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Enhancing Your Therapy with Gestalt Approaches
Gestalt Therapy continuing education addiction counselor CEUs

Section 26
Using the Gestalt Empty Chair Technique to
Detriangulate an Absent Father

CEU Question 26 | CEU Answer Booklet | Table of Contents | Gestalt
Psychologist CEs, Social Worker CEUs, Counselor CEUs, MFT CEUs

The projection of the mother's unresolved feelings about an absent father onto one or more of her children--often the eldest son expected to assume the role of parental child--is an obstacle frequently encountered in therapy with single-parent Black families. Acknowledgment and resolution of these feelings by the mother is an important step toward reestablishing generational boundaries and improving communication between mother and children. It is suggested that the empty chair procedure and the use of family photographs are two interventions that can be used within the context of structural and/or transgenerational family therapies to help the mother separate her feelings about the absent father from her feelings about her children. Models for the use of both approaches and the potential benefits of each is presented. The successful outcome of either technique may depend, however, on variables in the family's history and the stage of therapy during which the techniques are introduced.

The Triangling Of Absent Fathers
One way to look at the effect of a mother's projection of her feelings about an absent father onto his son is in terms of triangling, a term coined by Minuchin (1974) to describe the method by which communication between two members of a family subsystem is diverted through their interactions with a third member. The classic example is the husband and wife who use one of their children as a "go-between" or scapegoat for unresolved conflicts between themselves.

By projecting her feelings about the absent father onto her son, the mother has, in effect, created a triangle composed of absent lather, son, and herself. Were the father alive and living with the family, or even in contact with the family, we would say that the mother was triangling the son into her relationship with the father, because the son would be the third party onto whom the parents' issues were being diverted. With the father absent, and the son perhaps being needed to assume a parental-child role in the family, however, it is the issues in the relationship between the mother and her son that are being confused with, and obfuscated by, the mother's feelings about the absent lather.

Among the issues most likely to arise between a single mother and a parental child is the conflict between the son or daughter's "age-appropriate thrust toward interaction with his or her peer group" (Boyd-Franklin, 1989), and the mother's reliance on him (or her) to take on parenting responsibilities. The parental child's thrust toward differentiation (Bowen, 1976) is both natural, appropriate, and psychologically healthy, yet his assumption of various executive functions of the household--often necessary for the well-being of the entire family system--may in his mother's eyes, as well as his own, seem in direct contradiction to that thrust to differentiate. As Minuchin (1974) pointed out, the therapeutic goal, then, is to "realign the family in such a way that the parental child can still help the mother," without blurring of generational boundaries. In other words, the son should be able to help his mother, without foregoing the developmental tasks appropriate to adolescence. These issues are best addressed directly between mother and son, with the therapist acting to support both in their respective roles. When, however, the absent father is triangled into the mother-son relationship, it becomes easier for the mother to view her son's thrust toward differentiation as evidence of irresponsibility or uncaringness by virtue of his resemblance to his father whom she might resent for having been (in her eyes) irresponsible or uncaring.

The Use of the Empty Chair: The rationale underlying the Empty Chair technique (popularized by Fritz Perls in his book, Gestalt Therapy, 1951) is well described by Sherman and Fredman (1986): "The process is based on the assumption that the parents' internalized object relations are played out with their children. The parents' internalized relational difficulties result in boundary and contact problems for the members of the family, such as scapegoating, enmeshment, and projective identification by the child. This technique affords the members of the family an opportunity to carry on dialogues with significant individuals who are not present ... the goal is to stimulate the person to those feelings and beliefs that he projects onto other members. The projections create a distortion of reality in the system. The family is organized around those distortions. By integrating the feelings into the self, a more realistic pattern of interaction can emerge (pp. 64-65)."

The Empty Chair is particularly useful in instances such as the one under discussion, as Sherman and Fredman (1986) explain: "The Gestalt technique of the Empty Chair is a useful strategy for working with projection. To interrupt the process of projection this technique may assist the parent in reowning and assimilating the disowned part of himself. By reidentifying the disowned side of the dialogue, the parent is better able to see and relate to the child without projecting his disowned fantasy... In those clinical situations in which a parent projects onto a child, the therapist may interrupt the process of projection by having the parent use the Empty Chair technique. In this instance, it is recommended typically to have the parent work on his projections separate from the children as the intensity and intimacy of the work may weaken generational boundaries (pp. 66-67)."

