What is an Experiential Intervention?

The more I do my job, the more I recognize the value of experiential interventions. They are so important to the creation of deep, psychic change. But I find myself wondering: Does the average, non-therapist client know what an experiential intervention actually is? Do you?

Experiential interventions are rooted in experiential therapy, founded by Virginia Satir and Carl Whitaker as one of the earliest models of family therapy. One of my favorite fast facts about experiential therapy is it was developed in part due to dissatisfaction with the limits of Freudian psychology. (Dissent for the win!)

Experiential family therapy is rooted in actively guiding client dyads or triads through emotional conversations so they can experience navigating them differently in the present, with the clinician’s guidance, rather than simply talking about doing it differently in the future, out in the wild. This is where my therapist heart starts to race; this stuff is super exciting.

When I meet with a new client, I refer to experiential interventions as a general category of therapeutic techniques. Other kinds of interventions fall under the categories of cognitive and/or behavioral (such as CBT, psychoeducation, and skill-building), psychoanalysis (which has evolved far from Freud’s version to refer to a more general thoughts-and-feelings talk therapy), trauma-focused (such as EMDR), and humanistic (which, among other things, focused on framing the client as expert and steward over their own mental health while the therapist is primarily a supportive, caring presence). Then there is the integrative category, which, as you may guess, refers to the approach therapists take when they pull from several categories to create their own tailored approach to clinical work. All in all, there is substantial overlap between the various categories, and, in my opinion, most great therapists use a little bit of everything in order to best help their clients.

I use experiential interventions to help facilitate self-awareness and self-compassion within my clients. While it can be helpful to hear clients report about a past emotional event, it is overwhelmingly more informative for me to witness an emotional event in real time. And, most importantly, it is much more informative for the client to pay attention in the moment rather than after the fact. It’s also typically very healing for a client to be guided through some emotional turmoil with an empathic, focused, human presence. Because first and foremost, I am a human. And having a grounded, encouraging, compassionate human sit with you when emotions rise and fall is one of the most healing, powerful experiences we can have. 

So often, we have formative experiences early in life where our emotions rise and fall, and the humans that are physically there do not know how to be empathically, fully present. As a result, we sometimes get the message that we’re not supposed to feel certain emotions or too much emotion, or that we need to quickly look on the bright side or protect other people from our pain. These experiences are relational wounds, and they teach us to hide our emotions from others so we don’t suffer more. 

When a client shows up for a session and emotions start to rise, I am fully aware of how potentially powerful my response can be. I know the odds are that this human I’m sitting with has been trained to hide or minimize their emotions, and likely doesn’t know how to safely explore their own emotional experiences in real time. Experiential interventions allow for those originating relational wounds to be healed; if I show up empathically and with gentle curiosity, clients get to know themselves in their emotional upset in a way they were never quite allowed to early in life. 

See how this can be so fun? See why I love experiential interventions?? Curious to hear about some specific experiential interventions??? Don’t worry – those are coming to a blog near you shortly. In the meantime, I’m so curious: Have you practiced getting curious with your emotions in real time? Tell me all about it in the comments below.

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