A form of depth psychotherapy developed by Karl A. Whitaker and Thomas P. Malone (1953), in which the patient achieves greater maturity largely through sharing fundamental emotional experiences with the therapist.The experiential approach is based on the psychoanalytic distinction between id psychology and ego psychology. Id psychology has to do with primitive biological drives—the blind, impersonal instincts of sex and hostility from which all behavior is believed to spring. Ego psychology, on the other hand, deals with that part of the psyche, the ego, which mediates between the id and the external environment, and which controls our relationships with other people. Early psychoanalysis focused on the id, and experiential psychotherapy returns to this emphasis. It is a form of “id level therapy” which attempts to promote the basic growth and maturity of the patient by reaching the deepest strata of the unconscious. The authors of the system maintain that this is necessary before the individual can free his basic energies from conflict and achieve greater adequacy in his interpersonal relations.In attempting to achieve this goal, the therapist operates on an emotional level rather than on the level of analysis. To get to the roots of the patient’s experience, he must see the patient as his own child-self and therefore deal with him as a projection of himself. The patient is encouraged to express his fantasies, and the therapist seeks to share them with him. The more they share these experiences, the more deeply they become emotionally involved in the therapeutic experience, until the two, patient and therapist, are responding directly to each other’s unconscious. In other words, they go through the therapeutic experience together, and “the therapist, seeing the patient as part of himself and the experience as a means of satisfying his own deeper integrative needs, has a feeling of growing significance and urgency to accelerate the growth of the patient” (Harper,1959).But how do patient and therapist descend to the id level and come in contact with each other’s unconscious? How do they achieve a “joint fantasy experience”? Although Whitaker and Malone do not present a set of specific procedures, they suggest several ways of facilitating this process. One is to eliminate the world of external reality as much as possible by refraining from talking with the patient’s family or physician and from discussing his real life problems. The telephone is cut off and in general the therapeutic experience is isolated from every possible intrusion. Another procedure is to use materials such as clay and rubber knives to stimulate fantasy and symbolic expression, as in the play therapy technique. A third is for both patient and therapist to sleep and dream during the therapeutic session, and then to relate their dreams to each other. In some cases, too, the patient is allowed to become aggressive and to come into physical contact with the therapist. Through these and other means they become involved with each other in an “intrapsychic society.”How, then, does the therapist accelerate the growth of the patient? The answer, according to Whitaker and Malone, is that the therapist not only sees the patient as his own child-image, but also presents himself in the role of a good parent who brings his own constructive experiences to bear on the patient. At the start he shows the patient that he understands the inner symbolic meaning of what he does and says by maintaining an understanding silence. This is believed to encourage the patient to penetrate below the surface of his own words and actions and arrive at a deeper, unconscious meaning through experience.The therapist gives the patient approval and encouragement by showing that he is aware of his maturities as well as his immaturities. At the same time he reassures him by revealing his own limitations and immaturities, but without permitting the patient to capitalize on his deficiencies. He also enables the patient to act out his unconscious fantasies and release the energy which has been bound up in them. Later on, in the “ending phase,” the therapist encourages the patient to test his more mature reactions by gradually rejecting the therapist as the symbolic parent and by moving toward autonomy and independence.Experiential therapy has been severely criticized, notably by Wolf and Schwartz (1958-59), who claim that in adopting this procedure the therapist cuts himself and the patient off from reality and becomes deeply involved in the patient’s pathological reactions. The technique also assumes that the therapist can actually descend not only to a level where he is in touch with his own instinctual unconscious, but that he can achieve an unspoken communication with the patient’s id impulses as well. As Harper points out, “Such activities by their very nature tend to rule out the application of the rational tools of science. We must, however, add a further factor. It is quite apparent that much of the work undertaken by Whitaker and Malone is with very sick persons, for the most part psychotics. A rational realistic approach is considerably less effective with a person who has renounced rationality and has escaped from reality than with a neurotic who is simply exhibiting various self- defeating patterns of reality. Understood in this sense, experiential therapy may be a necessary therapeutic departure from rationality for the purpose ofmeeting and helping the psychotic in his own world of unreality.” See DIRECT ANALYSIS, BLEULER.

Cite this page: Nugent, Pam M.S., "EXPERIENTIAL THERAPY," in PsychologyDictionary.org, November 28, 2018, https://psychologydictionary.org/experiential-therapy/ (accessed January 20, 2019).