It was 2002 when I (Scott) had one of my first encounters with a form of therapy known as ‘chairwork’ at the Gestalt Center for Psychotherapy and Training in New York City. ‘It’s not fair. It’s just not fair, and what you’re doing is wrong.’ I was speaking to my daughter Nicole’s soccer coaching team sitting in the chairs opposite. Or at least I imagined and sensed them sitting there, for in fact the chairs were empty.
Nicole, 11 at the time, was an outstanding soccer player. She had made a high-level team, but the coach barely let her play and, for two seasons, she spent most of the time sitting on the bench. Favouritism was clearly at work, and I was enraged. Although I’d repeatedly brought this up with the team leadership, they refused to do anything about it. When the season ended, they kicked her off the team.
I had been studying chairwork for a few months when I attended this afternoon workshop in which I finally had an opportunity to participate from the perspective of a patient. The therapist invited me to sit in a chair, imagine the team leaders in the chairs opposite and talk with them… and I did. I expressed my rage about how they had treated my daughter and the pain I had felt at seeing her unhappiness. Finally, it was OK for me to just speak freely.
‘Switch chairs,’ the therapist said. Doing a role-reversal, I went to their side, sat in one of their chairs, and gave voice to their stonewalling and their ‘this is the way it is’ attitude. I remember my emotional state shifting dramatically as I embodied them. It was hard and I was irritated. I then went back and spoke again from my anger and pain. My emotions felt less intense this time.
Before this workshop, I had spent nearly a year wrestling with intense bursts of rage over this mistreatment of my daughter. Just a few hours after the workshop, I realised that I had shifted profoundly; now, when I thought about what they had done, I did not think it was OK but I was far less reactive. The shift has lasted ever since. Somehow, this 15-minute dialogue had helped me find a resolution to my frustration – something I had been unable to do on my own. It strengthened my conviction in the healing power of chairwork – a therapeutic technique created by the Romanian American psychiatrist Jacob Moreno, the originator of psychodrama, and further developed in the 1960s by another psychiatrist, Frederick ‘Fritz’ Perls, the creator of Gestalt therapy.
My passion and belief in the value of chairwork only grew, and in 2008 I created the Transformational Chairwork Psychotherapy Project and began training therapists in the United States and abroad in the art of chairwork. In 2014, my book Transformational Chairwork: Using Psychotherapeutic Dialogues in Clinical Practice – a handbook for therapists – was published.
Despite these efforts, I’ve always felt that what had eluded me was some way of simplifying the work – of reducing it to an essential set of core principles that could clearly and effectively guide both the practice and the teaching. Then, in early 2018, during a meditation session, I had a vision of what I call ‘the four dialogues’ that showed me how to transform chairwork into a therapy of elegant simplicity and even greater power. I then combined this with a framework we call ‘the four principles’, and this integration has become the foundation of our work.
The first of the four principles is multiplicity of self or the idea that we each can be seen as containing different parts, modes, voices or selves. For example, the way that we behave at work can be different from the way that we behave at home with our families or at a summer barbeque with our friends. Sometimes, during periods of stress or states of intoxication, parts can emerge that are either unfamiliar or undesirable – the kind of situation that prompts you to say things like: ‘I don’t know what came over me.’ This understanding of the human condition builds on the thinking of historical figures such as Plato, St Paul and Sigmund Freud, who each wrestled with the experience of having different parts.
The second principle is that it is healing and transformative for people to give voice to these different parts. In practice, this might involve asking a patient to move to another chair and embody and give voice to their suffering, their fear, their ‘inner critic’ voice, or what they see as their ‘heroic self’ – the part of themselves that takes meaningful action in the world. This alone can be a surprisingly powerful experience. Alternatively, a therapist might set up a dialogue between the different parts of a patient, to bring about greater inner balance and overall better functioning.
The third principle moves from the internal to the external world. It involves patients revisiting and re-experiencing a loss or a trauma as a way of working through the experience. A therapist might invite them to imagine placing the different people involved in various chairs and talking to them – perhaps saying things that they did not or could not say at the time – just as I did in the workshop in New York.
