By Joanie Bentz, B.S., M.Ed., CCBP, BC
As a cognitive behavioral therapist, I have recently incorporated what is called “the empty chair” technique with my clients. This technique is for individuals who have a need to express themselves to someone that is emotionally unavailable, living far away, in prison, or deceased. Commonly this technique is used to resolve a conflict with someone who will not visit a counselor or therapist with the client. Also, if there is an overtly dysfunctional family member (an addict or alcoholic) who will not seek therapy or talk about their problem, this empty chair technique is effective for family members who are witnessing their destructive behaviors and feel helpless about what to do.
Empty chair technique procedure
An empty chair sits across from the client’s chair. The client is asked to imagine that the “unavailable person of choice” is present, and begin a conversation about any topic or concern. It is helpful for the therapist to ask questions to steer the conversation in a specific direction so dialogue may be monitored and facilitated for “creative collaboration” between therapist and client.
It can be difficult for the client to know what to talk about first. There may be several issues he or she is trying to overcome that may have been present for years. The therapist offers supportive language to help the client overcome anxiousness when particularly difficult memories surface.
How this technique works
This technique is meant to process emotions from conflicts that have never been resolved with the “empty chair” person. The therapist can assist their client in overcoming the unpleasant memories through conversation, which often brings a sense of relief, increased feelings of peace, and depending on the client and situation, closure. The client may even discover lost or buried memories that were too painful to confront and may bring a new perspective to the problems encountered with the “empty chair” person.
Example: My client, Mary
My previous client, “Mary,” comes a very large family of 8 siblings, and she is second youngest. Mary experienced a death in the family, her father, a retired Army sergeant. He was known to be giving and outgoing. He was generous with his money and always ready to help someone out financially. But Mary has been estranged from her father for several years, as well as from a few siblings. Contact with other siblings was minimal and had no significant impact on her life. Many live across the country and overseas.
At the time I helped Mary, she was thriving. She was a divorced mother of 2 children. Mary is happily remarried and has a blended family with her husband’s children. Mary and her husband ensured before marriage that their goals and values in life were the same. Mary and her husband actively practice their faith together and teach the younger children about living out their faith on a daily basis.
Why Mary sought help again
However, Mary was thrust back to the past, with all the feelings associated with her family, most especially her father, who passed recently. Mary was at risk of being re-traumatized. Why?
Mary came to me because many years ago, a previous faith-based counselor helped her discover why she found herself making the same mistakes over and over again in her personal life. The mistakes seemed to manifest more deeply during her divorce. Her counselor told Mary that she was the most guarded of all his clients. He worked with her until she was eventually able to come face-to-face with unpleasant facts.
Out of the fog of cognitive dissonance
Mary discovered that her patterns of behavior and negative self-image came about through growing up in a dysfunctional family. She armored herself to not speak about it, fearing that she would be ridiculed and scapegoated further. Being assertive with her parents about her feelings and the need to be heard was considered disrespectful. Consequently, subsequent personal and romantic relationships that were abusive felt like “home” because mistreatment was normalized throughout her childhood and into adulthood. Mary created a barrier to these memories as a coping mechanism, so she would not have to face the truth.
She could never say the word
Mary only associated the word “abuse “with someone experiencing physical aggression almost daily. But abusers do not always abuse daily, and not all abuse is physical. They must create a sense of trust and normalcy. Mary was in a for rude re-awakening. Deep down, she knew that what she endured was chronic abuse, both physical and psychological, from her family and ex-husband — but she could never speak of it. She tried once, in high school, to confide in her academic school counselor. If any action was taken, she was never told about it– and her hopes of addressing the abuse were never realized. She never had the courage to speak about it again. In her own mind, she concluded that she must have deserved this treatment.
The image of her family shattered
It was not until several years later, while visiting her spiritual counselor consistently, that she was able to admit the abuse she endured. Mary could not believe and assimilate that her family was dysfunctional. Everyone loved her family—they were friendly, generous and idolized by many. And she was a member of this family! Did this mean she was dysfunctional too? She could not come to terms with the concept. To admit that there were deep-seated pathological issues concerning the way her family functioned was like speaking with marbles and mud in her mouth — impossible and psychologically damaging.
Mary’s main concern
Mary’s most pressing issue at her father’s death was his continued connection to her ex-husband and how the family acknowledged that connection when he passed. Mary’s ex-husband abused her and her children both physically and emotionally. A few times, she reached out to her dad and a relative when it was bad, to help de-escalate., but it was short-lived. He physically assaulted her when she pregnant. One of the last times they slept in the same bedroom her ex-husband went on a rage-filled rampage.
- That was the last straw. She knew she had to make a break without delay for her safety and that of the children. When her children received counseling, it was discovered that they never told Mary about the abuse. They initially could not process the memories due to the severity of the impact. To this day, any contact with him perpetuates the damage and reopens the wounds.
Session One: Mary and the empty chair
After listening to how Mary worked hard to disconnect herself from her family and those associated with them, I realized she risked everything to save her and her children’s mental and physical health. I suggested the empty chair technique to help her attain some closure. Here’s how the first session went:
Joanie: Your Dad is sitting across from you, Mary. Would you like to start the conversation?
