Introduction to A Mythical Family: How to Do Experiential Psychotherapy

By Mahrer, Alvin R. | American Journal of Psychotherapy, July 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Introduction to A Mythical Family: How to Do Experiential Psychotherapy


Mahrer, Alvin R., American Journal of Psychotherapy


Experiential psychotherapy is generally accepted as one of the major families of psychotherapy. One of the main purposes of this introduction to the theme issue is to invite leading proponents and exponents to provide their own answers to the question of how to do experiential psychotherapy, with the emphasis on what would be helpful to students, trainees, and practitioners somewhat familiar with the approach. A second main purpose is to make a case that the very idea of an " experiential family" is a myth. There is no such thing as an "experiential family" of psychotherapies. There are not distinctively common family characteristics.

The main purpose of this theme issue is to provide some answers to this question: "How do you do experiential psychotherapy?" Picture a trainee or a practitioner who says to one of the authors of this issue that she is a little familiar with the author's therapy, and would like to know more about how to do the author's experiential psychotherapy.

The main purpose of this introduction is to make a case that there is no such thing as an "experiential family" of psychotherapies. It does not exist. It is an illusion, a collectively held myth that has essentially no distinguishing or identifying characteristics except perhaps for a number of psychotherapies sharing the phrase "experiential psychotherapy".

ORIGINS OF THE PHRASE "EXPERIENTIAL PSYCHOTHERAPY"

I believe that the phrase was first introduced, in a formal and substantial way, in the 1950s and 1960s to refer to the unique psychotherapy of Carl Whitaker, John Warkentin, Thomas Malone, and Richard Felder (Malone, Whitaker, Warkentin, & Felder, 1961; Whitaker, Felder, Malone, & Warkentin, 1962; Whitaker & Malone, 1953, 1969).

In what seems to be a separate stream, with no apparent citations to one another, the phrase was also introduced, in the 1960s and 1970s, as the explicit approach of Eugene Gendlin (e.g., 1961,1963, 1973, 1974), whose writings were cast within the larger Rogerian framework.

I tried to cobble together a way of thinking about (Mahrer, 1989) and doing psychotherapy from the middle 1950s to the middle 1990s. Calling it "experiential psychotherapy" (Mahrer, 1996/2004) was (a) a respectful salute to Gendlin's sensitive descriptions of how and why psychotherapeutic change can occur, and a friendly acknowledgement of the unabashedly bold and brash methods featured by Whitaker, Warkentin, Malone, and Felder. Calling it experiential psychotherapy was also (b) a poor choice because I did not use the methods of Whitaker, Warkentin, Malone, and Felder and because my experiential psychotherapy was quite different from Gendlin's-even though mine followed, was inspired by, learned from, benefited from, and has high regard for Gendlin's pioneering experiential psychotherapy.

A WEAK CASE ON BEHALF OF A FAMILY OF EXPERIENTIAL PSYCHOTHERAPIES

Is there any basis for thinking in terms of a family of experiential psychotherapies, for believing such a family exists, that there are family characteristics that bind these therapies together and distinguish them from other psychotherapies?

(a) The field acts as if there really is something called a family of experiential psychotherapies. It is common to organize the field into families such as cognitive, psychodynamic, humanistic, integrative, and experiential psychotherapies. If the field thinks of families of psychotherapy, and one of these is an "experiential family", then there must be something called a family of experiential psychotherapies. This is in accord with the public relations principle that if enough people keep saying it is true, then it is true. Of course what is rarely put on the table is convincing evidence for and against the existence of experiential psychotherapies, but that doesn't seem to matter much.

(b) There are a number of therapies that formally use the word "experiential" in their title, or that publicly acknowledge that they belong to a larger "experiential family". …

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