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  • About the Significance of a Chair

    I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how we define “success” therapeutically and about the different variables that impact the therapeutic relationship. At various points in school and in my career, I’ve heard it said that therapeutic success is 70 percent the therapeutic relationship and 30 percent the actual skills and techniques of the therapist.

    ​While that takes some pressure off of me as the therapist to employ the right strategies all the time, I feel it’s an oversimplification of all the variables therapists have to consider.

    How much of the therapeutic relationship has to do with the physical environment the therapist creates? How much of it has to do with the pheromones we as humans exchange? How much of it has to do with how ready the client is to do the hard work? How much has to do with transference and countertransference? Or simply how we jive as people? The ratios and proportions are different with every client I see.

    Two years ago, when I decided to move from renting a furnished office to furnishing my own space, I had to find ways to create a safe, comfortable atmosphere on a budget. I was fixated on finding the right couch. She didn’t have to be pretty, but she did have to be comfortable. I wanted a loveseat that quietly urged clients take off their shoes and wrap up in a blanket while she gave them a hug. A couch that could be a piece of emotional support furniture that held folks while I asked them hard questions and perhaps challenged them to sit in discomfort. Given that I’ve had people take off their shoes and really get cozy, I’d like to think I met that goal.

    What I didn’t anticipate, however, was the significance of the piece of furniture in which I sat.

    Trying to be stylish yet frugal, I bought a pair of orange accent chairs from an interior decorator off Craigslist. Using one as my desk chair and one as my therapy chair, I thought I was set. I liked that the color commanded some attention, but that the chair itself wasn’t imposing. I suppose it was the furniture version of me. Stands out in a crowd, but is comfortable and familiar enough so as not to cause discomfort or disruption.

    Unfortunately, accent chairs are accent chairs for a reason: they’re used for looks and not necessarily comfort.  My lovely little orangies boast no ergonomic features and can be uncomfortable if you’re doing a few sessions in a row. Knowing this, I was 100 percent on board when my officemate asked whether she could bring a chair of her own that we could to see clients. I had no idea what she would get, but I trusted her and I wanted her to be comfortable in the space as she was there far more often than me.

    So, I walk in one day, and there it is: the Therapist Chair. Beautiful, brown leather. Sparkling dark wood base. Ergonomic. Adjustable. With an ottoman. Just urging me to lean forward ask, “And how do you feel about that?”

    I stood there, slack jawed and in awe of this gorgeous piece of furniture, having a professional existential crisis. I didn’t know how to feel about the chair! Was I a therapist who sat in an accent chair? Or was I a Therapist who sat in an accent chair? Was I a Therapist who sat in a Therapist Chair? Or was I a therapist who sat in a Therapist Chair and who had to find a way to match the power, professionalism, and stature that this new addition to my office commanded? I’ll give you one guess.

    Up until that point, I’d never considered how the chair in which I sit impacts the power dynamic I create with my clients or how they view me. Nor did I think about how it impacts my own self-perception as a clinician and the types of equitable relationships I build with my clients. If I sit in a seat that commands power, is it still an equitable relationship?

    Seeing that my officemate and I were transitioning the space quickly that day, I had five minutes to figure it out. My client showed up, and I was none the wiser.

    First client enters: Your office is different. It feels homier. Are those pictures new?

    Me: Thank you! Nope – I’ve had those pictures since before we started together. But the chair is new. I’m still deciding how I feel about it. What do you think?

    We continue our session.

    Second client enters: Your chair is different. You feel different. My old therapist had that exact chair. I don’t know if I like you in that chair.

    Me: Change can be like that sometimes – it can be hard to adjust.  I don’t know how I feel about me in this chair, either. How about we figure it out together?

    And so it went.

    The chair, and I in it, meant something different for each and every client, and it was my job to explore, if necessary, the impact of this sudden, unpredictably significant change.

    As the months progressed, I got used to the Therapist Chair. I believe the stature it suggests challenged me to become a more capable therapist. The introduction of the chair jostled me out of a false sense of complacency and gave me a new perspective on the therapeutic relationship and the shifting power dynamics within.

    Maybe, just maybe, the Therapy Chair challenged me to put on my big boi pants and own that I have become a Therapist.

    So now, I’m at a crossroads. My officemate has found her own space, and I will be left Therapy Chair-less. I know that I can’t go back to the orange accent chair; like my favorite pair of ripped jeans from when I was 25, I’ve outgrown it. But I also don’t know that my therapeutic style is such that I would feel comfortable sitting in something quite so formal as this particular Therapy Chair all the time; it’s more class than I can muster on a daily basis. I trust that there’s a professional, hip, edgy, ergonomic chair out there waiting for me to discover it, and now that I know to anticipate a client response, I’m excited to learn all over again the significance of a chair.