Bauer (1979) has given a detailed description of the Empty Chair procedure as it is commonly used. Two chairs are set facing each other, and the therapist has the parent sit in one chair and speak to her child as though he were sitting in the empty chair opposite her. Then the therapist instructs the parent to move to the facing chair and speak for the child to herself in the chair she just left. With periodic guidance and interpretive comments from the therapist, the parent continues to conduct both sides of the dialogue until "the parent begins to reown some of the projected parts" (Bauer, 1979).

Eventually the focus will shift from the parent and child dialogue to dialogue within the parent himself or possibly between the parent and his own imagined parent in the empty chair. In this way, the experience is located historically within the family of origin (Bauer, 1979).
It is worth noting that Bauer refers to the Empty Chair technique possibly leading to a dialogue between the parent and his or her own imagined parent, and particularly relevant when working with single-parent Black mothers. Since the times of slavery, American society has either overtly or covertly undermined the nuclear Black family, and the welfare system, in particular, has rewarded the lack of involvement of Black fathers with their children and the mothers of their children. First, welfare laws prohibit the father (or another man) from living in the home of a mother receiving welfare assistance. In addition,

Procedure with Black Single-Parent Mothers: The first stage of the procedure will begin with the mother conducting both sides of a dialogue between herself and her eldest (parental-child) son. At any point in the dialogue, where the therapist notices the mother's projections of her son's absent father coming into the conversation, he will encourage the mother to conduct both sides of a dialogue between herself and her son's absent father. That would be the second stage. As the dialogue between the mother and her son's absent father progresses, the therapist will be alert to evidence of the projection of the mother's feelings about her own absent father onto the son's absent father, and in this way guide the mother toward assimilating her feelings about both absent fathers (hers and her son's) and separating those feelings from the way she sees her son. This is the third stage. In most cases where the mother's father was either present in her home during her childhood, or sufficiently involved with her and her family that she didn't feel abandoned by him, the procedure can end during the second stage (her dialogue between her son's absent father and herself). On the other hand, if the mother's father was present in her home during her childhood but was abusive to her or other members of the family, the therapist should encourage and guide the mother toward the third stage of dialogue.
- Lowe Jr., Walter; Detriangulation of Absent Fathers in Single-Parent Black Families: Techniques of Imagery; American Journal of Family Therapy, Jan-Mar2000, Vol. 28 Issue 1
The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.

Personal Reflection Exercise #12
The preceding section contained information about using the Gestalt Empty Chair technique to detriangulate an absent father.  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 26
What is triangling? Record the letter of the correct answer the CEU Answer Booklet.

