Why I Became a Gestalt Therapist

During my training for the Masters’ Degree in counseling I read a weighty textbook about different psychotherapies.  One chapter described an exchange between a Gestalt therapist and his client.

The client, Ken, was in his late-40s, depressed, and had a recurring pain in his heart.  He had been assessed for cardiac illnesses and declared healthy.  The therapist asked him to stay with the discomfort in his chest.  Ken felt his heart throbbing with pain.  His heart was heavy.  Staying with this ache felt like “walking into bad weather.”

The therapist asked Ken to speak “as if he was his heart.”

“Excuse me?” Ken asked.

His confusion was an echo of my own thought: “Speak as if you are your heart—what could that mean?

With some encouragement, Ken spoke as his own heart: “I’m sad…I’m heavy…I’m lonely.”

Then Ken felt his “heart” wanting to say something rather surprising: “I’m disappointed in you…you never work hard enough…you never get anything done…you’re just a failure.”

The man broke down in tears: “This is my father’s voice! These are his words. I can’t believe they came out like this. He passed away a decade ago.”

In the span of twenty minutes, the therapist had encountered the client’s relationship with his father, defined by high expectations and disappointment, and had helped him release some of these deeply-buried emotions.

Over the years, Ken had internalized the voice of his father, taking it on, literally, by heart.

I read on, transfixed.

After ten years of practice, I am still surprised daily by the ability of Gestalt Therapy to take a client into old pain or “unfinished business,” to help them experience it in a safe environment, to see it, know it, release it and (to begin to) come to terms with it—shifting away from entrenched patterns of thoughts, emotions and responses.

In my sessions, I begin as Ken’s therapist did: noticing what is present, what is obvious.  I keep an eye out for what’s happening in the client’s body or tone of voice or facial expressions—the way a bird-watcher looks for a flicker of plumage in the trees.

All the while, I’m wondering: how have they creatively adapted to their pain?  How are they stuck?  How are their defenses keeping them too close, or too far away, from others around them?

The simple act of noticing sensations present in the moment can start the journey to healing.  It is as if the therapist and the client are walking through a dark forest together—a companionship guarded by trust and guided by theory.

In one striking instance, a client’s clenched hand began our work on his “letting go,” literally, of long-held fears.

I noticed the wisdom of the Gestalt method in that first textbook.  In that chapter, Ken began to free himself from a fixed child’s view of his father.  He learned to see his deceased parent in a more tender light.  As a result, he became gentler with himself.

I became a Gestalt Therapist to help others see themselves more clearly, to help bring them through pain, toward relief and acceptance.  

I am inspired daily by the courage of clients who agree to travel with me.

My clients’ feedbacks from two recent sessions also help to answer the question of why I chose Gestalt Therapy:

“When I know what I feel, I know what I want.”

“This is heart work.”


The views expressed in these blogs are the author’s own and not necessarily reflective of those of Psychotherapy Matters.  Copyright © 2015 PsychotherapyMatters.com

Degan Davis
Degan Davis, Psychotherapist / Head Counsellor For Students, Michener Institute

Degan Davis (M.Ed in Counselling Psych, C.C.C., Gestalt Therapist) is the Head Counsellor For Students at The Michener Institute for Applied Health Sciences. Degan has been described by students and clients as warm, insightful, funny and direct. He also has a private psychotherapy practice in downtown Toronto for couples and individuals. He works to help clients get unstuck from negative patterns. Degan has accumulated over 3000 hours of counselling experience and workshops. He offers professional support for anxiety, depression, grief, trauma and family hardships, among other areas.

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