The Empty Chair technique is a unique method of therapy and coaching that was pioneered by Fritz Perls, the founder of what is known as Gestalt Therapy.
Gestalt is the German word which means to form or shape. The term is most often used to describe the essence or character of an individual or thing, and thus Gestalt therapy aims to form or shape the character of a person into something healthier.
Traditional therapy is often focused on understanding the past and how it contributes to the way a person behaves or behaved. This is definitely important and should not be overlooked.
Gestalt therapy, however, is a more client-centered approach that allows clients to work with the present moment, focusing on what’s currently going on in their lives. There is much less focus on past experience; when there is, clients are encouraged not just to talk about these situations but to actively re-experience them to develop a deeper understanding of what could have gone differently.
The ultimate goal of Gestalt therapy is to better understand negative thought patterns and redirect them so that they can become healthy behaviors that will serve them better.
Based on this therapy method, Fritz Perls went a step farther and developed the Empty Chair technique.
In this article we’re going to explain exactly what the Empty Chair technique is and how it can be used for helping people manage their addictions.
The Empty Chair Technique
This technique allows patients to give a voice to emotions and feelings that they may have difficulty acknowledging. By addressing these emotions and issues, clients gain a deeper understanding as to why they are behaving the way they do.
This form of coaching can be immensely useful for people who are struggling with various forms of addiction. It allows them the chance to communicate with themselves about why they are using or behaving in a certain way, and what they might need to do to help them get over the problem.
Many individuals who struggle with addiction frequently engage in a back-and-forth dynamic within their minds. One minute they’ll want to stop acting out, and the next they’ll be stopping by a massage parlor, or calling their dealer, or whatever the circumstance is. By participating in the Empty Chair technique, they can engage in an expressive dialogue with these opposing aspects of themselves while maintaining awareness of the conflict.
Many recovering addicts find that they express a lot of anger and resentment toward themselves during this practice. However, instead of internalizing these hard feelings, they can switch to the opposite chair and communicate from the other perspective to express why they are behaving the way that they are.
Often, the coach will direct the client to seat himself opposite the emotions that led to him developing an addiction. Doing this requires that the client participates in a significant amount of self-reflection or coaching to identify where these issues arose in the first place.
For example, the empty chair may be filled with another person, such as an abusive family member or a pressuring friend. It may be filled with a part of the addict’s personality that they allowed to begin acting out sexually. There are many possibilities, but the important thing is that the recovering addict gets an opportunity to better understand their conflicting desires.
By doing this, clients are able to open a line of dialogue between aspects of themselves that they have hidden from. Respected therapists like Dr. Douglas Weiss, PhD, have recognized that the process of giving emotions a voice is intensely useful for leading addicts on a path towards recovery.
Addiction is a constant, conflicting battle between two opposing states of mind and can be incredibly difficult to manage without a deep understanding of emotions and behavior. By using the Empty Chair technique to confer with the feelings underlying an addiction, clients will be much better primed to integrate these parts of themselves and work toward changing these behaviors into healthier ones.