Empty chairs

(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is his control-addicted inner monkey.

Sketch by Bert.  Steve speaking:)

I run a therapy group. 

Last week one of its members left the group, suddenly and without explanation. 

I announced it at the start of our next meeting.   “How’s everyone feeling about this?” I asked. 

The group fell silent.  I watched each of them turn inward.  They looked like they were searching for something.

I let the silence go on for a bit, and then told them something all group therapists know.

“When someone leaves group it’s experienced, on some level, as a death,” I said.  “Someone’s here, and then they’re gone.  It comes as a shock, seeing that empty chair, even when you expect it.   It’s worse when you don’t see it coming. 

“And it’s not unusual for group members to take responsibility for this sudden absence.  They may wonder if something they said or did made that person leave.   Or if they should have said or done something to get that person to stay.”

I paused.  No one said anything.

“Just notice,” I finished, “if anything like that comes up for you.   If it does, tell the rest of us.”

Group went on pretty much as normal after that.  But my eyes kept flicking back to the empty chair.

I’m the group leader. 

What had I said or done that caused this defection? 

What had I failed to say or do to prevent it?

Then, while driving home, I felt myself step back from these questions, and remember something we all do as kids.

We do it whenever life hands us an empty chair — some sort of loss, or some unexplained pain or problem.   

Like when mom and dad fight.  Or one parent drinks.   Or a parent’s depressed.  Or someone falls ill.  Or there’s not enough money.  Or someone doesn’t seem to like us.  Or we are abused.         

“What did I say or do to cause this?” we wonder.  “What didn’t I say or do to prevent it?”

To an adult mind these questions may sound irrational.  We know the explanations for such things lie elsewhere.

But the questions aren’t irrational; they’re defensive.  They’re the kid’s way of staving off confusion and helplessness — trying to fill an empty space with some sort of explanation. 

Confusion and helplessness are so painful that kids would rather take the blame than go on feeling helpless and confused.

It’s a way of, yes, taking control of their feelings. 

It’s a largely unconscious reaction, and it can be costly.  Many of us spend years — decades, even; lifetimes, even — burdened by feelings of guilt, shame or inadequacy rooted in these false explanations.   

It’s sad, and it’s unnecessary.

So, dear reader, I invite you to try some history-reframing.

Marinate these questions, please:

~ What empty chairs did you experience as a child?

~ What explanations did you use to fill them?

~ As you look back now, do those explanations still make sense?  Are they realistic, given what you’ve learned since then?  And are they fair to the child you used to be?


* * *

9 responses to “Empty chairs

  • john

    Really good today Bert, it makes me want to pay attention to things going on in my life with a wonderfull 4yo at home, maybe by being aware I can prevent some of those empty chairs for him

  • jpbauer

    Chairs can be either sat in or left empty.

    Whether someone comes into the group or leaves from and departs the group, is often times for reasons the person doing the coming or going is truly unaware or unsure of. It is only after the decision is made, does the decision maker reflect back on what had led up to and/or prompted them to make the decision and take the action which they did.

    I had one such situation recently where I was the one leaving the group. It just felt right at the time. Afterwards, I reflected for several days my reasons for leaving the group. By golly, I had successfully arrived at a different reason each and every day for about a week when I finally let it go and said enough is enough. I made my final decision to leave and I was sticking with it. My final answer = It just felt like the right thing to do at the time.

    • fritzfreud

      Good for you, John. Sometimes making the right decision means bypassing the brain (ie, intellect) and listening to the stomach. I know many people unable or afraid to do this, and my heart goes out to them, because they often end up second-guessing themselves endlessly.

  • john

    You know I have been thinking about my empty chairs all afternoon I have one I would like to share openly for the first time in my life, its been there for about 35 years I was left back in 2nd grade, not understanding and seeing all of my classmates “friends” move onto 3rd grade without me left a hole in my stomach the size of the Grand Canyon, No one ever told me that it is ok or that it was not my fault, so I spent 35 years looking to fill a void in my soul, to fill a empty chair, first with food then with drugs and alchol, this is the first time Im putting it out there for people to see and its making me sad right now, so for any parent out there that may have a child who was left back take it from a little boy who was (is) in is in alot of pain, dont let your child have a empty chair about that.
    ps.I have to go call my therapist now

    • fritzfreud

      Glad you let go of that secret. Often just keeping something like that hidden makes the bad feelings around it worse, for two reasons:

      (a) the secrecy itself sends the message to ourselves that this really is something to be ashamed of, and

      (b) not sharing it prevents us from getting feedback from others that might lead to seeing the whole thing differently.

      So (as I wrote at the end of “Fuzzy Lollipop”) the best way to create a corrective emotional experience for yourself is to “Practice coming out of hiding. Tell a bit more of the truth than you’re used to telling. Show a bit more of your feelings. Just a bit. See what happens.”

  • Marie

    I have a lot of empty chairs in my closet. I have been filling them with guilt, sadness, depression, self-destructive behaviors, etc. etc.
    I think it is time to clean out the closet. Thanks, great post.

  • john

    I had to re-read fuzzy lolipop again, and the person (yvonne ?) certainly isnt alone I can identify with her feelings very much, and having to do 2nd grade again was just another reason to not feel loved, you told her the first thing is that not being lovable isnt true, and its not true, but how in the world is a 7 year old boy supposed to know that, I gave advice to any parent out there with a child going through this not to let this happen to there child, I wish instead I said I am looking for any other adult child that has had a similiar experience and would like to share or chat about how they felt when in happend to them, please email me and maybe we can get a discount rate or 2 for 1 with Bert

  • sdtherapy

    Excellent blog – subscribed.

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