Experiential Therapy and Family Systems

Dr. Hillary Goldsher, Psy.D, MBA

Theravive Counseling

Clinical Psychologist

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A solid theory of psychotherapeutic practice provides a framework that guides the interventions, thoughts, and actions of psychologists during the therapeutic process. Such theories can serve as a roadmap for therapists to follow during the complex journey into the psyche of another human being. There are a myriad of valid therapeutic orientations that exist in the arena of clinical psychology. Each theory regards the role of the therapist and the thoughts, behaviors, and emotions of individuals in a very distinct and unique manner.

Experiential therapy is a theoretical orientation that has been researched and utilized extensively. The origin of this theory can be traced back to the humanistic-existential theory of human beings. Ludwig Binswanger is credited with bringing the concepts of existential and phenomenological thought into the field of psychology. Binswanger was a psychiatrist who had strong misgivings regarding Freud’s theories of human beings. As a result of his dissatisfaction with the limitations of Freudian theory, Binswanger began to search outside of the existing arena of psychological theories for alternative models to explain the thoughts and behavior of individuals (Mahrer, 1983).

The primary tenet of experiential therapy revolves around the notion of experiencing. Experiencing is regarded as the primary vehicle towards achieving therapeutic change. The theory suggests that human beings are made up of “potentials for experiencing” (Mahrer, 1996). These potentials encompass inner ways of being of which all individuals are capable. Potentials for experiencing do not include specific behaviors or feelings. Although specific emotions or actions may accompany a particular state of being, it is considered separate from this critical notion of potentials for experiencing. In this framework, an individual is in a constant state of being that defines their experiences in the world. For example, a person can be drawn to, be controlling, be attacked, be confident, be honest etc. Operating potentials do things in and to the external world that facilitate certain circumstances, occurrences, and relationships that enables the kind of experiences that are important for each individual to have in this lifetime. There is a second level of experiencing within the experiential theory known as deeper potentials. Deeper potentials represent states of being that are even further from the consciousness of individuals. These states of being are more elusive and complex than the operating potentials. The theory suggests that the relationship between operating potentials and deeper potentials may be contemptuous. Focusing exclusively on operating potentials allows individuals to suppress and avoid deeper potentials. Exploring deeper potentials may be anxiety provoking due to their unknown and complex nature. Operating potentials often surface in an effort to stave off deeper potentials that may cause discomfort and fear (Mahrer, 1996). However, overcoming this dynamic is a critical part of the therapy as the suppression of deeper potentials can interfere with meaningful and desired therapeutic change. The axis of change model was developed as a way to describe how experiential therapy produces change in individuals. The model highlights therapeutic experiences that often lead to significant transformations during the therapeutic process. The first area consists of the accumulation of insight and understanding. Experiential theorists recognize that the acquisition of meaningful insight and understanding often furthers therapeutic change. Another part of the axis of change model focuses on the modification of behavioral contingencies. Therapeutic change is promoted upon uncovering alternative and more adaptive responses to one’s environment (Mahrer, 1983).

It is critical to explore how experiential therapy is utilized in the context of psychotherapy in order to fully appreciate how the theory is applied. Therapy is regarded as a vehicle that enables an individual to become the kind of person he or she can become rather than as a resource to help decrease problems and symptoms. Experiential therapists focus on the possibilities and potential of each client. Experiential therapists guide their clients to enhance the way that they relate to and think and feel about the outside world. They strive to help clients uncover their individual potential in order to facilitate a more fulfilling and authentic life. In experiential therapy, the goals, objectives, and directions of change are guided by the therapist. However, the client is not a passive participant. Indeed, the client is actively involved in the process as the primary “experiencer”. This role requires the client to fully engage during each session and to offer input to the therapist about the treatment process. The first aspect of the therapeutic process often deals with emphasizing existing potentials for experiencing. This process seeks to highlight whatever the individual has available to experience in the present. The goal is to guide the client to bring these potentials to the surface so they may be experienced more deeply (Mahrer, 1996). The therapist may facilitate this by helping the client express himself more fully, identify bodily sensations related to current experiencing and minimize factors that impede full experiencing. If successful over time, the therapist begins to direct the client to explore and experience deeper potentials. The triumphant release of deeper potentials brings about being and behavioral changes within the therapeutic setting. The ultimate goal is to facilitate changes in the individual that can exist and flourish outside of the therapy room.

