What is Experiential Therapy?
Experiential Therapy is not one thing; it isn’t a brand. It’s a group of therapies that share some philosophical assumptions and interventions. At least in the way GETME uses the term, to be an experiential therapist means to value above all the importance of present-moment, aware, subjective experiencing.
Note: No one owns the copyright on the term “experiential therapy,” so people can and do use this term in different ways. The phrase can be legitimately applied to things like ropes courses, equine-assisted therapy, eco-therapy, and many other wonderful approaches where clients are put into novel, growth-enhancing external situations or “experiences.”
The way we at GETME use the term is a bit different than this. We don’t actually have to go anywhere special to have an experience — all people, all the time, are having experiences. Experience, in our definition, refers not to the external environment, but rather to the internal process that occurs in response to the external environment (“My spouse is yelling at me and, in response, I feel scared”), or to another internal response (“I don’t like feeling scared and, in response, I’m getting angry”).
Every approach to therapy asks the therapist to track something. Cognitive therapists track thoughts; behaviorists track behavior; psychodynamic clinicians track unconscious conflicts. The experiential therapist endeavors to track the moment-by-moment, bodily-felt, internal, subjective experience of the client.
This is necessarily highly collaborative; after all, we can hardly be certain that we’re accurately tracking our client’s internal experience unless they share it with us (i.e., tell us). On the other hand, our clients can only begin to do this if they can feel it for themselves — but often clients need assistance in making contact with the full range of their responses.
What the experiential therapist brings to the enterprise is knowledge of accessing and processing experience. Through highly-attuned empathy, supportive and non-judgmental observations of external expression (hands, voice, face, breathing, muscle tension, etc.), and process suggestions (i.e., gestalt experiments) designed to render internal experience more “legible,” we assist clients in becoming more deeply aware of the totality of their responses. Embedded in this detailed awareness is a clarifying knowledge of 1) their needs, 2) the actions required to meet those needs, and 3) the confidence to take those actions.
The therapies that partake of this view of experience include Person-Centered Therapy, Gestalt Therapy, Focusing-Oriented Therapy, and Emotion-Focused Therapy, or EFT. EFT is explicitly an integration of these older approaches, embedded in a contemporary theory of emotion. EFT has been shown to assist clients in overcoming anxiety, depression, complex trauma, eating disorders, and relational problems.
If this sounds interesting, or you’d like to learn more, contact GETME.