Episode 108 Embrace The Now | Understanding Gestalt Therapy: Interview with Melissa Bennett-Heinz

Mar 22, 2023

What is Gestalt therapy and why is it important? How can you increase your self-awareness and begin to understand how you perceive experiences?

MEET Melissa Bennett-Heinz

Melissa Bennett-Heinz is a graduate of Columbia University School of Social Work and is a practicing Gestalt Psychotherapist in private practice in NY, NC, TX, and WA. She brings her background as a classically trained musician and the creative therapy of Gestalt together in her authentic and relational approach. Gestalt Therapy goes beyond looking at the cognitive, linear perspectives of the person with its focus on process rather than content, paying particular attention to your body, an experiential awareness of how and what you do allows for new choices to emerge spontaneously. Melissa is most interested in the power of the co-created experience to promote self-actualization in the ongoing process of becoming who we are.”

Find out more at Melissa Bennett-Heinz and connect with Melissa on LinkedIn


  • What is Gestalt Therapy? 4:36
  • Common Gestalt techniques 17:50

What Is Gestalt Therapy?

  • What is the origin of Gestalt therapy?
  • Understanding patterns in Gestalt 
  • How is Gestalt different from the psychodynamic theory?
  • The importance of the client and therapist relationship when approaching Gestalt therapy.

Common Gestalt Techniques

  • What is the empty chair technique?
  • What are the main goals of Gestalt therapy?
  • Seeing the different outcomes of Gestalt therapy
  • What is the Highlighting technique in Gestalt?

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Find out more at Melissa Bennett-Heinz and connect with Melissa on LinkedIn


 Chris McDonald: Have you been curious about what Gestalt therapy is, but never really learned much about it? Today I dig into this therapy and how it can be effective for clients. Let's get started. This is holistic counseling, the podcast for mental health therapists who want to deepen their knowledge of holistic modalities and build their practice with confidence.

I'm your. Chris McDonald licensed therapist. I am so glad you're here for the journey.

Welcome to today's episode of the Holistic Counseling Podcast. I am happy to bring to you a discussion on Gestalt therapy. , and I actually had to Google how to say that for sure, but I think I got it right. But I'm gonna be learning right along with you. I've learned a little bit about it, view some of these techniques, but man, there's so much to this.

I'm so excited for this conversation, and I hope you'll find it also informative and thought provoking. My guest today is Melissa Bennett Hines. She brings her background as a classically trained musician. And the creative therapy of Gestalt together in her authentic and relational approach. Melissa is most interested in the power of the co-created experience in the moment to promote self-actualization in the ongoing process of becoming who we are.

A fun fact about her is her entire upbringing and family of origin are filled with classical musicians. She is a New York City conservatory trained musician and studied the OBO with the goal of winning an orchestral position. Welcome to the podcast, Melissa. Thank you,

Melissa Bennett-Heinz: Chris. It's great to be here. Can you share more about

Chris McDonald: yourself with my listeners?

Melissa Bennett-Heinz: Yeah, I currently, um, I work in my own private practice. I'm a licensed clinical social worker and a gestalt psychotherapist. I practice in the states of North Carolina, Washington, Texas, and New York. I practice all virtually. Now I do see some people for walk talk therapy on our property in North Carolina, but I'm all over a screen, which I never imagined would be.

Yeah, I'm right when there with you such a. But here we are. Yes, and I think you said it all already. I come from a family of classical musicians and that was what I would say my destiny was to be. Um, my father's dream was for me to go to a conservatory in New York, and I did. That is not a dream he got to fulfill.

So, It was perfect. I loved every moment of it and I really feel like music is my first love and still is today. Yeah. Um, and that is what paved the way to find my way into the therapy room and eventually into social work school and eventually into Gantt therapy. So it all led beautifully. One thing to another.

Chris McDonald: I like that short, condensed version.

