing or on the contrary toxic. It can be assimilated or refused. This type of differentiated contact undoubtedly brings growth (Polster and Polster, 1973, p. 101).

Mental Metabolism

The term 'metabolism' is referred to in Gestalt therapy when it is employed as a metaphor for psychological functioning. People develop through biting off pieces of proper size (this can be applied not only to food but relationships and ideas too), then the phase of chewing comes (the same as consideration), and determining if it is nourishing or vice versa toxic. When it is nourishing, it is assimilated by the organism and it becomes the part of it. In case of toxic variant, it is rejected by the organism. This makes people rely on their taste and decision. Discrimination needs actively sensing without the stimuli and exteroceptive stimuli processing together with interoceptive data.

Regulation of the Boundary

The boundary set between person and environment should be penetrable to let exchanges, yet rather strong to be autonomous. One should be able to exclude toxins in the environment. But nourishing also should be discriminated in accordance with dominant needs. Metabolic processes are managed by the laws of homeostasis. The most vital need activates the organism until it is satisfied or is replaced by a more crucial need. Living is a succession of needs, either met or unmet, reaching homeostatic balance and moving to the new moment and next need.

Disturbances of the Contact Boundary

In case the boundary is unclear, gone or impassable, this leads to a disorder of the distinction between self and other, and then contact and awareness are disturbed too (see Perls, 1973; Polster and Polster, 1973). When boundary functions well, people change connecting and separating, and alternate between withdrawal from the environment and being in contact with it. The boundary of contact is gone in absolutely contradictory ways in joining together and separation. In fusion the isolation and distinction between self and other becomes uncertain then the boundary disappears. In isolation, the boundary turns solid that coherence is lost, that means that significance of others for the self is replaced from awareness.

Retroflection is a division within the self, a preventing the aspects of the self with the self. This replaces self for environment, like in doing to self what is desired to do to the other one or doing for self what is desired to do by the other one for self. This scheme brings to separation. The illusion of self-sufficiency is a sample of retroflection as it substitutes self for environment. Though one can breathe and chew for oneself, the air and food is provided by environment. Introspection is a type of retroflection which is either pathological or healthy. For instance, refusing to accept the impulse to convey anger can help to manage hazardous environment. Under the circumstances, biting one's lip can be more practical than biting words.

Via introjection foreign material is taken in without discriminating or assimilating. Swallowing whole contributes to creation of an "as if" personality and inflexible character. Introjected principles and actions are acquired in an imposing manner. Like in all disturbances of this kind (contact boundary), swallowing whole is at times normal or pathological, in accordance with the situation and level of awareness. For instance, students studying something on lectures, with complete awareness what they are doing, make a copy, remember and repeat the material without complete "digestion" or understanding.

Projection is a process when self and other are confused that is caused by ascribing to the outside something which is actually self. Art can be a model of healthy projection. But when the person does not have awareness and admits responsibility for something projected then pathological projection appears.

Deflection is the evasion of awareness and contact turning aside. It is similar to the situation when somebody is well-mannered instead of being direct. Deviation can be achieved by not telling directly or by refuse to receive. The person frequently feels either "untouched" or ineffective and puzzled as he does not obtain what is desired by him. Deflection can be of use where, with awareness, it answers the requirements in the current situation (for example, when cooling down is needed). Different samples of deflection involve methods of not looking at a person, wordiness, elusiveness, understating and speaking about more than to (Polster and Polster, 1973, pp. 89-92).

Organismic Self-Regulation

Individual regulation can be (a) organismic - founded on a comparatively complete and accurate acknowledgment of what is, or (b) "shouldistic," founded on the accidental imposition of what one considers should be or not. This refers to intrapsychic regulation, to the regulation of social groups and interpersonal relations.

Fritz Perls wrote that there was just one thing that needed control: the situation. The main thing is to understand the situation and allow it to control the behavior. If one is able to do it, then he can learn to manage life." (F. Perls, 1976, p. 33). Perls explained it with the help of 'driving car' example. As a substitute for a program planned ahead, "The person wants to drive at a speed 65 miles per hour," a person aware of the current situation will do it in a different way: at lower speed at night and when there is much traffic. He will act in a different way when he is tired. Perls explains that "allow it to control" denotes regulating via awareness of the present-day background, together with one's wishes rather than something that "should" occur.

When self-regulation is organismic, choosing and learning occur holistically, with a normal integration of body and mind, consideration and feeling, impulsiveness and deliberateness. In shouldistic regulation, cognition rules and there is no holistic felt sense.

Apparently, everything applicable to boundary regulation cannot be accompanied with complete awareness. The majority of business transactions are conducted in an automatic, habitual way and minimal awareness is employed at that. Organismic self-regulation calls makes it necessary for the habitual to become completely aware as required. In case awareness does not come forward as necessary and does not display the needed motor activity, psychotherapy can be of help here and contribute to increasing awareness and making important choice and taking responsibility.


Awareness and dialogue are among the most important therapeutic instruments of Gestalt therapy. Such form of understanding as awareness can be freely characterized as being connected with the existence of the person, with something that answers what is - question.

