Gestalt and large group training
Posted by: whatamess ()
Date: July 02, 2012 03:23AM

I wasn't sure whether to post this in the therapy section or in the large group training section as it could apply to both. I am interested in anyone's experience of Gestalt therapy and/or Gestalt therapy training whether in large groups or otherwise. I had some sessions with a gestalt therapist and did some gestalt therapy training, which included some large group work, and I have to say that I found it quite disturbing. It felt distinctly like a cult and I was left feeling quite damaged by the experience.

The roots of gestalt therapy go back to the 'new age' human consciousness movements of the 60s and 70s and the founder, Fritz Perls, seems like a bit of a nut really (he was one of the 'inspirations' behind NLP). He was definitely a guru type of figure and used to lead large group sessions in which he 'demonstrated' his counselling 'skills'. I think his large group 'circuses' may have been the precurser to other large group training like Est, Exegisis etc but maybe someone is more informed than me on this.

To my mind, the theory behind gestalt therapy lacks an evidence-base and some of the techniques could be quite dangerous, in the wrong hands. Counselling is still an unregulated industry (in the UK at any rate) anyone can do (or not do for that matter!) a counselling course (gestalt or otherwise) and set themselves up as a counsellor. There seems to be a huge potential for harm to occur and in my experience I think harm did occur. There were some brainwashing techniques and psychological manipulation which were really very worrying. I found a distinct lack of ethics and a strangely bullying type of atmosphere pervaded. What is especially concerning is that a training institute can indoctrinate students (disciples?) to follow this ethos when they eventually start practising themselves.

I am interested in other people's experiences of gestalt - whether they are experiences of gestalt therapy, or training or large group work. Was my own particular experience with gestalt counselling and training a case of encountering the few 'bad apples' (people who lack integrity/have an axe to grind) or is there something about the whole ethos of gestalt therapy that is just - cult like?

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Re: Gestalt and large group training
Posted by: corboy ()
Date: July 02, 2012 05:05AM

For some interesting background get and read a book about Esalen entitled Upstart Spring.

There are hints that the Gestalt stuff that took place on the East Coast after Perls went to California remained relatively sober, but that the Gestalt work done under Perls' supervision after he moved toCalifornia and in the permissive context of Esalen went way out into extremes.

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Re: Gestalt and large group training
Posted by: hellocat ()
Date: July 12, 2012 02:33AM

I think there is something off about Gestalt therapy altogether. My experiences with people who are into it as counselors or clients is that they are cult-y. The exercises can be very psychologically dangerous. They dig in for extreme reactions so that you never know what you are going get.

Many therapists use a couple of Gestalt techniques - and I think that in the context of individual counseling with a counselor who is respectful and empowering towards the client, some of these techniques are legitimate and may be helpful -- I'm thinking in particular of "the empty chair technique" for addressing unspoken issues with an absent person, Gestalt dream analysis (which involves talking back to various parts of a dream), and paying attention to the body/exaggerating body movements/postures.

Other than those specific techniques (and in the context of client-centered, respectful, individual therapy), I caution people to stay away from Gestalt work. Many techniques generate and exaggerate intense negative feelings, infantilize clients, and break down important coping mechanisms, without first building new strengths, creativity, and resiliency in clients. That is a recipe for a cult-following and/or psychological trauma.

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Re: Gestalt and large group training
Posted by: whatamess ()
Date: July 17, 2012 11:40PM

Thank you corboy and hellocat for your responses. Some of the stuff that Perls was involved in at Esalen sounds quite extreme and I know that there were several suicides there following some of Perls' experiential group work during which he harangued vulnerable 'clients'. He does come over as a very manipulative man who had not worked through his own issues. He was very much a 'guru' type figure who loved having power over his disciples.

I would agree that some of the gestalt techniques can be useful within certain contexts - eg: empty chair. However the gestalt therapist I saw was highly confrontational and, once she had an awareness of my vulnerabilities, tried to tap into this in order to elicit extreme reactions, as you have suggested hellocat. It could have been highly damaging for me, but thankfully I saw though her games and left. However, with a more vulnerable person, I think they could have been downright dangerous.

The gestalt training provider where I undertook part of a counselling course I also found lacked an ethical value system. I felt that students (some of whom had endured very traumatic childhoods) were encouraged to victimise any student on the course who dared show any spirit of independence, and the course leaders behaved rather like dysfuntional parents - dishing out praise to the sheep, while punishing any independent thinking or display of integrity. It left me with a very skewed view of counselling - or at least gestalt counselling. Personally, I think gestalt as practised by Perls should be assigned to the dustbin - it was part of a 60's 'do your own thing' paradigm that does not translate to this day and age.

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