For many years before I became a counsellor and coach, I had been on a mission collecting photographs of empty chairs. I have 1000's of photographs of empty chairs! Partly due to my love of photography and travel, but on reflection I had experienced a cluster of close bereavements in my early teenage years. I think these experiences have had something to do with the empty chair holding personal significance to me.
So when training to become a counsellor and discovering The Gestalt Empty Chair Technique I was naturally drawn to it. At the time I was working with young adults I couldn't help but feel there could be a "softer, gentler" approach in getting started with Empty Chair work. Using it with some young people didn't sit quite right - I felt it quite harsh. Taking myself back to the twenty-year-old I was - I myself would have thought it "weird and uncomfortable" talking to an empty chair in front of a therapist.
That's when I came up with the inspiration for these cards. My empty chairs photographs I have photoshopped onto various backgrounds and the idea is to help clients get going and to explore the subconscious feelings, thoughts and emotions by the cards they are drawn to.
Gestalt - What Is It?
Gestalt is a type of therapy which was developed by Fritz and Laura Perls in the 1940’s. The primary aim of this form of therapy is to help clients become more aware of what they are experiencing in the present moment. In Gestalt therapy, awareness is seen as the primary mechanism of change.
Through having this increased self-awareness, clients are able to gain insight into how their habitual ways of thinking and acting interfere with their personal growth and learn what adjustments they can make to achieve their full potential.
The term ‘Gestalt’ is a German word which is often translated in English as ‘whole,’ ‘shape,’ ‘pattern,’ or ‘form.’ In its German context, the word refers to something that is experienced as a holistic whole. The idea behind the term is that people are best understood, not by analysing their separate parts, but by perceiving and experiencing them as wholes.
Gestalt therapy is based on a holistic view of the individual. This view sees the mind, body and soul function as one integrated unit and individuals can only be fully understood within the context of their environment. Problems are thought to occur when individuals have difficulty integrating the different aspects of the self into a unified whole or when they struggle to integrate effectively into their environment.
Empty Chair Technique
The empty chair technique you could say is the most popular exercise used in Gestalt therapy. Gestalt Therapy is derived from the Humanistic school of therapy.
A client would sit across from an empty chair and is asked to imagine that someone else, they themselves, or a part of themselves is sitting in that chair e.g a parent, ex-partner, ex-boss, a known bully, their inner child, their inner critic, their shy self.
The therapist then encourages the client to engage in a conversation with the imaginary person (or part of a person). As the conversation progresses, the client alternates roles, switching from one chair to the next accordingly.
The empty chair technique is often used to enhance clients’ awareness of polarities in their personality (e.g. the non religious self versus the religious self) so they can work towards integrating them.
The Empty Chair Cards
It is well known that the Empty Chair Technique is used more likely by therapists if the client is less inclined to be "in touch," or "verbalising," or abstractly thinking. It is not used for clients who may already be emotionally dramatic or overwhelmed or who may be already subject to emotional "flooding."
The Empty Chair cards through images is a tool that can be used to help people move from talking about something towards the fullness of immediate, present experience - sensation, affect, cognition, movement. They can be used as prompts to help get the conversation started or to help the client explore aspects further and really delve into what's going on for them by bringing those feelings and thoughts into the present.
The idea is to make The Empty Chair technique less intimidating for those who may find it difficult, uncomfortable or just really weird sitting talking to an empty chair with their therapist. Instead to help clients become more aware in a safe space with their therapist.
Ways You Can Use The Cards
- Firstly it is important to remember Gestalt therapy can often bring out intense reactions and emotions which may not be suitable for all individuals. This form of therapy may also not be ideal for persons who are already emotionally flooded.
Ways To Use The Empty Chair Cards - These Are Just Some Of The Ways I Have Used Them With Clients
- Ask the client to pick a card so that the person they want to talk to, or part of themselves would sit on that chair. Explore why they have been drawn to that particular card.
- Can explore discuss the background of the card - would they pick another background and significance/ meanings to them of the backgrounds. The client can choose one chair on one card with a background of another card.
- Exploring Type and Size of the chair can lead to interesting awareness. Would they have it bigger/ smaller? Does it reflect the impact on their life? etc.
- The client could pick two cards - one the relationship they currently have with self, or person they want to talk to. The second card representing the relationship they would like to have and what they need to do for that to happen. Help reflect on the past, present and future.
- Cards can be used to describe the "script" they tell themselves or others.
- Could use the cards to story tell whether in the same session regarding clients journey. Or over the course of the therapy sessions to explore if there has been shift in their feelings, thoughts or emotions.
- Use cards with inner child/ inner critic work.