Melissa Bennett-Heinz: Right. , very condensed

Chris McDonald: version. Do you play instruments right

Melissa Bennett-Heinz: now? Instrument. Oh, I sing every day. Sing. Sing, okay. In the, mostly in the shower, but I play the obo. Uh, I don't play professionally anymore, so it is really just in my own space that I get to enjoy it. Yeah,

Chris McDonald: sometimes that's the best part or isn't it?

Melissa Bennett-Heinz: Every performance is perfect

Chris McDonald: and nobody can heckle you, that's for sure. So what first drew you to Gestalt therapy?

Melissa Bennett-Heinz: It's interesting. I did not find Gestalt therapy until I finished graduate school and I was at my first job. In working in community mental health. And I was sitting in my first supervision session with my clinical supervisor and she said to me in that session with her, you're gonna go to the Gap.

I had no idea what she was talking about. And I'm thinking the clothing store at the time, right? And I'm like, I don't shop at the Gap. I'm thinking mine. The Gap in England, and the Gap turned out to be Gestalt Associates for Psychotherapy. Oh. Which is where she also studied. , but she saw something in me that she just felt it was the right.

And she thought I was just going to really find, I guess, what made me sing, you know, so to speak, um, an gestalt and she was right. So I, I think most Gestalt therapists do say this, that it finds us. We don't find it, we don't go looking for it, but there's something about it that's so deeply resonated for what felt so right for myself and therapy.

At the time I was working as a therapist, but also in therapy and. shortly thereafter, she mentioned that to me. I shifted gears and found a Gestalt therapist and never looked back. Wow.

Chris McDonald: Hmm. And so let's, let's rewind a little bit. So, what is Gestalt therapy for those that have never heard of it?

Melissa Bennett-Heinz: The word gestalt is a German word for which there is no direct English translation, but we best know what to mean form.

Organization or relationship and the re relationship among things, um, that we're most interested in, and it's the relationship that has meaning for us. I'm gonna give you an example. If I sing you Happy Birthday in the Key of Sea, I turn around and sing it again in the key of F it would be immediately recognizable.

As Happy birthday because the relationships between the notes are the same, and what we're interested in looking for are patterns that develop character logically so they become out of our awareness. What was once learned as a way of survival at one point was healthy in an environment, becomes out of awareness as we develop and then becomes fixed.

and start in interrupting our way of operating in the world that is healthy. I'm gonna backtrack just a little bit. Desalt is comes from, it's the first known, truly known American psychotherapy. It was brought over by Fritz and Laura Pearls, who were German, and they fled Nazi Germany during World War ii, but they started to develop their theories in the 19.

Fritz was born in the late 18 hundreds. He served in World War I in the trenches and came, came out of that with what we would call P T S D today. His family had him on a trajectory of law school and becoming a lawyer. He had an uncle who was a lawyer and he was a total radical at the time, and he put his foot down and said, he's not doing that, and he ended up going to medical school and he entered into therapy himself through his own experiences.

Was how he really developed. Gestalt and he was the first to really dispute Freud's theories publicly and broke off from that school at the time and started his own school. And what was so different about Gestalt was that it begins from a health model or a growth model and what. Was available at that time, which started with Freud and his colleagues.

And Freud was a medical doctor, so he comes from a sick model or a model of illness. He takes his ideas from science of something being pathological, and if a pathologist were to look at his cell underneath a microscope, What they're looking for are abnormalities in that cell structure, and that's really how Freud and his colleagues treated people At the time, they were looking for abnormalities.

They were looking for something that was wrong or sick. And what Gestalt did was it really looked at the person as self-regulating in their own environment. It looked. The person as doing what they were doing as a form of health and not unhealth. What was working in one environment may not be fitted to this environment anymore, but it was healthy at one point.

It's just out of structure or characterological, meaning out of awareness. I can give you another example of that as if your nose itches and you scratch your nose, that's healthy. But if every time you have an itch, you go back and scratch your nose. , that's unhealthy and that's what characterological means is doing the same thing out of context.

Chris McDonald: Hmm, that makes sense. But how's it different? I know you brought up Freud, so how is it different than psychodynamic theory?

