Chairing is Caring. Questions and Answers about Chairwork.

Chairwork is a so-called “experiential” therapy technique. Chairwork can be used as one element of therapy, but there are also therapists who use it as a stand-alone approach.

Author: Daniela Hoskin

What is Chairwork?

Experiential techniques work on a deeper emotional level in contrast to “cognitive techniques” which tackle problems mainly on an intellectual level. This means that chairwork goes beyond merely “talking about” issues.

Chairwork involves the use of empty chairs to facilitate self-reflection, emotional expression, and conflict resolution. The client sits in one chair and interacts with an empty chair as if it represents another person, an aspect of themselves, or a specific situation. Through dialogue and role-playing, chairwork allows individuals to explore different perspectives, resolve inner conflicts, process emotions, gain insight, and find resolutions to unresolved issues. It provides a tangible and experiential way to delve deeper into thoughts, feelings, and relationships, offering a unique opportunity for personal growth and healing.

Why is it helpful to use actual chairs?

Physically shifting around between different chairs, and also the positioning of chairs, helps lift the therapy experience from a purely intellectual practice onto an emotional and felt-sense level.

Chairs can be used in many creative ways, for example, to represent other people or different perspectives. The client can, for example, imagine someone else sitting in an empty chair to voice an opinion or address an unresolved conflict, or express thoughts and feelings to a person who has passed away or who they are estranged from. Clients can also shift between different chairs to speak from different points of view. Chairs can even represent abstract concepts, such as a Young Self, an addictive substance, or an unhelpful coping response.

Chairwork therapists pay great attention to using chairs in a strategic and symbolic way, aiding the therapeutic question or topic that is being worked on. For example, when a client is to face a perpetrator, the therapist will make sure the empty chair is placed at a distance that feels comfortable and safe, and the therapist will sit next to the client, facing the perpetrator together as a united front. For further emphasis, the client may be encouraged to stand up and take a strong, firm body posture. Empty chairs representing antagonistic persons or concepts can also be put in a corner or removed from the room, making a symbolic statement.

If the therapy room is not equipped with spare chairs, different positions on a couch can be used alternatively.

When do therapists use Chairwork?

Using chairwork and other experiential techniques is an essential element of Schema Therapy, but it can be used within all sorts of therapy models and on demand. A good indication that chairwork might be useful is when a client expresses concerns like: “I KNOW all of this! But I still FEEL this way!” “I know this does not make sense. Intellectually I UNDERSTAND all of this, but…”, or “I know this behaviour is not helpful, but I still keep doing it!” Statements like this indicate that important cognitive groundwork has been done but that it has not been enough to change feelings, behaviours, or symptoms.

What kind of therapy questions can be addressed using Chairwork?

Chairwork can enable the client to express and understand thoughts, feelings, motivations, and fears, to understand themselves better, to resolve internal conflicts and make difficult decisions, to reconcile with the past and recover from trauma, and to address interpersonal conflicts from the past, present or future.

Can Chairwork be done via telehealth?

Absolutely! In this case, the therapist would instruct the client to utilise different chairs that they have available where they are, or positions in the room. Switching between different roles can also be symbolised by holding on to a meaningful object. For example, if the client is invited to speak from their Young Self / Vulnerable Child perspective, they can hold on to a toy or a photograph from childhood.

Better Self Psychology specialises in helping children, teenagers, and young adults.

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