Friedrich (Frederick) Salomon Perls (July 8, 1893 – March 14, 1970), better known as Fritz Perls, was a noted German-born psychiatrist and psychotherapist of Jewish descent. He coined the term "Gestalt Therapy" for the approach to therapy he developed with his wife, Laura Perls. His approach is related to Gestalt psychology and the Gestalt Theoretical Psychotherapy of Hans-Jürgen Walter.
At Gestalt Therapy's core is the promotion of awareness, the awareness of the unity of all present feelings and behaviors, and the contact between the self and its environment. Perls and his work became associated with the Esalen Institute in California, in the 1960s. Perls has been widely evoked outside the realm of psychotherapy for a quotation often described as the "Gestalt prayer." This was especially true in the 1960s, when the version of individualism it expresses received great attention.
While Perls' Gestalt Therapy offered hope and a type of healing to many, it also has its limitations. In particular, the very individualism that attracted many seeking to find their own path to self-fulfillment is also its weakness. Perls focused on what is important to the person in terms of their personal growth as an individual. However, human beings are essentially social beings, and without developing relationships with others, learning to live in harmony, working together for common goals and for the good of society as a whole, they do not fulfill their individual potential. True happiness is not found alone, but rather in the realization of true love, which is not centered on oneself in isolation but through finding others from whom love can be received and to whom love can be given.
Fritz Perls was born in Berlin, in 1893. He was expected to go into law like his distinguished uncle, Herman Staub, but instead studied medicine. After a time spent in the German Army in the World War I trenches, he graduated as a doctor. Perls gravitated to psychiatry and the work of Freud and the early Wilhelm Reich.
In 1930, he married Lore (later Laura) Posner, and they had two children together, Renate and Stephen.
In 1933, soon after the Hitler regime came into power, Fritz Perls, Laura, and their eldest child Renate fled to the Netherlands, and one year later they emigrated to South Africa, where Fritz Perls wrote Ego, Hunger, and Aggression, in 1941 (published 1942). His wife Laura contributed to the book, but she is usually not mentioned. In 1942, Fritz went into the South African army where he served as an army psychiatrist with the rank of captain, until 1946.
The Perls moved to New York City in 1946, where Fritz Perls first worked briefly with Karen Horney, and then with Wilhelm Reich. Around 1947, Perls asked author Paul Goodman to write up some hand-written notes, which together with contributions from Ralph Hefferline and Goodman, were published as Gestalt Therapy.
Fritz Perls moved to California in 1960. In 1964, he started a long-term residency at Esalen and became a major and lasting influence there. Perls led numerous seminars at Esalen, and he and Jim Simkin led Gestalt Therapy training courses there. Dick Price became one of Perls' closest students during this time. Perls continued to offer his workshops as a member of the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, until he left the United States to start a Gestalt community at Lake Cowichan on Vancouver Island, Canada, in 1969.
Fritz Perls died almost a year later, on March 14, 1970, in Chicago, of heart failure after surgery at the Louis A. Weiss Memorial Hospital.
Fritz Perls, together with his wife Laura, founded the first institute for their new therapy, "Gestalt therapy," in New York City, in 1952. The practice was based on the seminal work, Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality, published in 1951, co-authored by Fritz Perls, Paul Goodman, and Ralph Hefferline (a university psychology professor, and sometime patient of Fritz Perls).
The objective of Gestalt Therapy, in addition to helping the client overcome symptoms, is to enable him or her to become more fully and creatively alive and to be free from the blocks and unfinished issues that may diminish optimum satisfaction, fulfillment, and growth. Thus, it falls in the category of humanistic psychotherapies.
Isadore From became an early patient, first of Fritz and then of Laura. Fritz Perls soon anointed From as a trainer and gave him some patients. From lived in New York until his death, at 75 in 1993, and was known world-wide for his philosophical and intellectually rigorous take on Gestalt Therapy. A brilliant, witty, and sometimes caustic man, From was very much the philosopher of the first-generation Gestalt therapists. Acknowledged as a supremely gifted clinician, he was unfortunately phobic of writing and the few things committed to paper are transcriptions of interviews (Rosenfeld, Edward. 1978).
Another client who became a co-trainer with Perls was psycholgist Jim Simkin. Simkin was responsible for Perls moving to California where he attempted to begin a psychotherapy practice. Ultimately, being a peripatetic trainer and workshop leader was a better fit for Perls' personality. Simkin and Perls co-led some of the early (for California) training groups at Esalen.
In the 1960s, Perls became infamous for his public workshops at Esalen Institute in Big Sur. Isadore From referred to some of Fritz' several day workshops as "hit-and-run" therapy because of its emphasis on showmanship with little or no follow-through, but Perls never considered these workshops to be true therapy. Simkin went from co-leading training groups with Perls to purchasing a property next to Esalen and starting his own training center, which he ran until his death in 1984. Here, he refined his version of Gestalt Therapy, training psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, and social workers within a very rigorous residential training model.
When Fritz Perls left New York City for California, there began to be a split between those who saw Gestalt Therapy as a therapeutic approach with great potential (this view was best represented by Isadore From, who practiced and taught mainly in New York, and by the members of the Cleveland Institute, co-founded by From) and those who saw Gestalt Therapy not just as a therapeutic modality but as a way of life. The East Coast, New York-Cleveland axis was often appalled by the notion of Gestalt Therapy leaving the consulting room and becoming a way-of-life, as characterized in the "Gestalt prayer" authored by Perls.
The key idea of the Gestalt prayer is the focus on living in response to one's own needs, without projecting onto or taking introjects from others. It also expresses the idea that it is by fulfilling their own needs that people can help others do the same and create space for genuine contact; that is, when they "find each other, it's beautiful."
Gestalt therapy rose from its beginnings with Fritz and Laura Perls in the middle of the twentieth century to rapid and widespread popularity during the decade of the 1960s and early 1970s. During the 1970s and 1980s, Gestalt therapy training centers spread globally, but they were, for the most part, not aligned with formal academic settings. As the cognitive revolution eclipsed gestalt theory in psychology, many came to believe gestalt was an anachronism. In the hands of gestalt practitioners, gestalt therapy became an applied discipline in the fields of psychotherapy, organizational development, social action, and eventually coaching.
After a presentation by his son, Stephen Perls, one of the audience commented
Hearing you talk about your relationship with Fritz makes me understand, I think a bit more deeply, why in its early formation Gestalt therapy just couldn't really address the issue of intimacy with any soul and why it so much celebrated the strong individual but not the community and not the connection. And it also, I think, shows why it's so important that a theory be subject to development and to revision by many people and not just be the outgrowth of some one person (Stephen Perls 1993).
Perl's Gestalt therapy is still functioning in Esalen at Big Sur. Although reaching its zenith in the late 1970s and early 1980s and has since been waning in popularity, its contributions have become assimilated into current schools of therapy, sometimes in unlikely places.
Many of Fritz and Laura Perls' students continued the development and application of Gestalt Therapy. Among the more notable are included Richard Bandler and John Grinder, co-founders of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, and Claudio Naranjo, Fritz Perls' apprentice and one of Carlos Castaneda's closest friends, who integrated the work at Esalen and became an active education reformist.
Ernest Becker, an internationally known author and lecturer in the fields of psychology, sociology, and anthropology, said of Fritz Perls:
But if you peel away your lie, you can start looking at things a little more pristinely; you're no longer so driven. And then there might be a possibility for more authentic awareness at that point, and I think this is Perls' great idea and lasting contribution (Becker 1970).
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