Melissa Bennett-Heinz: What I think we probably all agree on as psychotherapists is that the past informs what's happening in the present. What Gestalt did and does is look at what is happening right now in the present moment.

To inform us of what is relevant from the past. So we look at what would be interrupting what's happening in the present, in the relationship between therapist and client. So it's the use of the relationship and dialogue, which means the both the client. And the therapist show up with all of their characterological ways in dialogue, meaning that the therapist is not directing the dialogue or directing the direction of which the conversation is taking place.

But really just paying attention and being curious as to what is happening in the moment and what is coming up that might be interrupting the process or interrupting the dialogue. Trying to wrap my head around that .

Chris McDonald: So I know you said focusing on the here and. So I, I think from what I read too, is that, so if you, if something comes up for you as a therapist, you'll share that with the client saying, I just wanna share what I'm feeling right now in this moment.


Melissa Bennett-Heinz: if it's clinically appropriate, yes. Right? Yes. Because what is happening in the moment might be very relevant to that client. It might not be. Right. You know, we're human beings and sometimes we have things that come up in the room with our clients that might not be so relevant to the situation or just not therapeutic at that time to share with them, right?

So when we talk about the importance of the relationship, there has to be a level. Report that's built and trust that's built. I can give you an example of somebody comes into my office for the first time and they're mal odorous, or they stink, right? I might very likely not say anything on that first appointment, but over time, if I started to develop a relationship with them and they kept coming in and I kept noticing the smell, and once we have built and established enough trust, I might say something to them.

You know, , I've noticed that you have a, a very strong scent, like you're mal odorous and I'm wondering what's going on. And when you have a relationship with somebody and it's established, then you can confront things like that with them, right? Um, or you can share experiences. That you're having that are relevant to what they're telling you or relevant in the dynamics of the relationship.

So with judgment, you share things, but yes, there is a big part of my experience that I'm having in response to the person I'm sitting with. And that is useful, you know, since we as therapists are the tool, right? There's like some techniques that we can be taught for sure, but we are really the tool in the room that we.

Chris McDonald: Yeah, and I guess I'm more gestalt than I thought cause, cuz I do that here and now. I think that's so important. I teach that to my supervisees too, cuz a lot of them are afraid. Well, I just felt tension, you know, when they were in the room. And of course that could be counter transference, but is there something else going on that maybe you can just be present with them and just say, you know, I'm noticing that as you talk about that, you know, I'm feeling something too.

I'm wondering, especially if the client isn't saying it, if they're not using words to say that they're feeling anxious or, you know, so reflecting that back to them can

Melissa Bennett-Heinz: be helpful. Absolutely. You're saying something really important, you know, because energetically we pick up on things all the time. Oh, yeah.

That are going on in the room. Some of it, yes. Might be our own, but we don't operate in a vacuum, you know? And when somebody walks in, There's all kinds of things that get communicated without words. Sometimes they're really difficult to see. They could just be energy and it could just be the way a person moves, or it could be facial expressions that you might not necessarily even be able to verbalize, but you sense.

And I think that those are really important things to, you know, take notice of. Yes. And one of the things that I love about Gestalt so much is what it teaches. is, okay, I'm an expert, but I am not an expert in your experience. Sure, you are the expert in your experience, so it's important to, to check those things out that are happening when somebody walks in the room, if you're feeling a certain way that you weren't five minutes ago before they walked in, and to ask your client, you know, Hey, I'm wondering if I'm picking up on something, or Are you experiencing this or did you notice that?

and it's really surprising to me when I talk with other therapists how much I hear that they're doing a lot of what I was taught to do and they're just naturally doing it by being present what's in the

Chris McDonald: room too, know what's in the room, really connecting. I think that's hard for initial therapists at times cuz they're in their head

Melissa Bennett-Heinz: so much.

Yeah, it is. It can be really scary. It's really vulnerable to share your experience with somebody. It's hard to be able to, uh, trust yourself in that process. It takes time to develop your relationship with you in order to be able to navigate through that with somebody else. And the truth is, we're human right.

