Alan Strachan, Ph. D. Santa Cruz Area Marriage and Family Therapist
Home Photo


Extraverting the Unconscious:
The Influence of Gestalt Therapy on Process Work

           By Alan James Strachan, Ph.D

(originally published in The Dreaming Body: A Case Study Of The Relationship Between Chronic Body Symptoms And Childhood Dreams According To Process-Oriented Psychology. Ph.D.Dissertation for the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, 1992)



In River's Way, Mindell wrote that Process Work rests in part upon gestalt-oriented process work, and that “Fritz Perls encouraged me through his games with the hot seat to extravert the unconscious and try to get away with it” (1985, p. vii).   In this article, I describe the basic principles of Gestalt Therapy, explain how several of the techniques of Gestalt Therapy succeed in extraverting the unconscious, and outline the significance of this approach for Process Work.


Principles Of Gestalt Therapy


Fritz Perls, one of the originators of Gestalt Therapy, derived his theory by combining elements of gestalt perceptual psychology, psychoanalysis and existential psychology. According to Perls, "The world, and especially every organism, maintains itself, and the only law which is constant is the forming of gestalts---wholes, completeness. A gestalt is an an organic function. A gestalt is an ultimate experiential unit." (Perls, 1969, p. 15)

According to Gestalt theory a gestalt is an "ultimate experiential unit" because people are believed to have an innate tendency to organize their visual perceptions into meaningful patterns, or gestalts. The patterns manifest themselves in terms of figure/ground relationships. The relationship between figure and ground is organized around the individual's needs. That which is needed is perceived as the figure; once the need is satisfied it recedes to the ground. Unrecognized needs will tend to become unconsciously polarized.

There are two major goals in gestalt therapy. The first goal is to help the client recognize and satisfy his or her needs. The second goal is to identify, accept and integrate the polarities that exist within the personality. Perls writes that


...what we are trying to do in therapy is step-by-step to re-own the disowned parts of the personality until the person becomes strong enough to facilitate his own growth, to learn to understand where are the holes, what are the symptoms of the holes. (Perls, 1969, p. 38)


In order to achieve identify needs and re-own the disowned parts it is essential that the client achieve a degree of awareness:


And I believe that this is the great thing to understand: that awareness per se---by and of itself---can be curative. Because with full awareness you become aware of this organismic self-regulation, you can let the organism take over without interfering, without interrupting; we can rely on the wisdom of the organism. (Perls, 1969, pp. 16-17)


Perls followed several general principles in his work. First, he encouraged the client to accept full responsibility for all his actions, feelings and thoughts. Second, he focused the work in the here and now:


Nothing exists except in the here and now. The now is present, is the phenomenon, is what you are aware of, is that moment in which you carry your so-called memories and your so-called anticipation with you. Whether you remember or anticipate, you do it now. The past is no more. The future is not yet...........Nothing can possibly exist except the now. (Perls, 1969, p. 41)


Third, Perls focused on how events occurred rather than why:


If you ask how, you look at the structure, you see what's going on now, a deeper understanding of the process. The how is all we need to understand how we and the world functions. The how gives us perspective, orientation....I know you want to ask why, like every child, like every immature person asks why, to get rationalization or explanation. But the why at best leads to clever explanations, but never to an understanding. (Perls, 1969, pp. 43-44)


And fourth, Perls attended very closely to body language and the paralinguistic information conveyed by a person's voice: "So don't listen to the words, just listen to what the voice tells you, what the movements tell, what the posture tells you, what the image tells you." (Perls, 1969, page 53)


Techniques of Gestalt Therapy


Perls utilized a number of psychotherapeutic techniques for working with clients.  The two techniques that Mindell found useful in ‘extraverting the unconscious’ are psychodrama and the ‘empty chair.’ 

In psychodrama, the client re-enacts specific, emotionally-charged situations by playing the roles of the various participants in the situation.  The roles are re-enacted through verbal exchanges as well as movement.  Many variations are possible, including the therapist acting out a role in the psychodrama, role-reversals, and so forth. 

In the ‘empty chair’ technique (which Mindell referred to above as the ‘hot seat’) the client imagines that a significant figure in his or her life is seated in an empty chair.  The client then has the opportunity to speak and act toward the figure in any way that the client needs.  After doing so, the client can then take the role of the imagined person and speak for him or her.  This kind of dialogue continues as long as necessary.

These techniques are very effective in extraverting the unconscious.  First comes the awareness that the client has two parts of his or her personality which are polarized.  Each introverted, internalized part is then externalized; it is given a voice, posture, and movements.  As both parts are acted out, the polarity between them is heightened.  This has the effect of increasing the client's awareness of each part, and of the relationship between the parts.  As awareness increases, and the needs of each part are expressed, there is a greater likelihood that the parts will learn to live in some degree of harmony, and that the client will learn to integrate their wishes into daily life. 

Each of these techniques relies upon the willingness of therapist and client to regard the client's dream or memory as something that is happening in the present.  All memories are expressed through the present moment.  Instead of simply talking about the memory, the therapist and client work together to enact it, to make it come alive. 

Gestalt Therapy and Process Work


Mindell has incorporated these techniques into Process Work with great effectiveness.  In Process Work, as in Gestalt Therapy, a great deal of emphasis is placed upon recognizing internalized figures (which Mindell refers to as dream figures) and identifying the polar figures with whom they are in relationship.  When both figures are identified, then the polarity that exists between them becomes more explicit to consciousness.

Simply recognizing internal, polarized figures is useful.  But it is even more useful to externalize and amplify them, to give them a chance to express themselves in the different channels of speaking, hearing, feeling, and moving. 

If a process needs to remain internal, then a process worker will support that.  But if the client gives positive feedback about externalizing a process, then the process worker has the option of using the role-playing techniques described above.  In this way, the techniques used by Perls have become an integral part of Process Work.




Mindell, A.  (1985).  River’s way: The process science of the dreambody.  London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.


Perls, F. S.  (1969).  Gestalt therapy verbatim.  Lafayette, CA: Real People Press.