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Gestalt Therapy excitement and growth in the human personality by Perls, Hefferline and Goodman. First published 1951 (other editions since).
This book changed my life. I discovered it in my mid-twenties and what I learned from it has stayed a significant part of my life for 25 years. The exercises in the first half of the book caused me to examine my own experience in new ways and the theory in the second half of the book I found gripping, insightful and remarkable. This book was written more than fifty years ago and the book is still well in advance of much of the theory and practice in psychotherapy today in my opinion. (This is also true of the practitioners of gestalt therapy in my opinion.)
Gestalt Therapy is a new way of looking at our experience. It gives exercises so that the reader can experience this for themselves (the first half of the book) and the theory that forms the basis of this approach. Both parts make up a book of about 470 pages. I believe it is an adequate theory of psychotherapy and a good introduction to psychotherapy and how it can help you. To do either one of these is an achievement. To do both in the space of 470 pages is, I think, extraordinary.
The first part of the book (volume one) is a series of experiences divided into two sections. The first section, “Orienting the Self” consists of experiments in ‘getting in touch with where you are’. These are experiments in making our sensing and awareness keener. The second section, “Manipulating the Self” is about acting. The experiments are finding how we interfere with spontaneous and effective behaviour.
The experiments are clearly explained so that it is to know what to do. Each one is followed by the comments of a group of students who did the experiments, and the authors’ responses to the students comments. This amounts to a valuable to self-therapy course.
The second part of the book (volume two) lays out the theory gestalt therapy. This is the part that the book is famous for. The main reason being the style that it is written in. It is not an easy read. You need to pay attention to the words and what they are saying. (This style is perhaps the result of reflecting on how a book about awareness should be written.) It is best read in my experience a page (or even a paragraph) at a time. When you do this you are in for a treat I think. This is a book full of value. If you work at it this book provides great rewards. I have found all my efforts with it richly rewarded. All the time I have spent on it has been richly rewarded.
The second part has two major sections. The first being the way a person relates to the situation around them (Part 2 Reality, Human Nature and Society) and the second being a map of experience (called Theory of The Self).
A commonly voiced criticism of this part of the book is that it is patchy or not logically arranged. This is flat out wrong. If you pay attention to the words you will find that it is rigorously argued and is the outworking of the premises laid out in the introduction. I have tried mind-mapping my way through this second part of the book and it is almost impossible – I needed a section for almost every paragraph. It is extremely tightly and rigorously argued in my opinion.
The first section deals with the persons response in their environment. This means the ‘social’ as well as ‘natural’ environment. This puts it well ahead of most of the current theories of psychotherapy (the current revival of the idea that our experience somehow occurs only in our heads and our thinking is dealt with and critiqued on pp.255-289). They also deal with the positive expression of anger (pp.333-352) – it is still usual for a writer to speak of anger as a ‘negative emotion’, often in the same place as people say that emotions are neither good nor bad!
The second section of part two deals lays out a simple map of experience and the problems of neurosis are mapped onto this. For me this is an adequate theory of the therapy of neurosis.
If you are wanting a book that is a theory and practical approach to psychotherapy I think this is the best book. As long as you are willing to put in work. A much more readable book that covers the same kind of experiments is Risking Being Alive by James Oldham and others (it’s major value is as a readable introduction to Gestalt Theory in my opinion).
Over the next few weeks I will be doing a series of posts on what I have learned from this book. So, there’s more to come if this doesn’t give you a good enough idea about this book.
If you are new to my blog, welcome and thanks for visiting. I have posted the text of a free report called “It’s Not About Success” – about finding satisfaction through living from the core of who we are. (It’s fairly long for a blog – 17,000 words – I plan to turn it into a PDF and use it to promote a course I will be running on living an authentic life.) If you would like to read it you can click on this link or click on the link in the side bar under “Site Info”. I would be very grateful for any and all comments that you would like to make.