I was angry. My jaws clenched. Staring down at those chairs, I yelled,“How dare you hurt her!” I began to feel sad. “Amanda, I’d like you to imagine your patient and speak to her.” Following instructions, I sat back down. I exhaled and softened. “I’m sorry that you’re hurt. I believe you. I still think you’re a great young woman.” I felt relieved. I felt hope. I was experiencing Chairwork.
It was 2013 and I was at my first Chairwork training with my future mentor and colleague Dr. Scott Kellogg, one of the psychologists leading the current renaissance of Chairwork psychotherapy. This experience expanded and changed my beliefs about the possibilities of psychotherapy. In many ways, it has also changed my life.
Since that day almost seven years ago, I have continuously studied Chairwork and I have also trained other clinicians at home and abroad. Chairwork comes from the worlds of psychodrama and gestalt therapy. Dr. Jacob Moreno, founder of psychodrama, taught Dr. Fritz Perls, creator of gestalt therapy, how to do Chairwork. Perls took Chairwork and made it into a “psychotherapeutic art form.”
I am a certified Chairwork Psychotherapist. I am also a Texas-born Chicana, or to be simply put, Tejana. My maternal great grandmother was a powerful community healer. During the 1960s, my grandparents were active supporters in the fight for farmworkers’ rights, led by César Chavez and Dolores Huerta. Healing and activism are family traditions for me, and Chairwork has allowed me to continue these traditions in my own way.
Chairwork operates from the belief that it is “healing and transformative for people to speak from their inner parts, modes, or voices and/or for them to enact or re-enact scenes from the past, the present or the future.” It is an experiential psychotherapy and it is active, direct, and, oftentimes, emotionally intense. My patients do not spend much time talking to me; instead, they witness, engage with, and speak directly to whatever or whomever is challenging them. The therapy room is a stage, the chairs are stage markers, and I am the facilitator, or, in some cases, the witness.
Chairwork, as I practice it, is based on four core dialogue structures that can be used independently or in combination. The four dialogues are giving voice, telling the story, internal dialogues, and relationships and encounters.
Chairwork as a Way to Address Experiences of Racism and Oppression
Unfortunately, many of us experience discrimination and injustice. In my clinical practice, I work with patients of diverse backgrounds and with a range of clinical issues. However, for this article, I will explore how Chairwork can be a uniquely effective healing method for people of Hispanic, Latino, Afro-Latino, Chicano, and Tejano (HLACT) identities.
As Freire noted, when “the oppressor is ‘housed’ within the people,” a person’s mind and heart are sites of further subjugation. We can use Chairwork to directly engage with internalized oppressive powers, and help patients access internal energy and “challenge those forces in the world that block people from being free and actualizing their human potential.” To illustrate the utility of this psychotherapy, I will discuss three specific cases: Ana, a first-generation Chicana from the northeast, Vanessa, an Afro-Latina immigrant, and Denise, a Latina from the Southwest. (I have changed the details of these cases to protect patient confidentiality.)
A Case of Racism in the City
While at a coffee shop, Ana was verbally attacked by a man who called her racial slurs and threatened her safety. She processed this experience in one of our sessions. I set up a relationships and encounters Chairwork dialogue for Ana to directly speak to the attacker. This dialogue structure is about the patient’s interpersonal world and allows the opportunity to speak to others from the past, present, or future.
Looking across the room at the empty chair which held her attacker, Ana began with anger. Ana’s voice grew louder and louder as she said things like, “You had no right to treat me that way. How dare you!” After a time, sadness emerged. Speaking softly, she said “I don’t feel safe in my own city anymore. This isn’t fair.” I watched as she began to cry. Ana then said to her aggressor, “I don’t want to live in fear because of you.” Sensing her energy shift, I asked Ana to speak from her choice to live courageously. In this spirit she said, “Even though there are mean people like you in the world, I am going to keep living my life. I will not hide.”
I removed the “attacker” chair and we transitioned into giving voice. In giving voice, the patient gives voice to an inner self, part, or mode. As she stood behind a chair, Ana spoke her truth and claimed her identity. Using my suggestions, Ana said, “I have a right to take up space in the world. I have the right to use my voice to speak Spanish or English. I have the right to be proud of my Chicana heritage. My parents’ worked very hard to give me a good life, and I’m gonna honor them by standing tall in my Chicana identity.” At the end of this session, Ana reported a dramatic decrease in distress and an increase in personal confidence. She also reported feeling a sense of comfort, knowing her choice to live proudly was both a way to fight back against her aggressor and honor her family’s history.
Doing Chairwork helped Ana to express her pain, disconnect from her attacker, and reclaim her right to exist in the world as a proud Chicana. Such work can have an impact both in Ana’s present life and in her future. As César Chavez stated, “You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.”
Chairwork as a Way to Address Patriotic Ambivalence
For many reasons, immigrants may have a complex relationship with the United States. This complexity can lead to ambivalence about things like national holidays, American traditions, and career paths. Using Perls’ work with “Appreciations and Resentments,” we can create dialogues where patients speak from the self that feels positively about a relationship and the self that feels negatively about a relationship.
