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Addiction and Gestalt Therapy

So many of us walk through life weighed down by the pain of our past. We carry around unresolved issues and hurts, and they haunt us. We know we need to move on, but we just don’t know how.

We’re like Rachel in that classic Friends episode, frustrated by her inability to move on after her breakup with Ross: “Yeah! Closure. That’s what it is, that’s what I need …. How do I get that?”

With Gestalt, you learn that you actually have the power to give yourself closure – or comfort, or compassion – when you need it. You’re not dependent upon another person to take care of you emotionally; instead, you learn how to be a compassionate friend to yourself.

What Is Gestalt Therapy?

Gestalt Therapy is a school of psychology founded by Fritz and Laura Perls and popularized in the 1940s and 1950s, though the theory behind it goes back to the 1890s.

The word “gestalt” is German, and it means “form” or “shape.” The central principle of Gestalt Therapy is that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Gestalt therapy is also a part of the core spiritual psychology counseling strategies.

It’s also referred to as simply Gestalt … or, in more colloquial terms, “empty chair work”. (We’ll explain why in just a moment.)

The tenets of Gestalt Therapy stress taking ownership for your life, as well as working with present-moment experience and seeing yourself within an interconnected web of relationships. For this reason, it is a critical tool to help with addiction and personal responsibility.

Why Use Gestalt Therapy For Addiction Treatment?

The reason that Gestalt Therapy works so well with addiction treatment is that it helps you to locate the places where you’re stuck emotionally. (In our Program, we refer to these spots as our “unfinished business.”)

Gestalt gives you a framework for revisiting and ultimately healing those traumatic events from our past. It offers you a way to give your past self the love you longed for.

Through Gestalt, you get in touch with the frightened, hurting, vulnerable parts of yourself that need your attention and care. This is so important!

After all, you already know what happens when you don’t pay attention to them: the mental and emotional pain leads you to drink or use drugs to numb out.

Gestalt gives you a chance to tend to the aspects of your being that have been ignored for too long. And as it helps you to bond and connect with yourself, it effectively diminishes your need to bond with harmful substances.

How Gestalt Therapy Works

There are different forms of Gestalt Therapy, but a common, key element is the empty chair. The empty chair is a tool to help you complete your “unfinished business”. How? By empowering you to see your issues from a different perspective.

Here’s how Gestalt works from a bird’s-eye view. You sit in one chair, and place an empty one across from you. Then you dialogue with another person, a traumatized part of yourself, or even a disowned aspect of yourself. You do this by playing both roles, switching back and forth between chairs.

First you speak as yourself, asking questions of another person (or traumatized part of yourself). Then you hop up and sit in the other chair and speak as the other person (or part of yourself), answering the questions that you yourself have asked.

It’s all coming from you – that’s the point – but you’ll be astonished by the powerful truths that come forward through this exercise.

If it sounds overwhelming or complicated, don’t worry; most people catch on quickly with a little practice. Here’s an example of how it works in real time.

Gestalt Therapy in Action

Here are the steps to do a Gestalt process. Note that while you can do this on your own, it’s highly advisable to have a trained therapist – or at the very least, a trusted friend – to guide you through the process when you’re just starting out.

Note that in this example, we’ll have you work with another person with whom you have unfinished business, rather than a traumatized part of yourself. When you’re learning the steps, it tends to be easier to start there.

First, find a safe, private space with at least 2 chairs available.

Take deep breaths. Get your body, mind, and heart as calm and centered as you can. Think of someone you love unconditionally, or your very favorite place on earth. Pause until you feel at least a flicker of peacefulness.

Next, state your intention to heal at the deepest level possible.

After that, invite the person with whom you have unfinished business to come and sit in the chair. Of course, they won’t physically join you, but see if you can sense their presence just the same. (Once you extend the invitation, you may be surprised to discover that you have a visceral sense of their energy joining you in the room.)

Once you sense the other person’s presence in the empty chair, thank them for joining you, then start a dialogue with them. Tell them what it is you want to talk about.

Say everything that you’re thinking and feeling; don’t hold back. Instead, be honest and forthright about your true feelings. Talk until you feel you’ve said everything that you need to say.

Then, ask them some questions: “What do you want me to know?” and “How are you trying to help me?”

Once you’ve asked, you move into the empty chair, close your eyes, and feel the energy there. Speak from that energy; speak as if you really are that other person. Pro tip: keeping your eyes closed when you’re in the chair helps you to stay connected to the energy.

Go back and forth between the chairs, having an interactive dialogue. If you feel stuck, just think about whether there’s anything else you want to say to the other person, or if you have any other questions for them. The sky is the limit; you can ask them anything.

Once you feel complete, make sure to return to your own seat and thank the other person for coming to speak with you. Also make sure to praise yourself for having the courage to do this emotional work.

When the dialogue is done, focus on identifying the judgments, projections, and limiting beliefs you discovered and do self-forgiveness work as well.

How to Use Gestalt Therapy to Heal: A Quick Summary

Gestalt Therapy teaches you how to resolve the unfinished business that dogs your heels and causes mental and emotional pain. It does this by creating an effective framework for issue resolution.

With Gestalt, you’re not bound by the limits of time and space. You can connect with a person who has long since died or been lost to you in some other way. This enables you to heal and forgive within yourself, even if you never see the other person again.

In sum, Gestalt is a way for you to take charge of your own recovery process. You’re not at the mercy of others; instead, you find that you had the power to heal within you all along.

In the words of the Persian poet Rumi, “You wander from room to room / Hunting for the diamond necklace / That is already around your neck!”

Gestalt gives you a way to access a priceless treasure: the love, compassion, and forgiveness that was yours all along.

Addiction and Gestalt Therapy

Joe Koelzer

Joe Koelzer is a co-founder and CEO of The Clearing. He has years of counseling experience and a master’s degree in Spiritual Psychology from the University of Santa Monica.

After observing how depression and substance abuse impacted his wife Betsy’s life, Joe realized how broken our current system is for addiction and related mental health treatment.

He witnessed firsthand how an evidence-based approach coupled with Spiritual Psychology saved Betsy and enabled her to gain control of her life.

In co-founding The Clearing, Joe realized his dream of creating and sharing this innovative approach with others in a structured clinical setting.

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APA Reference
, . (2018). Addiction and Gestalt Therapy. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 28, 2020, from


Last updated: 2 Apr 2018
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