NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Unconscious Mind and Experiential Therapy: The "Symptom" Contains the Solution

Unconscious emotions and beliefs often contain meaningful emotional truths.  Experiential therapy provides an opportunity to access these unconscious emotions and beliefs, which often leads to a transformative shift and an emotional breakthrough for the client (see my articles:  How Your Unconscious Beliefs Affect Your Sense of Reality and Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR, Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

The Unconscious Mind and Experiential Therapy: The "Symptom" Contains the Solution

Accessing the Unconscious Through Experiential Therapy:  The "Symptom Contains the Solution:"
People who start psychotherapy with a desire to change an unwanted behavior are often unaware that unconscious emotions have important meanings for them in terms of the very behavior that they say they want to change (see my article:  Mind-Body Psychotherapy: The Body Offers a Window Into the Unconscious Mind).

There is a saying in clinical hypnosis, which encapsulates this idea:  "The symptom contains the solution."

Bruce Ecker, LMFT addresses "symptoms" as containing solutions within the framework of another experiential therapy that he and Laurel Hulley, Ph.D. developed, Coherence Therapy and in his two books, Depth Oriented Brief Therapy: How to Be Brief When You Were Trained to Be Deep and Vice Versa and Unlocking the Emotional Brain: Eliminating Symptoms at Their Roots Using Memory Reconsolidation.

The Unconscious Mind and Experiential Therapy:  The "Symptom" Contains the Solution

In his books about Coherence Therapy, which I see as a meta-explanation for many different types of experiential therapy (EMDR, Somatic Experiencing, clinical hypnosis, and other forms of experiential therapy), he describes how the client's presenting problem (referred to as the "symptom") often contains the solution to the issue.

Vignettes From Experiential Therapy Where the "Symptom" Contains the Solution
For instance, he gave an example of how a client came to therapy to overcome procrastination which kept him from completing his graduate studies.  Ecker calls the presenting problem the "anti- symptom," the problem that the client wants to change.

Knowing that the presenting problem also has an unconscious "pro-symptom" component, the therapist asked the client to imagine how things would be if he didn't procrastinate about doing the work.

There are many different ways to help clients in therapy to access the unconscious, and these techniques are only limited by the therapist's imagination and ingenuity.

Ecker uses one of those techniques in his work with this client,"symptom deprivation."

Through the use of "symptom deprivation," the therapist asked the client to imagine himself without this problem, and the client realized that procrastinating kept him from realizing an even more challenging issue for the client, which was that he was procrastinating because he really wasn't interested in his graduate studies and he was only in the graduate program to please his father.

The Unconscious Mind and Experiential Therapy:  The "Symptom" Contains the Solution

Prior to attending therapy and using his imagination to sense himself without the problem, this client had no conscious awareness of this important underlying emotional truth.

By tapping into his imagination and experiencing himself without the problem, he was able to access the unconscious reasons for his procrastination and, more importantly, recognize that his symptom of procrastination was actually keeping him for making a major life change that he didn't want.

What initially appeared as a "problem" turned out to be a solution to a worse problem, namely, completing a degree and entering into a field that the client didn't want.

Notice that in this case the therapist didn't try to use cognitive-behavioral techniques (or other similar techniques that only remain on the surface) to try to change the symptom so that the client would stop procrastinating.  The therapist also didn't try to give advice or tools to stop procrastinating, which would have been ineffective in light of the powerful underlying issues.

Instead, the therapist correctly assumed in a non-pathologizing manner that there was an unconscious emotional truth that was significant for the client and that accessing this unconscious truth in an experiential way (as opposed to just thinking or talking about it) would help the client feel and understand a very meaningful emotional truth.

Another example that Ecker gives is of a woman who comes to therapy because she's developed agoraphobia after she starts to imagine that her former therapist, who moved out of state, is still in the neighborhood and watches the client when she goes outside.

This symptom became so problematic to the client that she dreaded going outside because, even though she knew, in reality, that the therapist wasn't around, she felt like the therapist was in the area and watching her.

By the time she came to therapy, she thought she was delusional because she knew one thing (the therapist moved out of state) but she felt another (the therapist was still around watching her).

By helping the client to access the unconscious meaning of her symptom, the therapist helped the client to experience, once again through the "symptom deprivation" technique, what it would be like not to feel that the therapist was around and watching her when the client went outside.

Once again, the therapist isn't trying to persuade the client that she is just thinking about the therapist. The purpose of the "symptom deprivation" technique isn't to try to make the client stop feeling that the therapist is around.  Instead, the purpose is to access, experience and understand the unconscious meaning of imagining that the therapist was watching her.

When the client imagined that she no longer felt the therapist watching her when she went out, the client experienced the unconscious meaning of the presenting problem, which was that she missed the therapist and she was lonely.