A Case of July 4th Distress
Vanessa was feeling very conflicted about celebrating the July 4th holiday and attending a neighbor’s barbecue party. Having lived as an undocumented person for many years, she had a great deal of hardship in her history with the United States. I set up a vector dialogue using three chairs. One chair represented the US, while the other two held space for Vanessa’s positive feelings and her negative feelings. The “feelings” chairs faced the US chair. Standing behind the negative feelings chair, I asked Vanessa to voice her resentments. Her body became tense as she said to the US,“You are sick. You make people struggle and suffer. I was a scared child. You weren’t there for me when I needed you. I couldn’t trust you. I resent you for that. Stay away from me.” I then asked Vanessa if she had any sadness to express. Becoming tearful, she voiced her grief by saying, “I have been with you for so long and I did everything you asked me to. You still won’t accept me. You make me so sad.”
I transitioned Vanessa to the second chair and asked her if she had any positive feelings about the US. It took her a couple of minutes before she had anything to say. Speaking again to the US, she shared appreciation: “Some of your people have helped me. You have some goodness. My high school teacher, Ms. April, told me to go to college and helped me with my application essays. She really believed in me. You made some paths so I could go to school and have a career. It’s been very hard, but I got through it.”
At the end of this session, Vanessa reported feeling less distressed and more accepting of the highs and lows that have occurred in her relationship with the United States. She also decided to attend the party. Vanessa understood that her social participation did not equal complete self-betrayal. She could now make room for life’s complexity.
In this case, I worked within the dialogue structure of relationships and encounters. Externalizing Vanessa’s inner conflict allowed her to conceptualize it as a relationship issue and not as a fight against herself. This gave her the opportunity to deepen her understanding of her ambivalence and, as a result, consciously create space for mindful engagement and disengagement from the US.
Chairwork as a Way to Give Voice to Multicultural Identities
Chairwork can support clinically helpful explorations of multicultural identities. Using these explorations, patients can make conscious choices about the nature of their relationships to their identities.
A Case of Dueling Identities
One patient, Denise, spoke of her lifelong struggles with her inner “Latina” and “White” identities. Using two chairs, I set up an internal dialogues structure for her to speak from these identities. Speaking from her Latina self, Denise stated her wish to “be a proud Latina,” and “get good at speaking Spanish again.” However, beyond this enthusiasm, this self had anguish. Denise recounted times she was told she “did not look or sound Latina enough.” She spoke of being criticized and feeling humiliated when she made mistakes while speaking Spanish. Growing emotional, she said, “I’ve wanted to be close to my Latina self for so long. I’m so tired of this distance.”
I asked Denise to move to the second chair and speak from her White identity. Once she accessed this self, we learned that this self was actually “White-Passing” and not White like previously assumed. Speaking as this White-Passing self, Denise shared the regret she felt for times she had chosen to embrace “whiteness” in her life via chosen social circles, hobbies, and even personal styling choices. She said, “It was just easier. More people accepted me when I leaned into whiteness.” Becoming quiet, she expressed her shame: “If someone made fun of the Latino kids at school, I just let it slide. I was scared. I didn’t speak up. I’m so ashamed of that. I don’t want to be quiet anymore. I don’t want to be this [self].”
As we debriefed the dialogue, Denise expressed compassion for “little Denise” and the difficult decision her child self made when she was struggling to be accepted. Denise also shared that she could see her embrace of Latinidad in adulthood as a way to heal her past experiences of shame and invalidation. By doing this exploration, she gave her inner Healthy Adult the resources and opportunity to find self-compassion, access forgiveness, and make a conscious choice to live fully in her Latina identity.
To experience oppression is to live in a world which tells you that you do not belong, and in short, should not exist. Splitting from the self and the world becomes necessary for survival. This comes at a cost to individual and communal well-being. People lose touch with their identities, their past, their communities, and their cultures and all the beauty and strengths within them.
Chairwork has incredible possibilities for HLACT patients and therapists. It gives us a way to return to ourselves, and from that place, make conscious choices about our relationship to self and to the world. We can process the pain of oppression, externalize and hold oppressors accountable, care for our injured parts, access inner strength, and step into empowerment. Chairwork provides a pathway out of despair and helplessness.
My work as a healer gives me the opportunity to strengthen those who will work to fight injustice in the world. As Dolores Huerta said, “[…] every person a potential activist, every minute a chance to change the world.” I hope that my work can be a small ripple to support the big waves of positive change and progress. As Chavez and Huerta proclaimed during the 1960s, ¡Viva la Causa!
Amanda Garcia Torres is a certified Chairwork Psychotherapist in private practice at Chairwork Therapy NYC and a Trainer with The Transformational Chairwork Psychotherapy Project. Her work is guided by a lifelong passion for addressing suffering and injustice, particularly within historically oppressed populations. Learn more at chairworktherapynyc.com.