Take A Seat: Chair Work In Therapy
I get asked this particular question A LOT:
What do you actually DO in therapy?
This is a valid question! In general, people know what to expect from therapy: empathy, active listening, some level of vulnerability, a therapeutic bond, and a safe, confidential space.
What is more shrouded in mystery is the actual ‘mechanics’ of therapy. How does it work? What does a session really look like?
Is there a couch???
(Usually not….however sometimes there is a chair…more on this below)
When we don’t know something, the mystery tends to grow, and it takes on an impermeable quality. This means the less we know about something, the more unapproachable it becomes.
Now, this isn’t ideal so I’m here to pull back the curtain on some of my favourite therapy practices and skills!
We’re starting off today with a very interesting one: chair work.
In this post we will cover:
What chair work is
What the two-chair and empty chair therapy techniques are
How chair work looks in practice
So, pull up a chair (hehe sorry) and let’s dive in.
What Is Chair Work In Therapy?
Chair work is a therapeutic technique used to help clients address both inner conflicts and old wounds inflicted on them by others.
The therapist sets up one or more chairs, and the client uses the chairs as anchors for dialogue with either their inner self, or figures from their past, present, and future.
The goal of chair work is to allow clients to directly face (or confront) what is holding them back or causing them pain. It can be used to address a variety of issues, including shame, indecision, unresolved feelings, self-criticism, difficulty moving forward after a loss, and disappointment/dismay in how we have been treated by others.
There are two types of dialogue that can be used in chair work: external and internal:
External Dialogues In Chair Work
External dialogues in chair work tend to address unfinished business.
‘Unfinished business’ occurs when a person’s growth and ability to progress in life is interrupted by how connected they feel to past events or past losses
Examples of this include experiencing a history of trauma, abandonment, abuse, or losing loved ones. Unfinished business can also include changes in significant relationships throughout our lives (i.e. friendships, romantic relationships).
Internal Dialogues In Chair Work
Internal dialogues in chair work focus on the inner conflicts a client is experiencing.
Prior to getting into the dialogue, it is vital that the therapist and client work together to identify and differentiate the parts of the self that are in conflict. Only when these sides of the conflict are differentiated can they be named and addressed!
Here are some examples of internal conflicts that can we can focus on in chair work:
“I want to date more, but I believe it’s shameful”
“ I know something has to change and change is inevitable but I do not want change to happen”
“I love my parents but I can’t help but hate them at the same time”
The inner conflict usually centres on two irreconcilable beliefs, situations, or problems. What makes it tricky is that often both sides of the conflict are valid and true!
A common internal conflict many of us experience is dealing with our harsh inner critic. This punitive and critical voice can be directly faced in chair work, we will get to this later in the blog post!
The Types Of Chair Work
Chair work usually takes two forms: two-chair and empty chair. Here is everything you need to know about these techniques and the situations therapists tend to use them in.
The Two-Chair Method
In two-chair work, the client moves back and forth between two physical chairs and either acts out both parts of the role play OR speaks from two different perspectives.
A case example will help illustrate this!
Note: what follows is a hypothetical case scenario
The Two-Chair Set Up In Practice
The client (Lila) is a 26 year old woman who experienced abuse throughout her life at the hands of her older brother. The therapist introduced the two-chair technique to Lila several sessions ago. Today, Lila is prepared to try ‘confronting’ her brother and finally telling him how much pain he has caused her.
The therapist sets up two chairs facing each other and takes a seat on a third chair nearby. Lila sits down in one chair.
Lila begins to express her anger at her brother (with the chair representing him). She speaks directly to him, as if he is sitting across from her. Lila tells him how much grief he caused her and how his abuse makes it difficult for her to have a trusting romantic relationship as an adult.
The therapist asks Lila what questions she has for her brother. Lila wants to know how he could treat her this way. At this point, she may switch chairs and begin to ‘represent’ her brother’s perspective. Here, Lila responds what has just heard from herself in the other chair.
The therapist asks the client how hearing her brother’s perspective makes Lila feel. Lila moves back to her own chair and rejects ‘his’ given reasons for treating her the way he did.
The therapists pauses, does a breathing exercise with Lila, and asks her to reflect on what she has just experienced.
Lila can also choose to do a two-chair dialogue with her childhood self who experienced the abuse. This gives her an opportunity to extend compassion, lift blame, and forgive her younger self who was just trying to figure out how to survive.
In this scenario, she can move back and forth, asking her inner child questions (i.e. Did you know what was happening? Did you know how to stop it?).
The Empty Chair Method
In the empty chair method, the client does not move back and forth between the chairs. Instead, they remain in their chair and use the empty chair as a projection of the person they want to speak to.
Here is a case example (once again, it is hypothetical).
The Empty Chair Set Up In Practice
The client (Dan) is a 43 year old man who recently lost his mother. Throughout his life, he experienced an extremely tumultuous relationship with her. She left him as a child to live with his aunt, and re-entered his life when he was 30. Dan felt bitter and unwanted when he around her. While he understands (to a certain extent) why she could not raise him, he has not been able to truly forgive her. Her passing came as a shock to him, he always thought he would have time fix their relationship. How he feels grief and also the old feelings of loss, abandonment, and rejection.
The therapist sets up two chairs facing each other and takes a seat on a third chair nearby. Dan sits down in one chair and faces the empty one. The empty chair represents his feelings towards his mother.
Dan begins to talk to his mother as if she is sitting in front of him. He tells her how sad he is that she is no longer with him, and how angry it makes her that she left him again. Dan expresses his devastation that sometimes he hated his own mother and how this impacted him.
The therapist encourages Dan to tell his mother what he wants her know.
After several sessions of empty chair work, the therapist MAY invite Dan to say goodbye to his mother the way he would have wanted to, if he had the chance.
Chair work can be emotionally challenging. It’s actually quite common for clients to begin the process and find that they are not ready for it just yet.
There is a lot of preparation that usually precedes the actual chair work exercise- sometimes this can help clients cope with the feelings of distress. The therapist can also adjust the course of the exercise so it’s less intense in the beginning and gradually build it up until the client is able to deal with dialogue that directly confronts their issues.
So, is chair work even worth the effort and intense emotions?
I think for those who are ready to engage in it, yes! True healing often requires facing difficult emotions and painful memories. However, the key is doing this within a safe and nurturing environment that minimizes the chances of re-traumatization. In other words, I wouldn’t recommend trying chair work yourself outside a therapist’s office!
I hope you found this post informative! I want to hear from you: What therapy technique are you interested in knowing more about? Let me know in the comments! It might just become a future blog post 🙂
Until next time!
Zainib Abdullah (MSW, RSW) is the founder and executive director at Wellnest, a Toronto-based mental health clinic. The Wellnest team – a collective of diverse psychotherapists – focuses on supporting the needs of the BIPOC community. As a trauma therapist, her approach is client-centred, anti-racist/oppressive and trauma-informed, incorporating various therapeutic modalities. She uses somatic based therapy to help clients heal and manage trauma experiences. She supports clients in accessing greater connectedness to their inner wisdom and peace.