The last principle, the ultimate goal of chairwork – and the ultimate goal of all of psychotherapy – is the strengthening of what has variously been called the ego, the inner leader, and the healthy adult mode – which is the part of the self that strives to organise, regulate and direct the other parts. As this part of the personality becomes stronger, patients are able to experience greater internal emotional regulation and more effective, meaningful and purposeful functioning in the world.
Purposefully seeking to engage difficult emotions can be healing – the dynamic of choice changes everything
Those are the basic principles upon which chairwork is based. The four dialogues are the different methods or formats for delivering chairwork, and these are giving voice, telling the story, inner dialogues and relationships and encounters. Each of these dialogues can be used as a standalone intervention or in various combinations to help patients heal and reduce their distress.
Giving voice can serve as a vehicle for exploring and understanding one’s inner world. A therapist might say to their patient:
I would like to invite you to move to this chair, and I would like you to speak from your heart and speak from your pain.
In the most basic version of this practice, which we adapted from Embracing Our Selves (2011), a manual on voice dialogue practice by the psychologists Hal Stone and Sidra Stone, the patient begins in a chair that we call the centre – which is where their inner leader or healthy adult mode is located. The therapist then invites their patient to move to another chair, so that they can purposefully and consciously express and experience their emotions. For example, they might ask the patient to switch chairs and give voice to their suffering and their pain – both the feelings and the thoughts. This practice can prompt the spontaneous emergence of difficult emotions, which can be quite distressing, but purposefully seeking to engage and experience these emotions can be healing – the dynamic of choice changes everything. In some cases, the emotion will run its course while, in others, another part or mode might be triggered, and the patient will find new internal resources or perspectives.
There’s actually a similar practice in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) called ‘worry time’ in which the therapist invites their patient to make a regular and intentional practice of giving voice to the experience of fear, guilt or depression. Again, no attempt is made to challenge or dialogue with these thoughts – the expression alone is sufficient.
The practice of giving voice can be helpful for several reasons. The releasing of the emotions can be cathartic in and of itself and, during the process of going into the pain, another mode or part might be activated that will provide a counterbalance or alternative to the suffering. A third reason, which draws on the insights of acceptance and commitment therapy (a form of CBT that incorporates mindfulness and acceptance practices), is that the chairs create physical space or distance between the inner leader and the emotion, and so, through the processes of observation and labelling, the patient will have greater stability, and the emotions and disturbance will be less likely to overwhelm them. The idea of internal distance is drawn from Buddhism and mindfulness meditation, and is connected to the development of an observing self or the practice of self-witnessing. The physicality of the chairs helps people to experience viscerally that they have different parts and that they can resist being taken over by an emotion or a mode.
The second of the chairwork methods or dialogues is telling the story. A therapist introducing such a session might begin like this:
I sense that holding this secret inside for so long has been a terrible burden. If you are willing, I’d like you to move to this chair and tell me the story of what happened.
As the British psychiatrists Glenn Roberts and Jeremy Holmes put it in their edited volume Healing Stories (1999): ‘At the heart of any therapeutic encounter there is always a story.’ Many patients enter therapy with the burden of stories, and the sharing of traumatic, secret or shame-filled narratives can be a crucial component of their healing journey. In her foreword to the true-story collection Back from the Brink (2014), the American actress Glenn Close put it this way: ‘In our stories lies our salvation. Finding the courage to tell our stories will save lives.’
The telling the story dialogue recognises the healing power of stories and encompasses several strategies that can help patients work through their difficult memories. The therapist invites their patient again to move from the centre to another chair and to tell the difficult story or part of the difficult story. When he or she has finished, the therapist asks them to stand up, move around, shake themselves off, and sit down, and tell the story again. The hope is to take them through this cycle of repetitive storytelling three or four times. During this process, it is common for a patient to reveal more details with each iteration – a sign that they are becoming less frightened and disturbed by the story and that healing is taking place.