We're not always right. I make mistakes all the time. Yes, and that's one of the beautiful parts of Gestalt therapy is I'm invited to make those mistakes and that it's okay to be human. and it's okay to not only okay, but possible to repair when an error is made. And I think those are the moments when relationships become stronger in the, especially in the therapeutic relationship, when I make a mistake and I can own that, apologize for harm or hurt that I've caused, that's incredibly, yeah, therapeutic, right?

Absolutely therapeutic, and I think it's often what most people have not gotten in their life. It's true. Yeah. Whether it be from their family of Virgin or. Just, you know, it was interesting just the other day some interaction happened in, in the grocery store and it would've been nice to have received an apology, you know, like somebody dropped a gallon of milk and it splattered all over the back of me and they didn't even acknowledge that it had happened and uncovered in milk cuz I was just standing a few feet away from 'em.

And it really. Uh, didn't sit well with me. Really, I was noticing as I was kind of going throughout that interaction and proceeding through the story. You know, what, if this been nice, if they just acknowledged that they just splattered me with milk and just said something, I would've really appreciated that.

So you happen all the time? Yeah. Yeah.

Chris McDonald: But I like how it. . It kind of brings it back to that we are humans too in the room and I think cuz sometimes clients come in and, you know, we're like high and mighty and so smart know everything . We're not, we're human too. But I like I know you said too on, on your website about that you don't pathologize and I think that's another great way to, to look at therapy in the process too, is looking what's going well and looking at more healthy

Melissa Bennett-Heinz: approach.

I believe that a lot of therapy is not just looking at what is going wrong, although that's what people come to us for, right? Sure. They have some kind of problem or some place in their life where they're stuck. I think it's also important that they become aware and mindful of the things that they're doing right and going well, and to really highlight those.

as well as maybe something that isn't going so well for them, or places where they're getting stuck. You know, I, I really hope that through the process of therapy, that one becomes more whole, um, by the time we're finished with our work than when they came in. So I think that it happens, most of us go through life and parts of us get fragmented off and out of our awareness, and, and what I would like to do is bring more of those parts that got fragmented.

into awareness so that you have a choice of when you wanna bring this forward or not. Are you

Chris McDonald: referring to like i f S kind of techniques or is that more gestalt?

Melissa Bennett-Heinz: Yeah, if f s grew in part Adam Gestalt therapy. Ah, so okay, I

Chris McDonald: see the connection. I was like, oh, so you do Uhhuh. Okay. Gotcha.

Melissa Bennett-Heinz: Yeah. Well, when I mentioned that Gestalt was the first American psychotherapy, it was really the first to land on the soil in this country.

That is fascinating. It is fascinating. So when you start looking at all of these other branches of therapy that came out of that, anytime you hear the word mindfulness, you're going back to Gestalt, which goes back to Eastern philosophy and Buddhism. So there's a lot of therapies now, mindfulness-based C B T A C T I, Fs and all these in acronyms.

Internal family systems. Yes. Or cognitive behavioral therapy. Even D B T now is incorporating, right? Yes. A lot. Uhhuh. Mindfulness. A lot more awareness. It's everywhere. Yes. It's everywhere. It's

Chris McDonald: everywhere. Yeah, so, so it's almost like everything is connected when a lot of times we see these as separate modalities or techniques, right?

Melissa Bennett-Heinz: Interconnectedness. Yes. Yes. Yeah. Kals not so foreign, I think, as some people I know. Yeah. Take it to me.

Chris McDonald: No,

Melissa Bennett-Heinz: it's just. And probably not as practiced. That's true.

Chris McDonald: Because you're the first person I've met that that claims to be a GK therapist specifically. I'm sure people use

Melissa Bennett-Heinz: techniques, but, well, you know of the empty chair, I use that.

Yes. You used it so that love so much. Yeah, that's probably the most commonly associated with Gestalt. Can you share what

Chris McDonald: that is? Cuz I think that's such a powerful technique.

