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Leisure • Psychotherapy

The Usefulness Of Speaking Your Feelings To An Empty Chair

One of the simplest and most useful exercises that psychotherapy has gifted to us is known as the Empty Chair Technique. A client who has been wrestling with their feelings towards someone is gently requested to stop discussing them in the third person and is instead invited to face a chair and start talking to this bit of furniture as if there were on it – to all intents – the specific troubling person in their life, perhaps a long dead absent father, a neglectful mother or a traitorous so-called friend.

Many of us spend a good deal of time ruminating on difficult people in the recesses of our minds. We say that so-and-so ‘really deserves a comeuppance’ or that we would ‘love to give X or Y a taste of what we actually think.’ We find ourselves returning to them again and again late at night and on the journey to work, their offences interrupting our sleep and spoiling our digestion. And yet we rarely speak with any degree of clarity or sincerity – out of fear of retribution, dread of vulnerability, pessimism as to the chances of being understood or perhaps stubbornly ingrained good manners. The feelings remain in us in a latent form, contributing to a layer of static frustration that damages our health and lends a compulsive quality to our moods.

Now, under the aegis of a therapist, we can give form to our cloudy annoyance. Once we move past a hesitation at the particular strangeness of discoursing with a seat, we may find that we are a great deal more eloquent than we supposed, far more sure of what we needed to say; far more at home with letting the world energetically know how things look through our eyes. 

‘Dad, why did you have children if you couldn’t ever be bothered to get to know them? Why did you think that your responsibility stopped at providing for them materially?’ 

‘Chris, why do you pretend that you don’t want to be intrusive when in fact, you just never take an interest in me – despite the hours that I have listened to your troubles?’

All this might not seem so different from previous remarks like ‘I’m pretty angry with X or Y…’ but the impact of a concrete articulation and public audition is of a different order. Anger is a poison – and to speak it is to drain it of its malevolent power. We falsely imagine that the only speeches we can ever usefully make are to flesh and blood attentive listeners; in truth, it may matter far less that we are heard than that we have a chance to speak.

Empty Wooden Chair, Paula Schmidt

The Empty Chair Technique is liable to be especially helpful to those of us who had to grow up to be extremely good boys and girls. There may be few opportunities to be anything but when dad is an alcoholic or has a violent temper, mum is neglectful or a sibling is very ill. We may lack any knowledge of how to complain because, in our formative period, we sensed correctly that our survival depended upon meekness and good humour. We learnt to smile and appease, when we would have needed a long wail at the unfairness and cruelty of it all. Our silence may have won us a safe enough passage into adulthood; its ongoing nature threatens to ruin the remaining years.

We may fear that we won’t be able to get too far into a speech without either collapsing into humiliating tears or escalating into unmanageable fury. The Empty Chair Technique can reassure us on both fronts. There can be ways of speaking without shouting, of saying ‘no’ without being alarming, of standing up for ourselves without coming across as entitled or unworthy. We can assert our needs without bringing about the catastrophe we fear. And we can start right now, without even waiting for a psychotherapist, by looking across the room to the nearest available chair and asking: who should be sitting there? And what have I needed to tell them for the longest time?

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