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Chairwork

How using a therapy technique can turn a chair into a seat of creative ideas.

Photo by Willian Justen de Vasconcellos on Unsplash


I've been to a bit of therapy in my time. Counselling. Analysis. CBT. Many variations thereof. Everyone would benefit from it IMHO. But this isn't a blog about maintaining your mental health. It's an advert for the wider benefits of a profound form of therapy I got to experience called Chairwork.


No, this isn't some therapeutic technique that involves furniture making.


Chairwork is when you sit across from an empty chair and imagine a significant person from your life sitting there. Then you talk to them as if they were. You explain your feelings and thoughts, asking them questions about a traumatic experience maybe, or perhaps the way you feel about a situation. And you might also swap between the two chairs and 'be' the other person, talking to yourself as if you were them, addressing different parts of your personality.


Sound heavy? Doesn't always have to be. It can simply be a way to extract new ideas from a part of your brain that's not all that easy to access, day-to-day.


Chairwork was first introduced by Jacob Levy Moreno in Vienna in the 1920s. Moreno was a doctor of medicine whose work straddled the world of psychiatry and drama - and it was he who created the concept of psychodrama. Alongside his entry into the medical profession, he ran his own improvisational theatre group, where he began to develop his ideas using improv and role-playing to develop this new form of psychotherapy. It centred around unleashing spontaneity and creativity within a group, or individual members, in order for them to confront and understand their issues and neuroses. The safety of a theatrical setting allowed people to do this more easily, with a by-product being they could also learn to become less constrained and more creative human beings.

"The universe is infinite creativity"

Theory of Spontaneity-Creativity, Jacob Levy Moreno


Since then chairwork has been used in many other areas - education, business training, PTSD treatment, life coaching, schools, prisons and, of course, drama training itself. As clinical psychologist Matthew Pugh says in this great British Psychological Society article: "Such a diversity of uses is rare amongst psychological interventions."


So you can see how this technique might have applications for our own creativity. But how? Well, sometimes deep down we know what we think about a situation. Or we know the answer to a question. Or we sense the solution to a problem. But we either don't want to admit it (eg. it's too difficult), or it's buried so deep beneath other more conscious feelings that we can't access it in normal 'language'. Chairwork allows us to reach out to this hidden information through a conversation with ourselves and others - but without the need for anyone being present in the room. Apart from yourself, obviously.


By speaking freely to 'yourself', the problem, other people, the creative issue at hand - you can just blurt anything you feel that comes to mind. There are no wrong things you can say. You just talk. And talk. And at some point, there can emerge a thought from the wellspring of your unconscious that you hadn't perhaps considered before. A different idea about things, in other words.


If you're keen on giving it a crack, check out the 4-minute video below from ChairWork.co.uk, co-founded by clinical psychologists Matthew Pugh and Tobyn Bell - which goes into detail about how you can apply it to a number of situations. Particularly decision making or finding insights about how you feel about a situation.

Or check out this TED talk which shows the practice in action:

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