Gestalt Psychology

Empty Chair

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The empty chair is a therapeutic intervention that came out of the Gestalt tradition, although it is now used by therapists across many disciplines, a testament to its efficacy. Clients are often turned off by the idea of the empty chair at first because it can seem childish, like playing make believe, making them feel silly, but people who put their judgments aside and agree to just go for it are usually profoundly affected by the experience.

In a nutshell, the idea is to set up a chair with no one sitting in it and then instruct the client to imagine that an important person from their life is sitting there so that they can have a conversation. The purpose of this conversation is usually to get closure, or in the parlance of Gestalt, to complete the needs satisfaction cycle. Sometimes talking to the real person is impossible because of death, distance, or abuse. But while they might not be around, the feelings attached to them are still very much around, and the empty chair creates a safe space where these feelings can be expressed out loud in order to work through them. Talking about someone is much different than the visceral experience of talking directly to them.

Transferring ephemeral, free floating emotions into concrete words is powerful, even when the encounter is symbolic. It’s not a fake experience at all. I have seen countless people break down as the enormity of the moment really hits them, where everything that has been dammed up for so long is finally let loose and they finally get to say all the things they wanted to say but couldn’t for one reason or another.

The biggest lesson we can take from the empty chair is to not allow the important aspects of our lives and relationships to be left hanging. We need a sense of closure to move on and fully commit to the new stimuli from our environment. It’s like Glen Hansard implores in one of his songs “If you have something to say, say it to me now!” But even if it’s impossible for you to have the actual conversation because someone is no longer around, it’s not too late to set up the empty chair and say the things you’ve always needed to say to the person you need to say them to.