The “empty chair” technique is one of my favorite anger tools to use with clients. When I first explain the idea and how it works, I tend to hear people say, “I don’t want to look stupid.” Too often, we spend so much time worrying how we will look to others and what they will think of us—but I digress. In this technique, we want to imagine the person we are angry with and use our minds to essentially “put them” in a chair facing us. This is our opportunity to speak directly about what we feel, with absolutely no concern about how the absent target will respond.
Too often, clients will tell me they worry about the target’s response if they do share their feelings. They worry about possible retribution or intensifying the target’s response if they get too upset. Another concern for some people is that they will hurt the target’s feelings and push them away. For instance, a client wanting their parent’s approval may fear that if they express their anger with their parent, their parent will only reject them further or maybe totally disappear from their lives.
This exercise seems like it should be a piece of cake, and yet the resistance to it is amazing. Clients are embarrassed to share, concerned what I or others may think. I remind them that these fears may be related to the fact they are not used to sharing in the first place—so it makes sense that they might not be comfortable at first. Others will find themselves “stuck,” not knowing how to start or what to say. In these situations, I might help them start by taking a few of their past statements about the target and modeling the technique. I then ask the client what I am missing, allowing them to continue. In my “sharing” aloud, I might be loud and even boisterous, modeling that it is okay to express what they are truly feeling.
Once the client starts sharing, pent-up frustration seems to easily spurt out. Ironically, what I tend to hear is clients’ surprise that they had so much to say. I remind them that once they allow themselves to be comfortable sharing, they are allowing thoughts and feelings that have been stuffed for years to get their due and be released.
I will ask clients to continue this exercise as needed. For example, if you are in the car and thinking about a past frustration, it is okay to talk aloud as if directly to that person. “But what if someone sees me?” The fact is, other drivers will think you are just singing along to the radio. Of course, you can do this at home or while out alone on a walk. What tends to happen next is that clients will say how relieved, or even tired, they feel as the feelings are released. Furthermore, clients will often report finding it easier to share their thoughts and feelings later, with the person truly there.
When we use the empty chair technique, we can be as angry as we want. Don’t worry about how you say it; just get it out. After the steam clears, you may want to keep some of the core statements to later share in real life with the person—but now is not the time to have to worry about how it might come out later. Again, just get it out.
© Copyright 2010 by Stuart A. Kaplowitz, MFT, therapist in Chino, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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