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Experiential psychotherapy is based on the principle that everyone perceives the world differently. Though everyone may share one existence in which there are objective truths, such as gravity and blue skies, experiential psychotherapy states that each individual creates a personal existence with unique experiences. These experiences influence how individuals organize their worlds. When this organization leads to destructive or stagnating patterns, a psychotherapist uses the person’s experiences to change the pattern. This involves understanding and acknowledging the validity of the individual’s perceived existence.
Everyone perceives situations differently. For example, there are two people traveling by car to a vacation spot. A second vehicle cuts them off in traffic, nearly causing an accident. The driver of the first car becomes angry, saying that the person doesn’t know how to drive. The passenger remains calm, saying that perhaps the person is rushing to the hospital to see an injured family member. Both the driver and the passenger experienced the same event, but they perceived it differently. Each individual constructed his or her own experience, which affected how each person reacted to the situation.
Though everyone constructs their own experiences on a regular basis, there are times that this can lead to destructive behavior. Sometimes individuals construct worlds very different from the one that the majority of the population perceives. For instance, a delusional individual might perceive policemen as demons, or see telephone booths as portals to other worlds. In experiential psychotherapy, these perceptions are not necessarily labeled as wrong. Instead, the therapist attempts to understand what made the patient perceive the world this way.
This same method is also used for patients with less severe mental problems. For example, a woman might perceive most men as being brutish and manipulative. Instead of trying to convince her that this is false, a therapist practicing experiential psychotherapy would try to find out what experiences led her to this conclusion.
Once the root of the perception is discovered, the patient can begin to work through the experiences. The woman that perceives men with trepidation may constantly avoid them, which may affect her personal relationships with friends and family. Experiential psychotherapy might help her understand that she sees men this way because she was abused by a man as a child, or because she was emotionally scarred by her first boyfriend. Understanding these experiences as aberrations rather than general truths could help this young woman perceive men differently and form meaningful relationships with them in the future.
Delusional patients may be somewhat more difficult to treat. Individuals that construct such wild experiences as mentioned earlier are often protecting themselves from memories of traumatic experiences. The experiential psychologist may need to interpret this patient’s descriptions to discover why the patient chooses to organize his or her world this way. Once discovered, the therapist can use the vocabulary and imagery from the patient’s world to help him or her work through the trauma and function normally in society.