A Brief History
Gestalt Therapy became an acknowledged therapeutic practice in the early 1950s and has been evolving ever since.
The therapy has its roots in many disciplines, including psychoanalysis, humanistic and existential philosophies, Eastern spiritual practice, and Gestalt psychology. Frederick and Laura Perls worked together to connect these disciplines with new knowledge about human growth and interaction. Frederick (Fritz) Perls initially trained as a psychiatrist in Germany. In the 1920s, he worked with brain-injured war veterans, as assistant to the famous humanistic psychologist Kurt Goldstein. He also later trained with Karen Horney, Otto Rank, and Wilhelm Reich. Concurrently, Laura Perls studied with Martin Buber and Paul Tillich and with Gestalt psychologist Max Wertheimer.
Gestalt Therapy Develops
The Perlses fled Germany in 1933. After living in Amsterdam, they moved to South Africa, where they established a psychoanalytic training institute and began to develop the core ideas of Gestalt Therapy. At then end of World War II, they moved to New York. One year later, Fritz published his first book, Ego, Hunger and Aggression, which challenged and expanded upon traditional psychoanalytic thought.
The Perlses lived among extraordinary intellectuals, artists, and teachers in New York, continuing their immersion in diverse and sophisticated thinking. It was out of this stimulating atmosphere that the theory of Gestalt Therapy was shaped and then put forth in 1951 in the seminal work Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. The authorship of the book is attributed not only to Perls but also, importantly, to social thinker Paul Goodman, as well as Columbia University psychologist Ralph Hefferline.
Soon after, the Perlses established the first Gestalt Therapy institute in their New York apartment, training such luminaries as Isadore From, Richard Kitzler, and James Simkin.
Training also began in Cleveland with a number of interested therapists, including Erving and Miriam Polster. By the mid-1950s, excitement was growing about the new theory and students of Gestalt began to establish new institutes around the country.
In 1960, Fritz Perls moved to California and later held the first West Coast Gestalt Therapy trainings at the Esalen Institute. The approach, with its emphasis on directness and experiential method, became a central part of the human potential movement. In the 1980s, many Gestaltists began to focus on the intellectual depth and long-term usefulness of the theory. This movement dovetailed with the psychotherapy community's interest in finding more inclusive models of practice.
Growth and Expansion
Gestalt Therapy, with its broad-based intellectual framework, can naturally accommodate many diverse techniques while still remaining true to its philosophical and theoretical foundations.
As a result, Gestalt Therapy is in the forefront of the new integrative models of psychotherapy both nationally and internationally. Many American cities have a Gestalt Therapy institute, and true to its international origins, there are now more than 100 Gestalt institutes around the world.
The study and practice of the therapy is also supported by several member associations, including the Association for the Advancement of Gestalt Therapy (AAGT), the Gestalt International Study Center (GISC), the International Gestalt Therapy Association (IGTA), and associations in Europe, Scandinavia, and Australia. Three publications, The International Gestalt Journal, Gestalt Review, and The British Gestalt Journal are dedicated to advancing scholarly work in Gestalt theory.
Born in the 20th century, Gestalt Therapy now stands poised for profound and far-reaching significance in the 21st.