“You want me to do what?” I asked my therapist. “We’re going to do the empty chair technique.”
“You’re going to sit in this chair, and then you’re going to sit in the other chair, and you’re going to carry on a conversation with yourself. Part of you is going to be in this chair and the other part in that chair. Pretend I’m not here.”
I get locked into a lot of internal conflicts. Different parts of me campaign for my attention. Sometimes they’re needy, sometimes they’re berating, sometimes they’re shady, and sometimes they’re charmingly kind.
I was getting dragged down by these voices and I needed a way to get to the bottom of what I was feeling. I needed to find a way to communicate with the parts of myself I was trying to avoid. Because that’s where the gold is, at least according to Carl Jung:
“Sterquiliniis invenitur — In filth it shall be found.”
Trying to look inside yourself can feel like using a Chinese finger trap. The harder you pull, and the further you dig, the less progress you seem to make. Sometimes looking within needs to be a little more artful.
It turns out there’s a simple method for doing this that gets to the point fairly quickly. You can even do it at home. It’s called the Empty Chair Technique.
Gestalt therapy is based around the idea that context is a necessary component to fully understanding yourself. If you can understand the context of your internal habits, you can reframe them in healthier ways.
Gestalt therapists seek to make their clients more self-aware and trusting of their experiences in the present. Once you gain awareness of how and why you do things, you can lean into healing and dissolving the old beliefs that hold you back.
Apparently, a great way to do this is by talking to a chair. According to Good Therapy:
He or she is asked to imagine that someone (such as a boss, spouse, or relative), they, or a part of themselves is sitting in the chair. The therapist encourages dialogue between the empty chair and person in therapy in order to engage the person’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
Once you express your feelings to the phantom part of yourself sitting in the chair, you get up and assume the role of the phantom. Then, you maintain a back and forth conversation while a therapist makes note of everything that’s said. Of course, you could do this without a therapist in the privacy of your own room.
More than anything, this activity brings clarity. You’re taking fleeting moments and abstract feelings and transferring them into a concrete conversation. You’re taking another person’s perspective and paying attention to parts of yourself you’ve ignored. The insights you gain are critical if you’re trying to heal from something.
In my case, the results came on quickly.
The Empty Chair Technique in Action
My experience with the Empty Chair Technique went like this:
My therapist and I set up two chairs face to face. I was about to have a conversation with my inner critic; A voice that holds me back from pursuing and enjoying the things I care about.
This is how it happened as best as I can recollect it. I started out by playing the villain. I spoke the voice of my feelings, and bluntly told myself, “You don’t deserve to be happy.” Then I got up, turned around, and sat in the chair across from me, ready to give myself a response.
“Why don’t I deserve to be happy?”
“Because no one wants to see you happy.”
“Why not? I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“That doesn’t matter. You don’t deserve it.”
“You haven’t suffered enough.”
“I suffer all the time.”
“Not compared to others.”
“I don’t think you can compare that kind of thing.”
“In your case, you can never suffer enough.”
“What makes me special?”
“You’re perfect. Everyone hates a perfect person. How could a perfect person ever deserve anything if there’s nothing for them to earn?”
From Conflict to Clarity
I started recognizing who this voice was and where it came from. It was a combination of people from my past and negative experiences rolled into one malevolent force in my mind.
With data like this, you can extrapolate a thousand pieces of useful information about your mental state, your needs, your fears, and your hang-ups. And you can work from there.
With the Empty Chair Technique, you establish context for your competing voices, and talking to them reveals their meaning. Once you see the meaning behind them, you can get beyond them.
Maybe you’ll recognize that your critical voice was trying to protect you from something you were afraid of and that this mode of being is no longer serving you. Now you can thank it for its service, and leave it behind for good.
Or maybe you can figure out why someone treated you a certain way and you can feel empathy for them for the first time. Maybe you’ll be able to forgive them. Or maybe you’ll see that they’ve been manipulating you for years and that it’s time to cut them out of your life forever.
The Empty Chair Technique Starts the Conversation
When we have upsetting thoughts, our first instinct is to plug our ears and numb our minds with distraction. But when you actually hear what these thoughts are saying, and spend a minute in their shoes, they can stop bothering you. It’s almost like they become satisfied for having been acknowledged and heard. Instead of avoiding your pain, you confronted it. Now you can work on moving on.
Embrace the chair.