November 11

Fritz Perls: The Genius Behind the Gestalt Therapy Method


fritz perls

“I do my thing and you do your thing.

I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine.

You are you, and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, it's beautiful.

If not, it can't be helped.”

— Fritz Perls

Friedrich (Fredrick or Frederick) Salomon Perls, better known as Fritz Perls, was a German-born psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and psychotherapist. He was also one of the original models of Neuro-linguistic Programming along with Milton Erickson and Virginia Satir. He coined the term “Gestalt therapy”, which is a form of existential psychotherapy he developed with his wife in the 1940s and 1950s. His approach is related to the Gestalt psychology and the Gestalt Theoretical Psychotherapy of Hans-Jurgen Walter.

Gestalt therapy had a variety of psychological and philosophical influences, and in addition was a response to the social forces of its day. Gestalt therapy also incorporates aspects of Freudian and Reichian psychology. The emphasis on interconnection between the individual being and the environment that he interacts with on a daily basis is the main idea behind Gestalt therapy.

The Life of Fritz Perls

Fritz Perls was born on July 8,1893 in Berlin, Germany. His family expected him to practice law, like his uncle Herman Staub, but he studied medicine instead.

He joined the German army during World War I, and spent time in the trenches. After the war ended in 1918, he returned to his medical studies and graduated 2 years later, specializing in neuropsychiatry as a medical doctor. He then became an assistant to Kurt Goldstein, who was working with brain injured soldiers at the time. While he was there, Perls slowly developed an interest in psychoanalysis. 

In 1927, Fritz Perls became a member of Wilhelm Reich’s technical seminars in Vienna. Reich’s concept of character analysis had a profound influence on Perls.

In 1930, Reich became Perls’ supervising senior analyst in Berlin. That same year, he married Laura Perls (born Lore Posner), and they had 2 children: Renate and Stephen. 

In 1933, Fritz Perls, his wife Laura Perls, and their eldest son Renate, were forced to leave Germany. At the time, Hitler had come into power and Perls was of Jewish descent and had participated in anti-fascist political activities in the past. They first went to the Netherlands, and one year later, they emigrated to South Africa. While he was there, Fritz Perls started a psychoanalytic training institute. 

While in South Africa, Perls was influenced by Jan Smuts’ “holism”. It was also during this period that he co-wrote his first book “Ego, Hunger, and Aggression”, which he published in 1942. His wife wrote two chapters of the book, however, when it was re-published in the United States she was not given any recognition for her work.  

In 1936, he briefly met with Sigmund Freud. It was reported that the meeting was unpleasant. 

In 1942, Fritz Perls joined the South African Army, and served as an army psychiatrist with the rank of captain until 1946.

In 1946, Fritz and Laura Perls left South Africa and moved to New York, where he worked briefly with Karen Horney and Wilhelm Reich.

He wrote his second book with the help of New York Intellectual and author, Paul Goodman, who drafted the theoretical second part of the book based on Perls’ hand-written notes. Along with the experiential first part, written with Ralph Hefferline, the book was entitled Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth and published in 1951.

Soon after publishing his second book, Fritz and Laura Perls started the first Gestalt Institute in their Manhattan apartment. Perls then began traveling throughout the United States in order to conduct Gestalt workshops and trainings. 

In 1960, Fritz left Laura behind in Manhattan and moved to Los Angeles, where he practiced in conjunction with Jim Simkin. When Fritz left NYC for California, a split emerged in the Gestalt Therapy group. There were those who saw Gestalt therapy as a therapeutic approach with great potential. And there were others who saw it as a way of life. This feeling is summarized by the “Gestalt prayer” (shown at the top of this blog post) written by Fritz Perls.

In 1964, Perls moved to California and became affiliated with the Esalen Institute, in where he provided workshops and continued to practice and develop Gestalt therapy. 

During the 1960s, he became interested in Zen, and incorporated the idea of mini-satori (a brief awakening) into his practice. 

In 1969, Perls left Esalen and started a Gestalt community at Lake Cowichan on Vancouver Island, Canada. 

Fritz Perls died of heart failure on March 14, 1970, after undergoing heart surgery at the Louis A. Weiss Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

Gestalt therapy reached its peak around the late 1970s and early 1980s and has since declined in popularity. Perls’ Gestalt therapy is still functioning in Esalen at Big Sur. Many of Fritz and Laura Perls’ students have also continued the development and application of Gestalt Therapy. Notable students include Richard Bandler and John Grinder, the co-founders of NLP, as well as Claudio Naranjo, Fritz Perls’ apprentice.

Check out this post for some of the best sayings by Fritz Perls.

Gestalt Therapy Defined

Gestalt therapy is an experiential and humanistic approach that emphasizes the here and now, rather than the past or the future. Gestalt therapists and their clients use creative and experiential techniques to enhance awareness, freedom, and self-direction. Some of these techniques include:

  • The empty chair: This technique involves placing an empty chair in front of the client and asking them to imagine someone or something they have an unresolved issue with sitting in it. The client then engages in a dialogue with the imagined person or thing, expressing their feelings, thoughts, and needs. This can help the client gain insight, clarity, and closure.
  • The paradoxical theory of change: This theory states that change happens when we fully accept ourselves as we are, rather than trying to change ourselves to fit an ideal or expectation. Gestalt therapists help their clients become aware of their contradictions, conflicts, and resistances, and encourage them to embrace them rather than avoid them. This can lead to spontaneous and authentic change.
  • The experiment: This technique involves creating a situation or scenario that challenges the client’s habitual patterns of thinking, feeling, or behaving. The client is then asked to participate in the experiment and observe what happens. This can help the client discover new possibilities, perspectives, and potentials.

How to Find a Gestalt Therapist?

If you are interested in trying gestalt therapy, you can look for a qualified gestalt therapist in your area. You can search online for gestalt therapists near you, or use websites such as Psychology Today or GoodTherapy that have directories of therapists who practice different modalities. You can also ask for referrals from your primary care provider, friends, family, or other trusted sources.

When choosing a gestalt therapist, it is important to consider their credentials, experience, specialization, fees, availability, and rapport. You can contact potential therapists and ask them questions about their background, approach, methods, goals, and expectations. You can also schedule an initial consultation or session to see if you feel comfortable and compatible with them. This is one of the best ways to ensure long-term satisfaction.

Gestalt therapy is a unique and powerful form of psychotherapy that can help you live more fully and authentically in the present moment. If you are curious about gestalt therapy and how it can help you with your personal issues or goals, you can contact a gestalt therapist today and start your journey of self-discovery and transformation.


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2 years ago

I am trying to track down a source for a quote that is attributed to Fritz. I find it everywhere, but no one provides a source. If you can help please email me.
Thank you

“The task of each person is to find out what is blocking a life situation.”
-Fritz Perls-

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