Have you ever had a friend or family member confide some very sensitive information in you? As physicians we have patients tell us – and we’re not shy about asking – all types of pertinent personal information. But in our private lives, it’s different when someone confides something in us. And, by the way, what makes a piece of information difficult to divulge to another person – to you, for instance – is its ability to trigger shame in the divulger.

Weekly Photo

Today’s photo – remember it is not our photo challenge pic – is of a graffiti mural in Chicago in an alley right off of Ashland Avenue and Division Street. There’s more to it that makes it even better but I couldn’t capture it all in one photo. I really like its whimsical look. By the way, if you’re ever around those “six corners,” stop in at La Pasadita, with the best carne asada tacos I’ve ever had and ever will have. Fancy? – Not so much.

If you’ve been the recipient of this type of sharing, I’m pretty sure you acquitted yourself well: You listened, conveyed support verbally and non-verbally, and, perhaps, promised to help. You may have felt a sense of gratitude to be trusted enough to be the bearer of this disclosure. You likely felt compassion for and a new-found closeness to the teller.

Now, let me shift directions in this thought experiment. Imagine now, that that sharer of sensitive information is none other than you. And you shared this sensitive information with – wait for it – none other than yourself!

It may seem counterintuitive – silly, even – to think that we keep secrets from ourselves. But on some levels at least, we do. And this standing apart from parts of ourselves – from our guilt, shame, desires, fears, frustrations, rages, and hates – can lead to a life that’s a shadow, two-dimensional, and less-than-vital. It’s so easy to continue to follow the tracks that our parents laid out for us, living to their expectations; or living to expectations we set for ourselves years or decades ago; or perhaps, settling for something because we fear something greater.

I’m not advocating for hedonism, “chucking it all,” or not living up to our responsibilities. I’m advocating for self-understanding and self-acceptance. In fact, I think that denial, suppression, and repression is more likely to give way one day and lead to a major rupture in one’s relationships, self-concept, and future possibilities.

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Thus, the concept of the two chairs, the brain child of Fritz Perls. Dr. Perls was a psychiatrist who developed Gestalt therapy, especially popular in the 1960’s. Although its direct popularity has fallen in the intervening decades, partly because Fritz Perls was a consummate showman and his death took away the therapy’s main evangelist, Gestalt therapy’s concepts and interventions have been incorporated into many newer therapies, such as, dialectical behavior therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy. Gestalt therapy focused on self-knowledge, self-acceptance, personal responsibility, increased awareness, and effective change.

Fritz Perls developed the technique of the two chairs (also known as the empty chair), a technique that became so popular that it turned into a cliché and was ultimately downplayed by Dr. Perls and other Gestaltists. But there is a good reason for its popularity: it can be transformational. In short, it requires the person in therapy to sit in a chair opposite an empty chair. Into the empty chair the person projects a person they’re in a relationship with that is causing problems. They imagine they are speaking to that person and working out their conflicted feelings towards that person and approaches to communicating with that person. And, more pertinent to today’s post, the person in therapy can project aspects of themselves into that chair and speak to those aspects. Those aspects can be an emotion, a desire, a self-concept, a past traumatic event, a past event that causes shame or guilt, or some secret they’ve been keeping from themselves. The empty chair also affords the opportunity for the person to move between the two chairs, dialoging with themselves.

I’ve tried this on myself and found it to be, at the start, extremely embarrassing, even though I’m the only one in the room; but also extremely freeing, leading to self-discovery and self-acceptance. Now, I use it more frequently to identify what’s truly important to me to focus on. At the age of 56 I feel my time on earth is dwindling and I need to use it wisely. My problem is I am a “Jack of all trades” – my mother named me aptly – and I like to pursue too many “bright shiny objects.”

In this technique I pretend that I am sitting in the chair across from me – I try to picture my imagined self in as much detail as I can muster – and acting as a life coach to myself, helping the imagined Jack across from me identify what is important, what is getting in the way, and the steps forward. Most of the time now I do this in my mind, partly because it is less embarrassing but also because I’ve done it enough for real, with a real empty chair and speaking aloud, that I have now internalized the experience.

My final thought: can you show the same concern, care, compassion, and understanding towards yourself as you can toward that friend or family members who confides their deepest secrets in you?

There’s only one way to find out.

Until next time,

Dr. Jack


Today’s Quotes

“He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.”
– Lao Tsu

“I am larger, better than I thought; I did not know I held so much goodness. All seems beautiful to me. Whoever denies me, it shall not trouble me; whoever accepts me, he or she shall be blessed, and shall bless me.”
– Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass