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Outline and explain the principles of the Gestalt approach to psychology. How does humanistic psychology differ in essence from other analyses of “mental disorder”, and what are its strengths and weaknesses? Psychiatrist Frederick “Fritz” Perls (1893-1970) devised Gestalt therapy. The word “Gestalt” is of German origin, as was Perls, and means “pattern” or “organised whole” (Gross & McIlveen, 1996). In order to make sense of life events, our perceptions are organised into gestalts. Just as we cannot fully understand a family by looking solely at the individuals without regard for its operation as a whole, neither can we understand a gestalt by merely observing its constituent parts.
When a gestalt is formed, there is a focus of attention against a background of everything else of potential relevance. This foreground/background (figure/ground) formation is called “field theory”. Whatever is of most interest at any moment becomes figure, but if something else becomes more important, figure recedes into ground and is replaced. In field theory all aspects of an individual and their environment are interrelated so that the field forms their context. Unless we understand a person’s environment, we can never fully understand them or their behaviour. As Yontef (1973) said “Behaviour is a function of the field of which it is a part. Experiencing is also a function of the field of which it is a part”.
Each field is organised into a gestalt by the dominant need of that moment. As a personal or social need arises, a figure/ground formation develops with whatever is perceived as being able to meet the need becoming figure. The cycle of gestalt formation and destruction, of needs arising and being met, has taken several different forms. One of the earliest models was a four-phase process called the “cycle of contact” (Perls et al, 1973).
The first phase is “fore-contact” where a need arises and the individual is aware that balance has been disturbed. They have either excess or a deficit of something and are driven to restore balance. At this stage, the need is figure and everything else is ground. The second phase is “contact”, where possibilities of meeting the need are evaluated. When out of these possibilities a means of restoring balance arises, it becomes figure and the individual assembles their resources to contact figure and overcome any obstacles that they may encounter. As the individual identifies more and more with figure, it becomes more distinguished from ground.
The third phase is “final contact” where the individual is so engaged with figure that there is hardly any background. It is the quality of contact that determines whether or not the need is met. If contact is good and full, the need will be met and the individual will have a new and enlarged sense of self. Good contact is only possible when the individual can maintain a sense of individuality and dissimilarity from figure. Perls was quoted in a biography as having said “It is the point at which I experience “me” in relation to whatever is not “me”; when I experience “me” as distinct from “you”” (Clarkson & Mackewn, 1993).
The fourth and final phase is “post contact”, the experience of satisfaction if contact has been good and complete. It is at this point that growth takes place, even though the individual may not be aware of it. The gestalt closes and balance is restored; the individual is now at rest, ready for the next need to arise. To make good contact, it is essential that figure is clear and distinguished from ground. In order to form a clear figure, a balanced quality may be divided so that one end of the continuum can be distinguished from the other. One end of the range becomes figure, and the other ground. These polarities may appear to be unrelated but are, in fact, extremes of a mid-point called “zero point”. When the gestalt closes and the need is met, these divisions become balanced again.
If a need arises and full contact is not made, the need will remain unmet, the gestalt will be incomplete and it will continue to demand satisfaction. If the individual stays in touch with the need it can still be met healthily at a later time but if the delay becomes too long the individual will attempt to close the gestalt before the need has been appropriately met. Premature closure feels better than leaving the gestalt open, but the original need still unconsciously demands satisfaction. The result is that experience, physiology and behaviour become totally preoccupied with resolving the unfinished business. Awareness of the present situation is now hindered, making it difficult to make contact and meet current needs.