NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Wednesday, October 3, 2018

With Experiential Psychotherapy, There Are No Blank-Slate Therapists

When I was training to be a psychotherapist in postgraduate training, we were taught that the ideal stance for a therapist was neutrality.  From the neutral perspective, the therapist should not convey what is going on internally, make any unnecessary gestures and, in general, remain as a blank slate (see my article: What's the Difference Between "Top Down" and "Bottom Up" Psychotherapy?).

Experiential Psychotherapy: There Are No Blank-Slate Therapists

Because of my background and temperament, this was especially hard for me.  I was raised in a family that was warm, gregarious and effusive.  There were no blank slates.

I also found that it was better for my patients for me to be an accessible human being in the therapy session, and the less my supervisors knew about my human response to clients, the better.

Of course, I was always careful not to cross any ethical boundaries or provide more information about myself than was necessary or warranted.  The focus was still very much on the client.

Since that time, we now know how emotionally depriving it is for psychotherapists to try to be a blank slate.  I say "try" because no one is ever a blank slate.  We are all always reading and picking up on what's going on with each other all the time.  So, the notion of a "blank slate" is a fallacy.

I'm not sure where the idea of being so impersonal came from.  It certainly wasn't part of Freud's practice.  He regularly walked clients around his garden at his home and had them over to his house.  From everything that I have read, he was rather engaging.

It seems like it was more of an overreaction by American psychiatrists, who were the psychoanalysts of their day, during the early days of psychoanalysis when there were few rules and some analysts were acting out with their clients.

The one thing that Freud didn't like was to be looked at directly by the client when he was with them in his therapy room--even though they looked directly at him when they were in his garden or in his home.   So, he came up with the idea that the therapist should sit behind the client out of the client's sight so he could listen with "evenly hovering attention," ostensibly, without the distraction of looking at the client.

Over time, most therapists discovered that there is a lot that is missed when a therapist isn't looking at the client directly or when the client isn't looking at the therapist.  The therapist isn't picking up on body language, facial cues, gestures and, in general, the intersubjective experience of being with a client.  This is certainly a lot to miss.

There have been certain times when I have had a client who preferred for me to sit behind him so the client couldn't see me and I could only see only the back of his head.  While I honor this request, I also explore the meaning of it with the client.  For some clients, it's easier for them to talk if they don't watch the therapist's face or gestures.  I get that, and I want my clients to be comfortable, so I will arrange to sit behind that particular client.

But the vast majority of clients want the therapist to be human, collaborative, interactive and dynamic rather than a therapist who is trying to be a blank slate.  This suits me fine since it feels most natural to me to work in that way.

There Are No Blank-Slate Therapists With Experiential Psychotherapy
Experiential therapy, including EMDR Therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), AEDP (Advanced Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy), Somatic Experiencing, clinical hypnosis, Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples and other types of experiential therapies emphasize the importance of the therapist being relatively open and emotionally accessible.

How did this change from the blank slate therapist?  Through research and clinical experience, researchers and clinicians discovered that change occurs when psychotherapists and clients are emotionally engaged with each other in therapy.

Some of the research is extrapolated from Ed Tronick's still face experiments between mothers and babies.  Other research from AEDP and Emotionally Focused Therapy also reveals that the therapist and client need to be emotionally engaged for change to take place.

Having a cognitive understanding of their problems is an important part of therapy but, in terms of change, it's limited (see my article: Healing From the Inside Out: Why Understanding Your Problems Isn't Enough).

In order to make changes, clients need to be able to get to their underlying emotions (also called primary emotions), and this is difficult to do with a therapist who is sitting there like a mannequin.

In the next article, I'll provide a clinical vignette to illustrate how experiential therapy is different from older forms of conventional psychotherapy and psychoanalysis (see my article: With Experiential Therapy, There Are No Blank-Slate Therapists - Part 2).

Of course, much has also changed in psychoanalysis, especially Relational Psychoanalysis and other contemporary forms of psychoanalysis so there is more of a collaborative approach and more self disclosure on the part of the therapist.  However, unfortunately, there are still some therapists who try to be blank slates.

Getting Help in Psychotherapy
As previously mentioned, these days most clients want a collaborative, interactive and dynamic psychotherapist.

Experiential therapists provide this experience to clients in a supportive and empathic environment.

Experiential therapists also help clients to connect with the mind-body experience.  This is different from conventional talk therapy, which provides more limited insight-oriented experiences.

We now know, based on research and clinical experience, that getting to the core of emotions is what brings about transformation (see my article: Experiential Psychotherapy Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

If you have been struggling with unresolved problems and conventional talk therapy hasn't helped you to resolve these issues, you owe it to yourself to contact an experiential psychotherapist.

Experiential therapy can help to free you from unresolved problems so you can live a more satisfying life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC experiential psychotherapist who uses clinical hypnosis, EMDR therapy, AEDP therapy, Somatic Experiencing and Emotionally Focused couple therapy (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work 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.