Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Is the Concept of Corrective Emotional Experience Still Topical?

Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Is the Concept of Corrective Emotional Experience Still Topical?

Article excerpt

This article gives a historical review of the literature concerned with the role of emotional factors in psychoanalysis. The author then focuses on Alexander's milestone contribution and above all, on the concept he developed of corrective emotional experience. Alexander moves gradually over time from the classical position, which gives insight a place of choice, to a more radical view, in which, the most effective therapeutic factor is represented by the emotional experience within the therapeutic relationship. The article includes a review of the literature relevant to the concept of corrective emotional experience. Finally, Experiential-Dynamic Psychotherapy, a therapeutic approach giving a prominent role to the therapeutic power of corrective emotional experience is considered. Two vignettes from a psychotherapy carried out according to the principles of Experiential-Dynamic Psychotherapy provide examples of how this model is applied clinically.

KEYWORDS: corrective emotional experience; Sàndor Ferenczi; Franz Alexander; Experiential-Dynamic Psychotherapy; real relationship.


In 1924 Ferenczi and Rank published The Development of Psychoanalysis, the essay considered by many to be the cornerstone of the psychoanalytic view that values the role of the emotional experience in therapy. In this book the two authors assert that within the analytical process primacy is not for the remembering, but for the repeating, that is to say the reproducing of the emotional experience in the treatment; it follows that the task of the analyst in session is to stimulate and encourage the repeating of such experiences. Ferenczi and Rank criticize the analytical attitude that favours explanation, theoretical understanding, and genetic reconstruction; in their view the repeating, as an experience that is lived in the session, should take the leading role in analytical treatment. They condemn the interpretative fanaticism of many analysts of their time, who lost sight of the difference between means and aim, with the result that the interpretation, often changed from a means of knowledge of the patient's mental state, into an intellectual exercise. The authors were convinced that their work opened a new phase of psychoanalysis, which they named the "phase of experience" (p. 55-56), and which was focused more on the lived experience than on explanation and intellectual understanding. Ferenczi and Rank considered ineffective the interventions of the analyst focused on the genetic reconstruction, and with regard to them they asserted: "they [the patients] can only convince themselves of the reality of the unconscious when they have experienced [. . .] something analogous to it in the actual analytic situation, that is, in the present" (p. 37). They added that "affects in order to work convincingly must first be revived, that is made actually present" (p. 38). But the fear of veering far from the road mapped out by Freud was great, and Ferenczi and Rank, at one point in the essay, emphasized that remembering remained the final factor that lead to healing.

Before the publication of The Development of Psycho-analysis, Ferenczi (1919a, 1919b, 1921, 1924) introduced the concept of active technique, meaning that the patient, by means of some prescription by the analyst, is induced to assume an active attitude. Ferenczi (1919a), for example, determined well in advance the end of treatment for a patient whose analysis proved to be stagnant; this to motivate her recovery of the analytical work. The main function of the active technique was to reinforce the tendency to repeat through increased emotional activation, and thus encourage "learning" through lived experience rather than through intellectual understanding.

De Forest (1942) and Thompson (1943), Ferenczi's patients and pupils, recognized the originality in their teacher's technique of valuing the human component of the analytical relationship, in which the analyst poses as a fallible human being. …

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