Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn. ~ Ancient Chinese proverb
The foundation of experiential therapy is based on the belief that human beings learn, grow, and change naturally when they are able to engage in experiences fully and holistically.
Experiencing is not necessarily a mental process, but rather a series of felt, in-the-moment responses and reactions to whatever is occurring. Experiences can be positive, negative, and everything in between.
In today’s fast-paced world of technology, many humans have become detached from their experiences, moving from one phase of life, daily task, or interpersonal encounter to the next without giving themselves a chance to feel, sense, or learn.
This vital awareness is just as innate to animals as it was to early humans who replied upon their experience of the present moment to keep them safe. Having felt experiences of the world around, and learning from these experiences separated those who survived from those who didn’t.
In order to gain meaningful knowledge from experiences, a person must transform from being a passenger to whom life “happens”, to an actively engaged participant who makes intentional choices and decisions. In the words of Alvin Mahrer, author of “The Complete Guide to Experiential Psychotherapy”:
One of its [experiential therapy] unabashedly ambitious aims is to enable the person to undergo a radical, deep-seated, transformational change, into becoming the person that he or she is capable of becoming.
This transition from passenger to active participant is aided and supported by the theory of experiential therapy, and the role of the experiential therapist.
EXPERIENTIAL THERAPY IN ACTION
Experiential therapy aims to help clients live more authentic and fulfilling lives through experiencing their deeper potential. This is achieved by helping the client expand awareness and increase the level of self-actualization and personal insight related to how they are both intra- and inter-personally through a unique melding of “being” and “doing” all of which takes place in the present moment.
Experiential therapists use a wide range of activities to help clients experiment, learn, and grow in the safety of a therapeutic context. Through active experiencing with skilled guidance, clients integrate learning throughout multiple systems (body, brain, mind).
ROLE OF THE EXPERIENTIAL THERAPIST
The role of the therapist is also unique to experiential therapy, and is vital to the overall success of the approach. Experiential therapists are trained to use their own experiences, responses, and sense of intuition as therapeutic tools. This requires a great depth of self-awareness and constant self-growth on the part of the therapist. Authenticity, personal expression, and feeling is a key part of the therapeutic relationship. Dr. Hillary Goldsher provides a powerful description of “experiential listening”, which describes the use of self in experiential therapy:
As the patient talks, the therapist focuses on images, feelings, and bodily sensations that emerge in the mind of the therapist. This process necessarily takes the therapist’s focus away from the client. The words and sentiments of the client seep into the heart and mind of the therapist. This process allows the therapist to get in touch with deeper experiences that are outside of the patient’s awareness. In this way, the therapist is used as a vehicle to collect these experiences and bring them to the consciousness of the individual or the family.
Experiential therapists also employ these additional key strategies which further differentiate experiential therapy from other forms of therapy:
- The therapist focuses on the possibilities and potential of each client, helping them to reframe the way they think about themselves and the world around them.
- The therapist is active, engaged and often evocative or expressive, but at the same time is typically tentative, and even at times deliberately inarticulate, as his/she tries to model and promote client self-exploration of a presently felt experience.
- The goals, objectives, and directions of change are often guided by the therapist. However, the therapist practices following AND leading, which promotes active collaboration and co-exploration with the client.
- The therapist creates experiences or activities that provide opportunities for decision making, choice, and exploration.
- The therapist empowers the client through the acquisition of knowledge, and provides help and support to aid their decision making capabilities.
- The therapist engages the client using multiple modes of experiencing and processing to capture key points of learning.
- The therapist is anything but an observer. Considered an active participant in the therapeutic process, the therapist’s personality, behaviors, and actions are critical components to successful therapy.
Since the therapist is actively involved as a part of this complex dynamic, and not seen as an outside “observer”, it is essential that experiential therapists focus on their own health and wellbeing. Their ability to engage authentically and in the moment is critical to the success of this form of therapy, and this level of engagement requires additional training, education, and self-growth.
It is important to remember that the use of an experiential activity does not make it experiential therapy. Therapists who wish to use experiential activities are urged to obtain additional education and training in experiential theory and the ethics associated with using these provocative activities. Without such training, the potential effectiveness of the service may be compromised, and there may be implications for the safety and wellbeing of the clients.
Elliott, R., Watson, H.C., Goldman, R.N. & Greenberg, L.S. (2004). Learning Emotion-Focused Therapy: The Process-Experiential Approach to Change. American Psychological Association.
Felder, R.E. & Weiss, A.G. (1991). Experiential Psychotherapy: A Symphony of Selves. University Press of America.
Goldsher, H. Experiential Therapy and Family Systems. Retrieved from: https://www.theravive.com/research/experiential-therapy-and-family-systems
Luckner, J. L., & Nadler, R.S. (1997). Processing the Experience. Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.
Mahrer, A.R. (2003). The Complete Guide to Experiential Psychotherapy. Bull Publishing Company.