Laura Perls affirms:

The goal of Gestalt therapy - awareness continuum, the freely continuing Gestalt formation where what is of furthermost concern and importance to the organism, the connection, the grouping or society gets Gestalt, comes to the forefront to be experienced freely and managed (accepted, worked through, selected, altered, solved, and so on) so in this way it can be dissolved on the background (disregarded, assimilated and integrated) and free foreground from the following significant Gestalt. (1973, p. 2)

Full awareness can be considered as the procedure of being vigilant contact with the important things in the environment field with full cognitive, sensorimotor, emotional and energetic sustain. Insight as a form of awareness is an instant understanding of evident union of different parts in the field. When the contacts are aware, then new significant wholes appear and this way the problem is integrated.

Effective awareness is explained and activated by the prevailing necessity of the organism at the present moment. This way not just self-knowledge is involved, but knowing directly the situation at the moment and the way the self is under the circumstances. Any rejection of the state of affairs and its requests or of one's wants and chosen response is a disturbance of awareness. Meaningful awareness is of a self in the world, in dialogue with the world, and with awareness of other -- it is not an inwardly focused introspection. Awareness is accompanied by owning, that is, the process of knowing one's control over, choice of, and responsibility for one's own behavior and feelings. Without this, the person may be vigilant to experience and life space, but not to what power he or she has and does not have. Awareness is cognitive, sensory and affective. The person who verbally acknowledges his situation but does not really see it, know it, react to it and feel in response to it not being fully aware and is not in full contact. The person who is aware knows what he does, how he does it, that he has alternatives and that he chooses to be as he is.

The awareness act is at all times here and now, even though the content of awareness can be distant. The act of memorizing is at this moment; what is memorized is not at this moment. When the state of affairs requires an awareness of the past or expectation of the future, efficient awareness regards this. For instance:

P: [Looking more stressed than normally] I do not know what I should work over.

T: What is that are you aware of at this very moment?

P: I am pleased to meet you, but I'm nervous about my meeting with my director in the evening. I have practiced much to get ready and I've made efforts to support myself while I anticipate it.

T: What is necessary for you just now?

P: It came to my mind to offer the chair for her at first, and then have a talk. However I am so nervous that some physical activity is needed: to breathe, move and create noise.

T: [Looking but keeping silence]

P: Isn't it up to me? [Silence. Then the client rises, begins stretching and yawns. There is more energy in his behavior. Some minutes later the client sits on the chair, looking calmer and more active.] Let us start.

T: Now you seem to be more energetic.

P: I have prepared to study what made me so bothered about meeting in the evening.

Self-rejection excludes full awareness and vice versa. Self-rejection is a deformation of awareness as this is a refuse from who one is. Self-rejection is at the same time bewilderment of who "I am" and a self-cheating, or "bad faith" attitude of being higher than that which is apparently being admitted (Sartre, 1966). When person says "I am" as if he observes different person, or like the "I" were not selected, or not knowing the way one makes and keeps that "I am" is more bad faith than insightful awareness.


People, in accordance with Gestalt therapy, are in charge or 'response able' - that means, they can determine the way to behave. Confusing accountability with shoulds and blaming, they force and manipulate; they make efforts and are not impulsive and integrated. At these moments their actual wants, responses and needs of the environment and options in the situation are neglected and they either comply with 'shoulds' or reject them.

Gestalt therapists consider that it is essential to make a distinction clearly between one's wants and what is given to the person. People are in charge of their behavior. For instance, people are in charge oftheir behavior and protection of the environment. When you blame something outside yourself, you deceive yourself. You can blame genetics, for instance or parents. Taking responsibility for what one did not choose, a typical shame reaction, is also a deception.

Every person is in charge of the moral choice he makes. Gestalt therapy can help the person to understand what can be considered moral and what not. Gestalt therapy gives person an opportunity to choose and value.

Variety of Concepts

Personality theory of Gestalt therapy has developed initially out of clinical experience. The emphasis has been made on a theory of personality that sustains the task of psychotherapists more than a general theory of personality. The concepts of theory of Gestalt therapy are more field theoretical than genetic and more phenomenological than conceptual ones.

Gestalt psychotherapy, in spite of being phenomenological, has to do with the unconscious - with something that has nothing to do with awareness. In Gestalt therapy, awareness is understood as being in touch and unawareness is understood as being out of touch and can be made clear by various phenomena, together with learning which is better to attend to, by suppression, character, cognitive set and style. Simkin in 1976 made a comparison of personality with the floating ball - just a part of it appears above water any time and the remaining part is underwater. Unawareness is the consequence of the situation when the organism was not in contact with outside environment because of being frequently involved in his own fantasies or the inner environment or on the contrary was fixed upon the outer environment and neglect inner life.

Gestalt Therapy Theory of Change

Children introject ideas as well as behavior. Therefore they are more inclined to enforced morality than an organismically compatible. Consequently, people often feel guilty as they act the way the wish and neglect what they should. Some of them direct much energy in maintaining the division between 'should' and 'want' -- the choice depends upon the morality of the person contrasting to an introjected one. 'Shoulds' interferes with people of this type. More often they try to be what they are not, the bigger the resistance, and changes do not follow.