A challenge with this process is that patients can find it intensely distressing. Taking inspiration from the storytelling approach described by the psychiatrist Eckhard Roediger and his colleagues in Contextual Schema Therapy (2018), one potential solution is to ask the patient to share their story from a third-person perspective. For example, if I were working with a patient named John, I might ask him to move to another chair and tell his difficult story as if he were talking about somebody else: ‘John was in a car accident, and this is what happened to him.’ This narrative style allows for high levels of emotional arousal – which facilitates healing – while also enabling the patient to have some distance from the story, which might be particularly useful in narratives where guilt or self-blame are important components.
Martin Luther King had a ‘terrific conflict about the duty to his family and his duty to his fellow man’
The third chairwork format – internal dialogues – is focused on resolving different forms of inner conflict and imbalance. The therapist might begin the exercise as follows:
You seem to be of two minds about the project. I wonder if you would be willing to go to this chair and speak from the part that wants to go forward with it, and then to this chair and speak from the part that is having second thoughts.
One form of internal dialogues involves ‘polarity work’ – that is, helping patients make decisions by clarifying their values and resolving the conflicts between or among them.
For an example, consider the inner world of Martin Luther King, who was frequently in a state of conflict between the important role that he was playing in the civil rights movement and the importance of being a good husband and father. His dilemma became especially acute after he went to India and deepened his knowledge of Gandhi’s teaching. His wife Coretta Scott King recalled her husband saying: ‘A man who devotes himself to a cause, who dedicates himself to a cause, doesn’t need a family.’ She added that: ‘He had a family and he loved his family and he wanted a family but he also said “a man doesn’t need a family” because he had this terrific conflict about the duty to his family and his duty to his fellow man, and he really recognised that he had this obligation to both.’
Or take the example of the British athlete and Olympic medallist Tasha Danvers, who reflected on her own experience with depression when she said: ‘A lot of depression comes from, I think, when you’re not living your truth: you’re not where you wanna be, doing a job you don’t really wanna do, because you feel you need to do it for the money.’
In such cases, there is a conflict between important values. Working for the world, caring for the family, creating financial security and living with integrity are all activities worth pursuing. The polarity dialogue involves anchoring each value in a chair, and then asking the patient to speak from that perspective. As Perls strongly believed, when the patient moves back and forth between the two chairs in which each value is embodied, there is a possibility for creativity to occur. This might take the form of finding a better understanding of how to balance the two polarities; it might involve the development of a new vision of one’s life that involves a synthesis; or it might involve choosing one value over the other.
The depressed man gave voice to his son, who told him it was time to choose life
The final form of chairwork dialogue is relationships and encounters, which relates to the world of interpersonal connections. For example, a therapist might say to a patient wrestling with heartbreak:
I can sense that you are still very stuck – even though the relationship ended two years ago. I would like to work with this, if I may. I’d like you to imagine her sitting in this chair, and I would like you to talk to her and tell her what you are feeling.
This dialogue involves the expression of emotions, such as love, anger, fear and grief. It is also a vehicle for strengthening the patient’s ‘assertive voice’ – their ability to speak their mind with confidence. These are usually two-way dialogues in which the patient also switches chairs and takes on the perspective of the other ‘person’ from the chair opposite (however, if a patient is having a dialogue with a truly abusive figure from the past, we do not recommend that the patient switch chairs, engage in role-reversal with or ‘become’ that person because it could induce empathy for the abusive person, which can interfere with the healing process).
There’s an example of this process in the edited collection Psychodrama with Trauma Survivors (2000) in which the therapists Marisol Bouza and Jose Barrio describe working with a man who had entered a profound, and perhaps psychotic, depression in response to the death of his son. In the hospital following a series of suicide attempts, they decided to do a role-reversal dialogue. The man sat in one chair and imagined his son in the chair opposite. From here, he spoke about his pain, grief and loss, and his desire to join his son in the afterlife. He then switched chairs and gave voice to his son, who told him that it was time for him to choose life and to give his love and affection to his other sons and to the rest of the family. The father took this message to heart and made the decision to get better.
