Therapeutic Technique: The Empty Chair

The “empty chair” is a therapeutic exercise made popular by the genius Fritz Perls. In short, you imagine someone (or something) sitting in the chair and you express to them whatever it is you need. The intention is to complete a cycle, which results in feelings of relief, closure, and completeness.

Gestalt therapy, as it’s called, is based upon the belief that we have the ability to self-regulate and heal. I believe this 100%. Given the perfect environment, we’d be happy as clams, because nothing would lie between us and what we need. It’s the obstacles that create tension resulting in anxiety, depression, etc. As the poet Rumi said (and I’m pretty sure he knew everything about everything), “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” That is what therapy is about. It’s my job as a therapist to create an environment in which you can be exactly who you are.

So what does that actually look like? Let’s look at a really common theme. Imagine that you feel a lot of anger towards your father, because he rarely let you do what you wanted. He pushed you to dress a certain way or play a certain sport or chose a specific career, etc. If you brought up something different, he’d criticize you or shoot down the idea. If you showed anger about this, you were grounded or sent to your room. Whatever your current level of happiness with your life, you’ve got leftover tension from these experiences. That leftover tension wants out. You have shit to say. So let’s create a space for you to say it.

Let’s put Dad in the chair. You know you’ve succeeded in imagining him there when you begin to feel sensations and emotions. The super cool part? He’s not really there! You’re safe. And your therapist is right there with you. You get to speak your piece. You won’t be met with criticism or judgment or punishment or anything icky! Just like you always deserved. What’s even cooler is that it doesn’t matter that Dad isn’t really there. He could completely unavailable for this or even have already passed away. What’s important is that your body learns how to release that kind of tension. You find the barrier and, because you have support, you discover how to get it the hell out of your way.

Sound scary? It should! It’s not easy. And that’s why us therapists spend years learning and practicing these things! It’s not scary for us. Let us teach you. Because really: “Shit happens, somebody’s gotta deal with it, and who you gonna call?”

 

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