Experiential Psychotherapy the Relationship Cure
Frederick L. Klein
Presented in Charleston SC in October of 2000
Published in Voices: The Art and Science of Psychotherapy in Spring 2001 (Vol. 37 No. 1, 13-16)
Experiential psychotherapy is a form of therapy that is at the core of our being here at the Academy. The leading contributors to the experiential literature have from our own ranks: Carl Whitaker, Tom Malone, Dick Felder, John Warkentin, Irma Sheppard, Joen Fagen, Shelly Kopp, Sid Jourard, Erv Polster, etc. Our journal Voices, is the written narrative of the ongoing developmental of this extraordinary, powerfully healing, integrating approach. Most of the program offerings and much of the rest of what transpires at our two national meetings each year embody the experiential approach.
When you were asked to state your theoretical orientations for the AAP directory how did you answer? Over 70 percent of our members in the 1997-98 directory answered experiential, existential, humanistic, or gestalt or some combination of the above; 15 percent answered other theoretical orientations including eclectic and energetic and other approaches that might easily have qualified as some form of experiential approach. About 10 percent gave no response to theoretical orientation.
If psychodynamic psychotherapy is referred to as the talking cure, then experiential psychotherapy should be known as the relationship cure. Experiential psychotherapy is a form of therapy where the person of the therapist is expected to be more revealed than hidden, more present than remote and removed. The prospect for dialogue, real give-and-take relating, are greater in experiential psychotherapy than in any other psychotherapeutic approach. The therapist’s use of self is an integral, central aspect of the therapeutic dynamic.
Experiential psychotherapy calls on the therapist to be (become) as fully mindful as possible of his/her interior goings-on while with the patient. This means everything and anything – stray musical tunes, boredom, sleepiness, sexual urges, anger, sadness, curiosity, longing, energizing surges, etc. The therapist is expected to appreciate active countertransference reactions as they occur, and to fashion a response –likely to be of real value or use to the patient and/or to the relationship. Notice I said, “appreciate active countertransference factors”. We don’t have rules for to include or exclude counter transference factors from our ways of relating to patients, but we do have guiding imperatives, i.e, act responsibly as we would in a relationship where the other deserved our best self, and where the other has a strong and a true possibility to ultimately be enriched as a human being by our input and our way of being with him/her. While the therapist has much latitude to shift and move in or her stance towards the patient (he/she can be still or active, empathetic or challenging, questioning or interpreting, instructive or being instructed), there are clearly times when the therapist and the patient are in a symmetrical parity. This is when the therapist and the patient have to be regarded as absolute equals and differences between them need to be recognized through consensus or compromise, not bullying or coercion. Now, while it is true that patients need to take care of themselves, it is imperative that we as therapists expect ourselves to model ways to struggle that avoid exploitation, ruthlessness, and self-serving behavior at our patients’ expense. Yet, when the patient becomes ruthless, bullying or coercive towards us, we are expected to find a response that balances being therapeutic with being authentic. These are exquisite challenges in experiential psychotherapy that require a therapist to have great skill, maturity, and experience.
The therapist taking an active role in the relationship serves many purposes. It highlights the powerful relational dimension of psychotherapy; it models the use of interior life which both is affected by and affects the on-going interpersonal transactions. Thus, experiential psychotherapy is a very intrapsychic/interior life realm. Each therapist’s particular individuality is very present and prominent in this form of work, whether or not any given therapist chooses to emphasize this aspect of the work.
Experiential psychotherapy believes that all experience is subjective. Our respective subjective realities interact and intersect in what can be referred to as intersubjective space. When we share a bit of similar subjective experience we experience concurrence, or consonance, or validation. When we have disparity, we experience dissonance; at its best, this leads to a sense of autonomy and individuality, and at its worst, distance, separation or invalidation.
The degree of intersubjective consonance or dissonance between the therapist and the patient has profound implication in shaping, solidifylng, or ultimately undermining the relationship between them. Issues of the therapist’s credibility and charismatic clout are prominent. Either therapist or patient may reference here-and-now, in-the-moment experience, or outside-the-hour events and reactions to them. This focus on subjective experience sensitizes both the patient and the therapist, but particularly the patient, to issues of the therapist’s and each other’s credibility and trustworthiness, because if the therapist’s subjective reality proves to be too dissonant for the patient to consider accepting, patient shutdown will occur.
On the other hand, the therapist’s cogency and charisma play an invaluable role in gaining the patients attention, respect and openness. Obviously, these affective dispositions towards the therapist are crucial to the material the patient presents in the therapy work and the patient’s openness to considering new perspectives about his/her experiences.
Experiential psychotherapy that is humanistically oriented may differ considerably from experiental psychotherapy that is psychodynamically oriented or gestalt oriented. The degree and type of existential orientation present are other factors which profoundly shape the nature of the therapy. However, all the varieties of experiential psychotherapy demand that the person of the therapist is in the foreground rather than the background of the therapy.
Often new patients have asked me, “Do you interact or just listen? Because I’ve been to therapists who just sit there and don’t say anything, and I don’t like talking to myself.” An experiential psychotherapist would perceive many more options about how to respond to this challenge/complaint/maneuver than not answering, reflecting or interpreting ( although any of these might be chosen). An experiential psychotherapist might even be so audacious as to respect the inherent validity of this complaint about most conventional forms of therapy and answer directly. Of course, I understand that a great deal depends on the therapist’s sense of the patient. Whether the patient appears to be seeking or avoiding engagement would shift my sense for the possibilities (in the moment) of an I-thou encounter.
