Therapy Is an Emotionally Complex Experience

There's a vast difference between experiential therapy and intellectual nagging.

Posted Mar 14, 2019

Sometimes therapists lose sight of what clients need most—a genuine, nonreactive, empathic presence, supportive change-validation, skill-building, and goal-directed activity. Too often, therapists assert too rigid a modality and too rational a mindset for the therapy to be therapeutic.

Source: wjgomes/Pixabay

Years ago, a student—my client—ran from class yelling obscenities at his teacher, who was chasing him and demanding obedience. I was asked to quickly make my way outside to assist. For ten minutes I watched the teacher run in circles after him, demanding compliance. She gave up and retreated only after reciting her demands.

I stood quietly by as the boy ran wildly to the football field. He found a long PVC pipe and began using it as a martial arts bo staff. Once within a few yards of him and as he began to prepare his weapon for defense, I grabbed another pipe and awkwardly swung it around. He scoffed, “Haaa! You’re an idiot! You don’t know what the [bleep] you’re doing!” I laughed at myself, then offered, “Nice moves. Where’d you learn how to do all that?”

He bragged about his belt rank in karate, and I uttered “Ah’s” and “Oh’s” and “Um-hm’s,” along with genuinely curious questions—it was, after all, quite interesting—as he explained forms and sparring. By the time he took his first pause, nearly out of breath—from not only all the angst and exercise but also in the excitement of having someone listen to him—I interjected, “Thanks, this was fun, but I’d better get back. Do you want to walk back with me?" I noticed a glint of suspicion in his eyes, and he declined. "Don’t stay too long," I responded. "You and I both have work we should be doing.” 

As I walked away, my anxiety rose. I couldn’t leave him. Yet I couldn’t force him, and I saw no good coming from a power struggle. Still, I couldn’t return inside the building without him, or I would be reprimanded. What if he got hurt? What if he ran away?

I was thirty yards from the building by the time he caught up with me. He had run to my side and began walking with me. I smiled at him and kept walking. We walked all the way to the door of his class’s portable building, which I opened. I said, “Have a great afternoon.” He retorted, “Have fun with all that paperwork.” We both laughed, and he took his seat. The teacher silently mouthed to me gratefully, “Thank you.”

Rob Potter/Unsplash
Source: Rob Potter/Unsplash

Although that therapeutic encounter was not your average session, its awkwardness and spontaneity are representative of many therapeutic moments, in which I have listened to my own gut, hesitated to act too swiftly, too directly, or to comply with rigid expectations on me or on the therapy. It has often felt like “winging it,” but this type of therapeutic craziness, as Carl Whitaker was known to call it, requires a fullness of therapeutic vision, as well as courage, compassion, openness, and optimism.

Therapists must somehow coax clients to feel their difficult emotions in the face of unconditional acceptance in order to begin working through them rather than merely talking about them. Effective therapy is always more right-brain than left.

A mentor, Bill Collins, told me a story about when he was a student at Notre Dame (he was proud of the fact that they won the national football championship while he was there, but that is another story). He recalled one day encountering a friend after a football game. His friend was a member of the team and was angry about how things were going, including the game. His friend had a stranglehold on a young kid and evidently was intent on “beating the sh*t out of something.” Bill was at a loss for what to do, and so, quite reflexively, just began crying. All of a sudden, his friend kind of took him in and nurtured him, and at that moment, quite unexpectedly, Bill saw change happen in both parties. He had experienced a therapeutic moment.

Christin Hume/Unsplash
Source: Christin Hume/Unsplash

Psychotherapist Lynn Hoffman gave a language of values for sitting with clients (e.g. a non-expert position, relational responsibility, generous listening, one perspective is never enough). Bill told me about his efforts to incorporate Hoffman’s values into his therapeutic work—“At times, I will use an expectant silence as if waiting for something to fall into my lap. What often happens is that into this space come very unusual thoughts, leading to unusual remarks, not necessarily by me.”

Another of my mentors, Blanche Douglas (2015), wrote:

There was a method in Freud’s madness when he prescribed the analyst be as undefined as possible, not disclosing details about his life and sitting behind the patient out of sight, saying little. This forced the patient to make meaning out of an ambiguous situation, and the only way he could do this was by recourse to his own experiences, unfettered by the reality of the analyst as a real person.

Carl Whitaker argued therapy should be a complex emotional experience, not “intellectual nagging” (Napier, 1977). We are complex creatures, most effectively engaged at multiple levels of awareness and being. Moments of emotion have ignited wars. We are far from purely rational creatures. The world is not a purely rational place. Why should therapy be?

Courtesy of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. In accord with ethical standards, client identity has been protected through alteration of unique identifying details.


Douglas, B.D. (2015, August). Therapeutic space and the creation of meaning. Context. Warrington, England, United Kingdom: Association for Family Therapy and Systemic Practice. [Edited by Edwards, B.G.]

Napier, A. Y. (1977). “Follow-up to divorce labyrinth.” In P. Papp (Ed.), Family therapy: Full-length case studies. New York: Gardner Press.