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Gestalt Therapy in Addiction Recovery

Written by Rob Alston

& Medically Reviewed by Dr. Annie Tye, PhD

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Last Updated - 07/15/20

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Updated 07/15/2020

Gestalt therapy is used in addiction therapy to increase one’s self-awareness about their own role in their addiction and recovery.

Traditional drug rehab is incredibly helpful for many people, but alternative therapies have also been shown to be beneficial in addiction recovery. Included among the alternative psychotherapies that have demonstrated efficacy is the Fritz Perls Gestalt Theory. Gestalt therapy is a client-centered therapy that seeks to emphasize the present (how things are) and let go of misconceptions or negative thought patterns relating to the past (how things should have been; there are no “shoulds” in Gestalt therapy).

What Is Gestalt Therapy?

The German word “gestalt” means “an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts.” Gestalt therapy uses this concept to emphasize the role of an individual in the context of their current condition or state of being. In other words, Gestalt therapy emphasizes personal responsibility within the context of the client’s emotional regulation and responses to their environment.

The overall goal of Gestalt therapy is to use “phenomenology” to reframe how an individual lets past events and current negative factors affect their ability to feel satisfaction and fulfillment. For example, someone in rehab may have developed a substance use disorder as a way to avoid negative emotions stemming from a past event.

How Does Gestalt Therapy Work?

The goal of Gestalt therapy is to increase self-awareness in the present moment. Psychologists who use Gestalt therapy believe that when a person is genuinely self-aware, they will consistently improve their physical and psychological health and make improvements to their immediate environment, which will perpetuate future health and holistic growth.

Gestalt therapy uses guided visualization exercises that promote self-awareness and personal ownership. A key concept in Gestalt therapy is that the perceptions of past events are unreliable, and these misperceptions can have disproportionate effects on perceptions about the present. By becoming aware of the negative effects that memories can have while working to develop self-regulation and effective coping skills, people are able to free themselves from constricting ties to the past and move into a stage of growth and personal betterment.

Gestalt Therapy Principles & Techniques

The concept of Gestalt in the organization of perception describes six gestalt principles that, when taken together, form the whole. In a therapeutic setting, there are five key principles that form the basis of exercises, including:


By amplifying or exaggerating an action, feeling or expression repetitively, someone can become aware of how it affects them.


Without interpreting a dream, parts of it are acted out in therapy to help a client become aware of how individual dream components relate to their holistic self.

Role Play/Empty Chair

The client dramatizes an interaction with themself or someone else. In some cases, the client can assume the role of the person they are interacting with. The empty chair technique is a classic role-playing exercise.

Guided Fantasy

While the client visualizes a real or hypothetical situation, the therapist guides them to focus on specific areas of emotion or motivation.

Internal Dialogue

A twist on the empty chair technique. By engaging in a dialogue between opposing personality poles (e.g. aggressive and passive), the client can clarify how specific personality traits affect their interactions with the external world.

When Is Gestalt Therapy Used?

Historically, Gestalt therapy has been used to help people manage mental health concerns like depression, anxiety, and trauma. However, the overarching goal of Gestalt therapy, which is to increase self-awareness, has limitless value in essentially every aspect of the human experience.

Every single person, whether in recovery or not, holds on to inaccurate perceptions of past events. In some cases, distorted perceptions of the past define our current reality. Substance use disorders may be an attempt for people to reconcile what “should have been” with what “is.”

For example, someone who “should have been” a well-adjusted, financially secure adult if not for the past actions of someone else, may wind up using drugs or alcohol as a way to avoid developing a comprehensive awareness of their own role in who they are today. This is an oversimplification and will not apply to everybody, but it gives an example of where Gestalt therapy may be used in a rehab setting.

It is important to underscore that Gestalt therapy does not require that someone assume responsibility for past traumas; rather, Gestalt therapy asks that they become aware of how their reaction to past traumas has inhibited their growth and development and continues to negatively impact their life.

Goals of Gestalt Therapy

The basic goal of Gestalt therapy is to help people gain self-awareness in order to improve their reality. There are several techniques that are used to achieve this goal.

Applying Gestalt Therapy to Addiction Recovery

Addiction recovery requires increasing levels of self-awareness in order to appreciate the negative impact of substance use. Gestalt therapy has demonstrated efficacy in promoting self-awareness and allowing healing from events in the past, which can help people reduce their psychological dependence on substance use.

Does Gestalt Therapy Work?

Data suggests that Gestalt therapy is just as effective as other types of psychotherapy. However, as with all psychotherapy, Gestalt therapy is not a quick-fix or a panacea. People who benefit from Gestalt therapy make an honest effort to improve their self-awareness and understand how their emotions affect their perceived reality, which can be very difficult.

Benefits and Limitations of Gestalt Therapy

Benefits of Gestalt therapy include increased self-awareness that translates into an improved outlook on the role of “self” in improving the current reality. For many people, Gestalt therapy can significantly improve their current situation and provide a platform for future growth and development.

Limitations, especially in the context of substance use disorders, include that Gestalt therapy does not address chemical dysregulation in the brain that contributes to mental health and substance use disorders. In addition, people who are unable to honestly assess their own contribution to the life they are currently living cannot be helped by Gestalt therapy.

Additional Gestalt Resources

Fritz and Laura Perls devised Gestalt therapy in the 1940s. Since then, a number of books have been written describing the methods and techniques used. The Gestalt Therapy Network provides several resources for people who want to learn more.

The Gestalt Institute of Cleveland was founded in 1954 by some of the first students of Gestalt therapy, and they maintain a comprehensive website dedicated to educating people about their methods.

Finding Treatment for Addiction

If you or someone you love is struggling with a substance use disorder, help is available. The Recovery Village Palm Beach at Baptist Health provides comprehensive rehab programs that include Gestalt therapy and other forms of behavioral therapy.

Call The Recovery Village Palm Beach at Baptist Health today to learn about our multidisciplinary approach to recovering from substance use disorders. Our experts can help you get on the road to recovery.

View Sources

Yontef, Gary. “Gestalt Therapy: An Introduction.” The Gestalt Therapy Network, 1993.  Accessed September 22, 2019. “Gestalt Therapy.” Accessed September 22, 2019.

Todorovic, Dejan. “Gestalt Principles.” Scholarpedia, 2008. Accessed September 22, 2019. “How Gestalt Therapy Works.” August, 2018. Accessed September 22, 2019.

Elliott, Robert; Watson, Jeanne C;  Goldman, Rhonda N; Greenberg, Leslie S. “Empty chair work for unfinished interpersonal issues.” Learning Emotion-Focused Therapy, Revised March 2003. Accessed September 22, 2019.