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Fritz Perls Father of Gestalt Therapy

Fritz Perls Father of Gestalt Therapy

Perls was a German Jew, born on 8th July 1893 in Berlin. His mother and sister adored him, but he had a very bad relationship with his father, who bullied and ridiculed him when he was there; but mostly he was not.

He was a very bright boy, but went “off the rails” in his teens and was expelled from school for not working and playing truant. He enrolled at another school, which was much more liberal and progressive, and liked it much better, settled down, worked hard and came out top of the year at the equivalent of our ‘A’ levels.

Fritz  was  very  interested in the theatre and acting, and by his mid-teens was being given small parts at the Royal Theatre in Berlin.  It was at this stage, learning to act, that the young Fritz became well-versed in body language and, in later years, a genius at reading people’s non-verbal body expressions.

Perls attended Berlin University in order to study medicine, but, during 1916 and 1917, he spent months in the trenches as a medical officer. When the war ended in 1918 he returned to his studies, finally qualifying in 1920 as a doctor.

From 1921 to 1926  he  set up  in  practice  as  a neuro-psychiatrists, working hard, making money and having a very lively social life among artists, writers, actors, philosophers and left-wing intellectuals. Despite all this, he felt something was amiss. In some situations he was unsure of himself and at the age of 31, he was still single and living at home with his mother.

He decided to go into analysis with Karen Horney, a psychoanalyst, who had already moved away from the passive, strict, Freudian stance. She believed in a real ‘face to face’ relationship. This experience led Perls to make the decision that he, himself, would train to be a psychoanalyst.  He  moved  to  Frankfurt  in  1926  and  became very interested in the contemporary philosophies of Phenomenology and Existentialism. Through these separate, but interrelated, philosophies he realised that the only reality was subjective reality, e.g., if it is what you perceive, then it is real for you.  Other people may see things differently. That is their reality.

It was also at this time in Frankfurt, that he attended lectures in Gestalt Psychology. (Gestalt Psychology is totally separate from Gestalt Therapy, and is mainly concerned with ‘perception’.) Here he met his wife, Laura, a young psychology graduate, who became a co-founder of Gestalt Psychotherapy.

Perls became profoundly influenced by the Gestalt Psychologists and integrated their theories into his practice as a psycho-analyst, for example:

The Principle of Closure/The Urge to Complete:

The Gestalt Psychologists had proved through empirical research, that an individual organises everything he or she perceives into  meaningful wholes. If anything is incomplete then an individual will probably see the whole anyway or guess at it.

In a similar way, experiments were then carried out to also show that people remember  unfinished tasks better than finished ones. These fester away in the back of our minds, so we tend to suffer from nagging niggles about things we need to do or finish off. We can truly put something out of our minds when we have completed the task and felt the subsequent satisfaction.

Now  here  is  the  leap  from  psychological principle to therapeutic practice: just as we tend to make meaningful wholes of our experience, what we actually see, hear, feel, etc., so, we also try to complete any emotional situations, which remain unresolved or  unfinished  from  the  past.  Perls called these situations “unfinished business”, a term which has become part of  everyday  conversation. He  developed simple, but powerful techniques to help people bring to the surface any unfinished situations from the past and resolve them in the present, e.g., ‘Empty Chair’ or ‘Two Chair Work’.

In 1927, Fritz Perls moved to Vienna, because it was the place to be, for anyone involved in the psychoanalytic world. As time went by, Perls became increasingly dissatisfied with Freudian theory and practice, so he began to set about devising his own system.  For his own personal analysis he consulted Wilhelm  Reich, another major influence on his theory development.

Perls found Reich was the first man he could ever really trust, following on from his unfortunate fathering, and they did relate extremely well to each other. Like Karen Horney, Reich believed in having  a  ‘real’  relationship  with  his  clients – professional, yet also warm and lively.

It was Reich who taught Perls how life-energy can become blocked and remain trapped in the body causing physical disease; and how to release that energy by body-oriented psychotherapy.

By now Nazism in Germany was on the increase, causing Perls to  flee to Holland, which was not much safer, and from there to South Africa, where he and Laura (by now also an analyst) set up as trainers and psychoanalysts.  Here he wrote  his book: Ego, Hunger, Aggression (see Reading List),  still well worth reading.

They  stayed  in  South Africa  until  the  end of the Second World War, whereupon they emigrated to the States, became tremendously successful and well-known, and Gestalt Psychotherapy was born.

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