As psychotherapists, we are called upon to relate to people whose relational needs, capabilities, and preferences vary greatly. In the course of my work I will, on occasion, acknowledge to myself the level of trauma-based developmental deficit apparent in a given patient’s way of being, while another challenges me at the outer edges of my readiness to relate. My deeply felt humanistic leanings incline me to adjust my stance and to adapt to these perceptions about who the person is that I relating to. In general, the humanistic orientation powers my egalitarian, I-thou pursuit of interpersonal intimacy in working relationshps. The patient and I encountering one another as equal human beings is an extraordinary opportunity for intense, meaningful relating which leads to healing and growth. I am sure that we are all different in how we assess and regulate our ways of relating in this regard. I have made a major decision to jettison much of the traditional hierarchical psychodynamic model of being a therapist. If the patient needs me to be the wizard we can and do explore that, but in my view the therapeutic dynamic is diminished by the therapist-inspired stratification.
The existential orientation pulls me toward a focus on authenticity –interpersonally and intrapersonally. It also highlights my challenging my patients to raise their awareness levels about authenticity as an issue in their lives. Psychodynamic considerations become prominent when working with people to help form their sense of the narratives which are relevant to their understanding their lives.
The communications and interpersonal approaches pull me to focus on relating and communicating, attuning to our impacts, how we feel about we are treated and we treat others, and how we communicate our acknowledged and unacknowledged feelings and attitudes towards one another. This interpersonal approach also focuses on how to strengthen my skills to become a more effective communicator and to have more meaningful, powerful and intimate relating.
Thus, it is clear that within an experiential approach there is room to accommodate a number of other theoretical approaches and life orientations. Experiential psychotherapy focuses on two main factors; the primary internal and externally base experience of the therapist and the patient, and the centrality of the therapist’s participating in an active and personal way.
My commentary on this article
This article speaks directly to a group of highly trained psychotherapist. It was part of a panel presentation at the 2000 Fall Institute and Conference held in Charleston, SC. I had the privilege of being there, though I cannot say for sure that I was present when my father presented this paper.
The language and the concepts are somewhat sophisticated and may take some time, research and effort for those who do not work and study in the field to grasp all of what he was articulating, though the main points seem accessible.
Several things come to mind in reflecting on this article:
He has taken the main crux of experiential psychotherapy and has defined it with clear, well delineated language that helps most any one make the distinctions between this form of therapy and others.
My father was clear about the various positions that a therapist might and could take at any given moment in the therapeutic encounter, that would likely do at least 2 things simultaneously (though not in any particular order). One of his priorities was to be mindful of the ethic of avoiding anything in the relationship that was deleterious or harmful or might be experienced as taking advantage of the patient – more positively his eye was on how to position himself in a way that might most serve the other with a response that might awaken them to more of themselves. His other priority was to take good care of himself. To avoid being available to put down, exploitation, infantile demands, interpersonal traps and the like.
I found reading his comments about therapist charisma fascinating in light of recent lectures that I have discovered on Youtube by Dr. Robert Moore – a deceased Jungian therapist who once lived and practiced in the Chicago area. Robert Moore spoke of the instinctual energy of the Magician. A person who has the ability to manifest the mature, developed, sophisticated energy of the Magician, or a person with a highly developed set of special knowledge in a particular field of study. Sometimes we might experience our auto mechanic as fitting the Magician role. He might take a few moments to fiddle around in your car engine and suddenly the strange clunking noise in your car goes away. You may quip “hey you’re a magician”. In this example, the Magician has a special set of knowledge to help your car run properly. My father’s article plays all around the edges of this specialized space in which therapists operate.
My father’s position to de-emphasize, as much as possible, the hierarchical nature of the therapeutic relationship speaks to this Magician realm. By the nature of the patient seeking a special relationship, in sacred space, requires humility. The seeking of “elder” or “guide” the ritual humility that comes with asking for this guidance, and the business arrangement where patient pays the therapist all offer hierarchical structures.
Through the lens of the Magician my father’s meditations and conscious desire to de-emphasize the hierarchy of the relationship has a paradoxical effect. While meeting a patient as a fellow journey man/woman on the trail of life, (a fellow traveler who is going through all the same developmental processes)– the opportunity for most rarified, and special part of the Magician emerges.
I do not think any of this was ever lost on my father – though I miss terribly not being able to have the conversation with him. He would have really enjoyed that, and for sure he would have offered me sage wisdom – and right in the spirit of this, appreciated the perspective as adding to his own.
Exploring this article further, my father has articulated in a very concise way several highly complex concepts and ideas. The ultimate goal is the same for the therapist and the patient, that is to speak about how therapy can offer a space where all parties involved are working towards becoming more authentically available to themselves and the other.
Here he has stated explicitly and implicitly that the real action in therapy occurs through a process of understanding what we are feeling or not, how we view ourselves and others, where we come from and how that informs us or not and so on. At its best psychotherapy is the process of self-discovery that allows for a life long journey of self-empowerment.
At around the same time that this article was presented and published he had conducted a training institute entitled “Toleration of Affect”. I intend to post that here in the near future. Here he articulates how every family is different in how they deal, cope, express, and tolerate different feeling states. This highly complex concept might offer a glimpse into how most of us are simply too close to the experiences of how our families lived with feelings, or not to actually know what we might feel about many things in life.
In closing, the article published here on Experiential Psychotherapy allows for others to see into a model of how a therapist may choose to live his/her life, conduct his/her practice, view his/her patients and their work together that moves the work out of the medical model and into something much more life affirming. Therapy moves out of space of how to cure another of his/her “sickness” and into something that is about how both the therapist and the patient develop the only true power any of us ever really have, personal power.