Gestalt Therapy and Focusing

Gestalt Therapy

Gestalt Therapy is an existential and experiential approach pioneered by therapist Fritz Perls in the 1960s. It focuses on personal responsibility and an individual’s process, rather than the content, to promote authentic change. The focus is on what is happening in the here-and-now, rather than the there-and-then. This does not mean that experiences from the past are not explored, but that the focus will be on what is happening in the moment as a person is exploring the past. This approach also explores the immediacy of what is playing out between the therapist and the client in the now, the environmental and social context a person is living in, and the adaptations and self-regulating adjustments a person makes to survive in their circumstances. Many Gestalt principles were integrated into Somatic Experiencing.

Gestalt therapy works off the understanding that “what we resist, persists” (the paradox of change). The more an individual fights against who they are, tries to change what is not in their power to change, or stays attached to struggle, the more they stay stuck. Instead, Gestalt therapy guides people to become gently aware of their current thoughts, emotions, and behaviours without judgment. This awareness is the pathway to change, as it leads to acceptance and openness to try something new by becoming more aware of bodily experiences.

The Gestalt approach is most commonly associated with its Empty Chair and Two Chair exercises. These practices help identify internal conflicts between parts of the self with conflicting needs, or can help process dialogue with aspects of oneself or with others with whom there is an unresolved issue. The chair exercises externalize this conflict by representing each self-part or person per chair. As the dialogue progresses with the parts or people represented by the chair, an exploration of the bodily sensations and emotions that accompany the conflict can occur. Using an empty chair can also support dis-identification of self from various unhelpful beliefs, judgments or behaviours that are interrupting the resolution of an experience, where the chair becomes a safe place we can put the “thing” that is getting in the way in order to focus on something that is wanting to emerge.


Focusing is one of the earliest ways the body was introduced into “talk therapy”, and was developed by psychotherapist Eugene Gendlin in the 1950s. His research discovered that clients who were aware of their bodily experience (sensations) within sessions experienced more therapeutic shifts and change than clients who simply talked about their emotions. Gendlin created a 6-step process that helped clients to stay present to their felt sense without getting overwhelmed by it, so they could move forward out of stuck places in their lives more easily. These steps consist of:

  • Clearing the space
  • Getting a felt sense
  • Finding a handle
  • Resonating the handle
  • Asking
  • Receiving

Focusing was one of the modalities that was instrumental in the development of other body-oriented approaches, including Somatic Experiencing.

Ann Weiser Cornell later developed an important branch of Focusing as she noticed individuals’ challenges in staying present to their bodily experiences. She noticed how frequently sensations were met with judgment criticism, avoidance and fear. She developed Inner Relationship Focusing, which emphasizes the importance of the person being able to have genuine experiences of the felt sense as opposed to merely reacting to it.

Focusing promotes many of the same outcomes as Somatic Experiencing and mindfulness, including:

  • Developing a sense of “self-in-presence” (becoming a mindful, curious witness to one’s own experience)
  • Self-empathy and self-compassion
  • Dis-identification or differentiation between self and experience
  • Self-regulation
  • Being the present moment.

© 2013 –   The Refuge.