The client also realized that she had an underlying core belief that she was unlovable, which stemmed from her early childhood.

In this case, she chose not to work on this underlying issue of feeling unlovable, which the therapist honored.   But another client might decide to work on this underlying issue, and experiential therapy can be very effective with this type of underlying problem.

Also, once she understood on a deep level that imagining her former therapist outside served a meaningful purpose for her, she relaxed about it and no longer pathologized this issue.  Instead, she felt that she had a choice, depending upon how she felt on any given day, to either imagine the therapist around or not.

Having a choice was empowering for her.

Transformative Shifts Through Experiential Therapy
Ecker stresses (and I totally agree) that these unconscious meanings often don't come to the surface for the client if s/he doesn't experience the meaning of the symptom (the symptom is also known as the presenting problem).

In other words, talking about it only in an intellectual way often doesn't get to the unconscious meaning.  It keeps the therapeutic work flat and on the surface.

In both cases, these clients would have missed important information about what was actually positive and meaningful about what each of them originally considered to be problems.

By experiencing the unconscious emotional truth, the client has an opportunity for a transformative shift, which often leads to emotional breakthroughs.

Experiential Therapy Can Provide Access to the Client's Unconscious Emotional Truth
As I mentioned earlier, experiential therapy includes any therapy that allows the client to have an experience of the problem and the solution.

Experiencing can include emotional and, possibly, physical experiencing.

How the client experiences the unconscious is different for each client.

Some clients have an intuitive "sense."  Other clients experience the unconscious on a somatic (physical) level.  Others experience it on an emotional level.  Some clients experience a combination of intuitive, emotional and physical.

There's no one right way to experience the unconscious emotional truth.

EMDR therapy, clinical hypnosis, Somatic Experiencing and ego states therapy (parts work), among others, are all experiential mind-body oriented therapies that provide an opportunity for clients to access the unconscious beliefs and emotions that are not readily apparent in talk therapy alone.

Rather than dealing with the problem in a very limited, surface kind of way, these experiential therapies can help to transform a client's experience of him or herself as well as what, until then, was experienced as his or her reality.

The Unconscious Mind and Experiential Therapy:  The "Symptom" Contains the Solution

In the first example, where the client wanted to stop procrastinating and he considered this to be a "problem" that he needed to change, his perception of his personal reality was transformed when he experienced the underlying emotional truth that he really didn't want to continue to pursue a graduate degree in a subject that he wasn't interested in.

In the second example, the client recognized that what she considered her "problem" was actually meaningful and helping her to feel less lonely.  Her perception of her personal realty shifted and she stopped judging herself and feeling like she was delusional.  Not only did she stop feeling agoraphobic, but she was able to use and have a sense of control over whether she wanted to imagine her former therapist around or not.

The important emotional meaning in both of these cases would have been missed if the clients didn't have an opportunity to experience their unconscious reality.

In both cases, the client experienced emotional breakthroughs.

Experiential Therapies:  Clinical Hypnosis, Somatic Experiencing and EMDR
Experiential therapies usually allow clients access to a dual awareness, which is the here-in-now reality as well as the unconscious reality.

With regard to hypnosis (also known as hypnotherapy) when the client is in the hypnotic state, clients can often make an experiential shift that can lead to an emotional breakthrough (see my article:  What is Clinical Hypnosis?)

Similarly, Somatic Experiencing provides the client in therapy with a somatic awareness of unconscious thoughts and emotions which are stored in the body (see my article:  Somatic Experiencing: Overcoming the Freeze Response Related to Trauma).

I often combine clinical hypnosis, Somatic Experiencing and Ego States therapy to help clients to access the unconscious and achieve emotional breakthroughs (see my article:  Ego States Therapy)

EMDR (Eye Movement, Desensitization and Reprocessing), which is another form of experiential therapy, also helps the client to experience the unconscious beliefs that s/he has about him or herself.  One of the questions that the EMDR therapist asks is "What negative belief do you have about yourself?" related to the presenting problem.

As the client continues to process the presenting problem with EMDR, s/he comes to have access to his or her unconscious beliefs (see my articles:  What is EMDR?How Does EMDR Work: Part 1: EMDR and the Brain, and How EMDR Works - Part 2: Overcoming Trauma).

Rather than focusing on "fixing" the presenting problem, all experiential types of therapy provide an opportunity for transformation on a deep level.

Getting Help in Therapy
In my experience as a psychotherapist, an experiential type of therapy, which provides the client with access to the mind-body connection as well as unconscious meaningful truths to the client's problems, is the most effective therapy to help clients who want to experience transformation.

The Unconscious Mind and Experiential Therapy: Getting Help in Therapy

If you've been struggling on your own to try to overcome your problems, you owe it to yourself to seek professional help from a licensed mental health professional.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.