What is Experiential Therapy and how does it help change to occur?
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Alaric Everett - MBACP (Accred.)
2nd April, 20130 Comments
Working experientially is to be an advocate for that which is unspoken, difficult to formulate or is seeking expression in one's experience. One of the main ways of thinking about therapy is that it is about accurately describing and being with what is happening. Such description is important because it allows a different relationship to experience to occur. If I am sad and I describe my experience merely as 'annoying' the chances are that I am not allowing experience and therefore I feel stuck and as if something is wrong. If through the therapeutic relationship one can soften and become non-defensive enough to more fully allow experience then clients may be able to accurately describe what is happening and change their relationship to it. When experience is allowed there is greater ease and well-being.
Working experientially means clients are encouraged to 'get a sense' of what is happening. This is different to thinking (in the dry intellectual sense) and is a more rounded holistic physical felt sense of an issue. Experiential theory is part of the Humanistic School of Therapy, and starts from the assumption that growth and change happen naturally when not impeded. The human being has a tendency toward better functioning so the therapists role is to elucidate what is in the way of this. This is often in the the form of some kind type of fear. Fear, worry or concern (or a multitude of other variants) about the expression, experiencing or articulation of something 'negative' (like anger, grief or sexuality) is something that Experiential Therapists aim to allow. It is a kind of desensitisation, as that which appears unacceptable, un-experienceable and toxic is seen to not be as bad as was feared. When this fear is more fully allowed, the 'negativity' is usually more easily allowed and 'blockages' and 'knots' can ease.
It may be helpful to define experience as from an Experiential point-of-view it is referred to as the most crucial aspect in therapy: experience is not a mental process, but rather a felt sense of what is happening, an often vague but meaningful felt response to life. It is not ideas, but rather a direct in-the-present sense of a situation, person, decision etc. Clients are often 'out-of-touch' with their experience and so this type of therapy helps them to get back in touch with their lived experience and helps them to listen to what their own experience has to say. The rationale of this emphasis on experience is that clients come for therapy because they are troubled (in some way) by their experience and often want change to occur. Describing one's experience and articulating it accurately allows this change to happen. Clients are often scared of the consequences of expressing and embodying particular parts of their personality. Experiential Therapy provides a safe and containing space where this can start to happen.
Experiential therapy is about bringing the client back to a more accepting, allowing and whole experience of themselves. Take the example of a client who is scared of an aspect of their experience, say anger. Through talking about their life and most importantly their felt experience of what happens to them, the detail and specifics of that fear start to be articulated. This is crucial to therapeutic movement. Once a client articulates the specifics of their fear: 'If I am angry I may lose control and those close to me may cease to love me' then there is an easing of that fear, internal pressure is released and there is a renewed possibility for any anger that needs to be expressed to be expressed. It is like going through a series of steps until one 'puts one's finger on it': I don't feel quite right; it's like a tenseness in my shoulders; it's like I’m holding myself in; it's like I’m scared; it's like I’m scared of being angry; of being so angry I’m out of control; of losing control and my family not loving me if I’m so angry.
In line with experiential theory, whilst experience is not allowed or listened-to it remains stuck. In relation to the above example this means that for the anger to pass: a) the anger needs to be fully experienced and the specifics of it articulated, and for this to happen: b) the fear of 'a)' happening needs to be fully experienced and the specifics of it articulated. There are no aspects of a client's experience that are wrong or worthy of exclusion. All of the different sides of a person have something of value to offer and psychic distress is caused as a result of one side deciding that others are problematic, or the client having difficulty in finding the words to accurately express a particular part of themselves. By helping them to describe their experience and giving voice to all the varied aspects of themselves, particularly those that they usually fear will be rejected, Experiential Therapy helps clients to improve their relationship to themselves and their experience. Energy used in avoiding & fighting experience is then freed up for growth and change.
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