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

Updated November 14, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Therapists use many techniques to help their clients cope with and work through mental and emotional issues. One of the most popular is the empty chair technique. If you’re in therapy for grief, relationship troubles, loss or other concerns that involve someone else, you counselor may guide you through this simple, easy-to-understand method during one of your sessions. In this article, we’ll discuss this treatment technique in more detail along with common reasons for using it.

What Is The Empty Chair Technique?

Therapy Can Be Healing And Teach You Coping Techniques

The empty chair technique is a talk therapy exercise commonly used in Gestalt therapy. It is designed to allow you to express your thoughts and feelings as if you were talking to a specific person, but in a safe, neutral environment. 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. The therapist can guide you through the exercise with prompts or insights. This type of treatment method requires somewhat of an active imagination.

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 would like to talk to may be deceased, far away, or emotionally unavailable, but it can still help to express yourself as if they were there in a sort of self-dialogue guided by your therapist. 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 what you want to say. As you speak your mind and explain what you’re feeling and why, you may 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 with the empty chair. 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 work through those unpleasant emotions.

Outcomes

After you’ve said all that you want to say, you may feel a sense of relief, release, 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.

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, you and your partner or partners may consider seeking out mental health services. 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. Both of you have the rights to and deserve to get help in whatever way works best for each of you individually and as partners. Either way, the empty chair technique can be a powerful way to work through your relationship.

Grief Counseling

Grief counseling can help you work through the death or loss 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 that you would otherwise be unable to communicate to this individual. At times, you may feel anger and resentment as a part of mourning, and it’s important to put emphasis on them so that you can release these emotions during the grief process.

Some people also need the support of mental health services 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 have passed away or otherwise out of your life. However, it may be difficult to resolve your feelings about the trauma without expressing your anger, hurt, and sorrow.

With the empty chair technique, you can safely express your emotions to the parent who abused you, the person who broke into your home, or the bully who threatened you. You can finally say what you needed to say at the time but were too overwhelmed or not yet ready 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, thus helping things to be overall easier and more comfortable. 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.

Why Therapists Use The Empty Chair Technique

Now that you know how the empty chair technique works, you might be wondering why it works. Your therapist may choose this treatment technique for any number of reasons, some of them covered below.

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 imagined person in it. You might know that you feel uncomfortable, for example, or hurt, 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. You may also be able to find the source of these difficult feelings. Once you know what you’re feeling, you can address it and work through it. Think of it as a temporary visit with these tough emotions so that you can gain a better understanding of them and release them.

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, be emotionally unavailable to you, or engage in other harmful behaviors. 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 it may be frowned upon by some to say them. You can say whatever you’d 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

Therapy Can Be Healing And Teach You Coping Techniques

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 it’s time to leave because the relationship is unhealthy, or be able to accept that it’s unhealthy and things need to change. With these new insights, you can make better informed 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.

For example, while you’re practicing, your counselor might ask questions to help you word your issue clearly, so the other individual can understand you better. They may also help you coordinate your facial expressions with your emotions. 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?

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 to continue healthy progress.

This treatment 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 wherever works best for you. Though all of our therapists are based in the U.S., therapy with us can be utilized anywhere in the world so long as you have an internet connection.

In a review of dozens of studies, internet-based therapy has been found to be overall just as effective as in-person therapy for treating a variety of mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety, and relationship troubles. Additionally, this review concluded that online therapy has the added benefits of being more cost-effective, safer in the times of the cold, flu, and Covid-19, and more convenient, all of which contribute to client satisfaction.

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, therapy is a powerful tool that can help you on your journey, whether it’s years, months, or weeks. Take the first step whenever you’re ready.

FAQs

What Is The Empty Chair Technique?

The empty chair technique first originated in Gestalt therapy. The word Gestalt means “an organized whole that is more than the sum of its parts.” Gestalt therapy, which may be beneficial in the treatment of depression or anxiety, can help an individual to gain perspective into their relationships, experiences, mental health triggers, and different aspects of themselves and think of things outside of how they are originally perceived.

The empty chair technique is a simple approach that can assist individuals in processing interpersonal or internal conflict and help them to become aware of internal things that perhaps they weren’t before. By imagining another person (like a parent or partner) in an empty chair, they can converse with them as if they were present during the session. An individual could also picture a certain aspect of themselves in the empty chair. Therapists may use this treatment method in order to help individuals gain insight into their own emotions and internal struggles, as well as seeing the situation from a different perspective.

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