Gestalt therapy is both creative and experimental. The creativity of gestalt is all about identifying support in the current situation. Blue Peter taught a generation of people how much support they could get from toilet roll tubes and double sided sticky tape. Gestalt does the same with every situation, asking ‘what does this situation give support to?’. The experimentation of gestalt is all about showing instead of telling, and doing instead of talking about.
An experiment in gestalt is ultimately about trying something that will make the subject matter more immediately available for experience. A classic example is called ‘the empty chair’. Instead of telling me about how you feel about someone who isn’t in the room, I might invite you to pretend that person is in the empty chair and tell them directly how you feel. This immediately shifts us from considering the there and then of wherever this person is, to the here and now of immediate experience. Crucially, it means showing those feelings and making full contact with them instead of talking about them and making only partial contact with them.
Fritz Perls described therapy as a ‘safe emergency’. I think this is the best way of explaining what a gestalt experiment is about. It’s an emergency because it means doing something that stretches your comfort zone, taking you into unknown territory. It’s safe because the therapy situation is a well-contained space, and the experiment is facilitated by a supportive therapist. When I suggest experiments, I ensure they are graded so that your comfort zone is only pushed to a degree that you can tolerate. Pushing someone beyond their tolerance is not only unethical but pointless because the learning can’t be assimilated.
An experiment can be as simple as me suggesting that you make a statement (e.g. ‘what would it be like for you to state how angry you are?’ would be a challenging experiment for someone who has difficulty expressing anger). Or it can be as complex as becoming a character from a dream you’ve had and speaking as if you were them for a while.
This safe emergency can then become a space in which you develop new behaviours and ways of being by rehearsing them in a supportive environment, with valuable feedback from your therapist. All that’s needed for an experiment to take place is for us to look around the room and consider what support is available for whatever we’re wanting to explore.
The world becomes a vastly different place when seen with experimental eyes!