Experiential therapists utilize the phenomenological paradigm to guide this therapeutic process. This process begins with guiding the client to focus on a meaningful center. The meaningful center typically represents the core of the client’s problem. Examples of meaningful centers include being a perpetual loser, being afraid of social interaction, and the way that one’s mother looks at them (Mahrer, 1983). Focusing attention on a meaningful center directs the patient to minimize role-relationship problems and to enhance the patient’s sense of choice and responsibility. Minimizing role-relationship problems encourages the client to refrain from focusing on the therapist/patient relationship and to maintain attention on a meaningful center. Enhancing the client’s opportunity to make decisions about the course of therapy gives the client an opportunity to choose a direction of change. Direction of change represents the course that the client chooses to follow in the context of therapy. A core belief associated with experiential therapy revolves around the notion that the client’s responsibility for this choice subsequently becomes an integral part of the client’s psychological makeup.

During this process, the therapist employs a technique known as experiential listening. Experiential listening encourages the therapist to attend to what is occurring in his/her phenomenological world (Mahrer, 1983). As the patient talks, the therapist focuses on images, feelings, and bodily sensations that emerge in the mind of the therapist. This process necessarily takes the therapist’s focus away from the client. The words and sentiments of the client seep into the heart and mind of the therapist. This process allows the therapist to get in touch with deeper experiences that are outside of the patient’s awareness. In this way, the therapist is used as a vehicle to collect these experiences and bring them to the consciousness of the individual or the family.

The experiential theory of psychotherapy does not directly address the issue of diversity. It appears that cultural and ethnic differences are not taken into account in the development of overall treatment plans or general interventions in the context of this model. While this omission may appear to be an oversight, it can potentially be explained by reviewing the basic tenets of the theory. The crux of this theory is based on the experiencing of oneself or of a family unit in a full and authentic manner. The nature of the experiencing comes from within. Although the experiencing process itself is significantly impacted by the cultural background of an individual or family, the process used by the therapist may not be dependent on cultural factors. Regardless of race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation, the therapist will encourage every client to open themselves up to experiencing and to discover behavior and cognitive processes that are adaptive to the external world. However, there is an argument to be made that the therapist could or should modify the utilization of the theory based on the background of individuals. Members of various religious or ethnic groups may not respond positively to the idea that the world is absurd and even unjust. Members of certain ethnic groups that disapprove of overt expressions of emotion may have a difficult time opening up to the notion of experiencing. Men may require an approach that includes more concrete concepts while women may want more direction from the therapist. More research is needed to determine if the effectiveness of experiential therapy is impacted by cultural issues.

The experiential approach is often used to facilitate meaningful changes in individuals. It can also be utilized in the psychotherapeutic treatment of families. Carl Whitaker has written extensively on the topic of integrating experiential therapy with family therapy. His work reveals how the tenets of the experiential model can be successfully applied to clinical settings with families. Experiential therapy emphasizes the importance of the relationship between the therapist and the family. The experiential therapist seeks to create a personal connection with the family, rather than remaining aloof or appearing unreachable. The therapist immediately and clearly establishes the parameters and conditions of treatment. The parameters communicate boundaries to the family regarding the role of the therapist. The therapist serves as a coach and guide for the family. The therapist does not seek to become a member of the family or to take personal responsibility for the family. In fact, the therapist seeks to maintain distance from the family in order to maintain a full view of the family as one unit. It is critical that the experiential therapist maintain an ability to both join with the family and to individuate from them (Whitaker, 1988). The therapist views this dynamic as an important component to successful therapy and successful living. The therapist communicates the importance of the family’s commitment to hard work during the therapeutic process. The family is made to understand that therapy itself is not a cure. Experiential theorists believe that meaningful change will come from the hard work of the family under the tutelage of the psychologist. The therapist is not the central figure around which the family focuses in the therapeutic process. Rather, the therapist positions himself as a separate entity that is coaching the family unit. The therapist feels comfortable and justified in pushing the family due to the innate belief that the family has unlimited potential to grow. The therapist is very straightforward and direct with his responses and often confronts members of the family in an effort to expose truths. The therapist works hard to ensure that the family operates as a unit in the therapeutic setting. The therapist identifies the entire family as the patient, rather than focusing on one particular individual as the source of the family discord. The therapist deliberately avoids focusing on the individual problems of specific family members in a manner that suggests that the resolution to these problems will heal the family. The therapist seeks to present a broader picture to the family regarding their experiencing of the world both as individuals and as a family. The therapist encourages the family to fully connect with how they experience the world and to gain insight regarding how these perceptions influence their thoughts, behaviors, and interactions. These insights become the basis for meaningful, therapeutic change within the family.

