By “Experiential Therapy,” we refer to a group of therapies that share philosophical assumptions about human nature, about causes of suffering, and about the kinds of processes that might help. At least in the way GETME uses the term, to be an experiential therapist means: To value above all the therapeutic importance of present-moment, aware, subjective experiencing. Important approaches that fall under the category of experiential therapy include Client-Centered Therapy, Gestalt Therapy, and Emotion-Focused Therapy.
We don’t have to go anywhere or do anything special to have an experience — all people, at every moment, are experiencing. Experiencing, in our definition, is a process that involves:
- Our perception of the external environment, along with our perception of our internal response to it; or to
- Our perception of our internal environment, along with our perception of our internal response to it.
So, for example: Jim perceives that Paul is raising his voice at him and, in response to this perception, Jim feels scared. Or: Jim perceives that his feeling scared is unmanly and, in response to this perception, Jim feels embarrassed.*
These are experiences: Processes involving an interaction between the organism and the environment. You’ll notice that experiencing certainly includes a quality of being “felt,” and we did refer to these phenomena utilizing language drawn from the lexicon of emotion, but there’s much more to it than that.
Aware experiencing involves a holistic, full-organism perception, and includes (or can include) thoughts, feelings, sensory perception, narrative, meaning, proprioception, action tendencies, needs, etc. Together, whatever elements are present, comprise what Client-Centered Therapy calls the “Internal frame of reference,” or what Gestalt Therapy calls a “Gestalt,” or what Focusing calls the “Felt Sense,” or what Emotion-Focused Therapy calls an “Emotion Scheme.”
But usually some of these elements are not in awareness. Some are rejected, split off, denied, disowned, interrupted, or simply missed. The recovery of the unaware elements of experiencing is the point of the therapy. Incorporation of newly aware experiential elements reorganizes the organism, and provides new meaning, direction, and energy.
Thus, the experiential therapist endeavors to track the moment-by-moment, bodily-felt, internal, subjective experiencing of the client, paying special attention to the faint, emerging elements that surface during exploration. It’s like pointing the bellows at a patch of gray ash that turns out to be glowingly potent.
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 do this to the extent that they are, in fact, aware of these various elements of experiencing. Often — again, this is the central point of the therapy — clients need assistance to come to a more complete awareness of their processes.
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 broadening awareness of their experiencing.
Embedded in this detailed awareness is a clarifying knowledge of 1) The client’s actual needs, 2) what they might do toward meeting those needs, and 3) the confidence to take those actions and live with the consequences.
You might think that a client’s needs and needed actions are fatuously obvious, and that such confidence is precisely what’s impossible. The client almost certainly believes this (at first). However, paying this kind of attention to moment-by-moment experiencing can have a completely surprising and utterly profound effect on a person’s mood, behavior, and well-being. What we think we know typically turns out to be only a tiny part of what is available.
It’s difficult to communicate about experiencing using mere language (verbal symbols). It’s necessary to try, and often it’s adequate, but language can only capture one part at at time, and that part only partially. Certain elements of experiencing will always go unsymbolized. Yet the trying itself increases awareness. As awareness increases, so does excitement. This is the part I most wish I could communicate: the excitement of this form of therapy.
To get a better sense of what this kind of work is, what it looks like, and how it feels, please consider taking one of our trainings. Through a combination of lecture, discussion, demonstration and experiential exercises, you will grasp the power and utility of tracking experiencing.
We offer trainings in:
- Client-Centered Therapy
- Gestalt Therapy
- Emotion-Focused Therapy
- Experiential couples therapy
* By referring to “perception,” we are not intending to take a position on whether or not Jim (or the client) is perceiving “accurately,” or whether or not their sense of things is “true.” The experiential therapist is rarely concerned with this (especially in individual therapy). Rather, through exploration and the inclusion of newly aware elements of experiencing, both the perception and/or the internal responses may change.
For example, Jim might newly perceive Paul as hurt, rather than hating, and may then feel compassionate, rather than scared. Alternately, he may continue to view Paul as hating, but experience himself whole and intact in spite of this, and thus safe and secure rather than scared. Again, he may reconfigure his perception of his own fear as understandable rather than unmanly. Or may continue to see his fear as undesirable, but find in it a spur to acquire greater courage.
The point is that the therapist is not the arbiter of the “truth” of the client’s experience, but the facilitator of new awareness of experiential elements.