Read in Italian: Diamo una sedia al Self – come trasformare le due-sedie in tre-sedie
Gestalt therapy was my first love. I remember going to my therapist in Rome back in the early 2000, when going to therapy, in Italy, was something that you would only do if you were “crazy”.
I live in the UK now, where I trained as a Gestalt psychotherapist. I am privileged in the fact that I am fluent in English, and I was able to access the official IFS training in the UK. I am now one of the few therapists who can offer IFS in Italian. Gestalt therapy is quite widespread in Italy and, at the moment, Italian psychotherapists face huge barriers in accessing basic IFS knowledge due to lack of IFS books and official IFS training in Italian.
In this article, I want to share my journey that led me to understand how simple IFS concepts can make a huge improvement in the use of the two-chair technique, which I will call the three-chair. I am happy to make this contribution to the IFS and the Gestalt communities and, in my heart, I hope that some Italian colleagues will access and understand this information. The same goes for all those people and specialists who cannot find good-quality IFS information in their mother tongue, and for those countries, like Italy, that would benefit hugely from the application and availability of IFS.
My therapist in Rome used to always have an empty chair in his consulting room. On that chair I “put” many things. On some days I would put my mother, my father, the bullies of my school years and on other days, I would put the Part of me that wanted to quit that terrible university degree I had chosen to study in Rome. The technique was transformative. In the safety of the therapy room, I could allow my heart to feel all those feelings I had denied myself to feel; the words I was keeping inside and thought I would never have the courage to speak, would come up in the session.
After more than 20 years, I found myself in London, UK, having become a Gestalt psychotherapist, and, for the past year, also a Gestalt Psychotherapy lecturer at one of the leading training organisations in the UK. This time, I was the one facilitating my clients to use the empty chair. To my surprise, some clients did not know what to do with the experiment. How could the most impactful technique I ever tried not work on these people?
I dug into Gestalt literature in the hope to find some more information. The topic of the two-chair approach, also known by the name “the empty chair”, was named by many writers because it was one of the most famous techniques showcased by the founder of the method, Fritz Perls, in the 1950s. To my knowledge, there was only one study that had been carried out to test the efficacy of the method, and, above all, I could never find more than a paragraph or two describing how the technique should be done. For complex reasons, probably due to how Gestalt therapy developed through the decades, two-chair work remained, at the same time, one of the most known and recognisable ways of working with Gestalt therapy, and one of the aspects least investigated by Gestalt practitioners.
Then I discovered IFS. Dick Schwartz writes, in almost all his books, how the two-chair technique is one of the starting points from which IFS developed. Dick Schwartz did, in my opinion, what no Gestaltist did: he started to critically study the two-chair method.
I want to point out that the two-chair technique can be used in two ways: one way is to put someone else in the empty chair (parent, friend, enemy, manager, etc.) and establish a dialogue with the imaginary person in that chair; the second is to use the empty chair to host a Part of the person. This article is going to focus on the latter. I am going to explain how the two-chair technique can be upgraded to the three-chair technique when people have two Parts inside of them that hold opposing ideas and opinions.
The first modification of two-chair work: bringing the chair(s) “inside”
Prior to training in IFS, I had noticed that I did not need an extra chair to do two-chair work. The language of Parts is so common that I would use it casually with my clients when they would have a Part that wanted, for example, to quit their job, and a Part that feared the consequences of it.
In a similar way to Dick Schwartz, I discovered that people were perfectly capable of holding this inner dialogue inside of them. At that time, I did not know about the concept of “multiplicity of mind”, and, above all, I did not know about the idea of Self in IFS. The Gestalt way of doing two-chair work was to invite the person to give voice to the two Parts involved. The therapist would be wholeheartedly present to allow the process to unfold and support the client.
I, therefore, invited the client to let the Part that wanted to quit the job express itself on one chair. The Part would have the space and time to express all the suffering, sadness, and frustration caused by the current job. When that was over, I would ask the client to give voice to the other Part, the one that feared the financial and social consequences of leaving the job. I would then ask the client to see if one Part wanted to say something to the other Part to see what would happen.
I must admit, I did not have a clear idea of what to do from the therapist’s seat. While following the unfolding dialogue between the two inner parties, at times I would witness a smooth resolution of the inner dilemma; but at other times, I would observe an unchangeable inner fight that had been there for a long time. I acknowledged the deadlock and conveyed my compassion for how difficult it was, holding the hope that things would get better.
Despite my efforts, I could not find, in the Gestalt literature, any thorough explanation of why the technique worked at times, and not at other, until I learnt about IFS.
Introducing the IFS concepts of multiplicity of mind and Self
It is only when I trained and learnt IFS in its depth, that I could give answers to my inquisitive Parts that wanted to improve my beloved two-chair technique (now happening either inside or outside of the client).
