The Empty Chair

Cameron’s empty chair in the ‘leadership’ debate is in no way a political distraction. The Empty Chair is a defining theme in psychotherapeutic circles where meaning is discovered through unpacking the small stuff. From slips of the tongue to office layouts, the universe is understood through its details.


Although it’s true that sometimes a chair is just a chair, the empty ones offer us a profound opportunity to learn something about groups.


Bear with me.


Like anyone training in psychoanalytic practice, I took part in a year long experiential group. Sit in a circle with a bunch of other people for one hour and 20 minutes each week and, ahem, experience it.


The anxiety of being in a group minus the social niceties, the fear of rejection and scapegoating, retreats into charm or silence, all this in a contained space to help us figure out who we are and our relationship with the world.


Learning to take seriously the unconscious fantasies and communications of the everyday is at the heart of psychoanalytic thinking. Unpack the unconscious to understand what’s really going on in and around us.


At the end of a bad day working in the NHS this attention to detail can feel like a Rome-burning-fiddle type situation. What can be gained from banging on about an empty chair? Because at times it offers us a way to renegotiate ourselves out of one role and into a series of others. Transformative learning if you can stand it.


It also puts you eyeball to eyeball with your worst fears. Mine came in the form of a skinny blonde German psychiatrist with whom I engaged in psychic sadism for the duration.


Undoubtedly totally unconnected to my defiant and righteous nature, I had a real problem with her psychiatric ways and battle commenced.  No ordinary slugging, this was lived out in a messy way. Every week she would find a way to sit directly opposite me – wearing skirts and no underwear. My anxiety during each leg crossing and uncrossing, and the blind panic of a sitting-cross-legged-day. Oh how we laughed.


Actually I didn’t laugh, not once. I became a hairy cave dweller, silenced by my own paranoia and at the same time envious of her precocious playful pleasure at being pantless in public.


Possibly panicking at the ending of the experiential space, in the penultimate session she turns up in a t-shirt with the letter G and a spot underneath. G plus Spot. You don’t have to be Freud to figure out that she wanted to talk about sex.


Then at the last session she didn’t turn up, and we’re left with her empty chair.


She’s not even in the room and I have to talk about her. All the things I should have said to her face come tumbling out towards this piece of institutional plastic design. Her absence allowing me to mourn what was  done and what was missing. And what came out was that despite her pansexualism being bad for my blood pressure and probably a block on her psychoanalytic career, she brought something to the hallowed nunnery of this beloved psychoanalytic institution. Sex. She brought back sex to the Tavi.



Far from suggesting that David Cameron is pant-less or sexy, my point is that his absence in the upcoming debate is an opportunity for us to understand the real issues in the election.



This week the coalition will attempt to use a promised 1.2bn rise in funding of child and adolescent mental health services in the UK to wipe away the reality of years of cuts targeting the mental health of vulnerable, often poor, kids and their families.  In a country which favours soundbites over services, we need to keep talking about The Empty Chair.



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