….but we are all fabulous.
The empty chair technique is a tool used in Gestalt therapy. The idea is that you sit in one chair with an empty chair beside or in front of you. In that chair you imagine that the person you want to talk to is there, whether it’s a person who has died, someone you can’t talk to in real life for whatever reason or, in my case, a different version of yourself. So it was, a few years ago that I came face to face with my 17 year old self. At first it felt a little awkward, speaking out loud to an empty space, but gradually it started coming out – my frustration, shame and lack of empathy for my younger self and her reckless, feckless behaviour. So far so good, clearly there were some unresolved feelings about myself there, and this was a great way of accessing them and starting to process them, but then came the interesting part. I swapped chairs. Suddenly my teenage self was talking to my adult self and teenage Sue was not all that impressed either. I can’t quite explain what happened except to say that the experience was extraordinarily powerful – I even felt physically different when I swapped chairs. The experience was almost spiritual and has stayed with me ever since.
René Magritte, La Legende Des Siecles, circa 1952
I’m happy to report, several years later that my younger and current selves have reconciled and reside (mostly) harmoniously within me. But the reason I have started thinking about this technique recently is because I’m curious about what my future self would think of my life today and the choices I am making. I’m confident she would approve of my choice of partner and my career, but I suspect she would not be impressed with the things I choose to worry about, the time I squander on social media and the lack of enjoyment I am able to take in stimulating work projects thanks to the ever-present sense of needing to finish each task and get on to the next one. I’m fairly sure she’s a wise old bird, so I would like to take advantage of her wisdom whilst I can. I suspect it would be a very effective way of making space to listen to myself and what I really want, something I am not always very good at.
And what of my future self? I am curious to know what she values most. What her day to day life is like and whether the lot of older adults has improved from where it is today. I wonder if, as a society we could collectively use the empty chair technique to have a meaningful dialogue with our older selves. We certainly don’t seem to be asking or listening to the older people we have with us now, but maybe we could find some empathy or compassion for the challenges of age if we were able to imagine ourselves as the recipients. If we were in charge of our own old age, would we really pay care workers so little? Would we allow the petty low level neglect and abuse to continue in old people’s homes? Would we make social security payments so low? Would we have allowed the bedroom tax to pass so easily? Would we talk to sons and daughters of white haired people rather than addressing the white haired people directly? Would we treat older adults as a homogenous group or would we get to know them as individuals and find out what their individual needs and preferences were? Would we value their wisdom or dismiss their years of experience as irrelevant? Would we allow them to be lonely because we were too busy?
It’s worth remembering that we won’t be in charge, our children will be and if we don’t care enough to improve the lot of older adults, why would they? Unless something changes some of us may find ourselves with only an empty chair to talk to and berating our past selves won’t change a thing.