What Is Experiential Therapy?
Talk therapy is a process of helping the unconscious to become conscious. When we become
aware of our needs, motivations, and patterns of behavior, we are able to make better
choices for ourselves. Spoken communication is invaluable yet at the same time limited
in helping us become aware of our inner life and our unconscious ways of relating to
each other. In order to move beyond these limitations, I utilize experiential therapy
techniques that place the soul in action externalizing and resolving inner developmental
conflicts by re-creating personal stories from past and present circumstances and
transforming them into tolerable life experiences.
Many clients use compulsive
behaviors to avoid experience of self; experiential therapy offers opportunities
to have direct experience of self in a safe and structured environment. Experientially,
clients are able to move out of their heads and into a fuller experience at which
time they can experience problems and rehearse solutions in a new way expanding
their sense of self and replacing compulsive behaviors with creativity and internal
safety. Empirical studies show that experiential methods help clients achieve
dramatic results in the areas of psychological symptom reduction.
utilizing experiential methods to help facilitate their recovery report...
- less intensity of perceived distress,
- fewer compulsive thoughts, impulses and actions,
- fewer feelings of inadequacy and inferiority,
- fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety, fear, and anger,
- a greater orientation to the present,
- a tendency to be more independent and self-supportive,
- more flexibility,
- more sensitivity to their own needs and feelings,
- a greater likelihood to express feelings and be themselves,
- and an improved capacity to develop meaningful and warm interpersonal
relationships with others.
Clearing mental and emotional blocks and releasing old wounds brings greater peace of mind and emotional well-being.
As psychotherapist and author Sharon Wegscheider Cruse states, "Experiential
therapy is a treatment approach that combines theory with action. It is a
technique that therapists can use to touch people's lives deeply and intimately.
Its effect can be profoundly healing. Treatment is a combination of knowledge
and experience. To utilize one without the other is incomplete therapy. Many
treatment centers and therapists do an excellent job of imparting knowledge
regarding addictive diseases and codependency. Films, lectures, and readings
provide enough information so that people go home 'knowing' the dynamics of
addiction and codependency. But it is not enough to hand a patient or client
a book or handout and say, 'Read this, and be better.' It doesn't work because
it is all information and little emotional healing.
"Experiential therapy blends therapies like Gestalt and family therapy with models
like sculpture and role plays. The purpose is to enact or reenact the emotional
climate of the family of origin and/or other past and present significant
relationships in a person's life. In re-experiencing these events and relationships,
one is able to release the emotions that may have been blocked and repressed. The
goal is to free a person from the unresolved emotions around relationships so that
s/he is more free to live in the present. By re-experiencing the emotional climate
of the family, anger, shame, hurt, rage, guilt, fear, etc., can finally be
expressed, released, and healed, making room for feelings of love, hope,
inner peace, and forgiveness.
"Emotions are the barometer of credibility and authenticity. They provide richness
and color to life. In looking at the vast array of emotions intellectually, one
knows that they are good and that all deserve to exist. Yet it is clear that some
are more desirable, more pleasant than others.
"Some people have locked a whole set of emotions into a closet, to be hidden from
all, to be forgotten by themselves. Frequent occupants of these locked closets are
anger, loneliness, inadequacy, hurt, guilt, fear or sadness. They form almost a
mob of feelings demanding attention. Feelings are facts. Feelings like all reality,
have a right to exist.
"Reality is intolerant of denial. When feelings are repressed, they demand attention
in devious ways. The emotional connection between stress and stomach problems is
common knowledge. Research is showing more and more that the whole person becomes
ill, not just part of the person. Consequently, emotions are similar to
musclesif you don't use them, you lose them.
"The patient reports, 'I know about denial; I know about compulsion; I know about
feelings. But I still do the same kinds of things that get me in trouble.' That's
where actual experiencepersonally encountering or undergoing specific emotions
and behaviorscan be helpful in breaking out of compulsion and denial. Experiential
therapy offers emotional alternatives and clarity about new behaviors.
"One important goal of therapy is to re-experience an old event in which the accompanying
emotions were not expressed at the time. The re-experience can be an opportunity to feel
those feelings now, work through them now and defuse them once and for all. The
accompanying emotional pain is no longer repressed and allowed to fester.
"Old feelings we often help clients re-experience are anger, inadequacy, jealousy,
loss, grief, and shame. In the re-experience, they are able to let the pain go,
and relief begins. New feelings that are unfamiliar and often scary are feelings
of contentment, serenity, hope, trust, excitement, gratitude, and joy. It is
important to lead clients to these new feelings. Too often, therapy only deals
"In a painful family system, words and messages are confused, confusing and
incongruent. Words are misused and messages mistrusted. Actions do not fit.
These are double messages delivered over and over and received each time
with confusion and shame. The resulting confusion is devastating and produces
people with chronic low self-worth. Experiential therapy can expose double
messages by leading people to discover their own emotions and to see the
roles others play.
"In therapy, we can often lead people to healing these feelings for the first
time. We see self-esteem blossom. Through interaction with others and through
expressing both old and new feelings, we provide a means for people to develop
an ability to trust, as well as insight leading to new choices and a sense of
"Experiential therapy may offer some people the opportunity to re-experience
forgotten or repressed parts of their lives that may have been unavailable
to them for a long period of time. For others, experiential therapy may
provide the first opportunity to feel some feelings. Either way, by gaining
the experience, they acquire the means to better cope with life. They are
ready then to learn new experiences they can use to continue on the road to
growth and recovery."
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