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The 'empty chair' technique

 

Guest articles > The 'empty chair' technique

 

by: C. N. Ramya, Counseling Psychologist

 

Introduction

Gestalt therapy is a complex psychological system that stresses the development of client self-awareness and personal responsibility.

The goal of Gestalt therapy is to raise clients' awareness regarding how they function in their environment (with family, at work, school, friends). The focus of therapy is more on what is happening (the moment-to-moment process) than what is being discussed (the content). In therapy, clients become aware of what they are doing, how they are doing it, and how they change themselves, and at the same time, learn to accept and value themselves. Gestalt therapy takes into account the whole person including thoughts, feelings, behavior, body sensations, and dreams focusing on integration.

Empty chair technique

When you go see a Gestalt therapist, the office will usually have an extra chair--an empty chair. This chair serves an important function. The "Empty Chair" technique is one of the various ways in which Gestalt Therapy can be applied which is developed and popularized by Frederick "Fritz" Pearls.

Rationale - When the client expresses a conflict with another person, through this technique, the client is directed to talk to that another person who is imagined to be sitting in an empty chair beside or across the client. This helps the client to experience and understand the feeling more fully. Thus, it stimulates your thinking, highlighting your emotions and attitudes. For example, the therapist may say, "Imagine your father in this chair (about 3 feet away), see him vividly, and, now, talk to him about how you felt when he was unfaithful to your mother." There are innumerable other people, objects (your car or wedding ring), parts of your personality (critical parent, natural child, introversion, obsession with work), any of your emotions, symptoms (headaches, fatigue), any aspect of a dream, a stereotype (blacks, macho males, independent women), and so on that you can imagine in the empty chair. The key is a long, detailed, emotional interaction--a conversation. You should shift back and forth between chairs as you also speak for the person-trait-object in the other chair. This "conversation" clarifies your feelings and reactions to the other person and may increase your understanding of the other person.

Outcome

Cognitive change – Through this process, client will come to an understanding about how the imaginery person will be thinking about the same issues. He also learns that whether he was projecting any thoughts on the other person.

Behavioral change – client will come out with new behaviors in the supportive environment of the therapy and then they expand their awareness. More than passively accepting the environment, he will start taking stand on a critical issue and making choices that will result in getting what he wants.

Affective change – the client feels capable of dealing with surprises he encounters in everyday life.

Application

  • Gestalt therapy has been successfully employed in the treatment of a wide range of "psychosomatic" disorders including migraine, ulcerative colitis and spastic neck and back.
  • Gestalt therapists have successfully worked with couples, with individuals having difficulties coping with authority figures and with a wide range of intra psychic conflicts.
  • The therapy has been effectively employed with psychotics and severe character disorders.
  • It emphasis on personal responsibility, interpersonal contact and increased clarity of awareness of what is, could be of great value in meeting the problems of the present.
  • Empty chair work can help people re-own rejected, "alien" parts of them, it can also help resolve conflicts between aspects of one's personality.

Contributor: C. N. Ramya, Counseling Psychologist

Published here on: 22-Jan-07

Classification: Counseling

MSWord document: emptychair technique.doc

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