Beisser developed the theory according to which alterations do not occur via a "forced effort by the person or by different personality to alter him," but it does not take place when the person makes attempts to be "what he is," "to be completely in his present position" (1970, p. 70). Once the therapist refuses from the role of change agent, orderly change is possible as well as meaningful change.

The Gestalt therapy concept is that awareness in addition to owning, choosing, responsibility, and contact leads to expected and unplanned change. Compulsory change is an effort to realize an image more than oneself. With awareness the acceptance of self, and with the right to exist as is, the organism is able to grow. Mandatory intervention holds back the process.

The principle of Pragnanz in Gestalt psychology affirms that the field will structure itself into the finest Gestalt that overall circumstances will let. So Gestalt therapists consider too that people have an instinctive drive to health. This predisposition is natural, and every person is a part of nature. Awareness of the evident, the awareness continuum, is an instrument for the person to use intentionally to direct this natural drive for healthy condition.

Differentiation of the Field: Polarities versus Dichotomies

A dichotomy is a division by which the field is regarded not the whole adapted to fit in diverse and interconnected parts, but more as a range of opposing and forces without connection to each other. Dichotomous thinking is in the way of organismic self-regulation. Dichotomous thinking is inclined to subdue diversity among people and of contradictory things about one personality.

Organismic self-regulation integrates parts into total that includes parts. The field is frequently separated into polarities: opposite parts that add or clarify each other. The opposite poles of an electrical field (positive and negative) present a typical example of a field theoretical differentiation. The notion of polarities interprets opposite parts as elements of the whole, similar to yin and yang.

With this polar view of the field, distinctions are admitted and assimilated. Lack of genuine integration creates splits, such as body-mind, self-external, infantile-mature, biological-cultural, and unconscious-conscious. Through dialogue there can be an integration of parts, into a new whole in which there is a differentiated unity. Dichotomies like the self-ideal and the needy self, reflection and impulse, and public requirements and individual needs can be removed by integrating into a whole which consists of natural polarities (Perls, 1947).

Definition of Health I: The Good Gestalt as Polarity

The good Gestalt gives a description of a perceptual field structured well and clearly. A well-formed figure is noticeable on a not so distinct background. Both elements (the figure against the background) are related to each other with meaning. The meaning is understandable in the good Gestalt. The good Gestalt provides a content-free description of health.

In health, the figure alters is necessary, which means that it is moved to different focus when the requirement is met or surpassed by a more pressing need. It does not transform so quickly as to thwart satisfaction (like in hysteria) or so unhurriedly that latest figures have no opportunity to undertake organismic dominance (like in compulsivity). During the dichotomy of figure and ground, one remains out of context with a figure or with a context without focus (F. Perls et al., 1951). In health, awareness in particular presents the main requirement of the entire field. Requirement is a function of outside factors (such as, a physical formation of the field, political movement, natural phenomena, and so forth) and inner factors (for instance, famine, tiredness, curiosity, experience of the past, and so on).

Definition of Health II: The Polarity of Creative Adjustment

Notion of healthy functioning comprises creative adjustment in the Gestalt therapy. A psychotherapy that just assists patients to adjust contributes to conformity and stereotypy. A psychotherapy that made people impose themselves on the surrounding world without taking into consideration others would provoke pathological narcissism and separated from the world-denying realization of self.

A person showing creative interaction is responsible for the natural balance between self and surrounding world.

Within this theoretical context (F. Perls et al., 1951) some apparently individualistic statements of Gestalt therapy and even anarchistic are considered in the most though way. The individual presents a polarity against environment. The option is made between organismic regulation and arbitrary, but not between the personality and society.

Being a polarity, resistance consists of an impulse and resistant to that impulse. Considered like a dichotomy, resistance is frequently referred to as "bad" and, in this context, regularly grows into just personal dictates of the client and not the therapist's. Taken as a polarity, it is as integral to health as the trait is being resisted.

Gestalt therapists deal with consciousness: its working process of and its resistance process. Various Gestalt keep away from the word resistance on account of its pejorative dichotomized nuance, which makes the process a battle between therapist and client more than the client's self-conflict that requires integration into a self, which is harmoniously differentiated.


An impasse is a state of affairs when external support is not following and the individual considers that he is not able to support himself. This is so because the strength of personality splits between resistance and impulse. The most common method of overcoming this is manipulation.

An organismically self-regulating person is responsible for things made for self, things made by others for self, and things made by self for others. The person makes exchange with the surroundings, but the main support to regulate the existence is performed by self. As the person is not aware of this, external support becomes a substitute of self-support more than a nourishment source for the self.

In psychotherapy generally therapist can get around the impasse with the help of external support, and the patient thinks that self-support is not enough. In Gestalt therapy, clients can cope with the impasse thanks to the accent on loving contact without doing something for the patient, without coming to rescue or support of infantilism.