Anger 101 Part III: The Empty Chair

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.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • kason H.

    kason H.

    June 2nd, 2010 at 3:51 PM

    I personally wouldn’t want to sit and be talking to an empty chair, even if there was nobody watching me.Its not because I’m ashamed of it or anything but I just doubt the effectiveness of this technique.
    Its okay to talk to yourself and convince you of something but how can you anticipate how the other ‘person’ responds to what you’re saying?!

  • Stuart Kaplowitz, MFT

    Stuart Kaplowitz, MFT

    June 2nd, 2010 at 4:36 PM

    Thank you Kason. The goal here is to be able to get your feelings out, in an appropriate way, without having to yet think about a potential reaction. Remember, the fear of whatever reaction we expect is probably getting us stuck and not sharing in the first place.

    Once we practice this, there are usually a few wonderful kernels that someone will indeed want to share (without all the intense anger so the person we are then sharing with is more likely to hear it). This can be done but first we need to vent and then go from there

  • suzy

    suzy

    June 3rd, 2010 at 2:24 AM

    whenever i’m angry with mom after she scolds me,i jus go to the washroom nd speak to the mirror,like its her.this helps me cool down.

  • Oliver

    Oliver

    June 3rd, 2010 at 4:54 AM

    That empty chair exercise has saved me so many times! Many times when I just have to get my frustrations out in a non threatenong manner I will do that. A lot of times it helps me see things more clearly, and gives me insight into whether I am justified with being so upset about a matter or if what I am feeling is trivial and should be put aside and left behind. Saying something out loud helps me discern those issues and work it all out.

  • Stuart A. Kaplowitz, MFT

    Stuart A. Kaplowitz, MFT

    June 3rd, 2010 at 12:28 PM

    Thank you Oliver. I like how you said that.

    Suzy, well done. Splash some water on your face while you are there. When we are angry, and our body is heating up, this can be quick way to literally cool down

  • Milner

    Milner

    June 3rd, 2010 at 6:29 PM

    I know it is not a great thing but I tend to throw things around when I’m very angry. I do this after locking myself in my room.

    I throw things around and when i’m tired doing it, I tend to fall asleep and then wake up and be close to normal. I’d like to think this is a much better thing to do than to lash out at the other person,but deep down inside I know that this is not healthy behavior and I’d like to control it.Please guide me.

  • Stuart Kaplowitz, MFT

    Stuart Kaplowitz, MFT

    June 4th, 2010 at 5:24 PM

    Hi Milner,

    Of course, if we were meeting, I would want to look at the history of your anger: When / how did it start? How has it changed over time? Has anything, even in a small way, helped? I would look at the sources of your anger, as well as potential targets, in scouting out patterns to then address. I would look at unresolved pain which can indeed come out later as anger. Clearly, I have a few more articles to write in order to more fully explore the process — I will get there though (smile).

    Not knowing what kind of damage you may be causing to things or your room, I might look to getting your energy out in more constructive ways. For example, I might suggest having a squeeze-ball or a hand-grip (used for strengthening one’s grip), or even a hand towel that you can wring-out. This a good way to physically release some of the pressure. Again, not knowing you personally, I would hesitate before suggesting other physical ways of expressing the anger.

    What you are describing could be an intense amount of anger, and I would hope you consider meeting with someone. Listen. We all get stuck sometimes and it is ok to ask for help. Good luck! Stuart

  • Roberta

    Roberta

    June 12th, 2013 at 9:10 AM

    I am a counseling student (master’s level) and I worry about the use of such techniques as the empty chair on minority clients. Would the empty chair technique be potentially alienating or oppressive to, say, an Asian American client? What has been your experience with using this with minority clients?

  • Stuart Kaplowitz

    Stuart Kaplowitz

    June 12th, 2013 at 6:02 PM

    Good question and point Roberta. I cannot give you empirical data and yet know I consider any tool on a case by case basis. More often than not, no matter the ethnicity, clients are reluctant to initially share, already feeling guilty for having such feelings to possibly share

  • lisa

    lisa

    April 6th, 2017 at 8:25 PM

    i did the empty chair today.i put a picture of my dad in the chair. in the end i was relieved but found my self saying things that i was holding as a child that couldn’t say because it was allowed.. my dad passed away in 1988 but i still had these stuffed feelings a a deep rooted resentment that was a driving force to a lot of my patterns and behavior

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