Dialogue takes on a whole new level with chairwork, a therapeutic exercise in which a client hosts back-and-forth conversations to heal, transform, and gain insight internally.
Read on to learn more about what a chairwork session entails and whether it might be right for your needs below.
What is chairwork?
Chairwork is an experiential method of psychotherapy that is based on the belief that it is healing and transformative for people to speak from their inner voices, parts, or selves and for them to enact or re-enact scenes from the past, the present, or the future.
Chairwork has roots in psychodrama and Gestalt therapy. It can take several forms, though it typically entails two chairs and role play. Two common chairwork scenarios are:
- Empty chair: The client acts as though a person from their life is in the empty chair, and speak to them as if they were there.
- Two chairs: The client moves back and forth between two chairs, either acting out both parts of the role play, or having an imagined conversation with two different parts of themselves.
Chairwork can be effective in efforts to better understand the point of view of others, or to navigate feelings around “unfinished business,” such as abandonment and abuse.
Chairwork can be incorporated into many other modalities, including Gestalt therapy, process-experiential therapy, re-decision therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and schema therapy. It is typically introduced as part of a long-term therapeutic relationship, within the context of ongoing treatment.
How does chairwork work?
Clients work directly with their therapists to identify an unresolved conflict – either internal, or with someone else. Clients work through the conflict using role play techniques.
What are the goals of chairwork treatment?
Chairwork invites clients to more directly confront what they’re dealing with. It is designed to reduce a variety of issues, including self-criticism, rumination, shame, indecision, and unresolved feelings towards others.
Structure of chairwork sessions
The patient and the therapist identify a problem or a source of suffering that they wish to address or alleviate.
The therapist then sets up two or more chairs, and the patient uses them as anchors for dialogues with people or figures from their past, present, or future.
Alternately, they may have internal dialogues with critical voices, parts that are in pain or are very frightened, and with parts that are engaging in addictive or other destructive behaviors.
The therapist coaches the patient through this work so that the patient can have a courageous and emotionally intense experience.
What can chairwork help with?
In terms of diagnoses, chairwork can be used with any emotional problem, as long as the patient is capable of engaging in psychotherapy.
In actual practice, it is best suited for individuals who want to have a therapeutic experience that is active and intense, and which leads to more rapid change and healing.
Specifically, chairwork has been used in the treatment of:
- Eating disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Substance misuse
- Personality disorders
- Childhood trauma
- Unresolved grief
With support and guidance from the therapist, the client creates a dialogue and grows to process experiences and emotions, and learns to more confidently assert themself, understand the viewpoint of others, forgive, and hold others accountable.
Which types of therapists offer chairwork in their sessions?
Therapists who offer chairwork often include:
- Schema Therapists
- Emotion-Focused Therapists
- Clinicians who have participated in the Transformational Chairwork training
Some Gestalt therapists do Chairwork, while others do not.
Chairwork: A final note
Chairwork is an emotionally intense form of therapy. Some patients find this to be challenging and, in response, the therapist can make adjustments in terms of the speed and intensity with which the dialogue work proceeds.
However, it is important to keep in mind that for real healing to occur it is often necessary to have an in-depth encounter with difficult memories and feelings. Therapies that do not evoke high levels of emotion may, ultimately, be less effective.
Chairwork is one of the most powerful vehicles for healing in all of psychotherapy. For patients who are willing to engage with it, this kind of dialogue practice can help them: (a) effectively engage and heal their inner suffering; and (b) find and use their voice and act with courage in the world.