STEP THREE: The empty chair technique: a simple means of exploring your feelings.
When you go see a Gestalt therapist, the office will usually have an extra chair--an empty chair. This chair serves an important function. The therapist may ask you to imagine holding a conversation with someone or something imagined to be in the empty chair. Thus, the "empty chair technique" stimulates your thinking, highlighting your emotions and attitudes. For example, the therapist may say, "Imagine your father in this chair (about 3 feet away), see him vividly, and, now, talk to him about how you felt when he was unfaithful to your mother." There are innumerable other people, objects (your car or wedding ring), parts of your personality (critical parent, natural child, introversion, obsession with work), any of your emotions, symptoms (headaches, fatigue), any aspect of a dream, a stereotype (blacks, macho males, independent women), and so on that you can imagine in the empty chair. The key is a long, detailed, emotional interaction--a conversation. You should shift back and forth between chairs as you also speak for the person-trait-object in the other chair. This "conversation" clarifies your feelings and reactions to the other person and may increase your understanding of the other person.
If you imagine anything in the other chair that gives you difficulty, e.g. a person upsetting you, a hated assignment, a goal that is hard to reach, a disliked boss or authority, a temptation to do something wrong, keep in mind that this person or desire is really a part of you right now--it is your fantasy, your thoughts. You may disown it, even dislike it, and think of it as foreign to you, like a "mean old man," "the messed up system," "Bill, the self-centered jerk," "a desire to run away," "the boring, stupid book I have to read," etc., but obviously the things said and felt by you in both chairs are parts of you here and now. Your images, memories, emotions, judgments, expectations about the other person or thing are yours! You have created this image that upsets you (although it is probably based on some external reality). And this conflict exists inside you; it's of your own making; it's yours to deal with.
As long as you believe, however, that the trouble lies with someone or something else--your family, the stupid school, society, "men"/"women," not having enough money, your awful job--you will do very little to change. You just complain and feel frustrated. Someone else is seen are responsible for solving your problem. As Fritz Perls would say, "That's crap! Assume responsibility for your own difficulties, own them, explore them--all sides, feel them to the fullest, then make choices and find your way out of your own messes."
The Gestaltists (Stevens, 1973) point out that we are usually identified with only one side of an internal conflict. If we can get in touch with both sides--own both views--the difficulty can be resolved without force, the solution just unfolds naturally. Some examples may help: As mentioned before, in self-improvement what you want to be often conflicts with what you are. Forcing yourself to improve involves becoming preoccupied with changing and/or with failing. You are unable to fully experience and accept what you are here and now. If, instead, you were able to experience all your feelings and conflicting wants, then reasonable choices will supposedly be made to meet your needs without "force," "will power," or "determination." I doubt that awareness always results in effortless resolution of conflicts and growth, as Gestalt therapists claim, but certainly it is more helpful to be aware then ignorant.
Another common conflict frequently emerges if you imagine yourself in the empty chair and try to describe yourself. Try it... Notice if your description became critical. Gestaltists refer to a part of our personality called our "top dog" and another called our "under dog." The top dog is critical, demanding, controlling, pushing for change; the under dog feels whipped, pushed around, weak, resentful, tense and undermines top dog by playing helpless, "I can't do that. Can you help me?" It is important to know both parts well. You are responsible for both. Their differences can be worked out; both are trying to help you.
Few Gestalt methods have been evaluated but a small recent study suggested that the empty chair technique is effective (Paivio & Greenberg, 1995). We need hundreds of more studies of specific self-help or therapeutic methods.
STEP FOUR: Accept responsibility for the choices you make.
Begin this experience by completing these sentences with several responses:
- I had to ________________, ________________, ________________.
- I can't ________________, ________________, ________________.
- I need ________________, ________________, ________________.
- I'm afraid to _____________, ________________, ________________.
- I'm unable to ____________, ________________, ________________.
Do this before reading on; otherwise, you are likely to miss the point.
Now, go back and try substituting these words for the five beginnings above:
- I chose to...instead of I had to...(whatever you filled in above)
- I won't...instead of I can't...(whatever you filled in above)
- I want...instead of I need...(whatever you filled in above)
- I'd like to...instead of I'm afraid to...(whatever you filled in above)
- I'm unwilling to work hard enough to...instead of I'm unable to... (whatever you filled in above)
Do you see how you might actually be denying the responsibility for many of your choices, wants, fears and weaknesses? It is important to see how this kind of thinking (and subtle use of certain words) can contribute to us feeling less free, less able, less satisfied with ourselves. In this way, we start to believe we have few choices and little power. We become unrealistically weak and passive. In reality, we often (but not always) have many choices and much power. Fritz Perls was a crusty old man who had little patience for people who "played helpless" to manipulate others. He would say, "Grow up and wipe your own ass." That puts it bluntly.
STEP FIVE: Working through unfinished business: Uncovering the repressed feelings that still mess up your life.
Just as you are almost always thinking something, you are almost always feeling something, even though you "don't pay it much mind." Furthermore, what you are now feeling is influenced by emotional "leftovers" from previous experiences. Gestaltists don't analyze "unfinished business," they suggest you re-experience it, to get in touch with the "leftover garbage." Examples: a middle-aged woman, who distrusts men excessively, discovers that the "garbage" from an irresponsible, rejecting father is still active. A 55-year-old man, who is tense and sensitive to criticism, realizes that guilt about not providing better for his ailing parents is very alive. Just like behaviors, feelings come from somewhere.
