A blog by Araminta Jonsson

‘In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state. This article seeks to explore how experiential therapy can, much like the butterfly effect, have a transformative effect as a result of small but vital shifts that can happen during a session. According to Alvin R. Mahrer one of experiential therapy’s '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. A related companion aim is for the person to become essentially free of whatever painful feelings and situations are front and center for the person in the session.

What is Experiential Therapy?

Experiential therapies stem from the tradition of humanistic psychology. The major sub approaches of experiential therapies are ‘Client centered (or Person-Centered; e.g., Rogers, 1961), Gestalt (e.g., Perls, Hefferline & Goodman,1951), and Existential (e.g., Yalom, 1980). Other influential experiential approaches have been psychodrama (Moreno & Moreno, 1959) as seen at iCAAD London 2019 in Tian Dayton’s presentation, “Relationship Trauma Repair (RTR): An Experiential Model for Treating Childhood Trauma and PTSD.” Also under the umbrella term of experiential therapies include ‘a cluster of emotion-focused expressive approaches (Mahrer, 1983; Pierce, Nichols & DuBrin, 1983; Daldrup, Beutler, Engle & Greenberg, 1988), body-oriented therapies (Kepner, 1993), and experiential-interpersonal views of such authors as van Kessel & Lietaer (1998), Yalom (1995), and Schmid (1995).

All techniques beneath the experiential therapy umbrella use activities and expressive tools in order to replay and re-experience emotional moments from an individual’s past relationships. The belief being ‘what was learned in action must be unlearned in action and what was learned in relationship, must be unlearned in relationship.

Characteristics of experiential therapy

The first and foremost characteristic of experiential therapy is the idea that the therapy will promote experiencing within a session. Tools are used to enable patients to tune into an emotional experience under the guidance of an empathic facilitator. Because of this it is a truly phenomenological approach. ‘People are viewed as meaning creating, symbolizing agents, whose subjective experience is an essential aspect of their humanness. In addition, the experiential-humanistic view of functioning emphasizes the operation of an integrative, formative tendency, oriented toward survival, growth, and the creation of meaning. Moreover, all experientially-oriented theorists are united by the general principle that people are wiser than their intellect alone. In an experiencing organism, consciousness is seen as being at the peak of a pyramid of non-conscious organismic functioning.

A second and consistent characteristic within experiential therapy is that they are all client centred. This means that the person is viewed as a whole and as a complex answer to their own issues. They are not viewed as a specific symptom or diagnosis. The most important aspect of the client for the therapist is their own subjective experience and what can be learned from that within the client-therapist empathetic relationship. The main motivations of experiential therapy is to deepen that subjective experience whilst also tuning in to any emotions and emotional arousal the experience might bring. ‘Greenberg, Watson and Goldman (1998) argued that increases in depth of experiencing in successful brief treatments produce emotional problem-solving specific to core issues.

Expressed emotions result in change within experiential therapy

“Therapy is a learning process, and everyone has a different learning style. For some, a 'talking cure' is just the thing, but others have difficulty articulating their feelings or processing verbal input. With the guidance of a specialist, these non-verbal therapies offer a way to access, express, and process these unspeakable feelings.” - Dr P. Levine.

According to statistics and studies that examine emotion in experiential therapy when clients’ emotional experiences are successfully targeted within a session, changes within that client are visible. ‘The type of emotional expression investigated, however, affects the outcomes found. Emotional arousal and expression in specific circumstances, and with certain types of individuals and problems, is related to constructive change in physical and mental health. The evidence also indicates that certain types of therapeutically facilitated emotional awareness and arousal, when expressed in supportive relational contexts and in conjunction with some sort of conscious cognitive processing of the emotional experience, is important for therapeutic change, for many clients and problems.

The metamorphosis process of experiential therapy

We are back to the idea of the butterfly. This time looking at the clients journey through experiential therapy treatment as a process of metamorphosis, much like that of the caterpillar to butterfly. As asserted by Maher ‘the experiential session is designed to enable a client (a) to undergo a radical transformation and become the qualitatively new person that the person can become, and (b) thereby to become free of his or her painful scene or situation and the painful feelings in that scene or situation.

The goal of an experiential session is to give the client an opportunity to undergo this metamorphosis in the form of two radical shifts and set into motion the aforementioned butterfly effect. The first shift involves the client ‘letting go of virtually everything of who and what the client is and hurling him- or herself into the qualitatively new person that the client is capable of becoming. The second shift is when the client, with their newfound identity, ‘is free of the old person’s painful and hurtful feelings, and the new person’s world is free of the painful scenes and situations in which those bad feelings occurred.

An experiential therapy session is designed to ‘free the client from remaining imprisoned in the person he or she is, becoming the whole new person that can be. Holding a space for these remarkable shifts to happen can be, as suggested in this article, utterly transformative and healing.