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The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.
Being in-between: A model of cultural identity negotiation for emerging adult immigrants. - March 15, 2018
This qualitative study explored the cultural identity negotiation of young adult immigrants. Using a grounded theory research design, 10 semistructured interviews were conducted with emerging adult immigrants (EAI), ages 19–27. Results yielded a substantive model of cultural identity negotiation (MCIN) for EAI and posited that One’s Motivation and Sense of Agency to Negotiate Cultural Identity is at the core of how participants navigate their cultural identities. This model included 6 major categories: (a) Family Cultural Rigidity; (b) Connections Specific to Canada; (c) Connection to a Same Cultured Community; (d) Sense of Permanency; (e) Desire to Preserve Culture of Origin; (f) Desire to Fit in to Canadian Culture, as well as 2 overarching factors (Dimension of Time and Dimension of Age), which were found to be influential on participants’ cultural identity negotiation. The model also included the identification of 4 approaches to cultural identity negotiation: (a) Blended; (b) Dual; (c) Disconnected; and (d) Intermediate. The MCIN for EAI is discussed in terms of the current literature on cultural identity formation as well as implications for counseling psychology training and practice. Recommendations for further research are also suggested. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2018 APA, all rights reserved)
Helping others increases meaningful work: Evidence from three experiments. - May 11, 2017
The aim of the current research was to examine whether manipulating task significance increased the meaningfulness of work among students (Study 1), an online sample of working adults (Study 2), and public university employees (Study 3). In Study 1, students completed a typing task for the benefit of themselves, a charity, or someone they knew would directly benefit from their work. People who worked to benefit someone else, rather than themselves, reported greater task meaningfulness. In Study 2, a representative, online sample of employees reflected on a time when they worked to benefit themselves or someone else at work. Results revealed that people who reflected on working to benefit someone else, rather than themselves, reported greater work meaningfulness. In Study 3, public university employees participated in a community intervention by working as they normally would, finding new ways to help people each day, or finding several new ways to help others on a single day. People who helped others many times in a single day experienced greater gains in work meaningfulness over time. Across 3 experimental studies, we found that people who perceived their work as helping others experienced more meaningfulness in their work. This highlights the potential mechanisms practitioners, employers, and other parties can use to increase the meaningfulness of work, which has implications for workers’ well-being and productivity. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2018 APA, all rights reserved)
Change in post-traumatic cognitions mediates treatment effects for traumatized youth—A randomized controlled trial. - March 15, 2018
Posttraumatic stress symptoms (PTSS) are associated with serious impairments in psychological, social, and academic functioning in youth. The aim of this study was to investigate whether changes in posttraumatic cognitions mediate treatment effects. Participants were multitraumatized youth (N = 156, mean age = 15.1 years, range = 10–18; 79.5% girls) randomly assigned to receive trauma-focused cognitive–behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) or treatment-as-usual (TAU). Mixed-effects models were applied to investigate the impact of treatment conditions on posttraumatic cognitions. Mediation analyses were applied to examine whether changes in posttraumatic cognitions mediated the relationship between treatment conditions and outcome in posttraumatic stress symptoms, depressive symptoms, and general mental health. Participants receiving TF-CBT reported significantly lower levels of negative posttraumatic cognitions at the end of treatment compared to participants in TAU. Change in posttraumatic cognitions mediated the treatment effect difference found for PTSS. When the overall change in cognition was divided into early and late changes, it was only the late change that significantly mediated the PTSS treatment effect. A mediation effect of posttraumatic cognitions was also found for the treatment effect difference in depressive symptoms and in general mental health symptoms. Traumatized youth report having many negative posttraumatic cognitions and changes in negative cognitions plays a key role for treatment outcome. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2018 APA, all rights reserved)
Discrimination, work outcomes, and mental health among women of color: The protective role of womanist attitudes. - March 15, 2018
With a sample of employed women of color (N = 276), we tested the associations of sexist and racist discrimination with poor work outcomes (job-related burnout and turnover intentions) and mental health outcomes (i.e., psychological distress). Drawing from the Theory of Work Adjustment, Organizational Support Theory, and scholarship on discrimination, we tested perceived person-organization (P-O) fit, perceived organizational support, and self-esteem as mediators of the associations of workplace discrimination with the outcomes. Based on intersectionality scholarship, womanist attitudes were tested as a moderator. Participants provided cross-sectional data via an online survey. Latent variable structural equation modeling results indicated that a second-order latent workplace discrimination variable yielded better fit to the data than modeling sexist and racist discrimination separately. Workplace discrimination was directly and indirectly (via the mediating role of self-esteem) associated with higher psychological distress. Furthermore, workplace discrimination was indirectly associated with poor work outcomes through the mediating roles of perceived P-O fit, perceived organizational support, and self-esteem. Last, moderation analyses indicated that higher womanist attitudes weakened the direct association of workplace discrimination with psychological distress. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2018 APA, all rights reserved)
Associations among psychological distress, high-risk activism, and conflict between ethnic-racial and sexual minority identities in lesbian, gay, bisexual racial/ethnic minority adults. - July 06, 2017
In this brief report, we present results from a study exploring the associations of high-risk activism (HRA) orientation in lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) issues; HRA orientation in racial/ethnic issues; conflicts in allegiances (CIA) between one’s ethnic-racial and sexual minority identities; and anxiety among LGB racial/ethnic minority adults. A racially and ethnically diverse sample of 208 LGB racial/ethnic minority adults (age: M = 27.52, SD = 8.76) completed an online survey. Bivariate correlations showed that HRA orientation in LGB and in racial/ethnic issues, as well as CIA, were each positively associated with anxiety. However, regression analyses indicated that CIA moderated the association between anxiety and HRA orientation in LGB issues (but not racial/ethnic minority issues) such that this association was significant and positive at low levels of CIA and nonsignificant at high levels of CIA. These findings can be used to not only inform psychological practice with this population (e.g., by encouraging practitioners to be more attentive to these issues as potential sources of stress), but also more broadly, as knowledge that can inform the burgeoning psychological literature on collective action. We highlight, for example, the importance of distinguishing between types of activism (i.e., high- vs. low-risk types) in relation to mental health outcomes. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2018 APA, all rights reserved)

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