To understand emotions it is also important to realize that one emotion sometimes conceals another emotion. Examples: mild emotions may cover up strong ones--as we saw in chapter 6, boredom may conceal depression, disinterest in sex may conceal anger, withdrawal may hide self-depreciation. We all realize that how we see others or the world often reflects how we feel about ourselves. A person who feels capable is usually optimistic about others. If we think we are deceptive and dishonest, we are unlikely to trust others. Intense emotions often cover up other strong emotions; current emotions often hide old ones; emotions often thinly veil a strong need or want.
Muriel Schiffman (1971) describes an experiential technique for uncovering the repressed "garbage" that is smelling up your "here and now." Try this sometime when you have a strong unwanted emotion, perhaps sadness, anger, loneliness, insecurity, etc. First, let yourself go and feel the emotion full strength, no matter how unreasonable, immoral, dangerous, or crazy it is. (Emoting privately--yelling, crying, writing, fantasizing--doesn't hurt anyone.) Second, go looking for concealed emotions, asking, "Do I also feel something else?" Remember the classic examples of intense emotions: crying hides anger, dependency suppresses anger, excessive smiles conceal depression, physical complaints belie anxiety, anger overshadows fears, feelings for one person are displaced to another, and so on. Third, also investigate your bodily sensations and your emotions for more subtle additional feelings, e.g. some anger that your friend doesn't lift your sadness, a slight satisfaction when someone fails, a touch of jealousy when you are left alone, a flicker of sexual arousal when you hear of a sexually immoral act, a touch of resentment when you concede to or do a favor for someone, etc. Explore these other feelings and see where they take you.
Fourth, ask yourself, "What do these current feelings and the situation remind me of in the past? " Have I been here before? What was my most intense similar experience? What was my earliest similar experience? What do the current words, actions, looks, feelings, etc. make me think of? Re-live the earlier experiences over and over until the strong emotions are drained and you can see more clearly the connection--the wholeness--between the past experience and the current feelings. Don't try to intellectually understand the previous experience, just try to get in touch with all the leftover emotions and memories still in your garbage bag. Schiffman suggests four good ways to uncover hidden feelings: (a) talk to friends about current and previous situations, (b) write out your feelings and read them later to see what memories come to mind, (c) while alone re-experience current and previous situations in vivid fantasy, and (d) what she calls "sneaking up on the hidden feelings," where you take any strong emotion, say from a film or a book, and ask, "What other feelings (besides the strong emotion described in the book) do I have?" and "What real-life experiences does this emotional scene remind me of?" Experience these uncovered feelings fully, become aware of how they are still influencing your life.
Fifth, after using this procedure several times (in a couple of weeks), ask yourself if there is a pattern to your garbage. Examples: Does anger usually follow my feeling guilty? Do I resent submissiveness like I saw in my mother? Do I feel like I should rescue all men who use drugs like my favorite brother? Do I usually cry instead of getting mad? Do I turn "cold" instead of dealing with the problem? Do I frequently displace my anger? Do I deny the same emotion over and over again?
Once aware of your "unfinished business," you can make use of this information to control your unreasonable reactions. The next time you over-respond emotionally, remind yourself of the emotional garbage you bring to the situation. Say to yourself, "it's not the orders from the boss that are bugging me, it is my resentment of my dad's criticism" or "I'm responding to that woman as if she were my mother" or "just because I was dumped by _____ doesn't mean _____ will dump me."
Opening our minds to many hidden experiences and feelings--developing a new experiential world--is time consuming, surely weeks or maybe months. Some of the techniques, like the empty chair used in a specific situation, may take only 10 to 30 minutes, but several techniques will need to be applied to scores of different emotions and upsetting situations before great new awareness characterizes much of your life. Attending to the "here and now" and working through "unfinished business" is never ending. So, get started.
It would be foolish to assume that painful experiences repressed because they hurt a lot could be easily uncovered doing a playful exercise for fun. To "work through " a conflict you probably need to be quite frustrated with a part of your life and determined to understand what is going on. Even then, insights may not come easy or ever.
Some people do not have the psychological mindedness or imagery necessary to explore the unconscious for hidden feelings. Also, Gestalt therapists are directive--they tell the patient what to do to gain awareness. The techniques may not work as well when they are book- or self-directed. On the other hand, Gestaltists emphasize being self-responsible. But no one is in complete control of his/her repressed emotional life. Don't demand or expect too much from these methods. Lastly, there are two problems with the notion that awareness is curative: (1) there is no scientific proof that knowing all the feelings inside you will automatically lead to superior adjustment and (2) if awareness does not necessarily improve adjustment, some people may become absorbed with just uncovering hidden feelings, sort of perpetual psychological wallowing in emotional garbage, and neglect making actual self-improvements. So, the other psychological self-help techniques might be needed after all.
Effectiveness, advantages and dangers
Gestalt therapists are more artists than researchers. Clinical experience and many case studies testify to the effectiveness of their methods, but there is little objective research on Gestalt therapy. Hardly any research exists on the self-application of Gestalt techniques. However, their books are interesting, popular reading and recommend self-application. The techniques are intriguing to most people.
Uncovering always involves some risks (presumably not as many as leaving the feelings hidden). Because our garbage is inevitably distasteful to us, rubbing our noses in it via new awareness may be, for some people, a very emotional experience. Remember: increased awareness may include increased self-criticism. Gaining insight is the kind of experience that may best be done with a therapist. So, if you become upset, it certainly suggests you need to get the unfinished business cleared up, but with an experienced counselor's help in uncovering and then cognitively and affectively integrating the new awarenesses. The risks are no greater, however, than for most other methods.