NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, October 6, 2018

With Experiential Therapy, There Are No Blank-Slate Therapists - Part 2

In my prior article, I began a discussion about how experiential psychotherapy is different from conventional psychotherapy.  I discussed that some therapists in conventional therapy still work with their clients from a stance of neutrality with little to no self disclosure.  This is in contrast to experiential therapy where the psychotherapist is a dynamic, empathic, emotionally accessible, and a collaborative presence in the therapy session with the client (see my article: Why Experiential Psychotherapy is More Effective Than Conventional Talk Therapy).

With Experiential Therapy, There Are No Blank-Slate Therapists

Fictional Clinical Vignette: With Experiential Therapy, There Are No Blank-Slate Therapists
The following fictional clinical vignette, which is representative of the issues being discussed in this article, illustrates the difference between experiential psychotherapy and conventional psychotherapy where the therapist takes a neutral stance with the client:

Attending therapy twice a week, Alan endured long silences in his therapy sessions with his conventional talk therapy psychotherapist.

Alan dreaded these silences because it reminded him of the times when he was a young child and he and his parents sat in stony silence at the dinner table.  During those days, when he attempted to talk at the dinner table about things that went on at school, his father would reprimand him, "Be quiet and eat your food" (see my article: Growing Up Feeling Invisible and Emotionally Invalidated).

Afterwards, his mother would oversee his nightly ritual of washing up and putting on his pajamas before he went to bed.  He often wished that his mother would read him a bedtime story, which is what his friend, Tom's mom would do when Tom went to bed.  But having asked his mother for a  bedtime story in the past, Alan knew that his mother would reject his request and just tell him to go to sleep.

As he lay on the couch in his therapist's office for his second session of the week, he stared at the ceiling as he became increasingly uncomfortable.  From behind him, Alan could hear his therapist shift slightly in his chair, but that was the only sound that Alan heard.  He knew from his prior sessions that his therapist could go nearly an entire session without saying anything if Alan didn't know what to say.  Alan dreaded those long silences and he hoped this wouldn't be one of those sessions.

Clearing his throat to speak, Alan said in a low voice, "I'm not sure what else to talk about.  We have discussed so many times before how I feel like I'm an unlovable person and how lonely that is for me.  I don't know what else to say about it" (see my article: Overcoming the Emotional Pain of Feeling Unlovable).

From behind him, Alan heard his therapist writing, but his therapist didn't respond to Alan's remark.  Alan thought about how he had been coming to therapy with Dr. Walsh for three years, and he felt he wasn't making any progress.  In the past, when he mentioned this to Dr. Walsh, he told Alan that it would take many years of therapy for Alan to see progress (see my article: Common Myths About Psychotherapy: Therapy Takes a Long Time).

Alan, who was about to turn 35, didn't feel like he could endure his emotional pain without relief for several more years.  Whenever he told his therapist this in the past and asked his therapist what he thought was getting in the way of his progress, his therapist turned the question back on Alan and asked Alan what he thought.  But Alan didn't know what he thought, and this was frustrating to him.

After enduring another session where they were mostly silent, Alan left feeling worse than before the session.  As he walked to meet his friend, Ed, for coffee, Alan thought about how he knew nothing about Dr. Walsh even though he had been attending twice-a-week sessions with him for three years.

At one point in an earlier session, he asked Dr. Walsh if he had ever experienced feeling as insecure in his life as Alan was feeling, but Alan didn't get an answer.  Dr. Walsh, once again, turned the question back on Alan and wanted to explore the question rather than answer it.  This left Alan feeling like he had done something wrong by asking the question, and he felt ashamed.

On the rare occasions when Alan looked back to see Dr. Walsh, he saw a very serious, authoritarian look at Dr. Walsh's face similar to the look that his father used to give him.  During those times, Alan wondered if Dr. Walsh even liked him or thought about him when they weren't in session.

In the coffee shop, Alan shared his frustration with Ed about his therapy sessions, "I just feel like I'm getting nowhere in my therapy, and I worry sometimes that my therapist might not even like me.  He's kind of distant and impersonal in the sessions so it's hard to tell."

Ed looked surprised.  He said his therapist was completely different--she was emotionally engaged, supportive and dynamic in their therapy sessions.  He told Alan that she was active in helping him to get to the underlying emotions (also called primary emotions) that were at the core of his problems, and this helped him to start making changes.

In addition, Ed explained, she occasionally shared stories that let Ed know that she understood his problems.  There were also times, he said, when they laughed in session, and Ed felt how this helped to release tension and open him up to the therapeutic process (see my article: Humor Can Be Effective in Therapy).

Alan was shocked to hear that Ed's experience in psychotherapy was so different from his own, and he asked Ed, "What type of therapy are you doing?"

