In working with highly self-critical and shame-prone clients, we (at ACTWithCompassion) often utilize chair work as a way to increase flexible perspective taking and facilitate self-compassion. Much of what we rely on for guiding our chair work comes from Leslie Greenberg, Ph.D. and his colleagues in Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT). EFT provides an empirically-grounded and well-researched methodology for working with internal conflict and self-criticism. We have two books that we recommend for learning about chair work on our resources page.
There has been very little written about using chair work specifically from a compassion-based orientation. And so we were excited to see a whole chapter dedicated to the topic in Russell Kolts’ wonderful new book CFT Made Simple: A Clinician’s Guide to Practicing Compassion-Focused Therapy. In his chapter, “Embodying Compassion: Chair Work in CFT," Kolts provides detailed guidelines for using empty-chair, two-chair, and multiple-chair interventions from a compassion-focused therapy perspective. The chapter even includes transcripts of both an empty-chair and a two-chair intervention with two highly self-critical clients.
In the introduction to the chapter, Kolts references many of the same EFT source material and studies that we rely on and have written about on ACTwithCompassion:
“In helping clients work compassionately with difficult emotions, CFT seeks to make things as experiential as possible. A powerful way to accomplish this is through chair work… Chair work brings an immediacy and intensity that allows clients to work compassionately with difficult emotions in real time… CFT draws heavily from the work of a pioneer of modern chair work, Leslie Greenberg, who along with his colleagues has place chair work as a central component of emotion-focused therapy (EFT) and applied it extensively with self-critical patients. (Greenberg, Rice, & Elliot, 1993; Greenberg, & Watson, 2006; Pos & Greenberg, 2012). A recent pilot study demonstrated the usefulness of such chair work for increasing self-compassion and self-reassurance in self-critical clients, in addition to decreasing self-criticism and symptoms of anxiety and depression (Shahar et al, 2012).” p. 155.
Russel Kolts, who is a professor of psychology at Eastern Washington University and founder of the Inland Northwest Compassionate Mind Center, is a leader in the development of compassion-focused therapy and so we were very excited to see that his book, CFT Made Simple has finally come out and also that it included one of the best descriptions we have seen to date on how to use chair-work in working with highly self-critical and shame-prone clients.
Greenberg, L. S., Rice, L., & Elliott, R. (1993). Process-experiential therapy: Facilitating emotional change. New York: Guilford.
Greenberg, L. S., & Watson, J. C. (2006). Emotion-focused therapy for depression. American Psychological Association.
Kolts, R. L. (2016). CFT Made Simple: A Clinician's Guide to Practicing Compassion-Focused Therapy. New Harbinger Publications.
Pos, A. E., & Greenberg, L. S. (2012). Organizing awareness and increasing emotion regulation: Revising chair work in emotion-focused therapy for borderline personality disorder. Journal of Personality Disorders, 26(1), 84.
Shahar, B., Carlin, E. R., Engle, D. E., Hegde, J., Szepsenwol, O., & Arkowitz, H. (2012). A pilot investigation of emotion‐focused two‐chair dialogue intervention for self‐criticism. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy,19(6), 496-507.