Unseen Shadows. Exploring the Resonance of Absence: Unveiling the ‘Empty Chair’ Gestalt Technique
Recently, I attended the 54th annual international conference of SPR (The Society for Psychotherapy Research) in Dublin, Ireland, where hundreds of research projects on contemporary approaches to mental health psychotherapy were presented. Among the list of researched evidence-based methods that have been found effective, the technique of working with empty chairs was mentioned, which is currently used in various modern psychotherapy approaches but was originally introduced by the founder of Gestalt therapy, Fritz Perls (Perls et al., 1951) in the 1950s.
Over the years, the application of the “Empty Chair” technique in therapy has demonstrated high effectiveness in resolving unfinished business (unresolved gestalts) in clients’ relationships with significant people in their lives and in working with interpersonal conflicts.
Research shows its superior advantages in short-term and long-term therapeutic outcomes for people who underwent therapy using the empty chair work, compared to those who only underwent psychoeducational training (Paivio & Greenberg, 1995). Positive results were also observed in increasing self-awareness and understanding the motives of others, greatly influencing interaction and communication in relationships with others, including couples and families (Smith & Quirk, 2019). All of this has made the “Empty Chair” technique so popular not only among Gestalt psychotherapists who have integrated the technique into their practice but also among other psychotherapy approaches and coaching.
The empty chair technique involves the therapist asking the client to imagine an image of a significant person from their life, whose figure emerges during the therapeutic session as an indicator of existing relationship issues. This person can be someone from the past or someone currently present, or it can even represent an aspect of the client that creates conflicts and internal struggles. The client physically places an empty chair in front of them to visualize and represent the absent person or their conflicting part.
During the exercise, the client interacts with the imagined presence, expressing their thoughts, feelings, and emotions towards this person or their conflicting part. They may switch chairs, symbolically transforming into themselves and the other person or part of themselves, which facilitates self-awareness and realization of their internal conflicts, emotions, or unresolved issues.
Let’s consider an example of using the “Empty Chair” technique to help a person resolve conflicts related to past relationships:
Imagine that a client is struggling with unresolved feelings towards his/her father, who passed away a few years ago. The client never had the opportunity to express to the father the emotional neglect and disappointment he/she experienced during childhood. These unresolved emotions are affecting the client’s current relationships with other people in life and causing emotional discomfort.
During the session, the therapist suggests using the “Empty Chair” technique to help the client confront these unresolved feelings. The therapist places an empty chair in front of the client and asks him/her to imagine that the father is sitting on this chair.
The client begins expressing all the emotions towards the father – offense, disappointment, and anger. He/she talks about how he/she felt neglected and unnoticed during childhood and how it influenced his/her self-esteem and relationships.
The therapist assists the client in imagining the father’s reactions and prompts him/her to switch chairs, taking the father’s perspective to provide answers from that point of view. This role-playing allows the client to understand the father’s position, even if it’s just an interpretation.
During the dialogue, the client gains new insights into his/her own emotions and possible motivations and limitations of the father. He/she comes to understand that the father might have had difficulties expressing love or dealing with his own emotions.
Throughout the process, the therapist helps the client explore and support emotions, assisting him/her in expressing everything he/she wants to say to the father.
At the end of the session, the therapist summarizes and helps the client find closure in this imaginary dialogue. The client may say things like: “I acknowledge and accept my feelings,” “I forgive you for not giving me what I needed,” or “I release the burden of this unresolved anger.”
The session concludes with a discussion of the client’s impressions and any new insights gained during the exercise.
Working with chairs in this scenario helped the client confront and process his/her emotions about his/her deceased father in a safe therapeutic environment. Through role-play and dialogue, the client experienced emotional release, increased self-awareness, and a better understanding of his/her past, which can lead to healing and growth in his/her present life.
If we talk about applying the “Empty Chair” technique in the context of working not with a specific person from the client’s life but with a certain aspect or part of his/her personality, it can be effectively used to address various internal conflicts. When facing an internal conflict, there are two parts of our personality that clash with each other, creating contradictions and hindering decision-making, which impacts behavior and prevents meeting certain needs. This can result in a sense of tension, helplessness, and internal imbalance. In this case, we also identify both parts, imagine them, describe them, and role-play a dialogue between them using the chairs. This way, we help the clients become aware of important needs and find suitable solutions that cater to their specific needs. This approach differentiates therapy from consultation because the therapist doesn’t impose ready-made solutions on the clients but rather helps them find their own path by creating a sense of balance in emotional states and coherence in thoughts.
An interesting artistic illustration of the fragmentation (split) of personality into various unconscious parts can be seen in the new TV series “Crowded Room” (2023) starring Tom Holland. Of course, in the series, this illustration is exaggerated as an artistic technique. In reality, in therapy, people manifest not pathological unconscious conflicting inner parts but rather relatively healthy ones that simply require integration to meet certain needs and promote personal growth. This principle allows us to understand the mechanism, reasons, and purpose for our psyche’s tendency to separate different aspects of our personality. This is truly an intriguing process of self-discovery, which is the focus of the third seminar in the Basic Online Course of Gestalt Therapy.
The “Empty Chair” technique has many advantages:
1. Catharsis and emotional expression: It allows individuals to express suppressed emotions and unresolved conflicts in a safe and controlled environment, providing catharsis through the experience of emotional discharge. This raises emotional intelligence and helps gain new perspectives on relationships, senses, and possibilities for future behavior.
2. Increased self-awareness: Interacting with both roles in the dialogue helps individuals better understand their feelings, needs, and desires, promoting self-awareness development.
3. Integration of conflicts: The technique helps smooth internal conflicts, fostering mutual understanding between different aspects of the client’s personality, which is essential and healing for achieving a sense of balance and wholeness.
4. Symbolic representation: The physicality of the empty chair adds a tangible aspect to the process, allowing individuals to outwardly express their emotions and thoughts instead of keeping them inside, which can be draining on their psyche.
Some individuals may find this technique uncomfortable or emotionally overwhelming, leading to resistance and avoidance. The success of this practice depends on the client’s readiness and ability to use their imagination, which can vary from person to person. The effectiveness of the technique can also depend on the therapist’s experience and skills in facilitating the process and interpreting responses.
Overall, the “Empty Chair” technique remains a valuable tool in Gestalt therapy and beyond, fostering emotional expression, self-discovery, and internal integration. However, therapists must apply it carefully, considering appropriateness, readiness, and suitability for the client’s specific issues in this type of therapeutic intervention.
If you are interested in engaging in this remarkable process of self-discovery for yourself or wish to familiarize yourself with fundamental practices and captivating theory of Gestalt therapy, or even aspire to become a Gestalt therapist in the future, I invite you to join our Basic Annual Online Course in Gestalt therapy, commencing in October 2023.
Paivio, S. C., & Greenberg, L. S. (1995). Resolving “unfinished business”: efficacy of experiential therapy using empty-chair dialogue. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 63(3), 419–425. https://doi.org/10.1037//0022-006x.63.3.419
Perls, F., Hefferline, R. F., & Goodman, P. (1951). Gestalt therapy: Excitement and growth in the human personality. Gestalt Journal Press.
Smith, A.D., & Quirk, K. (2019). Empty Chair Technique in Couple and Family Therapy. In: Lebow, J.L., Chambers, A.L., Breunlin, D.C. (Eds) Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy. Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-49425-8_187