The Empty Chair Dialogue in Psychotherapy

 This method was pioneered by Fritz and Laura Perls, the founders of Gestalt Therapy, but has been used  by therapists from numerous other theoretical orientations.  Research has shown it to be a powerful method for helping clients become more aware of and to express thoughts and feelings toward others that have been suppressed.    It also has been used to bring to light dimly perceived internal conflicts that take a great toll on the client’s functioning.    I use it  for three different situations:

1.  Dealing with unresolved grief or other unfinished business with people who are no longer in the client’s life:  This could be either because of  death, abandonment or divorce.  I have had many clients through the years who were emotionally frozen with unresolved grief toward a parent or sibling who died many years before working with me in psychotherapy.  Years ago I worked with a young man in a workshop who was very depressed because his beloved cat had died months before and he hadn’t worked through his grief.  The result of the work was a lifting of the depression and a joyful, renewed involvement in his life.

2.  Rehearing an anticipated Interaction with another person :  This could be with someone toward  whom the client is afraid of being honest in expressing some strongly experienced emotions, either positive or negative.  An example would be a parent who is afraid of telling a child that he or she, having reached adulthood, needs to move out and become financially  independent;.  Another example  would be a young man who is fearful about  expressing attraction to  a young woman that he wants to invite on a date.    Still another could be a client who is going to go on a job interview and feels anxious about it.

3.  Becoming aware of  and working through internal conflicts between different internal sub-selves:  Many people who come for therapy experience debilitating conflicts between a critical introjected judge and a fearful, vulnerable, shame-based, childlike self.  Fritz Perls labelled these conflicting sub-selves the Topdog and Underdog,  Eric Berne termed them the Parent and the Child,  and Object Relations therapists refer to them as internal object and self representations.     Clients often endow the internal introjected authoritarian self with omniscience because it was largely formed from very critical comments and abusive behavior by parents and other authority figures during childhood.  Children are usually unable to take a rational perspective on the messages given to them by authority figures and, because they haven’t had the opportunity to consider the truth or falsity of these messages as adults, still accept them as the truth about them.  They  either blindly accept and feel demoralized what that part “says”  (often unconsciously) to them or defend against its messages rebelliously or through addictive or other acting out behavior.

The Procedures

My supervising and training experience has taught me that the therapist attempting this approach must feel comfortable with it himself.  If the therapist has trouble envisaging herself talking to an empty chair, then she probably shouldn’t ask her own clients to do this.  Also, some clients can’t or won’t imagine someone sitting opposite them in an empty chair.  If they are unable to visualize the person, I accept that, but ask if  they can have some felt sense of that person being there.  If the very idea of imagining someone there is  too embarrassing, as is the case with people who tend to be rather rigid and fearful of appearing ridiculous to others, I might need to first explore what in their past history created that attitude in them.  But if that doesn’t resolve the issue,  I must find some other way of working with them on it.  On very rare occasions, I have suggested they put me in the role of the missing person but, because of the possible transference implications of that strategy, prefer not to do that unless it seems absolutely necessary.

1.  With Unfinished Business with another person:   I first have the client imagine the person sitting opposite in an empty chair,  and, if possible forming a visual image of him or her.    This includes how the person appears emotionally to the client– angry, powerful, sad, etc.–how he or she is dressed, and the age of the person.   I then ask the client what he or she feels toward the person and then, when the client articulates the feeling,  ask if it can be put into words to the other figure.   Depending on what is then expressed, I might have the client imagine how that person might respond and ask him or her to switch over and play the targeted figure responding as she imagines it.  I continue this procedure, having the client switch back and forth until the interaction  has been fully explored and the repressed or suppressed emotions have been fully expressed.  For example, a client was unable to express his love and  some resentment to a parent who had suddenly died while he was in Europe.  He had been in an emotionally frozen state ever since.  In our work, he first  imagined his parent in front of him and expressed his resentment about some hurts his parent had dealt him.  After doing that, he  was then able to freely express his love.  I then asked him to switch over and  give his parent a voice and he was able, as the parent, to reciprocate the love the parent felt towards him and to express sorrow for the hurts he had inflicted on him.  He realized when the dialogue was complete how his need to keep these unexpressed feelings locked inside his body had restricted his emotional freedom in many areas of his life.

2.  Rehearsing a Future Interaction:   As with the procedure above, I have the client put the person they are going to interact with in the empty chair.  One of the things the client often realizes, particularly when fearful about the ensuing interaction, is that the feared response from the other is really a projection of his or her own internal Topdog.  That in itself can be very helpful at allaying the fears of the encounter.  But it also helps the client to prepare for a possible negative outcome.  Shy clients, who tend to expect the worst when their reception by others is uncertain,  are sometimes surprised to realize that they are more uncomfortable when the person in the empty chair is accepting of them.  This can have very important ramifications about how accepting the person is of receiving positive strokes from others.

