NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Friday, May 4, 2018

How Experiential Psychotherapy Can Facilitate Emotional Development in Adult Clients

In prior articles, I've discussed experiential psychotherapy and how it helps clients in therapy to overcome emotional problems, including:

How Experiential Psychotherapy Can Facilitate Emotional Development

In this article, I'm focusing on how experiential psychotherapy can facilitate emotional development in adult clients who who grew up in childhood homes where there was no one to share and help process emotional experiences.

Tracking Clients' Emotional Expression During the Psychotherapy Sessions 
A psychotherapist who practices experiential psychotherapy usually tracks clients' emotional expression as they talk about the issues that brought them to therapy.  She does this by watching and listening to clients and how they expresses themselves as they talk about traumatic experiences.

Some of the problem areas that an experiential psychotherapist will track will include the clients' use of defense mechanisms:
  • Clients, who use the defense mechanism of isolation of affect as their primary defense mechanism, will often talk about traumatic experiences with little to no emotion.  They might relate a horrendous family history in the same matter-of-fact tone that they would give a news report from another part of the world. When the therapist is tracking the clients' emotional expression, she will detect this disconnect between emotions and a traumatic experience, and this will inform her as to where the work needs to focus.
  • Clients, who use minimization as their defense mechanism, might have more of a range of emotional expression when they talk about traumatic experiences but, at some point, they might cut off their emotions and minimize the impact of the trauma ("My father use to beat me, but that's how it was back then in a lot of families.  Every parent did it, so I guess I shouldn't complain").  By noting that the client began by relating the trauma experience with emotion and then defensively cutting off the emotion by minimizing the negative impact of the trauma, the psychotherapist notes how the client wards off feelings, and she can work with the client on this.
  • Intellectualization is another defense mechanism that clients often use when they are defending against feeling the emotional pain related to traumatic experiences.  Rather than allow themselves to feel the pain, they cut off their emotions by relating their trauma in a logical way with little to no affect.  The experiential psychotherapist will notice this defense mechanism and work towards helping the client to connection emotionally to the trauma so the trauma can get worked through.
  • Other clients are not sure how they feel about their traumatic experiences.  They might have a very narrow range of affect because there was no one available when they were growing up to help them process difficult emotions.  As an emotional survival strategy, when they were children, these clients learned to feel as little as possible, especially emotions that made them feel uncomfortable, to keep from being overwhelmed and maintain an attachment to their parents.  As adults, they might not be able to identify their so-called "negative emotions," so the psychotherapist will know that this will be part of the work.
There are many other examples where a psychotherapist, who practices experiential psychotherapy, will detect clients' problems with emotions and use the therapy to help facilitate emotional development, but the examples above give you an idea of the type of problems that can come up that indicate a need for help with emotional development.

With tact and empathy, an experiential psychotherapist can begin to talk to clients who are having problems with experiencing and expressing their emotions and address their defense mechanisms.

This would include psychoeducation about how these defense mechanisms were necessary earlier in life to survive emotionally, but they are now getting in the way.

Facilitating Emotional Development in Experiential Psychotherapy
This is important because if clients continue to use defense mechanisms to ward off their emotions, their emotions remain constricted and buried under their defenses, so that the psychotherapist and the clients cannot get to the core emotions involved in the problem in order to resolve the trauma.

Depending upon the particular client and the type of defense mechanisms that they use, some of the ways that the experiential psychotherapist will facilitate emotional development would be by:
  • Establishing a strong therapeutic alliance in therapy so the client realizes that, unlike when s/he was a child and felt alone with uncomfortable emotions, s/he now has a caring psychotherapist who will be a "witness" to the client's history and provide emotional support.
  • Empathically attuning to the client and paying attention to the client's conscious and unconscious communication in the therapy sessions.
  • Helping the client to be aware of how s/he uses defense mechanisms to avoid feeling certain emotions ("I'm wondering if you're aware of how you tend to look away and drift off when you talk about the emotional neglect that you experienced as a child?)"
  • Asking the client, when s/he is ready, to try to not use the defense mechanism that s/he usually uses to see what that's like.  If the client says that it would be unbearable to experience these emotions, the psychotherapist will not push the client beyond where s/he can go, but would take smaller steps to facilitate emotional development.
  • Helping the client to expand his or her window of tolerance if the client has only a limited threshold for experiencing difficult emotions.  
  • Assisting the client to identify emotions by helping him or her to locate emotions in the body ("I notice that your hands are clenched and your jaw looks tight when you talk about how your mother humiliated you in front of your friends when you were a child.  When you focus on your clenched hands and tight jaw, what emotions are you feeling?").  This helps the client to connect emotions within the body, which will assist the client to identify and express emotions.
Engaging in Metaprocessing of Experiential Therapy in the Session
For clients who were abused or neglected as children, emotional development in psychotherapy is ultimately healing and allow for the working through of unresolved trauma.

