Gestalt Therapy in Chile

Pablo Herrera 

I remember my first direct experience of Gestalt in Santiago de Chile, back in 2003. Before, I had seen a couple of books in my father’s library, and took a class in my undergraduate psychology studies. But I had never really experienced gestalt therapy.

It was the first day of a three year training. We were 30 students who had never met before; some psychologists, many with different occupations. After we introduced ourselves in a very standard fashion, the facilitator asked us to do something unusual: tell our class mates what we didn’t like about them. We had just met each other and this directive went against Chilean politeness, but if the great Nana Schnake said it, we had to do it. So we went along with it.

After everyone had spoken, Nana read to all of us what we disliked about one another. She then asked us which of these negative traits we recognised in ourselves, and which we definitely didn't possess. Finally, she created a role or character who personified the traits we disliked in others and didn't possess in ourselves. The next day, we had to come to class disguised as that character, and interact with the others in that role for a few hours. I had to be an old fashioned macho man; a narcissistic, aggressive, womaniser. And I loved it!

This was in 2003, and over the years I'd been to hundreds of hours of therapy and workshops. However that role played a huge part in the path of my development ever since. It has been like a backbone, or a guiding light that helps me focus on the important aspects that I need to integrate.

But this is not a post about my personal experience, so let's rewind a little bit and talk about the history of Gestalt therapy in Chile. Just for a little context, so then we can share a bit about our present and what we are doing towards the future.

History and context

Gestalt in Chile has a mother, a father and a "special" uncle. The father is Claudio Naranjo, who learned with Perls and has written countless Gestalt books, focused on spirituality, Enneagram, and recently education. The mother is Adriana “Nana” Schnake (my teacher and the founder of the Gestalt Institute of Santiago, where I studied and now work). She has developed a model and technique to work therapeutically with physical illnesses, and has conducted group therapy workshops in the Chiloé Island for decades, besides creating our institute and deeply influencing Latin American Gestalt. The "special" uncle would be Francisco Hunneus, who founded the “Cuatro Vientos” editorial, translating and publishing almost every gestalt therapy book available in Spanish speaking countries.

Nowadays Claudio, Nana and Francisco are in their 80’s, but Gestalt therapy is very much alive. Alive, but not thriving. We have the Institute and give a Masters degree diploma (over three years of training). Every year it's full of new students, but we don't have a big presence outside our classrooms. There is a lot of psychology articles written in the press, but most of it is written by psychoanalysts, or other colleagues who definitely don't share humanistic values. Also, we are losing ground in the academia. When I studied, there was a requisite class on humanistic therapy, and several other optional classes. Now, there is only one optional class, and all the others have disappeared.

How do we practice Gestalt in Chile?

Until last year, I couldn't really answer this question because before I met other Gestalt therapists from different countries, I naively thought we practiced “Gestalt”, not “Chilean Gestalt”.

But after having the privilege of talking with colleagues from the Czech Republic, Italy, Germany and others, I can say that in Chile, we work a lot with the clients’ main polarities: what aspects of their experience and personality do they accept, embrace and own?; Which ones do they disown or want to eradicate? We tend to explore the clients’ main polar pair (in my case, we named it “the caveman vs the diplomat”), from their own perspective and in a non judgmental manner. For example, other Gestalt colleagues give a lot of importance to the relational aspect of Gestalt theory, almost in a systems theory manner. For others, the focus is on the interruptions of contact. And the most surprising thing is that something so obvious for us, the concept of Polarities, is not emphasised in other training institutes, and seldom theorised.

Something specific in Chilean Gestalt is Nana’s work with illnesses. She created a way to do chair work with a particular organ that has a physical problem, integrating the organ’s physiological traits. For example, the lungs are passive (they can't move on their own), and if a person rejects and disowns all passiveness in her, the theory is that the organ is more vulnerable for failure. The interesting part is that many colleagues have seen medical results working like this with patients. I've almost never used it in my clinical practice, heresy! (I hope my Chilean teachers don't see this.)  But I've read and heard that it's very effective.

Gestalt in Chile now

As an unexpected byproduct of a very unambitious conversation with the director of the Institute in 2011, I became head of research. Research!? Almost no one was doing research in humanistic therapy in Chile, and in the Institute, it was a word received with more fear and contempt than awe and openness. But now, with zero funding and a lot of motivation, we are doing research in Gestalt therapy.

Probably as further proof of our naivety, we are currently working on three different projects: The first is the construction of a psychotherapy outcome measure coherent with the way we do diagnosis and our therapeutic aims. The second is still undeveloped, is the testing of Nana’s theory about the physical impact of doing chair work with the ill organ. Just aiming to do this takes great courage from our director Antonio Martinez, because in Chile, Nana Schnake is a guru and we want to test and challenge her hypothesis. The third is a collaborative project with several other countries, in order to study the change process in Gestalt psychotherapy and also its’ efficacy. We are conducting many single case experiments, which is a methodology validated by the APA to assess if a therapy is efficacious for a specific problem. If we can find between 4 and 10 successful cases, Gestalt therapy would have, for the first time, “empirical validation” in the larger field of health institutions and government agencies. That would be huge.

As these projects are all still underway and not finished, I don't know what will happen. All I do know is that we are doing it through collaboration; exploring synergies between each and every little resource we have. And we are doing it because we are curious. We want to explore, we want to challenge what we assume we know. We want to be open to something new and we want to learn more.

And when we have doubts and setbacks, we ask ourselves: isn't this what Gestalt is all about? 

Pablo Herrera is a psychotherapist with a PhD in psychotherapy research, and is in charge of research in the Gestalt Institute of Santiago. Besides this he has a weekly blog in Spanish ( where he writes about human growth and shares practical ideas for living a more fulfilling life.

Read Pablo's latest blog post in Spanish here