Experiential Therapy

Experiential therapy is a broad term that is applied to a collection of therapies that focus on the client’s experiencing during and outside of therapy, which means being aware of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and other subjective experiences that occur in the moment, and ultimately expressing them.

Experiential therapies include Carl Rogers’s client-centered therapyOpens in new window, existential therapyOpens in new window, and Gestalt therapyOpens in new window, each of which originated in the 1940s and 1950s.

An assumption behind experiential therapy is that humans are self-aware and reflective and have unique ways of experiencing the world. The two primary foci of experiential therapy are experiencing, as described earlier, and the importance of the therapist-client relationship in facilitating change in the client, particularly, the ability that the empathic and validating therapist has to encourage the client’s experiencing (Gendlin, 1964).

Experiential therapy involves a variety of techniques centered around experiencing. For instance, clients are encouraged to feel their present feelings deeply and to express these feelings in therapy (e.g., crying, expressing anger).

Clients are encouraged to self-reflect and introspect, becoming aware of both transient experiences (e.g., perceptions, feelings) and more long-lasting characteristics of oneself such as values, constructs and the like.

More modern versions of experiential therapy have developed, particularly that of Greenberg and his colleagues (e.g., Greenberg, Rice, & Elliot, 1993), who, in addition to emphasizing the traditional cores of earlier experiential therapies (experiencing, importance of the therapeutic relationship), also stress the importance of emotion in human functioning. Emotions are viewed as being central to the well-being of persons and as related to people’s abilities to solve problem, change, and function in general.

Experiential therapy has been used to treat a variety of psychiatric conditions, including eating disorders, anxietyOpens in new window, cOpens in new window, substance use, borderline personality disorderOpens in new window, and depressionOpens in new window. It may also be used with children, in altered form.

See also:
  1. Greenberg, L.S., Watson, J. C., & Lietaer, G. (Eds.). (1998). Handbook of experiential psychotherapy. New York: Guilford.
  2. Gendlin, E.T. (1964). A theory of personality change. In P. Worched & D. Byrne (Eds.), Personality change (pp. 102 – 148). New York: John Wiley.
  3. Greenberg, L.S., Rice, L. N., & Elliot, R. (1993). Facilitating emotional change: The moment-by-moment process. New York: Guilford