The multiplicity of mind teaches us that we are not a unique block of thoughts and feelings. We are made of many Parts that have their own physical sensations, thoughts, emotions, and memories. These are not just ideas that we use to make sense of our inner world, but real subpersonalities that, all together, compose our system.
One of the most useful ideas from IFS is that we can learn to identify our Parts and choose to give expression to a certain Part by either “speaking for” the Part (for example saying “A part of me wants to quit the job”) or “blending” with the Part by temporarily identifying with the Part itself (in this case the client would say “I want to quit the job”).
For all those years of two-chair work, I had basically invited clients to take turns “blending” with one Part after the other. By encouraging the client to blend with their Parts, all I could achieve was to bring to the surface the relationship between these Parts and allow Parts to express themselves. I was not facilitating any unblending (the process by which Parts step aside momentarily and give space to other states of consciousness), and, therefore, I was not allowing Self to emerge and enter the picture.
Introducing the Self’s chair – the three-chair technique
It is only when I fully embraced the idea of Self that I could make sense of the missing piece to explain why the two-chair technique would work wonders at times and would not work at all at other times. A discussion on what Self is needs a book on its own. For now, allow me to describe it as a state of consciousness, which every person can embody when Parts step aside. From this state, we hold no judgement and emanate calm, curiosity, compassion (and many more qualities generally known at the 8C’s of Self).
It is only when Parts enter into a relationship with the Self that change and healing are very likely to occur. Without the presence of Self, we generally do not observe changes for the better. As a consequence, if Parts talk to each other without any Self present, Parts are likely to remain stuck in their positions and not change.
By following the two-chair technique from a Gestalt therapy perspective, I would only encourage Parts to talk to each other, and never check whether the client’s Self was present and was listening to what the Parts were saying. This was simply because Gestalt therapy does not have the concept of Self that IFS has.
We know from IFS that it is only when Parts feel understood by the Self and feel the compassion from Self that they reveal the reasons why they cannot change their behaviour and why they are holding to their position so firmly. Change occurs if the Parts encounter the Self of the therapist or, even better, the Self of the client.
It was time to add a third (virtual) chair: the Self’s chair.
This time, after inviting the client to use one chair to blend with the Part that wants to quit the job, and one chair to blend with the Part that does not want to quit, I would then invite the client to sit on the third chair (either real chair or imaginary internal chair) and I would make that chair exclusive to Self. If the client’s Self was not available at that time, I would sit on the Self’s chair.
Once Self was present, I would then ask Parts to not talk to each other, and to direct any communication to Self on the third chair during the session. This was revolutionary. Having Self present meant that these Parts, that had been fighting inside for so long, could find, in the Self sitting on the third chair, someone who calmly understood their point of view. Once a Part trusts and feels understood by the Self, then it reveals more about why they hold such strong opinions, usually because of traumatic events. If, at this point, Self provides compassion for that pain, the Part is very likely to accept help and realise that things have moved on from that traumatic past.
Three-chair work, therefore, explicitly invites Parts to speak and get what they need from the Self by pausing the fight with the opposing Part. When this happens, the Parts rarely feel the need to continue talking to other Parts in the system and the initial deadlock vanishes. There is, of course, the possibility that the Self’s chair might be occupied by a Part that believes to be the Self (also called Self-like Parts), and that is when the help of a therapist is key. If the client’s Self is not available, the therapist has their Self ready to be sat on the third chair.
The introduction of the idea of Self is, in my opinion, the missing piece to explain the unpredictable effectiveness of the Gestalt way of doing two-chair work. Because change and healing happen when the Self (either the therapist’s or the client’s) establishes some form of compassionate connection with the Parts sitting on the chairs, therapists employing the two-chair technique to facilitate Parts talking to each other without the presence of Self might not facilitate much change at all.
It is somehow sad to think that such simple IFS concepts are available only in a small number of languages, apart from English, and are accessible only to those therapists fluent in such languages around the world. This form of privilege means that English-speaking countries are far more advantaged on many levels. Firstly, because professionals can access material and training without having to face any language barrier, and secondly because the public can ask practitioners for IFS sessions, thus motivating therapists to deepen their understanding of the model.
It is my dream to invite all Gestalt therapists to study IFS and to modify their practice from two to three-chair work, regardless of their country and language. While I do not practice in Italy, I am constantly contacted by Italian people who are looking for IFS therapy in Italian and, because no Level 1 training is currently offered in Italian, they cannot take advantage of this fantastic model.
I am sure Italy is not the only country whose professionals and potential clients cannot access IFS therapy due to a language barrier, and it is my hope that IFS is made widely available as fast as possible. For a country like Italy, where only very traditional therapies are offered, and where people suffer from years of political and social misery, IFS would make a massive change for the better.
Alessio Rizzo is a Level 3 certified IFS psychotherapist specialised in gender, sexual and neuro diversity. www.therapywithalessio.com