Thus, the primary role of the experiential therapist in the therapeutic setting is to create experiences for the family from which the family can learn and grow. The therapist urges the family to express their potentials of experiencing by describing how they experience themselves, eachother, and the family unit in the external world. This focus facilitates a discussion about family and individual roles and can often produce some important insights into expectations, disappointments, and desires that each family member experiences. The therapist guides the discussions and pushes the family to develop resolutions. As the family delves deeper into individual and family dynamics, the therapist directs the family to consider deeper potentials. These difficult discussions seek to get at the core of the family discord and reveal the deep pains and wounds that exist within the family and about the uncertainty of the external world. The therapist attempts to help the family understand that they exist in an uncertain, complex, and unfair world. Whitaker encourages families to confront this difficult truth about the world. In doing so, he often employs the use of humor to underscore the unpredictable and crazy nature of the external world in which all human beings exist. He suggests that incorporating a sense of humor regarding such uncertainties helps to minimize the tension that uncertainty can create. He further suggests that humor and teasing during the process of family therapy can facilitate more open and honest communication amongst the family. Whitaker purposely guides families to engage in absurd and whimsical discussions in the therapy room. He believes that such discussions help the family to temporarily transcend the intensity of living and to be free to play in a world of possibilities (Whitaker, 1988). The family is encouraged to increase their tolerance for the absurdity and ambiguity of life. This perspective and levity often helps families endure past and future pains which previously felt unbearable (Whitaker, 1988).

In the vignette, Laura’s family is experiencing a tremendous amount of pain as a family unit and as individual members of the family. As an experiential therapist, it would be critical to establish a connection with the family by displaying a personable demeanor and building rapport. It would also be important to communicate the role of the therapist in the therapeutic process. I would tell the family that my role is to act as a coach to guide the family to develop solutions and a greater understanding of themselves, eachother, and the world around them. I would inform the family that therapy is not a cure, but rather a place where the family can work hard to find a better way to function as a family unit. I would encourage each family member to refrain from identifying any one person as the identified patient, but rather to see the whole family unit as the patient. I would urge each member of the family to expand their view regarding the presenting problems of the family to include more deeply entrenched issues. Rather than focusing on Laura’s social phobia, I would ask the family to consider expanding their view of the family dynamics and experiences that led to the development of Laura’s social phobia. This could include the collective feeling of abandonment that the family feels due to the departure of the father figure, the hypervigilance and emotional instability of Amanda, and the disconnection of Tom from the family. I would encourage the family to tap into their potentials for experiencing in order to immerse themselves fully into their feelings, thoughts, and sensations. I would eventually guide them to access their deeper potentials where fears about the unjust and uncertain world we live in lie. I would employ the technique of experiential listening in order to open myself up to dynamics and experiences that are outside the awareness of the family. As they experienced these powerful thoughts and emotions, it is likely that insight regarding their own behavior within the family unit and in the world around them would surface. As this process unfolded, I would inject humor into the therapeutic setting in order to promote a sense of levity that would encourage the family to communicate more openly and to confront the absurdity of the external world. During this process, the family may be able to arrive at a clearer and deeper understanding regarding the motivation behind certain actions and emotions of the family members. Laura may discover that her social phobia is related to her inability to control the external world. Laura was unable to control her father’s choice to leave the family. She is also unable to manage her mother’s extreme emotional states or her brother’s absence from the family. Social interactions create another environment in which Laura cannot control the outcome. This understanding may help Laura focus on the deeper issues associated with her anxieties which are more closely related to the uncertainty of the world around her, rather than to the specific circumstances she encounters on a daily basis. Amanda may discover that her intense emotions are also a response to the uncertainty about the world around her. Tom will likely uncover that his tendency to escape from the family is due to his fear of confronting emotions that are related to uncertainties about the world. Facing the emotions of his family members would force him to confront his own fears. These individual and familial insights could lead to a greater awareness amongst the family of the deeply held fears that all individuals hold about the ambiguity in the external world. I would direct them to consider that dysfunctional thoughts or behaviors within the family may be related to underlying anxiety associated with the world around them rather than with eachother. With this insight and understanding, I would urge them to adopt alternative ways of relating to eachother and to the external world. I would confront their tendencies to blame eachother and focus on one another’s shortcomings. Instead, I would redirect them to focus on their state of being as they reflect on their place in their family and in the world. The process of experiencing will lead the family to develop more adaptive approaches to communication and family functioning. I would look for the presence of these more adaptive responses during family interactions and emphasize my observations to the family so they become more conscious of the changes. Over time, this process will allow each family member to gain new insight and understanding into their behaviors. This new awareness will help the family employ new approaches to relationships with the world, themselves, and eachother outside of the therapeutic environment.

