Experiential therapies, what they are and what they consist of

Experiential therapies, what they are and what they consist of

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Experiential therapies have developed thanks to existential humanist models. These approaches like those that come from the European existential phenomenological tradition and those that started from the American phenomenon of humanistic psychology.


  • 1 Origin of Experiential Therapy
  • 2 Characteristics of experiential therapies
  • 3 Historical trajectory of experiential therapies

Origin of Experiential Therapy

These models group a series of approaches:

  • From differentiated evolution, although parallel.
  • They influence each other, but
  • each approach very clearly safeguards its identity and differentiation from the others,
  • their development is more technical - we clearly look for practical intervention responses - than theoretical - they are not interested in developing a psychological megateoria about human functioning.

Experiential models emerged from the need to build a psychology from the study of work with the healthy person, and not from people with severe neurosis or psychosis.

Experiential models propose to stop thinking in terms of illness, whether present or future, to start conceiving life in terms of an update or realization of biopsychosocial potentials.

Thus, the humanist attitude conceives man as capable of a balanced behavior in a spontaneous way that leads him to fullness, development, freedom, independence and full realization.

In fact, this attitude arose in the sixties as opposition to three elements:

  1. The dominant current of the industrial society American and the specific type of thought it produces, which imposes goals and ends beyond man's natural interests.
  2. The evaluative and diagnostic attitude of classical psychology, and its use for social control.
  3. Freudian pessimism and the cold objectivism of behaviorism. His approach was as an antidote to the psychological currents of the time, which man perceived in a pessimistic and mechanical way.

As background of the humanist movement and, therefore, also of experiential therapies we find the following:

  • The phenomenological psychiatry of Jaspers, who tried to empathize with the subjective experiences of the mentally ill through a thorough description of their psychopathological pictures.
  • Binswanger's existential analysis, which addressed the analysis of psychopathology from the perspective that was a deviation from the fact of being in the world, that is, the way we position ourselves before the responsibility of existing and being free.
  • Frankl Logotherapy, whose position advocates that the therapist's task is to help the patient find meaning in his life.

Although it is currently described by many as naive, at the time the humanist movement allowed to group around its ideas a considerable group of thinkers, who gave ideological support to the social movements of the sixties and seventies in the United States, to extend later throughout the western civilization.

Characteristics of experiential therapies

Experiential models give a vision of man as being unique and different, endowed with a project and in search of meanings that give some importance in your life.

Within the humanist movement there is an important approach, it is the transactional analysis of E. Berna, which had a great development and many applications in the seventies and eighties with the analysis of the script of life, games and transactions.

This approach consists of five levels of analysis:

  1. Structural analysis, which is based on the conceptualization of the three states of the self (father, adult, child), tries to get the client to detect their states of the predominant self and the internal dynamics among themselves.
  2. Transaction Analysis, which deals with the study of communication and the exchange of messages from the state of self from one subject to another, which allows us to understand certain types of communication failures.
  3. Game analysis, which includes the study of hidden transactions intended to manipulate others.
  4. Script analysis, which aims to study the most entrenched behavior patterns, related to a kind of paternal programming that occurs in childhood.
  5. Development analysis (similar to psychoanalytic), which focuses on the identification of parental programmer messages.

We can highlight as more significant approaches of the experiential models the following:

  • Customer-centered psychotherapy, by Carl Rogers.
  • Gestalt psychotherapy, by Fritz Perls.
  • The psychodrama, of Moreno.
  • The body and energy therapies.

The great importance they give to emotion as an essential element to work therapeutically is one of the characteristics that define experiential models. In fact they use many technical resources to evoke it, since they consider that there is only a stable and lasting change in the functioning of a person if the intervention (cognitive, behavioral or emotional) somehow activates emotional schemes. To do this, in the laboratory situation that is the therapy of perceptual experiential experiments they create, start up the emotion and help to reshape the experience of the behavior, cognitively, emotionally and relational, which gives more flexibility and freedom in the person.

Historical trajectory of experiential therapies

During the decade that goes from the end of the eighties to the end of the nineties, the experiential approach was a bit on the side, while the cognitive component experienced a great expansion. But rescued from a more systematized position (Greenberg, Rice and Elliot, 1993), it returns to take relevance in the therapeutic space, especially integrates cognitive and constructivist aspects and gives a main relevance to the theme of emotion as an instrument that enhances change.


Experiential models give a lot of value to the experience and everything that accompanies it, perception, sensation, emotion, cognition and behavior, and grant unlike other models that take more into account thoughts and behavior, the same importance to all these elements.

Experiential therapies are intervention modalities that they try to strengthen in people the ability to decide freely and responsibly who they are and how they position themselves before reality, without the past, future, norms or expectations interfering with the decision.


Gimeno-Bayón, A., and Rosal, R. (2001). Integrative humanistic psychotherapy. Bilbao: Descleé de Brouwer.

Greenberg, L. S., Rice, L. N., and Elliot, R. (1993). Facilitating emotional change. Barcelona: Paidós, 1996.

Greenberg, L., i Paivio, S. (1999). Work with emotions in psychotherapy. Barcelona: Paidós, 2000.


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