3.  With Internal Conflict:  Working on the internal conflicts between a hostile authority figure introjected in childhood and the self is some of the most dramatic and transformative  types of empty chair work.   It can also be the most complicated.   Frequently the critical Topdog is personified as a parent or sibling that was experienced as very punitive during childhood.  Sometimes it is personified as the client herself.  As in the procedures above, I have the client tell me how the person depicted looks, particularly emotionally.  It is usually angry, contemptuous or arrogant.  Sometimes, if it seems appropriate, I have the client start out being the Topdog and voice his attitude toward the Underdog.  Then, when the Topdog is done speaking, I have the client switch to his chair and respond.  There are a number of typical responses  to the Topdog:

a.  The client has been so beaten down for so many years that she agrees with the Topdog that she really is a very negative, worthless, stupid person.

b.  The client argues with the Topdog and tries to defend against the criticisms.  This never works to change the Topdog’s view of the client.

I observe the client’s physical appearance, tone of voice at least as much as I listen to the content of what he says.  One can often see the client regressing in voice and choice of words into a childlike state when being the Underdog.

c.  Occasionally, the client will begin to realize the unjustified nature of the Topdog’s criticism and say that he  is hurt or angry and doesn’t want to put up with this criticism any longer.  This often results in the Topdog’s realizing the negative impact  she has on the client and softening.  This, of course, is the optimal result.

In any case, I have the client move back and forth from chair to chair and continue the dialogue.  If the client and his  Topdog seem to reach a stalemate, with no further progress being likely, I frequently suggest that the client assume a seat between the Topdog and the Underdog and take an objective observer role.  I say, “I’d like you to look at these two warring parties and say what you see going on.”  This is often a very effective way for the client to begin to get an adult, realistic view of the conflict that has gone on internally for much of her life.  Eric Berne referred to this third part of the person as the Adult, a part who doesn’t take sides but can comment on the process of how the two fight.  The process, the way the two parts interact in their battle, is much more important than the actual content of the fight.  For example, the Topdog often acts as if he can predict the future and only looks at the client’s failures and negative traits, completely ignoring the successes and positive traits.  The Underdog, in my experience, often uncritically accepts the Topdog’s view of him and feels hurt, shame and depressed rather than evaluating whether the criticisms really fit.

If the client can’t seem to get to a place where she is questioning the global,  irrational attacks from the Topdog, I frequently step in and ask if I can talk directly to the Topdog.  If the answer is affirmative, I will ask the Topdog questions like these:  Where did he come from?   How long has he been present?   Where did he get the data about the client that is being expressed.  Why does he criticize the client?  Note:  It is important that I not take a critical tone in addressing the Topdog.  Fritz Perls often did just that when he was working with people in his workshops and I emulated him for some time in assuming the same critical attitude toward my clients’ Topdogs.  I learned, however, that this approach is counterproductive and doesn’t result in my ultimate goal:  to help the client understand that he internalized during childhood the critical comments of the authority figure because that was a way of trying to ward off the punishment by the real person.  I remember years ago hearing my then four-year old daughter castigate her doll with the same words and tone of voice I had used with her when expressing disapproval of something she had done.  I realized, to my chagrin,  that she had taken my criticism much more literally than I had intended.  She was in the process of internalizing my parental self.  Another note:    If the parent or other authority figure is sensitive and reasonable in his or her criticisms of the child and balances it with praise, that is a very important step in the normal developmental process.  The setting of limits, and helping the child learn what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior is essential to the child’s growth.  It is when the comments are very harsh, shaming and degrading, that the results are harmful.

The goal of my interviewing the Topdog in this way is to help the client realize that the underlying purpose of the criticisms leveled at the person is an attempt to help by making her more industrious, more effective, less selfish, to not fail, etc.  For example, if the client is intending some action that might lead to success or failure, the Topdog who views the person as unintelligent may tell him  he is certain he will fail so as to discourage him from trying and thereby spare him a devastating experience.

The process of directly interviewing the Topdog is  the approach created by Hal Stone,  a  psychologist who was originally trained as a Gestalt therapist but then evolved a method he called Voice Dialogue.  He believed that people have within them many sub-selves and devised a method whereby the therapist interviews  all of the sub-selves existing in the person.

By interviewing the Topdog in this way and determining that his or her goal was essentially positive, even though seeming to be hostile, I congratulate her for her caring and can suggest that she protect the client in a more benign way.  Topdogs, in my experience, are hardly ever lethal in their aims for the person, just misguided because they came into being at a time in life when the individual’s view of reality was very simplistic and unsubtle.  By working in this manner I am actually helping the Topdog to become more mature!