Enhancing the Power of Therapy with Chairwork

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Chairwork is a therapy approach that can help address internal conflicts and strengthen healthy parts of our personality. This approach is commonly associated with gestalt therapy and evolved out of psychodrama. It draws on gestalt therapy principles of helping people more fully express their emotions, including conflicting emotions, to develop a more holistic and integrated way of responding to challenging situations. These observations about chairwork draw on recent workshop training offered by Dr Scott Kellogg, a clinical psychologist from New York and an internationally recognised expert in chairwork.

Chairwork is a practical strategy to help people identify conflicting emotions and perspectives within themselves and to express them more fully. People are encouraged to acknowledge different viewpoints or reactions within themselves by expressing them from a different chair. For example, people might be in two minds whether to take up a new job offer. In one chair they can express reasons for taking the job and in the other chair they can express reasons for not doing so. By expressing each viewpoint and the emotions associated with it more fully, this can help people work through their conflict toward a more informed or self-aware resolution. People don’t need to achieve a completely clear resolution of the conflict. If they shift from a very ambivalent position to perhaps being 75% interested in making one choice as opposed to 25% in the opposite choice, this might give them further guidance how to proceed.

A specific example of addressing such a polarity is dealing with addiction. A person could place a packet of cigarettes on a chair, and address it from two different positions, reasons why you want to continue smoking (e.g., it gives comfort, a cigarette can almost feel like a companion that you’d miss if you gave it up, it’s something you might do with friends, past attempts to quit were difficult and left you irritable) and reasons to quit (e.g., it’s better for your health, it could help you live longer and see your grandchildren, improved fitness, saved money, sense of achievement). The more you can pick up different reactions and emotions the better.

Alternatively, people might recognise having a range of conflicting emotions to the same situation, such as feeling anger toward a family member about their addiction or other problematic behaviour, whilst simultaneously feeling empathy and love for them. By expressing each type of reaction more fully, the person is less likely to remain stuck, either with rigid judgments or ineffectual resentment toward their partner, or otherwise passively going along with an unacceptable situation, such as making excuses for them whilst feeling helpless to do anything about it. This might help someone express their love and concern and interest in being supportive to their partner, whilst assertively pointing out the need for them to make more active efforts to improve the situation.

If someone is struggling with burnout, chairwork can help someone find a better balance between the priorities of earnest striving in their work, whilst acknowledging the cost of overdoing their ambitious efforts. For example, they might better acknowledge the stresses they are feeling from their exertions, or perhaps their sadness at the loss of time with other family members. As with other forms of chairwork, such exercises might help a person identify their ”inner leader”, or more healthy and adaptive adult part of their personality, to have a conversation with their more helpless or overwhelmed part about how they might modify their striving.

A somewhat similar example is helping a person identify an “inner critic” that might be making perfectionistic demands on them or chastising them with unrelenting standards. The person could have a conversation between the inner critic and a more helpless or overwhelmed part, perhaps with an additional involvement of the “inner leader” to help bring more balance to the person’s approach to achievement.

Chairwork can also enable people to have a dialogue with a person who is not present. You can imagine a person in the other chair whilst you clearly express to them what you have felt strongly, but have actively suppressed or not otherwise had the chance to express. This helps clarify and strengthen your voice in expressing your authentic emotions. It can also include practising different ways of raising a grievance with a loved one in a way that they are more likely to hear you and respond constructively. It also enables someone to express their feelings in a potentially healing way towards someone who is no longer present, such as a deceased loved one.

Another application, following the field of psychodrama, is that people can reenact a scene or traumatic experience. They might sit in a particular chair for the purpose of telling the story of their trauma, describing what happened to them in the third person. They might then repeat the story over and over in a way that may add further details, but also take some of the heat out of it, a process that overlaps with exposure therapy for trauma. This can be healing partly by allowing for more distance from the emotions and circumstances involved. People can even act out different endings such as saying what they wish they would have expressed at the time to an abusive parent.

All of these strategies have certain healing aspects in common. They help create a more objective distance from painful experience whilst allowing for choice in how we respond to it. Chairwork involves an acknowledgement that we all have a degree of multiplicity in our personalities, or different parts that respond with different emotions and perceptions to the same situation. In other words, we’ll often have mixed feelings in complex situations, or might be in two minds.

There can be a healing power in giving voice to our contrasting feelings or conflicting interests or perspectives, allowing for a relatively more integrated or balanced response. This might often involve partial solutions only, or a degree of compromise. It can help us accept the reality of complex, ambiguous and challenging situations and our imperfect ways of responding to them.

Ultimately, chairwork is designed to help us develop greater self-awareness, self-acceptance and choice in how we respond to challenging situations. It strengthens our ego and encourages a more mature or healthy adult perspective. When someone hears themselves express discomfort or distress whilst retaining a kind of personal authority and self-acceptance, this helps them interact with and respond to their world with a greater sense of agency and personal meaning.

Chairwork is one of the most resourceful ways in the therapy setting for dealing with life challenges by directly facing and working through emotional challenges. There are many different ways of performing chairwork, largely only limited by the therapist’s and client’s imagination. All forms of chairwork are designed to identify and bolster resources whilst working through various forms of conflicting emotions or interests. It’s a novel approach that can promote a more optimistic outlook for our lives and mental health.

 

Chris Mackey is a clinical and counselling psychologist with over 40 years’ psychotherapy and supervision experience in public hospital and private practice settings.

For more on this topic, listen to our Psych Spiels podcast on this topic here.

For more mental health and therapy articles, see  https://www.chrismackey.com.au/tag/clinical-handouts.

 

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