Five Layers Alive - Introducing the Five Layers

Perls developed his five layer model of neurosis towards the end of his career, first describing it in 1966 in one of his Four Lectures (Perls, 1970, pp22-30). He modified his ideas in 1969 (Perls, pp59-76), renaming the layers and developing the model that is generally recognised today. Perls noticed how and when his clients got stuck, and this theory helped to articulate the dynamics at play between therapist and client, and how to get people beyond their own blocks. Perls would seek out the impasse as fast as possible, as he proposed this is where most energy has accumulated, and therefore contains greatest potential for change (Clarkson and MacKewn,1993).  The model serves as a potential map for the therapeutic process, and how change might occur when the therapist challenges fixed and habitual patterns that developed in relationship where support was less available and supports new ways of being alive to the present moment.


The outer layer, originally labelled as ‘phony’, but later revised to ‘cliché’ - captures the notion that the individual is relating to others through the modes of social convention and with no flavour that is personal to them or their experience in the moment.  The extent to which this is a pre-curser for more fulsome exchange, or where this is the dominant mode of functioning would indicate the degree to which this may be problematic for an individual’s contacting process.


Next, the ‘role’ or ‘games’ layer, (originally ‘phobic’) presents the ways in which the individual is relating in a way that casts them in a role that has been adopted in their lives.  Through this level of functioning, the person is likely acting through a template of what they are expected to do and not flexibly as the situation and felt experience in the moment may demand.  Perls said these roles are meant to mobilise the environment for support instead of mobilising one’s own potential (Perls, 1970, p27).

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Then - ‘impasse’ or ‘phobic’ - where the person finds themselves without the familiar structure of the role, or social convention; or where the usual ways of being are not eliciting the kind of response expected or desired, and so is in unknown territory. This layer of impasse is place for incubation and percolation where something new may arise.  The importance of support to stay in this place has become very clear and not running back towards comfortable and familiar – yet ultimately not growthful – strategies.

The ‘implosion’ layer, also called the ‘death’ layer, describes the person’s energy being directed inwards with increasing awareness of the range of potential action.  The phrase ‘vertigo of possibility’ (Philippson, 2002) describes this well, where the stuckness of operating within previously held roles and assumptions transforms into a sense of immobisation where the range of potential choices is overwhelming.  In the implosion the direction of energy inwards with this heightened awareness is the place of emergent contact with those aspects of the self that were disowned, and with those echoes of experience that may have been intolerable to encounter in the past.

Finally, in the centre lies the ‘explosion’ or ‘authentic’ layer, where the person acts with feeling in a way that is in alignment with what is real for them.  Perls originally suggested that explosion takes the form of joy, grief, anger, orgasm. Philippson (2002) describes explosion as ‘the release of energy in action and emotion as the client makes his/her own authentic choice of path’.

In summary, the five layers present a journey of developing self-functions and agency, in response to the support available, where the movement from outer to inner show the client working through ways of being that defend against pain or difficulty at the deepest levels of their being, where functioning in response to need and want have been habitually not supported. 

Five layer theory is not universally accepted and taught in the gestalt therapy world. It is criticised by some for suggesting a core self rather than self-as-process, for promoting an individualised view of the client as neurotic and separate from the therapist, and for not being rooted in Field Theory. In the course of this project we have developed a different view, finding five layer theory to be a very relevant and useful piece of theory that has come to be overlooked, and with some integration with contemporary gestalt theory and practice be a support for how we engage our clients.




Clarkson, P. and Mackewn, J. (1993) Fritz Perls. London: Sage


Perls, F. S. (1969) Gestalt Therapy Verbatim. Moab, UT: Real People Press


Perls, F. S. (1970) ‘Four Lectures’, in Fagan, J. and Shepherd, I. (eds.) Gestalt Therapy Now. Middlesex: Penguin Books


Philipsson,P. (2002) Contemporary Challenges in the Application of Perls’ Five-Layer Theory

Adventures in Being

Gestalt Therapy and Counselling for Growth in Edinburgh with Karen Nimmo