Though occasionally emotionally intense, the empty chair technique is a therapeutic tool that may help some cope with grief.
Talk therapy is a cornerstone of many mental health practices. The “empty chair technique” is a specific method used as part of talk therapy.
When the empty chair technique is used in therapy, people imagine a specific person — or an aspect of themselves — is in the room, “sitting” in an empty chair.
This technique allows people to investigate personal roots of emotional distress that may have been formed in the past. It is also used to examine one’s self-perception and behavior that may lead to certain beliefs, negative self-talk, or other emotional challenges.
Popularized by Gestalt therapists, the Gestalt school generally focuses on experiencing emotions in the present to understand how past and present environments affect emotional well-being.
Engaging in an empty chair session can often be emotionally intense. Still, it can help people achieve closure, a more positive frame of mind, and heal from grief.
The empty chair technique, also called the “two-chair technique” or simply “chairwork,” is a therapeutic method used in talk therapy. Its objective is to start a “conversation” with parts of oneself or individuals from a person’s past or present.
During an empty chair session, a person may speak to an individual or an aspect of themselves they imagine sitting in the empty chair. Sometimes, the person will then switch places, taking on the role of that aspect or person.
The idea behind the empty chair technique is to resolve conflict, specifically by increasing awareness in the present moment.
The empty chair technique was popularized by Gestalt therapists, but it was first developed and demonstrated by Jacob Levy Moreno, a student of Sigmund Freud’s, in 1921.
Moreno objected to the reflective nature of psychotherapy and opted to develop a technique focused more on active engagement. In the following years, he used the empty chair technique in group contexts termed “psychodrama.”
Founded by Fritz Perls, the Gestalt school built on Perls’ theories that emotional challenges are to be handled in the “here and now.” These pioneering psychologists believed that in some cases, one had to re-experience traumas to heal from them.
Gestalt therapists were the first to use the empty chair technique in a one-on-one context.
The core components of the empty chair technique are:
- exploring emotion
- movement between chairs
- dialogue with another, either in imagining another person or an aspect of oneself
In some cases, the method can involve several chairs. A person with negative thoughts about themselves may place those automatic negative thought patterns into an empty chair as they arise, giving the person a new perspective.
Although experiencing emotions in the present moment is central to Gestalt therapy, practitioners of this technique emphasize that the individual is always understood in a context including their past and present environments and experiences.
Gestalt therapy emphasizes re-experiencing events and interactions that may be at the root of emotional distress. The best candidates for this kind of therapy are people who may be open to a potentially intense therapeutic experience.
The empty chair technique may have broad application, but it’s not suitable for everyone.
Two experts on the empty chair technique, Scott Kellogg and Amanda Torres, stated in a 2021 publication that the method might be most helpful for people with:
- anxiety disorders
- interpersonal mistreatment
- personality disorders
- socially induced trauma
- inner conflict
Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of the empty chair technique in specific use cases. A 2020 study of 12 people with depression who participated in the empty chair method as part of compassion-focused therapy found that it helped to change how the participants related to themselves.
The steps of the empty chair technique depend on the individual therapist and the person participating in therapy.
Before you start Gestalt therapy or engage in an empty chair session, you may want to ask the therapist how they typically conduct a session.
Some basic steps may form the basis of most empty chair sessions in therapy.
Step 1: Identifying the ‘object’
Through discussion with the therapist or counselor, you might identify whom or what you’d like to speak with in an empty chair dialogue.
For example, your therapist may recommend a conversation with a metaphorical “emotional wall” that appears at certain times. Or, they may suggest talking to someone who has passed on near or around the anniversary of their death.
Step 2: Conducting the dialogue
With the therapist’s help, you could talk to the aspect of yourself or the person you imagine being in the empty chair.
If the object is an aspect, you might play that role and answer your questions. For example, in the case of the “emotional wall,” your therapist might ask why you appear and what would happen if you did not.
Step 3: Switching places
Often, you will switch places and play the opposite role with the person or aspect you’re talking to.
The way this manifests depends on your goals in therapy. Some people may want to:
Step 4: Assessment and discussion
After an empty chair session, your therapist may want to debrief with you. You may be encouraged to discuss the conversation and how you felt.
The empty chair technique may help you resolve emotional issues that have roots in your past or involve a person currently in your life.
Some possible positive effects of the method include:
- finding closure on a past difficult relationship
- reducing harmful thoughts toward yourself
- experiencing greater insight into your own feelings
Like all forms of therapy, the empty chair technique may not work for everyone.
You may not receive the emotional benefits you seek. It’s possible your therapy could help you achieve peace, but in the process, cause you to experience a negative domino effect on your family relationships.
You may have to
Before you begin Gestalt therapy or engage in an empty chair session, it may be beneficial to talk with your therapist about possible outcomes for you.
The empty chair technique is sometimes considered a more intense therapeutic experience. Yet, this method can be a powerful tool in therapy for helping people process past trauma, cope with grief, and find closure from emotionally troubling experiences.
Seeking support for mental and emotional health is often the first step to improving your well-being.
Talking with a therapist or a counselor trained and experienced in the empty chair technique is often the best starting place if you think you might benefit from it.
You may want to research mental health professionals first. Interviewing potential therapists and asking questions about their methodology and training can be helpful before beginning a counseling relationship.
If you’re ready to reach out for help and potentially give the empty chair technique a try, you can visit the American Psychological Association’s psychologist locator.