In the era of instantaneous trends fueled by Google and Twitter, I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised to see that “Eastwooding” has become a new verb that means posting a photo of yourself talking to an empty chair.
(For those who didn’t watch the Republican National Convention last night, Clint Eastwood gave a hilarious, disturbing, or utterly wacky speech—depending on whom you ask—pretending he was speaking to President Obama as represented by an empty chair.)
My take: Eastwood’s monologue had the eery feel of a therapy session: pretend you’re speaking to the one who hurt you—ex-spouse, dead parent, fund manager who stole your money—even if you can’t actually communicate with them face to face.
“The empty chair is an actual technique that I’m quite sure many therapists don’t even know about,” said Karen Ruskin, a psychotherapist based in Sharon. “I use it with some of my patients on a limited basis, such as if someone has been through a trauma like a rape. A person who’s raped will never be able to speak to her tormentor face to face.”
The practice originated from gestalt therapy, a form of psychotherapy from the mid-20th century that emphasizes conjuring emotions about our relationships in the present moment, with the help of a therapist, in order to learn how those relationships affect our individual identities.
“It’s such a great way to help people move forward when they’re stuck,” explained Ruskin. “It allows clients to have their voice heard even when the person who needs to hear it can’t listen.”
She’ll also have her clients pretend to respond as the person who hurt them in order to understand the other person’s thoughts and feelings. Eastwood pretended he heard Obama speaking back to him, insinuating that the President was cursing him out.
Can people get much benefit speaking to an empty chair on their own? “Yes, and no,” said Ruskin, “depending on the person.” If you’re frustrated with your boss, for example, and having an angry confrontation will cost you your job, you take a shot at saying things to the chair you’d never say to the person.
If you’ve suffered a major life trauma or are stuck with unresolved anger from 20-year-old conversations that keep replaying themselves in your head, it may be time to seek professional help.
“A therapist can help manage the emotions and intensity,” said Ruskin, “to provide support or end the session if a client isn’t handling it well.”
A professional can also provide context for the feelings to help you see them in a more abstract way, rather than just within the framework of the conversation you’ve conjured in your mind. This can help stop the endless picking of scabs on the same old wounds. “A lot of people don’t have the skill set to stop ruminating on their own,” Ruskin said. “That’s the role of the therapist, to move them forward.”