What is the Difference Between Conventional Talk Psychotherapy and Experiential Psychotherapy?

As Laura shared her story with me, her eyes filled with tears. Recognizing an emotion, I invited her to slow down and pay attention to the feeling of sadness in her body. She stopped speaking and focused inward. As she did, the sadness increased allowing her tears to flow freely, unencumbered by conflict, as I sat quietly with her.

Soon the wave of Laura's sadness passed. I then gently directed her to stay focused on what was happening in her body now that the sadness had been released. After about 30 seconds, she looked up at me with bright-eyes. “I feel calmer now,” she said. “I really was a very sad child,” Laura reported with newfound insight, clarity, self-compassion and recognition for how her parents’ difficulties had affected her.

Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to become a psychoanalyst — like Freud. And that is exactly what I did. And then I learned of an entirely new way of working where the focus was not only on helping a person gain insight, but also on fostering a lasting and deeply healing experience.

I first heard about this new way of working at a conference on emotions and attachment. It was there that I watched videos showing therapists skillfully and gently guiding patients into their emotions by focusing on the physical sensations that came along with each emotion. Fascinated, I had never seen anything like it. Since that time, experiential methods have become my focus. I am now certified (and even supervise therapists in training) in an experiential form of psychotherapy called AEDP: Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy. Whereas in my analytic work I was taught to listen passively to my patients (or clients, depending on what word you prefer), experiential work is more directed. I typically say, “I am interested in everything you have to say AND I am wondering if we could slow way down to notice what you are experiencing as you share with me how your boss criticized you, for example. This type of intervention helps a person recognize not only the thoughts in their mind, but also what they are experiencing below the neck.

Experiential work like AEDP is therapeutic — healing and transformational — for many reasons. Here are four:

  1. Experiential work actively cultivates a mindful, non-judgmental, compassionate stance that helps a person become aware of their inner experiences and changes the brain for the better.

  2. Experiential work helps people get in touch with their core emotions (sadness, fear, anger, joy, excitement, disgust, etc.). The purpose is to name the emotions we feel and to learn to use our emotions for wellbeing, instead of being controlled by them, or burying them, which leads to problems.

  3. Experiential work diminishes anxieties and other symptoms in predictable, reproducible ways, which is why it is considered healing-oriented as opposed to insight-oriented psychotherapy.

  4. Experiential work teaches people to become their own therapist, giving them practical life skills to work with their emotions and the emotions of others in ways that are constructive.

To help illustrate the difference between “traditional” talk therapy and experiential psychotherapy (again, AEDP in this case), here is an example of what an intervention in each method looks like:

Intervention Example

Patient: My boss really upset me this week. I did a huge report for him that wasn’t even my job and he didn’t so much as say thank you. In fact, he talked about it in a meeting like he did all the work instead of me.

Psychoanalytic Therapist: sounds like you didn’t like that. Tell me more…

The traditional talk therapist adapts a neutral stance and focuses on the content of the story. The therapist listens openly and makes interpretations to help create meaning or identify irrational thoughts. Insight, of course, is important and at the same time, I have learned that there is so much more we can do to create wellbeing. Attending to underlying emotions, for example, helps people feel more immediately alive and ultimately more comfortable in their skin. And greater insight often follows an emotional experience.

Here’s the experiential version:

Patient: My boss really upset me this week. I did a huge report for him that wasn’t even my job and he didn’t even say thank you. In fact, he talked about it in a meeting like he did all the work instead of me.

Experiential Therapist: I see feeling in your face and I notice your hands are making fists. Do you notice that? Can we slow way down so you can stay with what is happening inside as you share your story with me now?

The experiential psychotherapist notices both verbal and non-verbal communication of emotion. We want to help a person understand, deepen, release, and ultimately make positive use of their emotions. Actively creating safety during this process