© Silvia Camastral
It is a technique that therapists claim touches people's lives deeply and intimately.
Treatment proceeds by providing clients with a combination of knowledge and experience. To utilise one without the other is incomplete therapy. Many treatment centres and therapists do an excellent job of imparting knowledge but films, lectures, and readings can provide enough information so that people go home 'knowing' the dynamics of their problems, addictions or co-dependencies. But it is not enough to hand a client a book or handout and say, 'Read this, and be better.' It doesn't work because it is all information and little emotional healing.
Experiential therapy blends therapies like Gestalt and family therapy with models like sculpture and role-plays. The purpose is to enact or re-enact the emotional climate of the family of origin and/or other past and present significant relationships in a person's life. In re-experiencing these events and relationships, one is able to release the emotions that may have been blocked and repressed. The goal is to free a person from the unresolved emotions around relationships so that s/he is able to live in the present. By re-experiencing the emotional climate of the family, anger, shame, hurt, rage, guilt, fear, etc., can finally be expressed, released, and healed, making room for feelings of love, hope, inner peace, and forgiveness.
Some people have locked a whole set of emotions into a closet, to be hidden from all, to be forgotten by themselves. Frequent occupants of these locked closets are anger, loneliness, inadequacy, hurt, guilt, fear or sadness. They form almost a mob of feelings demanding attention. Feelings are facts. Feelings have a right to exist.
Reality is intolerant of denial. When feelings are repressed, they demand attention in devious ways. The emotional connection between stress and stomach problems is common knowledge. Research is showing more and more that the whole person becomes ill, not just part of the person. Consequently, emotions are similar to muscles-if you don't use them, you lose them.
Experiential therapy offers emotional alternatives and clarity about new behaviours. One goal of therapy is to re-experience an old event in which the accompanying emotions were not expressed at the time. The re-experience can be an opportunity to feel those feelings now, work through them now and defuse them once and for all. The accompanying emotional pain is no longer repressed and allowed to fester, unconsciously affecting a person's experience of life.
Feelings that clients are encouraged to re-experience include anger, inadequacy, jealousy, loss, grief, and shame. In the re-experience, they are able to let the pain go, and relief begins. New feelings that are unfamiliar and often scary are feelings of contentment, serenity, hope, trust, excitement, gratitude, and joy. It is important to lead clients to these new feelings. Too often, therapy only deals with pain.
In therapy, people begin to heal these feelings for the first time, self-esteem blossoms. Through interaction with others and through expressing both old and new feelings, we provide a means for people to develop the ability to trust, as well as insight leading to new choices and a sense of inner comfort.
Experiential therapy may offer some people the opportunity to re-experience forgotten or repressed parts of their lives that may have been unavailable to them for a long period of time. For others, experiential therapy may provide the first opportunity to feel some feelings. Either way, by gaining the experience, they acquire the means to better cope with life. They are ready then to learn new experiences they can use to continue on the road to growth and recovery.
These experiences may be gained in group work: several organisations in Australia offer courses that provide an opportunity for personal growth using these techniques.
Silvia Camastral is a process-oriented psychotherapist with over 20 years of counselling experience.
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