Mary: Yes, thank you. Hello Dad. I am sorry if you endured any physical pain when passing. I am sorry I could not see you. I am also sorry that you could not speak to me since the last time we talked. Maybe you did not want to. You and my siblings gave me no choice and the choice was excruciating to make.
Dad: I offered to talk to you, without anyone else present. Remember? I texted and gave you the times and dates and when I could talk to you. I know I was yelling at you. You never answered. You seemed to not want to speak to anyone.
Mary: Maybe it’s because you told everyone way before I disappeared that I never see you. When in fact, I was visiting you once or twice during the day on my lunch break while everyone was at work for some time.
Dad: Well …. It does not matter why you went no contact. The fact is, it doesn’t look good for you.
Mary: Why did I have to make an “appointment” to talk to my father? Your text was an ultimatum and you were aggressive. Was I obliged to accept so that you could raise your voice at me some more? Am I required to endure this out of respect? Do I not have a say in what I will and will not tolerate? You never tried to have mutually agreeable conversation with me. You were not allowing me to speak due to your anger. Also, no one reached out to me either. It was like I fell off the face of the earth. However, it was like I was an afterthought– before I even decided it was best to stay away. Why did you tell others you never see me?
Dad: I am your father and I deserve respect. Everyone in this family honors me, except you. You never invited me or your family to your wedding. I know you and your fiancé invited me to dinner with your children before you were married, but one of your children had to work at the last minute, so I blamed you for it and walked out. I wanted everyone there. And I told your fiancé that I blame you.
Mary: I was advised by clergy that my own family should not be present at my wedding. How do I invite just my father? When I announced my engagement, my siblings did not share in my happiness. For some reason, they never wanted to acknowledge it. They clearly showed this– especially around the holidays. That’s all I needed to know. My children are now older, and I am not responsible for their work schedules, decisions and preferences. You should have contacted them directly.
Joanie: Mary, for your body to calm down, heal and grow, you needed a feeling of safety and for you and your children. Having people present at your wedding who are harboring resentment toward you would only result in ruining your good memories. You were trying to make good memories for you and your children.
Mary’s memories of her family
Mary: I do not have good memories of my family. I only have good memories of what they projected to others, and to me and my children. In reality, I was terrified of my father, and of my deceased mother. Since I was young, I was afraid to tell them if I did something wrong or needed help, because my experience in doing this resulted in their anger, lack of emotional support and sometimes physical abuse. (Mother) I felt this way up until adulthood.
Dad: Do you remember what I called you? I called you the “Bible” daughter. It was your responsibility to fix the situation, you are the practicing Christian. You should have tried more. Even though no one was responding to you, you should have kept reaching out. That’s family loyalty.
Mary: That’s not family loyalty. That’s being a doormat. So, you are implying I was the only one that could fix things? I am not God and no better than anyone else. You demanded that I alone fix it– not considering that others needed to fix things as well.
Joanie: Mary, that’s called being designated as the scapegoat. You were blamed for the family’s unhappiness and ongoing deep-seated pathologies.
Dad: What a bunch of psycho-babble- mumbo-jumbo.
Mary: I had reached out to those siblings, asking them to speak with me instead of text. I was always laboring under the misapprehension that somehow– it was my responsibility to make my family care. You can’t force people to talk to you. I had just endured an abusive marriage and harrowing divorce, and also got involved with an abusive man who harassed and terrorized me. I had nothing left in my emotional reserves. Do you have any idea what I went through? Do you realize that I had to fix those situations? You made a lot of demands on me. By the way, aren’t you Christian as well?
Dad’s views about Mary’s money
Dad: Well, I told you that I did not think you should get married. Your children could not handle it. Or move. Or that you should get an apartment. Live in the immediate area. Think about it. I have always seen you as the one who is not financially capable. And I wanted to know what you were going to do with your money. I kept asking you what you would do with it.
Mary: Why would you want to know that? I am a grown adult. I worked while being pregnant, going to school, and held 3 jobs at one time. I don’t need to prove anything to anyone. I told you I wanted to be happy. You said “happiness is overrated.” Dad, it was impossible to ever challenge your opinions, thoughts and ideas. No one ever tried to counter or disagree with you. But that’s what you do in healthy relationships.
All I ever wanted was an emotionally reciprocal relationship from you and our whole family. Granted, you helped me many times financially, and at least I had the chance to show my appreciation for your generosity years before you passed away. I was fortunate to have your help. You also helped my siblings throughout their life. They also received financial assistance from you. Why do I now feel bad that you helped me?
Dad: Well, that’s not true. I told you I know what it’s like recovering financially from a divorce. You can do anything you want. I wanted to help you and all of your siblings. But your brothers and sisters placed some demands on me, too.
Mary made her choice
Mary: Dad, I know what happened. No need to explain. You suffered in your life too. And for that I feel sad. You are my dad and I will always love you. But just because you suffered, does not mean I have to suffer as well. I made a choice– to find answers and work on myself and help my children do the same. I could not accomplish this feat in our family environment. Personal autonomy was seen as a threat. That is where I stop trying to reason with unreasonable people.
In the next session: Mary asks her dad about his contact with her ex-husband. She also discusses the long-buried abuse she endured from early childhood, including physical abuse at the hands of her mother.