A monochrome image of an empty chair. To illustrate and article about the Gestalt empty chair technique on self-transcendence.org

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The Gestalt Empty Chair technique

The Gestalt Empty Chair technique is a dynamic therapeutic exercise that helps individuals confront and resolve internal conflicts and unresolved emotions (CarePatron, 2024). It involves having an imagined conversation with an imaginary person or an aspect of oneself, represented by an empty chair. The goal is to enhance self-awareness, explore different perspectives, and work towards resolution or acceptance of one’s experiences (PositivePsychology.com, 2024; MentalHelp.net, 2017). For example, a client who has unresolved grief over the loss of a loved one may use the empty chair technique to express their feelings and say goodbye to the person who died. Alternatively, a client who struggles with low self-esteem may use the empty chair technique to dialogue with their inner critic and challenge their negative self-talk. The therapist may guide the client through this process, helping them articulate their feelings and switch roles between the chairs as needed. The empty chair technique is based on the principles of Gestalt therapy, which emphasize personal responsibility, present-moment awareness, and the therapist-client relationship (MentalHelp.net, 2017).

Several studies have shown the effectiveness of the empty chair technique for various issues, such as depression, anxiety, conflict splits, indecision, and marital conflict (Trijayanti et al., 2019; Wagner-Moore, 2004). The technique can also be used in group settings to promote interaction and self-awareness among group members (Glass, 2010).

An example of the empty chair technique is when a client who has lost a loved one imagines talking to them on the empty chair. The client can express their grief, anger, guilt, or any other feelings they have toward the deceased person. The client can also switch chairs and role-play as the deceased person, responding to their own statements. This can help the client gain a different perspective, process their emotions, and achieve a sense of closure (Psych Central, 2021).

Therapists who use this technique should note the following key points:

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  • The technique is suitable for clients who have unresolved issues with someone who is unavailable, such as a deceased relative, an estranged partner, or an abusive parent. It can also be used for clients who want to explore different parts of themselves, such as their inner critic, their child self, or their ideal self (CarePatron, n.d.).
  • The technique involves setting up an empty chair across from the client and asking them to imagine that the person or the aspect of themselves they would like to talk to is sitting in it. The therapist then invites the client to say whatever they want to say to that person or part of themselves, and may guide them with prompts or questions. The therapist may also ask the client to switch chairs and respond from the other perspective, creating a dialogue (MentalHelp.net, 2017).
  • The technique can help clients express their emotions, gain insight, achieve closure, and develop new ways of relating to themselves and others. It can also help clients challenge their negative beliefs, confront their fears, and integrate their conflicting parts (PositivePsychology.com, 2024).
  • The technique requires the therapist to be supportive, empathic, and attentive to the client’s process. The therapist should also monitor the client’s level of distress and readiness for the technique, and provide feedback and validation as needed. The therapist should not impose their own interpretations or expectations on the client’s experience (CarePatron, n.d.).
Example empty chair therapy session

An example of using the empty chair technique is as follows:

  • therapist: I understand that you have some unresolved feelings towards your father, who passed away two years ago. Would you like to try an exercise that might help you with that?
  • Client: Sure, what is it?
  • therapist: It’s called the empty chair technique. I’m going to set up this chair in front of you and ask you to pretend that your father is sitting in it. Then you can say whatever you want to say to him, as if he were here with you right now. How does that sound?
  • Client: I guess I can try it.
  • therapist: Okay, let’s begin. Imagine that your father is sitting in this chair. What would you like to say to him?
  • Client: Well… Dad… I’m angry at you. I’m angry that you left me so soon. I’m angry that you never told me you loved me. I’m angry that you were always so distant and cold.
  • therapist: How does it feel to say that to him?
  • Client: It feels… hard. But also… freeing.
  • therapist: What else do you want to say to him?
  • Client: I want to say… I miss you. I miss having a father in my life. I miss the good times we had together.
  • therapist: And how does it feel to say that?
  • Client: It feels… sad. But also… healing.
  • therapist: Do you want to hear what he might say back to you?
  • Client: Yes, I do.
  • therapist: Then I’m going to ask you to switch chairs and pretend that you are your father. Try to imagine what he would say to you if he were here. Are you ready?
  • Client: Okay, I’ll try.
  • therapist: Alright, switch chairs now. Now you are your father. Look at yourself sitting in the other chair. What do you want to say to yourself?
  • Client: Son… I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I left you so soon. I’m sorry that I never told you I loved you. I’m sorry that I was always so distant and cold.
  • therapist: And how do you feel saying that?
  • Client: I feel… guilty. But also… relieved.
  • therapist: What else do you want to say?
  • Client: I want to say… I love you. I love you more than anything in the world. You are my pride and joy.
  • therapist: And how do you feel saying that?
  • Client: I feel… happy. But also… regretful.
  • therapist: Do you want to switch back to your own chair now?
  • Client: Yes, please.
  • therapist: Okay, switch back now. Now you are yourself again. How do you feel after hearing what your father said to you?
  • Client: I feel… surprised. But also… grateful.
  • therapist: What do you want to say to him now?
  • Client: I want to say… thank you. Thank you for saying what you said. Thank you for loving me.
  • therapist: And how does it feel to say that?
  • Client: It feels… good. But also… peaceful.

BetterHelp. (2023). What is the empty chair technique, and why do therapists use it? Retrieved from https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/therapy/what-is-the-empty-chair-technique-and-why-do-therapists-use-it/

CarePatron. (n.d.). What is the empty chair technique, and how is it helpful? Retrieved from https://www.carepatron.com/guides/empty-chair-technique

Glass, T. A. (2010). The empty chair as a tool to promote self-awareness and interaction in groups. In S. S. Fehr (Ed.), 101 interventions in group therapy (Rev. ed., pp. 381–385). Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

MentalHelp.net. (2017). Gestalt therapy: The empty chair technique. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhelp.net/blogs/gestalt-therapy-the-empty-chair-technique/

PositivePsychology.com. (2024). The empty chair technique: How it can help your clients. Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/empty-chair-technique/

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Psych Central. (2021). Empty Chair Technique Aims to Help with Grief. https://psychcentral.com/health/empty-chair-technique

Smith, J., & Quirk, M. (2017). The empty chair technique: A phenomenological study of therapists’ experiences. British Journal of Guidance & counselling, 45(4), 395–406.

Trijayanti, N., Widyawati, I., & Hidayatullah, R. (2019). The effectiveness of empty chair technique to reduce anxiety in adolescents at orphanage X in Bandung City. Journal of Psychiatric Nursing and Mental Health Services, 3(2), 1–8.

Wagner-Moore, L. E. (2004). Gestalt therapy: History, theory, and practice. Sage Publications.

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