Melissa Bennett-Heinz: It is incredibly powerful. Um, so the empty chair technique is, is literally an empty chair that you put in the room with you when you're working as a therapist and into this empty chair can get put all kinds of things, parts of our.

So it could be a part of ourself that we don't know very well, and it gives an opportunity to get to know that part. It could be a feeling, it could be a person that gets put into that empty chair. So often, you know, people come to therapy and what's the most common thing we think of is like issues with your mother, right?

So, yeah, that happens all the. People can put their mother in the empty chair and talk to them and go through this experience. And it's not role playing. It's not about like what mom will say back to you, but it's about allowing for a part of you to have a voice that you might not have had before or develop a part of a voice that you don't even know is there.

And it also gives an opportunity to go and sit and be that. Or be that person, be the feeling and really embody the experience. And it's, again, it's difficult to explain. It's and gestalt's an experiential therapy. And Fritz Pearls said in, in his teachings, he goes, it's, he'd get to the point in a lecture where he'd say, Oh, now since this is an experiential therapy, you have to experience it.

And now I'm gonna do an experiment and he would have somebody come up and, and work as a patient. But the empty chair is an incredibly powerful and it's, it's so powerful that people can imagine putting something into that chair and their whole experience will completely. right before your eyes, like I've seen people be moved to tears instantly or anger or absolutely just refuse to talk to that part.

It can be really vulnerable to show these parts of yourself to a therapist, and it can be really scary to explore that, which you don't understand yet, but you're right that it is incredibly. an incredibly powerful tool. Yeah, and I think I

Chris McDonald: remember my one client that I've seen for a while. I think it is important to remember with this, it's not something you do initially.

with the client has been seeing her for over a year and all these issues, like you said, with a parent. I think that's so common, these issues with parents and family of origin. So we did that with her dad and she, at the end, she was just like, that was the most powerful experience I've ever had in therapy.

And I was just like, whoa, . Wow. So it just, it just was like a release for her in, in some ways it helped build the empathy as she became her dad too in the session, and be able to express all that and really look at a whole picture instead of just from the emotional mind. And yeah, I, I really highly recommend experimenting with that.

It's really

Melissa Bennett-Heinz: nice. Awesome. It is. And where it goes in any one session is just so unpredictable. Yeah. Like what you had just said, how it, for her, it opened up her ability to have some empathy and I don't know if I would ever go into, I'm doing one of those experiments with thinking that was gonna be an outcome.

Yeah. No, I didn't expect that. Yeah. Right. So what emerges out of that and things that get revealed or opened up to us or the client are just fascinating and remarkable, and it's so powerful. I could never do that. You know, like it's, it's the power of the chair and it's, it's so powerful that some patients will absolutely refuse to do it because they'll, they'll see that image over there or that thing, and it's so scary that they just can't even bring it into the room.

Yeah, I can see. And this was virtual too. I know with my first Gestalt therapist, I absolutely refused to do it for a long time. Um, she would invite me often to put whatever it was into the empty chair, and I just refused. And really what was underneath it was I was just incredibly fearful, you know, and fearful of what would happen.

Fearful. What she would see. I was afraid of what was there that I wasn't aware of, and when I finally decided that I was going to let go of whatever sense of control I, I had in refusing to do it and just try something new. Yeah, it was really life changing for me. I can see that.

Chris McDonald: Yeah, we had to, and I think I told you in grad school, we actually did learn about that shockingly enough, and we actually had to practice it with someone too, so we got that experience of

Melissa Bennett-Heinz: it.

What was that experience like for you? Oh, it

Chris McDonald: was incredible. I can't remember. It was a long time ago. I'm aging myself a long time ago, but yeah, it was. I could just, you could just feel that everything come up and the emotions and, and again, that's here and now, isn't it? Even if there were things in the past, it's still, it brings you

Melissa Bennett-Heinz: back to here and now.

Absolutely. Yeah. Cause you're in the moment talking to that person or that thing or that feeling. And it, it could be anything that gets put into that chair. I've put, um, licensing boards in that chair. , I've put, I love it. Education systems into that chair. Yeah. That's good. Yeah. And it, it's, it's extremely powerful to allow something to emerge and give voice to.