Experiential therapy is one of a number of therapeutic approaches that are successfully used to treat families. Solution-focused brief therapy is an alternative approach that is quite different from the experiential approach. SFBT is a short term goal focused therapeutic approach which directs clients to focus on developing solutions, rather than on dwelling on problems. The model suggests that therapy should focus on change promoting behavior rather than on the cause of the problem or how one feels about the problem. SFBT is very future oriented as it directs the client to establish clear goals and create strategies to accomplish these objectives. This model does not encourage an exploration of relationships or emotions associated with disappointments, stressors, or unfulfilled desires. Rather, the therapists’ role is to help distill the presenting problem down to its simplest form and facilitate the development of a concrete resolution. Within the context of family therapy, the therapist would direct the family to agree on the outstanding problems and encourage the development of a mutually agreed upon solution (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 1990).

This approach differs greatly from the experiential approach. The experiential approach specifically asks clients to experience being in the present which is in sharp contrast to the future oriented nature of SFBT. The experiential approach also urges the client to uncover deeper potentials which often represent painful emotions, fears, and anxieties about oneself, relationships, or being in the world. Conversely, SFBT encourages clients to ignore unconscious thoughts and feelings and to focus attention and energy on the future. The role of the therapist in the therapeutic setting of each model is quite different. In experiential therapy, the therapist pushes the clients to confront issues and actively coaches clients to explore emotions. The therapist does not offer solutions, but rather encourages the client to find their own answers during the therapeutic process. The role of the therapist in SFBT is to keep the clients singularly focused on finding solutions to current problems. The therapist redirects clients away from emotions and towards solutions. One similarity between the two models is that both the SFBT and experiential therapist act as coaches to the family unit. Although the content of their discussions greatly differ, they both position themselves as guides to the client.

The experiential model encourages clients to experience the full range of thoughts, feelings, and emotions in order to develop more adaptive and productive ways of being in the world. It is one of many psychotherapeutic approaches that are employed by psychologist in the treatment setting. The effectiveness of this treatment is likely dependent on the individual client and the specific demeanor and approach that the experiential therapist utilizes. In many ways, the effectiveness of various psychotherapeutic techniques remains subjective as its success is highly dependent on the personal assessment of the client and the therapist.


Goldenberg, I. & Goldenberg, H. (1990). Family Therapy An Overview. Pacific Grove, CA. Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

Mahrer, A.R. (1983). Experiential Psychotherapy:Basic Practices. New York, New York. Brunner/Mazel Publishers.

Mahrer, A.R. (1995). The Complete Guide to Experiential Pschotherapy. New York. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Whitaker, C.A. & Bumberry, W.M. (1988). Dancing with the Family A Symbolic Experiential Approach. New York, New York. Brunner/Mazel Publishers.

Visit the author at: www.drhillarygoldsher.com

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