The Gestalt Counseling and Training Institute of Ann Arbor

Holistic Therapy for Mind, Body and Soul

Figure/Ground
Although the Gestalt psychologists talked of figure and ground in relation to perceptual phenomena, Gestalt therapists have applied it more broadly. They see it as relevant to all functions of the individual, of intimate systems such as couples and families, and of larger systems such as organizations and cultures.

Basically, as we experience the environment, a primary form, or "figure," stands out and is organized against its background, or "ground." The ground in contrast to the figure is unbounded and form­less (Polster and Polster, 1973). It includes past experience, physiology, beliefs, constructs, culture, and so on, with its main function being to provide context.

As a figure emerges from the ground, it draws attention for a varied, but always finite, length of time. Eventually, when it no longer holds the focus (because of some form of completion or perhaps competition from another figure), it recedes back into the ground where it is, one hopes, reintegrated in such a way as to make new meaning. Gestalt therapists have spent much time articulating this process of figure formation and destruction (Perls et al., 1951).
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