Chris McDonald: Is there other techniques that you like to use with clients?

Melissa Bennett-Heinz: I had thought of when somebody starts to give voice to something they might not have ever had a voice for. I'm gonna give an example. maybe expressing, feeling hurt or feeling angry. And what I have noticed many times is when the person can actually say those words from that very authentic, raw place, their voice gets quieter.

Hmm. And they get smaller. And noticing that, oh, I noticed when you were expressing you're hurt that your voice got really quiet. , did you notice that? And usually they hadn. And then they notice it and I'll say, can you say that again? And having them repeat it and maybe even inviting them to repeat something louder or sitting up.

Yeah. And using their body as they give voice to something that they might not have ever said before. And really inviting them to have an entire experience where they're feeling, they're connected. They're connected in the moment with you, they're connected to their body and what is happening. And they're hearing the sound of their voice.

They're feeling the sound and the vibrations and how loud it is is really powerful in terms of shifting something from just being something that's talked about to actually something that's felt. and that's where I find often like the healing can really happen when somebody can really embody their experience and be able to move through.

Yeah. Complicated feelings. Or difficult feelings or giving voice to something for the first time. Yeah. I'm so highlighting is maybe what I would just. Kind of call that. Um, I use a lot of, I do a lot of somatic work and when you're working with people who've never thought much about, been asked what they're feeling, it's hard to have a language for it.

You know, they know sad. Angry, frustrated, happy. But there are so many feelings and experiences that we have language for, but we're not accustomed to using, and we're not accustomed to connecting within our body. So bringing people back to their body and asking them like, where do they feel it? What does it feel like?

And often when we're first reconnecting, People just don't know. They'll say, well, I'm not sure where that is. And so asking them things like, well, does it have a color? Does it move, where does it live? So some people can feel things in their stomach, but they're not sure where they feel things in their chest.

So really, um, helping them use imagery and metaphors and so, asking things like shapes, does it have a shape? Does it move, does it have a color? Does it have a temperature? How big is it? Can really start to help people connect back to what they're feeling and have words for. I think that's

Chris McDonald: great. Very helpful.

So do you have a takeaway to share with my listeners today about gk? Something they could think about or in general?

Melissa Bennett-Heinz: I think maybe the biggest takeaway I would like listeners to grab onto is youth therapy is not about what's always wrong. It, it's often about we can enter into this space when we have a lot going right in our life.

It's not just for people who are sick or people who are really messed up. You know, there has to be a lot of things going right in your life for therapy to be really effective and it's a place. privilege and honor, and absolutely nothing to be ashamed about. Yeah, so don't be afraid to walk into a therapist's ness as a therapist too.

absolutely. All those therapists

Chris McDonald: out there listening, yes, make sure get your own stuff

Melissa Bennett-Heinz: worked out as well. I think you know here, here's the other takeaway. Here's my idea. We get rid of all CEUs. and we just require therapists to be in therapy. Amen. ? Yes. Like how many more suicide prevention trainings do you need?

How many more CEUs? Yeah. Ugh. Right. How many more ethics trainings do you need after 20 something years of practice? Agreed. Mm-hmm. ? Yeah. , but the work we do on ourselves and the awareness we can have of ourselves that we bring to the work we do with our clients is just utterly valuable and necessary.

Yeah. What's

Chris McDonald: the best way for listeners to find more about

Melissa Bennett-Heinz: you? Um, you can visit my website, which is www.melissabennetthines.com

Chris McDonald: and we'll have that in the show notes as well. So, but thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Melissa.

Melissa Bennett-Heinz: Thank you, Chris, for having me. It was wonderful. Yeah, this

Chris McDonald: was great.

And that brings us to the close of another episode of the Holistic Counseling Podcast. And I appreciate you listeners for tuning in. I hope you found this podcast helpful. If you did, please spread the word. Share this episode with a colleague who might be interested in holistic counseling. This can help further build our holistic community.

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