But along the way, it can be challenging, so the experiential psychotherapist will do metaprocessing with clients at the end of the therapy session to discuss how clients experienced the work.

This helps the client to understand his or her reactions to the work in therapy, and it also allows them integrate the changes that they are  making.  Some examples might include:
  • "You did a lot of good work today in session.  What was it like for you to begin to experience emotions that you have been avoiding for most of your life?"
  • "You were able to feel the grief of your loss today for the first time.  What was that like for you?
  • "You were able to talk about things that you haven't been able to discuss before.  What was that experience like for you today?"

Encouraging the Client to Retain Therapeutic Gains Between Sessions
Defense mechanisms that have been used for a lifetime to ward off uncomfortable feelings don't just disappear after a few sessions.  They have been clients' default mode and will often reappear between sessions and sometimes even in the same session, which is why it's so important for experiential psychotherapists to metaprocess with clients at the end of the session.

Many clients, who have unresolved trauma, often walk out of the therapy session and forget the therapeutic gains they made during the session.  It's as if they leave these gains and their memories of the session in the therapy room.

It can be frustrating for clients when they return for their next session and they realize that they have little to no memory of what they experienced in the prior session.  They might feel like they're starting at "Square One" again at each session.

To try to help clients to retain the therapeutic gains they achieved, experiential psychotherapists often encourage clients to keep a journal between psychotherapy sessions (see my article: The Benefits of Journal Writing Between Psychotherapy Sessions).

By writing about their thoughts, emotions, fantasies, memories, physical reactions and whatever else comes up related to the therapy session, clients are more likely to retain and integrate the therapeutic gains achieved in the prior therapy session so they're ready to continue the work in their next session.

Helping Clients to Reflect On and Consolidate Therapeutic Gains
Many clients who come to therapy to resolve trauma are in significant emotional pain and they are, understandably, in a hurry to work through traumatic experiences.  As a result, they might have unrealistic ideas about how long it will take in therapy to resolve problems they have had for a lifetime.

An experiential psychotherapist helps clients to realize that therapy isn't something that is "done" to them.  It is a collaboration between the therapist and the client, and each client is different in terms of how long it will take to resolve traumatic experiences.

The experiential psychotherapist is constantly assessing and reassessing the client in terms of what s/he needs from the therapist and how far s/he can go without being overwhelmed by the work.

This is an important clinical judgment call the therapist has to make in order to keep the work moving as long as it is emotionally tolerable for the client.  It would be detrimental to the work and retraumatizing for the client if the therapist attempted to push the client too quickly.

Many clients, who want to work through trauma, come to therapy after avoiding it for many years.  So, after they acknowledge that they need help, they want to make up for lost time and they're unaware of the negative clinical implications of moving too quickly and being emotionally overwhelmed in therapy.

So, an experiential psychotherapist will help the client to reflect on the work that has been done so far.  She will remind the client of where the client started in therapy (i.e., unable to tolerate uncomfortable emotions) and how far s/he has come (i.e., able to tolerate increasingly difficult emotions).

Why is this important?

For one thing, many traumatized clients have difficulty giving themselves credit for positive achievements, especially if they grew up in households were "perfection" was considered the norm.  So, it's important for the psychotherapist to remind the client of his or her progress so s/he can have a sense of pride about it.

Another issue is, as mentioned before, that clients, who have an unrealistic idea of the time frame for overcoming their traumatic experiences, often need a reminder of how far they have come from where they started.

If they're only focused on, "I'm not where I want to be yet," they will be likely to run roughshod over themselves--in much the same way as they were treated by their parents when they were children.

An experiential psychotherapist will provide clients with psychoeducation that progress in therapy isn't linear, respond to their concerns ("My friend completed EMDR therapy in only 10 sessions.  Why am I still processing my trauma with EMDR?) and remind them not to compare themselves to others because everyone is different.

Clients who have a traumatic history often have problems experiencing their emotions.

For some clients, this means that they are unable to feel what they are experiencing because of defense mechanisms they developed in childhood as part of a much-needed emotional survival strategy at the time.

Other clients will have only a narrow range of emotions that they allow themselves to experience (e.g., they can experience anger and frustration, but allowing themselves to feel sadness makes them feel too vulnerable).

The experiential psychotherapist tends to work differently than most talk therapists by helping the client to not just talk about their problems but to work through their issues in a more in-depth experiential way.

Experiential psychotherapy, like EMDR therapy, Somatic Experiencing and clinical hypnosis, is more effective than regular talk therapy.

Getting Help in Therapy
Most people who have a history of emotional trauma are unaware of how their history is impacting their current life.  As a result, they never seek the help they need in therapy (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

If you have been struggling with unresolved problems, you owe it to yourself to get help from a skilled experiential psychotherapist (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Once you free yourself from a traumatic history, you can live a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples, and I have helped many clients to overcome their traumatic experiences.

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.