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The Empty Chair: a therapeutic technique of Gestalt

The Empty Chair: a therapeutic technique of Gestalt

May 6, 2021

The Empty Chair technique is one of the tools of Gestalt therapy that are more striking and, in a way, spectacular: people who sit before an empty chair and address it as if there were sitting a being relevant to them ; a being that, in some way, has been involved in a fact that changed their lives.

Of course, in reality there is no one sitting there (for something called the technique of Empty chair) are the imagination and the suggestion the elements that are intertwined in this therapeutic approach, not esotericism. But… What does it really consist of?

Sitting in the empty chair

"Ania lost her father at nine years of age because of a car accident. That night her father left work at high speed because the girl was sick when a drunk driver ran over the vehicle. Now, sixteen years old, Ania still remembers the night of the accident as if it were yesterday. He feels a certain guilt because if it had not been for his condition his father would not have run so long to get home, and he also notes an intense sense of anger against the man who caused the accident. "

Stories like this happen relatively often in real life . Many of those who suffer a loss of this type suffer great situations of emotional block or extreme affective lability, sudden aggressive reactions or feelings of guilt that drag during long years unless they seek treatment. It is even possible the appearance of pathologies such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The Empty Chair technique is one of the possible techniques that are often used to help overcome this type of experience based on past experiences.

What is the Empty Chair technique?

The Empty Chair technique is one of the best known techniques of Gestalt Therapy. It was created by the psychologist Fritz Perls with the purpose of elaborating a method that would allow to reintegrate in the life of the patients phenomena or unresolved questions. The technique in question try to reproduce an encounter with a situation or person in order to dialogue with her and emotionally contact the event, being able to accept the situation and give a conclusion.

The name of the Empty Chair technique comes from the use of a real chair, in which the patient will "imagine" the person, situation or facet that causes the emotional blockage to later establish the aforementioned dialogue.

The use of the Empty Chair

Its use is very frequent in cases similar to the one shown in the example, as a way of coping with traumatic losses, or in the process of elaboration of grief. However, its application is not limited only to this area, but rather It is also used as an element to allow the acceptance of facets of one's personality or of thought that are not considered acceptable by the patient, as well as to work on the perception of limitations and disabilities (loss of faculties, amputations, etc.).

Likewise, it is a valid technique for dealing with traumatic situations, which may or may not involve PTSD and / or dissociative disorders, such as rape, divorce or survivor syndrome. The characteristics of this technique also allow it to be applied also in the world of education or even at the level of organizations, in phenomena such as burnout or harassment.

In all cases, we act under the belief that "the patient only needs an experience, not an explanation" to finish closing the unfinished process and accept their situation.

At the level of therapy, as well as as an element for the client to explore their own vision and contact their emotions, is an element that provides much information to the individual himself as to the professional on the way in which the patient processes the situation and how it has affected his quality of life, favoring the application of other actions that improve the treatment of the problems analyzed.

Operation of the technique

Let's see below how the use of the Empty Chair works . First, in a preparatory phase, the physical confrontation of the patient with the empty chair is carried out. That is, the empty chair is positioned in front of the individual (although it is sometimes placed diagonally so that no opposition to the person or situation imagined is seen).

The patient is then instructed to project the person, situation or feeling or part of the personality with which the dialogue is to take place in the chair.

In a third phase, the patient is invited to describe the projection made, in order to strengthen the imagined image that has been represented. Both positive and negative must be mentioned, both of the person and the situation or its effects.

In the case of a death or separation, It is useful to remember the relationship that existed before the event and what happened before , whereas in feelings, traumas or unacceptable facets of the self it is useful to look for the moment in which it appeared or when it became a problem. It is likely that in this context the revelation of what was left pending or the sensations that the situations in question arise, making conscious blocked elements.

Starting the dialogue

Subsequently, in the phase of verbal expression, the patient starts the dialogue aloud with the projection, trying to be honest and letting see those details that the patient does not dare or has not been able to show in their daily life or before the person in question, how the patient has lived the situation and why it has been like that. The therapist must monitor the dialogue and redirect it so that there are no deviations that worsen the situation, without restricting the flow of thought of the individual.

Although in some variants of the technique it is not applied, it is useful to have the patient exchange his chair with that of the projection, putting himself in the place of the other in order to facilitate emotional expression. This exchange will occur as many times as deemed necessary as long as the transition is necessary and consistent with the problem to be addressed.

By last, it is indicated and it helps to reflect to the patient the sensations that it is showing , so that the subject is able to identify and realize their emotional reactions, how the event has affected him, and how that affects his life.

To finalize the technique, the therapist instructs the patient to close their eyes and imagine the projection entering again into it, to later eliminate all the created images while paying attention only to the real context in the consultation.

Difficulties in the use of the Empty Chair

Although this technique has shown its usefulness for emotional unblocking, self-acceptance and resolution of grieving processes, its application may be hindered by a series of resistances .

To begin with, this type of technique requires the ability to imagine and project the image of a person, whether a being is not present or a part of the person. That is, someone who does not have the ability to accurately imagine the person or facet of personality in question will not be able to draw the level of intended profit of the technique. The patient can be guided in the technique through questions to facilitate the projection.

A second difficulty is that the patient refuses to use it because he considers it ridiculous, or because of the fear or difficulty of expressing his thoughts aloud.

A third and final problem may come from the ability to detect the blocked element, so that the patient is not able to find another perspective of the situation experienced, which must be worked on. Sometimes, the element that produces discomfort is difficult to identify.

Final considerations

It's important to put attention on this technique should be used only under the supervision of a therapist who can direct the situation .

Also, although it has many possible uses, the Empty Chair is used intermittently, only when it is relevant to facilitate emotional contact with a part of the self of the patient or to explore the problem situation.

Bibliographic references:

  • Castanedo, C. (1981) The Gestalt Therapy applied to adolescent dreams. Rev. Cost. Science. Méd .; 2 (1), pp. 25-28.
  • Fromm - Reichmann, F. (1960). Principles of Intensive Psychotherapy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • PerIs, F. (1976) Gestalt Approach and Eye Witness to Therapy. Bantam Books, New York.
  • PerIs, F, Hefferline R., Goodman, P. (1951). Gestalt Therapy. Doll Publishing Inc., New York.
  • Martin. A. (2013). Practical Manual of Gestalt Psychotherapy. 11th edition. Desclée de Brouwner, pp. 159 - 161.
  • Greenberg, L.S. and others (1996). Facilitating emotional change. The therapeutic process point by point. Barcelona: Paidós.

Gestalt Therapy Role-Play - Empty Chair Technique with Strained Relationship (May 2021).

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