NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, October 18, 2021

Corrective Emotional Experiences in Therapy Help to Heal Trauma

In a prior article, What is the Corrective Emotional Experience in Therapy?, I discussed how a corrective emotional experience in therapy can occur when a client has an experience with the therapist that challenges the client's negative beliefs about him or herself and provides a new emotional experience that's healing.  

Corrective Emotional Experiences Help to Heal Trauma

A Corrective Emotional Experience in Therapy and a Change in Attachment Styles
A common example of this is when an adult client, who grew up feeling emotionally neglectedinvisible and unloved by his parents, has a felt sense that his therapist cares about him.  

Usually, when people grow up emotionally neglected or abused, they develop an insecure attachment style.  Although insecure attachment styles are difficult to change, corrective emotional experiences can help someone to change from an insecure to a secure attachment style, which is called earned secure attachment (see my articles: What is Your Attachment Style?How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Relationship and Developing a Secure Attachment Style: What is Earned Secure Attachment?)

In other words, this person, who grew up with a sense that he was unlovable, can have a new transformative experience in therapy.  So, not only does he feel understood, but he also has a visceral experience of being deeply cared about by his therapist.  

What Are Corrective Emotional Experiences in Your Personal Life?
In addition to transformative emotional experiences in therapy, corrective emotional experiences occur in everyday life, but people often don't notice them or can't feel them.

You might wonder how this is possible and you might ask: Wouldn't it be easier to feel these experiences in everyday personal interactions than it would be in therapy?  The answer is: It depends.  Some people are really adept at picking up on corrective emotional experiences, especially when they occur with a loved one, and others are not.

For instance, John, who grew up in a family where he felt unloved and neglected, believes he's unlovable and these feelings carry over into adulthood.  He doesn't realize that he wasn't the problem--it was his parents who had problems expressing their love for him.

As an adult, John married a woman who is affectionate, kind and attentive to his emotional needs.  At first, he's uncomfortable with taking in her love because he's not accustomed to feeling loved.  But, over time, he learns to take in her love and affection and these new emotional experiences with his wife disconfirm the way he felt about himself since childhood.  This is a transformative experience for John--whether he's consciously aware of it or not.

Other people have a harder time with corrective emotional experiences.  For instance, Sara, who was also emotionally neglected as a child, still feels unlovable even though she knows her spouse loves her.  In this second example, Sara's traumatic childhood has had such a profound effect on her that her spouse's love makes no difference in the way she feels about herself because it's split off from how she feels about herself.  

What is Experiential Trauma Therapy and How Does It Help Clients to Experience Corrective Emotional Experiences in Their Personal Lives?
Experiential trauma therapy is a bottom up approach (as opposed to a top down approach in regular talk therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy and other forms of talk therapy).  The bottom up approach is an embodied therapy that provides an integrated mind-body connection (see my articles: What is a Trauma Therapist? and Why is Experiential Therapy More Effective Than Talk Therapy to Resolve Trauma?)

The bottom up approach used in experiential trauma therapy focuses on the limbic system of the brain where traumatic memories are stored and where they get triggered (see my article: What's the Difference Between Top Down and Bottom Up Approaches to Therapy?).   

Clinical Vignette:  
The following clinical example illustrates how experiential trauma can provide a corrective emotional experience that is transformative and helps to heal trauma:

After attempting on his own to work through childhood trauma that continued to affect him as an adult, Ed began seeing a trauma therapist who used an experiential approach to therapy.

As Ed explained to his therapist, he had pervasive feelings of not being lovable his whole life--even now that he had a loving wife, close friends, and a successful career with colleagues who cared about him.  

In other words, there was a disconnect for Ed between what he knew logically and what he felt emotionally, and no matter how much he thought about it, he couldn't reconcile this disconnection, which was frustrating and discouraging for him.

His therapist recommended that they use EMDR therapy to work on Ed's sense of feeling unlovable.  With EMDR, Ed focused on his feelings of being unlovable and, gradually, he worked through much of his history of early trauma related to emotional neglect.  

Over time, as he continued in EMDR therapy, he developed an understanding, both mentally and emotionally, that his feelings of being unlovable developed because his parents were unable to express their love and affection for him. 

He also realized that they were unable to express their love because they grew up in home environments where they also felt unloved and so did their parents (see my article: Psychotherapy and Intergenerational Trauma).

Part of Ed's experience in EMDR therapy included grieving the loss of love he experienced as a child.  He also grieved for his parents' loss and the generations of families before them who also experienced this emotional loss.

Since his trauma therapist integrated EMDR therapy with other types of experiential therapy, like AEDP and Parts Work therapy, Ed's sense of himself changed to being a person that his wife and friends loved.  It was no longer just a thought or concept in his mind--he had a visceral sense of being lovable, which endured for him even after his therapy.

A corrective emotional experience comes in relationship with others--whether it's with someone in your personal life, like a significant other or a close friend or family member, or it's with a psychotherapist where you have a good therapeutic relationship and where you feel cared about.

Many people who have experienced developmental trauma, also known as unresolved childhood trauma, are unable to take in corrective emotional experiences, even when they have people close to them who love them.  

These people might know logically that their loved ones are now providing them with loving experiences that they didn't have when they were children but, due to their unresolved trauma, they're unable to feel it.

Experiential trauma therapy provides an opportunity to work through unresolved trauma and allows individuals to integrate corrective emotional experiences in an embodied way so they can have a new sense of feeling loved and cared about on an emotional level.  

Getting Help in Therapy
There are many people who spend their entire lives trying to overcome a history of trauma on their own without success.  As a result, their trauma continues to have a profound negative impact.

If you have tried on your own to overcome a traumatic history, you're not alone.  Help is available to you (see my article: Overcoming Your Fear of Asking For Help).

If you work with an experiential trauma therapist, you can free yourself from your history so you can live a more fulfilling life. 

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

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.