Therapy is becoming an increasingly accepted form of mental health care in the west, and the world in general. Because of this uptick in therapy demand, more people have had the experience of uncovering where the source of their anxiety, low self-worth, relationship issues, or unhealthy behaviors come from. It might tie back to a wounding family dynamic in childhood, a traumatizing accident, or the experience of being abandoned or betrayed previously in life. Despite this newfound knowledge, people can become frustrated when they have grown in self-awareness but later find that they still struggle with the same anxiety, low self-worth, relationship issues, or unhealthy behaviors. What gives?
There are a number of potential explanations for why this might happen, even after someone has discovered the root of their troubles. One of the most common reasons is that a facts-based knowledge of “why am I like this?” only lives in part of the body - the thinking part.
Imagine your partner just broke up with you unexpectedly. It caught you off guard - now you are left feeling shocked, angry, and hurt. Fortunately, you are lucky enough to have a good friend who you feel like you can turn to in moments like this for support. You call them up on the phone and tell them about what just happened. When you’re finished telling them this story that’s filled you with shock, anger, and hurt, your friend asks questions like, “When did you two start having problems? What happened when you tried to fix the issues? Did you try couples therapy? What was your partner’s explanation? Has anything like this ever happened to you before? What are you going to do now?” How do you imagine you might feel? Part of you might be relieved that your friend was engaged and that they helped you understand your situation a bit better. But part of you might walk away from that conversation feeling like something was missing. You might even walk away feeling confused about why you don’t feel like your friend was very helpful - after all, you two were on the phone for a long time, they did ask a lot of questions, and you know they care about you.
The part of you that would feel a bit disappointed is coming from a valid place. Human minds and bodies are not meant to process information through a purely fact-based lens, although looking at the facts of a situation can be useful at times. An important part of how humans learn is what we call “experiential learning.” Experiential learning is less about facts, and more about how you felt about the facts. One person might receive a sudden break-up with joy, while another would be devastated. Facts aside, what was your emotional experience surrounding what happened?
Therapy users can go through a similar process as described above. They answer their therapist’s questions and get to the root of the issue, but the emotional experience stays the same. When the emotional experience stays the same, all the facts and information in the world don't seem to help. In fact, some people feel worse because they wonder why they are still struggling. If this is you, you might consider trying experiential therapy.
Experiential therapy is less about learning facts or discovering root causes. It’s less about homework and tools. It is more about re-processing the feelings that surround an experience. Those feelings might be hidden beneath layers of circular thinking, distractions, and frustration that you still seem to be stuck. When you relive a painful experience with a therapist who you feel safe with, you do more than just talk about it from a factual perspective. You might feel as though a part of you is reliving that painful memory. A good therapist will be with you through those painful parts of experiential therapy to provide you with the support and compassion that was likely missing those times when you needed it most. This process creates a change that’s not just knowledge-based but can actually help you achieve the emotional shift that you have been looking for.
It can be tough to face uncomfortable emotions that have been generally avoided, but many clients report experiencing breakthroughs in experiential therapy that previous therapy didn’t help them get to. Experiential therapy has solid research support that shows it can benefit people with a wide variety of challenges, including couples who are wanting to improve their relationship. If you’re feeling fairly aware of the “why” but are still struggling with the “what now?,” experiential therapy might be an important step in your journey of healing. Find experiential therapists by reaching out to a therapist at Mettarel, or by filtering for them on websites such as PsychologyToday.
1. Johnson, S. & Greenberg, L. (1985). “The Differential Effects of Experiential and Problem Solving Interventions in Resolving Marital Conflict.” Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 53, 175-184