Perls, Fritz

Perls, (Frederick Salomon) Fritz

(1893–1970) psychiatrist; born in Berlin, Germany. He left Germany in 1933, but did not settle in the U.S.A. until 1946. He was a founder and the most influential practitioner of Gestalt psychotherapy, which he explained in Ego, Hunger, and Aggression (1947), Gestalt Therapy (1951), Gestalt Therapy Verbatim (1969), and other books. In the 1960s, he was resident psychiatrist at the Esalen Institute at Big Sur, Calif., in which role he gained the reputation of being something of a faddish "guru," although he was in fact a most serious professional.

Perls, Fritz


Gestalt psychology originated from studies of perception. It focuses on the mind’s characteristic tendency to organize experience into comprehensible wholes, even when available sensory information is incomplete. In letters of the alphabet with “holes” (missing segments), for example, the perceiving mind tends to supply the missing part, and we cognize the entire letter. In the hands of Fritz Perls (1893–1970), who was originally trained in Freudian psychoanalysis, this understanding of the human mind became the basis for Gestalt therapy. Working with small groups of people at Esalen Institute in California, Perls was a leader of the human potentials movement.

Gestalt therapy seeks to discover our emotional “holes”—the segments of ourselves that have been repressed by the conscious mind—and reintegrate them, the goal being a state of psychological wholeness and unity. Perls believed that dreams embodied rejected parts of ourselves and could thus be used as starting points for discovering what we have rejected:

The dream … is a message of yourself to yourself … every aspect of it is a part of the dreamer, but a part that to some extent is disowned and projected onto others…. If we want to own these parts of ourselves again we have to use special techniques by which we can re-assimilate those experiences. (Perls, 1970, p. 27—see Sources)

At a theoretical level, this basic perspective is not radically different from the ideas of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and other depth psychologists, for whom the therapeutic process involves finding and recovering aspects of the self that have been repressed into the unconscious.

Where Perls departed most radically from the analytic tradition was in his innovative approach to therapy. In Gestalt therapy, participants describe their dreams in the present tense and then attempt to experience various aspects of the dreams as attributes of themselves; in other words, they become the dream by acting out each part. In the case of a woman who dreamed of a spider crawling on her, for instance, the woman would act out the roles of both the spider and herself while the spider was on her and relate how it felt to be each of them in various aspects of the dream. The therapist might then ask the dreamer to set up a dialogue between the different parts of the dream, taking the parts, alternately, of the spider and herself:

Liz (as herself in the dream): You are important because you keep the insect population down and you are important because you build beautiful webs…. and you’re important because you’re alive.

Perls: Now, change seats again…. I would like you to try and let the spider return the appreciation.

Liz (as her dream spider): You’re important because you’re a human being, and there are fifty zillion of you and so what makes you so important? (Laughter)

Perls: Now you notice already the hole in her personality self-appreciation; lack of self-confidence. Other people have feelings of worthiness or something. She’s got a hole….

Liz: But it’s up to her to fill the hole.

Perls: No, it’s up to the spider. (Perls, 1969, pp. 84–85—see Sources)

In the course of this dialogue, Liz gradually discovers her spider dreams are rooted in feelings of unworthiness that have caused her to reject some of the fun-seeking aspects of herself. Perls refers to these rejected parts as “holes,” which Liz can fill only by listening to the spider and realizing that the spider represents a part of her rejected psyche.