What Is The Empty Chair Technique And Why Do Therapists Use It?

By William Drake

Updated November 20, 2019

Reviewer Aaron Dutil

Therapists use many techniques to help their clients deal with mental and emotional issues. One of the most popular is the empty chair technique. If you're in therapy, there is a good chance that your counselor will guide you through this simple, easy-to-understand method during one of your sessions. In this article, we'll discuss this technique in more detail along with common reasons for using it.

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What Is The Empty Chair Technique?

The empty chair technique is a talk therapy exercise in which you express your thoughts and feelings as if you were talking to a specific person. Even though that person is not present, you direct your words and gestures at an empty chair and imagine that person sitting in it while you talk.

Setup

When it becomes clear that you need to express something to someone who is unavailable to you, your counselor may suggest the empty chair technique. The person you need to talk to may be deceased, far away, or emotionally unavailable, but it can still help to express yourself as if they were there. Your therapist will simply set up a chair across from you and ask you to pretend that the person you need to talk to is sitting in it. Then they'll invite you to say whatever you want to say to that person.

Your Part

All you need to do is say whatever comes to mind. Some people find it difficult to get started. If you have trouble imagining that the person is sitting there, don't worry too much about it. Just go ahead, and start saying whatever you want to say. As you speak your mind, you'll likely begin to feel as if you're talking directly to that person.

Interventions

During the session, your counselor may ask you questions or suggest topics that you may want to discuss. This keeps you engaged in the experience and on track to deal with the issue you're struggling to overcome. If you become extremely anxious, angry, or upset, the counselor may intervene to help you deal with those unpleasant emotions.

Outcomes

After you've said all that you want to say, you may feel a sense of relief and completion. You may even feel prepared to talk to the person directly (if that's possible). By the time you finish this exercise, you and your counselor may also learn something new about your issues with this person or situation.

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Uses Of The Empty Chair Technique

The empty chair technique can be used in nearly every counseling situation. Some scenarios, though, lend themselves particularly well to this technique. Whenever you're in counseling for an issue that involves conflict with another person, for example, this technique can be extremely helpful.

Individual Counseling For Couples

If you're having trouble in your relationship, it's best for both of you to be in counseling together. Additionally, each of you may have separate counselors who help you deal with your individual issues and give you support. If your partner doesn't want to go into couples counseling, however, you can participate in individual counseling to deal with the relationship problems on your own. Either way, the empty chair technique is a powerful way to work through your feelings about your partner.

Grief Counseling

Grief counseling can help you work through the death of a loved one. Since they are no longer around, the empty chair technique can help you have a conversation with them. That can help you process the grief and express emotions to the loved one who has passed. Sometimes, you may feel anger and resentment that you need to express, and it's important to release these emotions during the grief process.

Some people also need grief counseling after a breakup. You may be struggling to move on without working through some of your relationship issues, but in many situations it's a bad idea to contact your ex. Through the empty chair technique, you can work through your feelings in a healthy way while still maintaining distance from your former partner.

Dealing with Past Trauma

Traumas from your past can cause emotional difficulties in the present. The people who were involved in the original trauma may be long dead or out of your life completely. However, it may be difficult to resolve your feelings about the trauma without expressing your rage, hurt, and sorrow.

With the empty chair technique, you can safely express your emotions to the parent who abused you, the criminal who attacked you, or the bully who threatened you. You can finally say what you needed to say at the time, but were too overwhelmed to express. The empty chair technique offers a safe place to open up to this person without putting you at risk.

Planning Future Encounters

Suppose you're in conflict with someone, and you know you're going to talk to them soon. Having this conversation may seem overwhelming. If you feel anxious about it, you might also worry that you won't say what you need to say when you have the chance. The empty chair technique allows you to practice what you'll say ahead of time. When you finally have the conversation, you'll likely feel more relaxed and in control, even if you don't say things exactly as you practiced them.

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Why Therapists Use The Empty Chair Technique

Now that you know how the empty chair technique works, you might be wondering why it works. What's so helpful about talking to an empty chair? Your therapist may choose this technique for any number of reasons.

Helping You Identify Your Feelings

When you start talking to the chair, you may not even know how you feel about the relationship with the imaginary person in the chair. You might know you feel uncomfortable, but maybe you can't pinpoint your exact feelings.

As you speak, you can get in touch with these feelings and begin to name them. Anger, fear, sadness, hopelessness, or any other feeling may appear in your words, your inflections, and your gestures. You may notice these feelings yourself, or your therapist may point them out to you. Once you know what you're feeling, you can address it and work through it.

Allowing You To Express Yourself Freely

You might not feel like you can express yourself freely with another person. That person might interrupt you, stonewall you, avoid your questions, or be emotionally unavailable to you. If you need to talk to someone who is deceased, others might judge you if you say anything negative about them, but the things you need to say won't go away simply because you're not allowed to say them. You can say whatever you like when you're talking to an empty chair. This free expression can relieve your burden dramatically, allowing you to move through and past the pain.

Helping You Gain Insight Into Your Relationships

When you're in a relationship, you might find it hard to see the relationship objectively. Sometimes, we're afraid to be honest in our relationships, and that can cause confusion. Expressing yourself in this free and open way may reveal problems you need to address.

You may also realize things about your relationship that you couldn't see before. You might come to understand that you're relatively happy in the relationship, but you want to make some small changes. Or you might see for the first time that the it's time to leave because the relationship is unhealthy. With these new insights, you can make better decisions.

Helping You Learn Better Communication Skills

Sometimes our emotions get the better of us in a conversation. As your emotions and thoughts begin to flow through your words and gestures, you might get so wrapped up in the experience that you seem to lose control over what you're saying. The empty chair technique can help you work on the way you communicate. As you practice, your therapist can help you develop your communication skills, so you can more readily and accurately express what you're feeling and thinking.

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For example, while you're practicing, your counselor might ask you questions to help you word your issue clearly, so your partner can understand you better. They may also help you coordinate your facial expressions with your emotions. Certainly, it's okay to say things any way you like when you're talking to an empty chair. However, these new skills can be very helpful when you're aiming for healthy communication outside of your therapist's office.

Is The Empty Chair Technique Right For Me? (h2)

You don't need to worry about when to use the empty chair technique in therapy. Your counselor is trained to know when it will help you. During your counseling sessions, they might see a need for you to express your thoughts and feelings more freely. Or they might notice that you're struggling with a relationship issue. In both of these cases, they might suggest the empty chair technique.

The empty chair technique is just one of the many ways a counselor can help you deal with relationships, trauma, grief, or other mental health issues. You can talk to a licensed counselor online at BetterHelp whenever and wherever works best for you. Hundreds of counselors are available for online therapy, and you can begin the process by choosing one right now. Read the counselor reviews below to learn how they've helped people experiencing different life challenges.

Counselor Reviews

"In the midst of a complex and highly stressful and frightening time in my life, Erika helped me take a moment to breathe and give order to the chaos. She understood my concerns and knew how to help me prioritize each situation every step of the way. Easy to talk to, caring, and positive. The perfect match for me and my situation."

"I've worked with Jamie for a number of months and he's helped me with everything that life has thrown my way. Difficulty in work, my relationship, and other stresses that I've struggled to navigate by myself. He listens and he helps. I always feel validated and supported. He gives me tools and perspectives that have made a big difference in my overall happiness."

Conclusion

The empty chair technique is just one way that your counselor can help you feel freer, less anxious, and more confident in your daily interactions. If you want to clarify your emotions and find new ways to handle situations where you're feeling stuck, this is one of many tools that can help you on your journey. Take the first step today.


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