Chairwork has been used for over 100 years, with many therapists regarding it as one of their most powerful and exciting ways of working. Matthew Pugh and Tobyn Bell, founded their company Chairwork, specifically with the aim of promoting the application, research, and dissemination of chairwork in psychotherapy, supervision, and coaching.
We sat down with Tobyn for a Q&A session covering everything from the essentials of chairwork to how he would have loved to sit down with Dr. Jacob Moreno, the creator of Psychodrama.
If you had to pick one, what is the key feature that chairwork brings to therapy?
Friedrich ‘Fritz’ Perls, one of the innovators of chairwork, coined the term ‘aboutism’ to describe the way in which most modalities rely on clients recounting the difficult experiences that bring them to therapy. Unfortunately, this aboutist approach can lead to an overly intellectual, abstract engagement with personal problems without ever getting to the heart of the matter. Chairwork, on the other hand, can bring these issues to life in the here-and-now through enactment, thereby allowing people to have direct contact with their difficult experiences, heightening their present moment awareness, and increasing personal choice. To me, this seems very congruent with the ACT approach.
How do the four pillars of chairwork complement and enhance ACT?
The four pillars of chairwork are something Matt and I developed to clarify and simplify the foundational elements of chairwork across therapeutic modalities. The pillars relate to core principles, processes, procedures, and process skills of chairwork.
One core principle of chairwork is the concept of ‘self-multiplicity’: the idea that the self contains different parts, voices, or ‘selves’ (including internalisations of other people). The core processes of chairwork include separating and concretising these parts in different chairs, animating them through personification or embodiment, and then helping the client have therapeutic conversations with them.
We believe these principles and processes have a great deal to offer ACT practitioners. For example, when clients explore their self-multiplicity in different chairs, they start to defuse from static notions of the self that might trap them in inflexible self-stories and self-representations. Embodying and enacting these different aspects of self can also broaden their repertoire of responding and behaving. By shifting chairs and positions, chairwork can help people play with perspective-taking and different types of framings in a very embodied way. Need some advice? Change seats and respond to that issue as your best friend, future self, or role model! Standing up and leaving parts of the self on chairs can also be way to begin separating from patterns of experience, thereby cultivating a more metacognitive, mindful orientation. In this way, chairwork provides a tangible medium for experiencing both self-as-content (e.g., immersing oneself in an internal dialogue by playing it out on chairs) and self-as-context (e.g., stepping back and literally witnessing these parts of the self and their interactions from an observational perspective).
Can you share one example of how chairwork can be used to facilitate psychological flexibility in clients?
The processes outlined above can be illustrated by chairwork with self-criticism. A client might begin by personifying their ‘inner critic’ in an empty chair- using imagery to give it a shape and form – before changing seats and embodying it. The client can then enact their self-critical inner dialogue, moving between the seats to enact the critical and criticised parts of their self. This immediately provides new insights, such as how it feels to be the inner critic, learning you have the capacity to switch perspectives, and bringing the client into direct contact with an experience they usually try to avoid or suppress. This dialogue between the critic and criticised self can also be witnessed and reflected upon from a standing, observational perspective, helping client connect with self-as-context. There are lots of other ways you go at this point. For instance, the client might compare and contrast different ways of responding to the critic. Does arguing back work or does it increase the conflict and fusion? How does it feel to step back and just be aware of this interaction? What response would help the client to connect with their values? In Compassion Focused Therapy chairwork, you might introduce a chair for the compassionate self so the client can engage with the inner critic in a new way, reflecting on the pain and fear that drives its attacks and so transforming its stimulus function. There are so many creative ways chairwork can be used to experiment with perspective-taking, defusion, and values-driven action.
Have you ever benefited from/experienced chairwork yourself?
One of the best ways to fully understand the power of chairwork is to experience it first-hand. From the outside, chairwork can look pretty bizarre or like make-believe, but nothing quite prepares you for the emotional charge of speaking directly to yourself in an empty chair! One of the things that struck me during my own chairwork was how it helped facilitate self-compassion. I remember finding it much easier to side-step my usual blocks to self-compassion by imagining I was speaking to an anxious version of myself in an empty seat. The chairs seemed to play a strange trick on my mind – I could relate to myself as if I was another person and draw on my ability to give compassion outwards, helping me turn this towards myself. This led me to research whether other people had similar experiences during chairwork – and they did!
Which famous person would you most like to do chairwork with? Why?
I’d love to experience what chairwork is like with one of its originators! One of the best things about chairwork is how endlessly creative it is, and how each modality adds something new. Being part of Moreno’s psychodrama groups would have been really special – the creativity, playfulness, and intensity of his enactments were truly unique.
Thanks for talking to us Tobyn!
Joe Oliver and the Contextual Consulting team.
If you want to learn more about chairwork, we are running an experiential, exploratory, and practice-focused workshop in January 2024. This online session will introduce the four ‘pillars’ of chairwork and how they can be incorporated into Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Attendees will have the opportunity to observe and practice methods for working with values, supporting cognitive defusion, working with self-narratives and self-multiplicity, and enacting ACT metaphors. For more information visit ACTing it out: using chairwork to enliven your sessions page.