“…nobody can stand truth if it is told to him. Truth can be tolerated only if you discover it yourself because then, the pride of discovery makes the truth palatable.” -Fritz Perls
Just a few days ago, I was sitting and having coffee with a new colleague who shared my interest and passion for experiential learning. We spent some time talking through our various interventions and ways that we choose to engage those that we work with. While in many ways our approaches differed, they both centered around a central theme. Experience can teach us many things that we may fail to understand from insight alone. The longer I found myself ruminating on this thought, the more that I found I identified with it. I found myself going back to a childhood memory of my mom telling me not to play near some rocks behind our local baseball stadium. She attempted to dissuade me from this several times, but it was only after I fell and hit my head that I had a real and tangible understanding of the danger that she was trying to convey to me. The experience led me to new insight and behavior that words alone could not.
Experiential therapy is just that, facilitating an experience to convey lessons that words alone can not. For this reason, it may be more helpful to think of experiential therapy as a category, rather than a modality itself. Under the umbrella term of experiential therapy, we have numerous practices such as art therapy, music therapy, psychodrama, animal-assisted therapy, and countless others. All of these practices are aimed at facilitating experiences that move us forward. My own niche within this category is wilderness and adventure-based work. While the broad nature of experiential therapy makes it hard to define, it’s essence is truly experience. Rather than limiting ourselves to traditional talk therapy, we are going to engage in experiences that are going to challenge individuals to confront their emotionality, cognitions, and behaviors. With these things at the surface, we’re able to confront them more directly in the moment.
For the better part of my career in mental health, I’ve worked with individuals within the neurodiverse community. This encompasses issues like Autism Spectrum Disorder, Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, impulse control disorders, and many others. As I engaged clients through traditional elements of talk therapy, I could not shake the feeling that these clients struggled to engage in ways that other clients did not. As I came to understand the neurological differences that accompany neurodiversity, it became apparent that somewhere along the way traditional modalities of therapy were not aligning with the strengths and weaknesses of these individuals. For instance, individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder commonly have deficits in verbal processing and struggle with making abstractions in conversation. This means that trying to engage this client through talk therapy actually plays to their deficits rather than strengths.
Ultimately, I felt that the in-office discussions I was having with my clients were too far removed from day-to-day life to do meaningful work. I found myself wanting to work with clients in the moment of their struggles. While making abstractions is difficult for many neurodiverse clients, being coached in the moment utilizes a different skillset. One of my favorite ways to do this is through rock climbing. Rather than teaching deep breathing while sitting in an office, I generally teach it while someone is on the climbing wall. Pacing your breathing is one of the earliest techniques a new climber will learn. Failing to do so will lead to muscle exhaustion and highly inhibit your ability to climb. Therefore, learning deep breathing in the context of this activity allows individuals to do so in a way that is engaging, challenging, goal-oriented, and accomplished through coaching rather than abstraction. While telling someone to breathe in a moment of mental crisis can feel very rote and cliché, generalizing the skill from another activity can help provide meaningful context. When providing those with Autism therapy, this change in facilitation and delivery can make all the difference when it comes to grasping these types of competencies.
This serves as one small example of experiential learning and therefore a very small glimpse of an emerging field within psychotherapy. My own brand of experiential work is very oriented towards providing those with Autism therapy that effectively aligns with their skills and strengths, as well as their needs. For this reason and many more that I will share in future posts, my approach is highly active and aims to engage the body as much as the mind. In this regard, I find it important to note how experiential therapy sets the stage for clinicians to engage and work with clients in new and dynamic ways. As clinicians begin to allow therapy to escape the confines of the office and spill over into real life, we gain the ability to, in the moment, work directly with clients towards achieving their goals.