Ed responded, "My therapist is an experiential therapist who does all kinds of therapy, including AEDP, EMDR, Somatic Experiencing and clinical hypnosis.  Maybe you should have a consultation with an experiential therapist." Alan thought about it for a minute and then asked Ed to get a referral from his therapist to another experiential therapist.

By the following week, Alan was sitting in an experiential therapist's office having a consultation.  He noticed the big difference in how he felt with this therapist immediately.  Not only was she warm and emotionally accessible, she sat facing him (rather than behind him) and he could see that she was emotionally attuned to what he said (see my article: The Therapist's Empathic Attunement Can Be Emotionally Reparative For the Client).

Rather than coming across as a blank screen, Ed realized, this therapist allowed Ed to see that she was intensely engaged in their session.  She also shared with Ed how she experienced him in the session which felt heartfelt and genuine.

In addition, she explained how experiential therapy was different from conventional talk therapy (see my article: What's the Difference Between "Top Down" and "Bottom Up" Approaches to Therapy?).

During his next session with Dr. Walsh, Alan revealed that he had gone for a consultation with another psychotherapist who did experiential therapy.  Hoping that Dr. Walsh would respond, Alan waited in vain.  After several minutes had passed, Alan told Dr. Walsh that he felt the other therapist was more attuned to him, but Dr. Walsh said nothing, which brought back more memories of his silent childhood dinners with his parents.

Alan knew from his prior therapy that there was a termination phase before ending therapy, so he told Dr. Walsh that he would like to have a few more sessions to end therapy and then he wanted to move on to work with an experiential therapist.

During the next three sessions, things remained basically the same in Alan's sessions with Dr. Walsh. He encouraged Alan to talk about what he felt he had gained from their therapy together, and Alan told him that he felt he had gained some insight into his problems.  But what Alan didn't tell him was that, even though he had gained intellectual insight, he felt nothing had changed or shifted in his life. He felt his problems remained the same (see my article: Healing From the Inside Out: Why Understanding Your Problems Isn't Enough).

At the end of the last session with Dr. Walsh, Alan wasn't sure what to do, so he offered to shake Dr. Walsh's hand as he was about to leave.  He noticed how reluctant Dr. Walsh was to extend his hand, which hurt Alan's feelings.  But Dr. Walsh did, reluctantly, extend his hand, shook Alan's hand and told him that he could return to therapy with him in the future.  His words sounded pro forma to Alan, as if Dr. Walsh had said these words many times before.  Then, it was over, and Alan walked out feeling empty.

During the initial stage of experiential therapy, Alan was surprised that his new therapist was so dynamic.  She was so engaged in their conversation that, for the first time in his experience with psychotherapy, Alan didn't feel alone with his problems, which was such a relief to him.  He felt like his new therapist actually cared about him and his well-being.

Not only that.  When he was ready, she helped him to access the underlying emotions involved with his feeling like an unlovable person.  They talked about his relationship with his parents, but the difference, compared to his prior therapy, was that she explained the importance of the mind-body connection and she helped him to connect to his emotions in his body about those experiences (see my article: Experiential Psychotherapy: Learning to Sense Emotions in the Body).

After a while, Alan began to understand that "talking about" his problems only provided him with intellectual insight.  But since experiential therapy used the mind-body connection, in addition to insight, he also had a deep sense of something shifting for him at a core level.  Even more important, he felt a sense of hope that he could change.

Over time, he realized that for him to make the kind of changes that he wanted, he had to make those changes based on his primary emotions, which his new therapist was helping him to access.

Gradually, Alan began to sense a shift in how he felt based on his shifting emotions and the positive regard he felt from his therapist (see my article: What is the Corrective Emotional Experience in Therapy?).

As illustrated in the clinical vignette above, rather than taking a neutral, impersonal stance, the experiential therapist is attuned to the client and emotionally engaged.

Along with her clinical training and expertise, the experiential therapist uses her own emotional experience to attune to the client and help the client to access the primary emotions that lead to change.

The experiential psychotherapist is aware of the brain's neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to change based on learning and experience.

There are many problems with the neutral stance in conventional psychotherapy, including the triggering of earlier emotional experiences of emotional neglect.  This, of course, isn't the intention of the neutral stance, but if often occurs.

In addition, experiential therapy, which uses the mind-body connection, tends to be faster than conventional talk therapy (see my article: Experiential Psychotherapy and the Mind-Body Connection: The Body Offers a Window Into the Unconscious Mind).

Getting Help in Experiential Therapy
If you have been struggling with unresolved problems, you could benefit from working with an experiential therapist.

Experiential therapy tends to be more effective and work faster than conventional therapy.

Rather than struggling on your own, you could begin to get a sense of emotional relief as you work towards freeing yourself from problems that keep you stuck.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC experiential therapist, who works with individual adults and couples.

I work in an dynamic, interactive and collaborate way using cutting edge modalities, including EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), clinical hypnosis, AEDP (Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy), Somatic Experiencing, contemporary psychodynamic psychotherapy, and Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

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.