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Trauma as Viewed by Gestalt Therapy

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            Some approaches of psychotherapy look at the reasons behind trauma and this is how Gestalt therapy differs with the other modalities. Gestalt therapy emphasizes what is being experienced at the moment than what has happened in the past, what might or should have been been (Yontef, 1993). The “process” is more significant than the “why.”

            In Gestalt theory, conflicts are seen in the framework of the “here and now.” It is what is being done, thought, and felt at the moment, which is important and not some, distant past or future. The past cannot be changed, and the future is a mere fantasy. The individual only has a direct influence on the “now.” For instance, one may have experienced shame or rejection from his own parents in childhood, but internalizing this and continuing to engage in self-blame or self-pity up to the present is his own choice.

            Reality exists in the present as a unique and creative experience. If correctly addressed, it can lead to personal (or ego) development. Lack of awareness of the moment leads to flight into the past or the future. Whereas, living in the past or the future disconnects one from the reality of the present. While Gestalt therapy does not deny the importance of the past or the future, traumatic experiences are brought into present awareness without assuming that the individual is determined by past events in his life.

            The Gestalt technique of working through unresolved conflicts is the “taking care of unfinished business.” One goes through life with unresolved traumas and conflicts that later manifest  as a recurring psychological tension in his relationships. (Coleman, et.al., 1980). “Unfinished business” means repressed feelings associated with distinct memories such as pain, anger, resentment, anxiety and grief.  Unless the individual becomes fully aware of these denied feelings, the “unfinished business,” and self-defeating behavior will persist. Only until the individual has learned to face and deal with this “unfinished business” can the “self” can be made “whole” or integrated.

            Individuals who engage in therapy are much less confident and have limited awareness of their own strength and needs. Because of the pain that they experience, they believe that they are “helpless,” and are disillusioned that the therapist can do for them what they cannot do for themselves. In this situation, they do not own their responsibility for themselves.

            Whereas, in the process of Gestalt therapy, one learns to be fully aware and responsible of his own experience instead of putting the blame on others for what he is feeling, thinking, or doing. One learns to realistically evaluate the situation and this leads to personal action. One learns to support himself and take responsibility for his own actions and its consequences.

            In summary, Gestalt therapy helps one live in the present moment with full awareness, without denying his past. The future is less of a fantasy and anticipates it with excitement and enthusiasm. In Gestalt, the ultimate goal is to reclaim one’s identity, and the fullness of one’s experience. It is when one’s true feelings, dreams and goals have been unmasked, can he regain himself and move ahead towards greater joy and fulfillment in life.


Coleman, J., J. Butcher  and R.Carson (1980). Abnormal Psychology and Modern Life. 6th ed.

           Illinois: Scott Foresman and Company.

Yontef, G. M. (1993). Awareness, Dialogue, and Process: Essays on Gestalt therapy. New York:

           The Gestalt Journal Press.

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