In 2013, I (Amanda) attended a Transformational Chairwork training workshop and had a first-hand, profound and dramatic experience using the relationships and encounters paradigm. Scott (‘Dr Kellogg’ to me at the time) was leading the session, and he asked for participants for a therapy demonstration. I decided to volunteer. At the time, I was a clinical intern working with highly traumatised youth, and I was on the cusp of burnout. My work with a remarkable, yet very troubled, teen girl was overwhelming me. I sat down in front of the room across from an empty chair, and Scott told me to imagine my patient’s abusers. I was instantly outraged. Next, Scott suggested I stand up and defend her. ‘How dare you hurt her!’ I said.
This moment of catharsis was a relief. I had been profoundly disgusted at the abuse my patient experienced but, before that day, I had no outlet for my rage. A few minutes passed, and Scott changed course. ‘Now, imagine your patient. Talk to her. Speak from your heart.’ I sat back down and exhaled. The rage was gone and sadness took its place: ‘I don’t know why your life is so painful. Your stories break my heart.’ My eyes began to water, and I was encouraged to keep speaking. ‘I want you to know that I think you are amazing. You are good. I see you.’ I felt motivated and hopeful. In the months following, my work with the patient improved and I was able to effectively advocate for her care at the clinical site.
From then on, I was also immediately hooked on chairwork. This workshop experience completely altered my perceptions about the possibilities and limitations of psychotherapy. Since that day, I have been on an amazing journey that has led me to becoming a certified chairwork therapist and a trainer of clinicians around the world. Chairwork changed my life.
Relationships evoke conflicting emotions; chairwork is a powerful way for patients to work through them
It pains me deeply when I think of the incredible loneliness created by trauma and suffering, and I feel a great duty to directly confront these experiences. Chairwork has given me a pathway to be with patients in darkness while they are also taking action to get out from the rubble. We can face the scary memories together and, as Scott always says: ‘Trust the chairs.’ When emotional pain presents itself, my patients get to engage with it, challenge it, comfort it and, ultimately, choose to release it. Their minds and their hearts can dialogue, and from there amazing transformation happens.
Scott and I find it striking that we have both had pivotal chairwork experiences in which we had imagined dialogues with difficult or problematic people. Important relationships evoke strong and sometimes conflicting emotions within us, and chairwork provides a powerful way for patients to work through them.
The future is beginning to look bright for those of us who believe in the power of this kind of dialogue work. We are seeing a renaissance in the psychotherapeutic use of chairwork throughout the world. While primarily being spearheaded by schema therapists, who have now made chairwork a central practice in their approach, other therapists are also increasingly embracing this approach, including those practising CBT as well as compassion-focused therapy and integrative psychotherapy more generally. The four dialogues and the four principles have, for the first time, made a freestanding chairwork psychotherapy a possibility. The first manifestation of this can be found in Amanda’s seminar on social justice chairwork psychotherapy, which is focused on finding ways to use this healing practice when working with historically marginalised or oppressed populations.
In the end, how does chairwork help people heal and transform their lives? We believe that there are four factors. The first is that it serves to bring greater clarity to the parts. Patients can experience and label their parts or modes as they are getting activated. This helps them to gain greater control over them. The second is that it facilitates encounters and dialogues among the parts that might not occur naturally. The third is that it promotes intense levels of feeling and emotional expression, which can be especially transformative when patients are having imagined dialogues with others. Lastly, it can trigger a creative process within the individual that can lead to new solutions or new ways of being in the world. Whether used as a standalone therapy or as an adjunct to existing treatment approaches, we believe that chairwork has the capacity to be a liberating force for those who live in pain and suffering.
This Essay is based, in part, on the paper ‘Toward a Chairwork Psychotherapy: Using the Four Dialogues for Healing and Transformation’ (2021) by Scott Kellogg and Amanda Garcia Torres, from the journal Practice Innovations.
More information on this psychotherapeutic approach can be found at Transformational Chairwork and, in the UK, at Chairwork.
To read more about emerging therapies, visit Psyche, a digital magazine from Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts.