Potential Space

by Mark McKinley, Psy.D., Impulse Staff Writer

Psychotherapy is complex and many theories have been offered to describe its aims, process, and outcomes.  Though there is a wide range of divergent theories, one element that seems consistent across all schools of thought is that the therapeutic encounter has something to do with learning.  Such learning is typically construed as patients gaining increased self-knowledge by reflecting on their interior life, interpersonal relationship dynamics, and how these factors influence their general comportment.  Presumably, through the process of increased self-awareness, patients are better equipped to affect changes they desire in their lives.  Prior to patients cultivating and refining such a reflective capacity, however, another type of learning appears to be occurring that is more immediate and embodied -- that is, learning how to participate in and meaningfully engage with one's experience.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the word "experience" can refer either to an event or series of events lived through, or an active participation in events or activities. Undoubtedly, it's the accumulation of painful, dissatisfying, or troubling experiences that bring patients into therapy, while it is the process of how a patient participates in and encounters certain events that becomes the focus of therapy.  As therapists, our usual methods of exploration lay important groundwork in drawing patients nearer to their experience, but there is a difference between talking about an experience -- say, intimacy -- and having an intimate experience.  It seems to be the act of undergoing an experience that is so impactful in occasioning therapeutic change.

To undergo an experience, to some degree, suggests letting go of one's control and allowing what happens to come to pass.  There is an obvious risk in giving way to something not of our own making, and yet it is in these moments that we are most open to learning how to experience.  Such learning is hands-on, immediate, and ultimately practical in terms of figuring out how to navigate a new situation.  Arguably, it's these subtle and embodied skills learned through one's experiences during psychotherapy that eventually allow patients greater access to and engagement with their own experience.  The emotional qualities and textures of that experience are then available for collaborative description and understanding within the psychotherapy relationship.