Being in the Experience and Changing It
It is difficult to change an experience by talking about it when it is not occurring. It is much
easier to make changes while in the experience. These two cases illustrate this phenomenon.
At times it is easier and as effective to alter the symptoms rather than try to eliminate them,
for they cannot always be eliminated. However, this does not mean that they must continue to be
a problem for the client. Changing some aspect of the symptom or how the symptom is
experienced by the client may be as effective as eliminating it. The following story shows how
changing an aspect of the symptom allowed the client to return to productive behavior.
The Destructive Voice
A lady called me one day and asked if I could see her fifteen-year-old daughter, Carol. She
explained that Carol had been a model student and child, making A’s in school and always
behaving admirably. Her teachers loved her because she was always obedient and never caused
a problem; the same was true at home. Then, almost overnight, she did a complete switch. Her
grades began to plummet, and she stayed in trouble at school. Finally, the school personnel
called for a conference with the child and her parents. In the meeting Carol confessed that she
was hearing a voice that told her to do the misbehaviors; if she did not obey the voice, it would
Carol was referred to a psychiatrist who put her on medication, but she did not improve.
She continued to hear the voice and to get in trouble. At this point she was referred to me.
If you were Carol’s therapist, how would you approach this problem? Write down as
many alternatives as possible.
I taught Carol to move the voice out away from her, turn down the volume and change the
voice to a cartoon character. (See Appendix B for a full transcript of this procedure).
I told her mother that I thought the problem was solved. I suggested that Carol test it over
the next few days and if she continued to have problems, they could let me know and we’d get
back together. Assuming that she was okay, I requested that the mother call me in a month to six
weeks to tell me.
Several weeks later I received a phone call from Carol’s mother to tell me that Carol’s
grades had improved and that she was no longer a behavior problem.
This experience shows that symptoms do not necessarily need to be removed to resolve the
problem. If I had encouraged Carol to eliminate the voice or to ignore it, she would most likely
have failed. However, she could change the voice so that it was no longer a threat.
This experience also shows that putting labels on problems sometimes compound the
problem instead of assisting the client with treatment. If I had put a DSM label on Carol and
acted as if she had a mental illness, my hunch is that she would have spent the remainder of her
life fighting voices and acting in destructive ways. I treated her as if her situation were common.
I even confessed to her that I also hear voices (as do most people). One of the primary ways of
thinking is auditory. I consistently hear voices in my head. Sometimes I hear voices outside my
head that aren’t really there. For example, I may be in a crowd and hear my name called. I turn
around to see who is calling me and there is no one there. I have hallucinated. It doesn’t mean
that I am mentally ill.
Changing the sub-modalities of one or more of the five senses can be powerful, as the
experience demonstrates. She heard a voice that “made” her do destructive things. She needed a
way to control the voice so that it would no longer be threatening.
Some might argue that I really did not help her. She was still hearing voices, which some
might believe indicates mental illness; therefore a critic might assume I did not really address the
problem and give her sufficient treatment. All I know is she was behaving destructively prior to
our session, and she returned to productive behavior after our session.
The following case illustrates how insight comes as one is reliving the experience as if it is
happening in the here and now rather than discussing it. The insight that this individual
experienced probably would not have occurred simply by talking.
Experiential therapy usually works faster than talk therapy. Talking about a problem does
not change it, but experiencing the problem and making changes in this experience produces fast
results. As much as possible, lead the client to experience the problem with the goal of making
positive changes in the experience rather than talking about the problem. Milton Erickson
believed that psychotherapy is best facilitated through a process of experiential learning (Short,
Erickson & Klein, 2005, p. 23). The following story illustrates how a client resolved the
problem through changing the experience rather than merely talking about it.
Anson dropped by my office one day to make an appointment. He had been having terrible
nightmares and wanted me to help him sleep peacefully through the night. When he came in for
his appointment several days later, Anson told me about the nightmare he had the previous night:
“All my nightmares are basically the same. I wake up terrified because something is chasing me,
and I am in danger from whatever it is. I always wake up just before it catches me. My heart is
racing, I’m sweating and I am frightened. Last night I was being chased by several large, yellow
boomerang shaped objects. In the nightmare I knew that they would harm me if they caught me.
I was terrified. As usual, I awoke just before they caught me. I have no idea what these
nightmares mean. I am not aware of any situations in my life where I am in any kind of danger,
either physically or emotionally.”
How would you have worked with Anson? Would you have used some type of dream
analysis to help him understand his dream? Would you have talked about these dreams and how
they were affecting his life? Write down as many alternatives as possible.
I asked Anson to imagine that the nightmare was happening to him at the present time. As
he told me what was happening, I instructed him to interact with the objects that were chasing
him, assuming that they represented some aspect of his life. As a result of his interaction with
these objects, he learned that he needed to mend an estranged relationship with his father. He
made the commitment to call his father and attempt to mend the relationship. (See Appendix C
for a transcript of the dialogue with Anson).
Anson made the call and re-established the relationship. Several weeks later he reported that
he had no more nightmares after our session and that he and his father were enjoying phone calls
once a week. He even had plans to go visit his father, who lived in a distant state, the next
This experience shows that dreams (or in this case, nightmares) can communicate important
information to the dreamer that cannot reach the conscious mind, perhaps, in any other way.
Anson would not admit that he needed a relationship with his father until he had these
nightmares. They forced him to face this truth. This experience also shows that the dreamer is
the only one who can truly interpret the meaning of a dream. Your job is to create a situation
where the dreamer can make sense of the dream.
In working with Anson, I asked him to re-experience the nightmare in our session, and then
I suggested that he change the ending by asking these creatures what they represented. I trusted
his unconscious to reveal the meaning. Experiential therapy can be powerful, revealing a truth to
the client that may never be found through talk therapy.
Exercise: Think of an unresolved issue from your past. Bringing it into the present, relive it
as if it is occurring right now. As you re-experience it, change it to the way you wish it had
happened, or ask the troublesome part what it is trying to tell you. Perhaps change it in some
other way to gain a clearer perspective of what you need to do to resolve it. Try this with a
client. Ask the client to experience the problem in the session, rather than just talking about it.
Ask the client to change the experience in some way so that the problem is seen from a different
perspective. Notice if this helps the client move toward resolution of the problem.
Also, consider any disturbing thoughts that you have. Do you hear them or do you see them
or do you feel them? Whichever one of your senses you use to experience these thoughts, alter
the sense so that it is humorous in some way. For example, if you see a picture, change it to a
cartoon drawing so that it doesn’t appear in a form to be taken seriously. How does this change
the way you feel when you encounter the thought? Try this with your clients. Notice how they
are empowered as they realize that they have control over thoughts that previously had power