A Few Empty Chairs Can Help You Find Your Purpose in Life

6 min read
Source: Chris Gilbert, M.D., Ph.D.

The gestalt therapy empty chair technique

Source: Chris Gilbert, M.D., Ph.D.

What’s your purpose or dream in life? This question sounds simple, but it is much more complex than it seems.

Is your dream in life your own dream, or is it your parents’ dream for you or your grandparents’ dream for you? Or is it your friend’s dream for you?

As shown in the Disney movie Elemental, it is easy to be confused. In Elemental, in a city where fire, land, water, and air residents live together, a fiery young woman discovers the difference between her parents’ dream for her and what makes her deeply happy.

How can we learn to distinguish between our parents’ dream for us and our own dream in life when we grow up taught and shaped by our parents and completely entangled with them?

There is a way to explore what our own unique dream is using gestalt therapy’s empty chair technique with a therapist trained in gestalt therapy.

The gestalt therapy empty chair technique is designed to help people explore and express their thoughts and feelings towards an imaginary person or an aspect of themselves using an empty chair (1).

Using gestalt therapy’s empty chair technique to discover your life’s purpose or dream

Sit on a chair and talk aloud about what you think your dream in life is. As you describe your life dream, be aware of what physical feelings come up in your body. Describe those feelings aloud: Do you have bubbles of excitement coming up in your heart (or any other physical sensation that goes with you feeling elation)? Or do you have tightness in your throat (or any other physical sensation that indicates you are experiencing dread)? Are those physical feelings pleasant or not pleasant?

Research published in Psychological and Cognitive Sciences by Nummenmaa and colleagues shows that different emotions are consistently associated with statistically separable bodily sensation maps across experiments (2).

If you have bubbles of excitement coming up in your heart or other pleasant physical feelings, chances are that you are describing your own dream in life.

If you have tightness in your throat or any unpleasant physical feeling, it could be that you are describing your parents’ or somebody else’s dream for you. Check within yourself: Are you describing a dream that anybody else other than yourself has for you?

I ask you to search your feelings this way based on a growing body of research into “embodied choice,” indicating that we unconsciously focus on physical sensations (and movements) when we make decisions (3).

It’s one small step from this research to the idea that explicitly making the unconscious conscious can help you make better life choices (what psychotherapists call “getting in touch with your feelings”).

If, indeed, you are describing your parents’ or somebody else’s dream for you, take a moment to become fully aware of what is happening in your mind and your body, and continue talking about your parents’ dream for you. When you are done talking about your parents’ dream for you and being aware of your body’s feelings, give a name to the chair you’re on, such as “my parents’ dream for me”; then grab another chair and position it next to the first one to start creating a circle.

Give the second chair a name, like “my teacher’s dream for me,” and talk aloud from that point of view.

When you are done, grab a third chair and add it to the circle. That third chair could represent “my friends’ dream for me.”

Add as many chairs as you need for as many different people who have dreams for you, and talk aloud from each of those points of view.

When you are done, grab the last chair, place it in the circle, and try to say aloud what your own dream for you is. What dream makes your heart race? What gives you goosebumps? Is there any “unacceptable” or “forbidden” dream that makes you excited?

Give yourself unconditional permission to think and emote. Say aloud whatever comes to your awareness, and be mindful of your body’s reaction as you mention those things. Is this the real you talking now? If it is, notice how your body feels. Describe out loud what your body’s sensation is.

Then, get up and look at all the chairs. This is what I call your mediator position, your most neutral, impartial part. From that mediator position, take time to look at each chair and consider what was said from each one. The awareness you will get from your standing-up position could be staggering.

You will have a 30,000-foot view of the complexity and yet also the simplicity of your life’s dream. The gestalt empty chair technique is a powerful way to separate the seemingly inseparable: your parents’ influence on your life, your friends and acquaintances’ influence on your life, and your own uniqueness.

When you go after somebody else’s dream for you, you might find yourself frequently tired and counting the hours at work. But when you go after your own purpose in life, you might discover that you have a huge amount of energy to dedicate to achieving this purpose. You won’t count the hours spent working because those hours will be pleasurable.

There will come a time to reflect on what you will choose to do in the future. Whatever you decide is fine. It is OK to decide to go after your parents’ dream for you, as long as you are aware it is your parents’ dream, but make sure you also dedicate time to achieve your own dream in life if it is different from your parents’.

You might need to reassess what your life purpose is on a regular basis, for example, once a year. Your purpose in life might change as years go by. Occasionally, it takes an illness or a near-death experience to make a switch in our lives.

Some people have no idea what their dream in life is. If this is your case, meet and talk to various people, ask many questions, look at a lot of videos, explore different careers, and be aware of your body’s feelings at each step of the way. There are infinite possibilities for careers, places to live, life partners, etc…

Don’t settle until you find what truly excites you, the real, authentic, and unique you… not what excites your parents, your teachers, or your friends.

This is important for long-lasting happiness.

And it all starts with a gestalt session and a few empty chairs, uncovering your purpose in life while mindfully walking on the mesmerizing path of self-discovery.

Copyright 2023 @ Chris Gilbert, M.D., Ph.D.

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